5:21 This verse serves as a hinge to connect what is prior with what follows. Grammatically, the participial phrase (lit “submitting yourselves”) goes with vv. 18–20. The content of vv. 22–33, however, depends on the principle of submission in v. 21.
5:21 This transitional verse is last in a series of expressions explaining the effects of being filled with the Spirit (vv. 19–21 note). Regardless of their social rank, all Christians should pattern their social behavior on the humility and kindness of Christ (4:32–5:2; cf. Luke 22:24–27; John 13:14–16). This submission “to one another” is the basis for the forms of authority in specific relationships discussed in 5:22–6:9.
5:21 being subject to one another Paul calls on believers to honor Christ by honoring, loving, and helping one another.
5:21 Submission in General. Grammatically, “submitting” is a participle in Greek and is dependent on the verb in v. 15. It explains further how to walk in wisdom (vv. 15–21 are one long sentence in Gk.). It also states a general principle of submission, which is illustrated in 5:22–6:9. Absolute “mutual submission” is popular today, particularly where egalitarian philosophies are the rule. But what Paul meant by submitting “to one another” is explained through the particular examples of family relations (5:22–6:4), so it is likely that submitting to one another means “submitting to others according to the authority and order established by God,” as reflected in the examples that Paul gives in the following verses.
5:21 be subject to one another. Paul here made a transition and introduced his teaching about specific relationships of authority and submission among Christians (5:22–6:9) by declaring unequivocally that every spirit-filled Christian is to be a humble, submissive Christian. This is foundational to all the relationships in this section. No believer is inherently superior to any other believer. In their standing before God, they are equal in every way (Gal 3:28). in the fear of Christ. The believer’s continual reverence for God is the basis for his submission to other believers. Cf. Pr 9:10.
5:21. The Holy Spirit directs us to submit to one another in the fear of God. There is a divine plan of subjection that God has for believers, and Paul explains in the following verses just how they can come under God’s order of submission.
5:21 The fourth test of being Spirit-filled is submitting to one another in the fear of God. Erdman admonishes:
It is a phrase too often neglected.… It names a test of spirituality which Christians too seldom apply.… Many persons feel that shouts of hallelujah and exulting songs and the utterance of praise in more or less “unknown tongues” are all proofs of being “filled with the Spirit.” These all may be spurious and deceitful and without meaning. Submission to our fellow Christians, modesty of demeanor, humility, unwillingness to dispute, forbearance, gentleness—these are the unmistakable proofs of the Spirit’s power.… Such mutual submission to their fellow Christians should be rendered “in the fear of Christ,” that is, in reverence to him who is recognized as the Lord and Master of all.
These then are four results of the Spirit’s filling—speaking, singing, thanking, and submitting. But there are at least four others:
- Boldness in rebuking sin (Acts 13:9–12), and in testifying for the Lord (Acts 4:8–12, 31; 13:52–14:3).
- Power for service (Acts 1:8; 6:3, 8; 11:24).
- Generosity, not selfishness (Acts 4:31, 32).
- Exaltation of Christ (Acts 9:17, 20) and of God (Acts 2:4, 11; 10:44, 46).
We should earnestly desire to be filled with the Spirit, but only for the glory of God, not for our own glory.
21. subjecting yourselves to each other out of reverence for Christ.151 Again and again our Lord, while on earth, emphasized this very thought, namely, that each disciple should be willing to be the least (Matt. 18:1–4; 20:28) and to wash the other disciples’ feet (John 13:1–17). Substantially the same thought is also expressed in Rom. 12:10: “in honor preferring one another” and in Phil. 2:3: “(doing) nothing from selfish ambition or from empty conceit, but in humble-mindedness each counting the other better than himself.” Cf. 1 Peter 5:5. Affection for one another, humility, and a willingness to cooperate with other members of the body are the graces that are implied here in Eph 5:21. The thought of the passage recalls what the apostle had said earlier in this same letter: “with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, enduring one another in love, making every effort to preserve the unity imparted by the Spirit by means of the bond (consisting in) peace” (4:2, 3). Paul knew by experience what would happen in a church when this rule is disobeyed (1 Cor. 1:11, 12; 3:1–9; 11:17–22; 14:26–33). He therefore stresses the fact that “out of reverence for Christ,” that is, with a conscious regard for his clearly revealed will, every member of the body should be willing to recognize the rights, needs, and wishes of the others. Thus believers will be able to present a united front to the world, the blessing of true Christian fellowship will be promoted, and God in Christ will be glorified.
Submission: be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ (verse 21)
Although rsv begins a new paragraph with this verse, and translates it as an imperative, it is in fact another present participle (hypotassomenoi), dependent on the command ‘be filled with the Spirit’, like the preceding three. Sometimes a person who claims to be filled with the Spirit becomes aggressive, self-assertive and brash. But the Holy Spirit is a humble Spirit, and those who are truly filled with him always display the meekness and gentleness of Christ. It is one of their most evident characteristics that they submit to one another.
They also submit to Christ, for their mutual submissiveness is out of reverence for Christ, or in more familiar terminology ‘in the fear of Christ’. Those who are truly subject to Jesus Christ do not find it difficult to submit to each other as well. Incidentally, this expression ‘in the fear of Christ’ is a notable if indirect testimony to Paul’s belief in the deity of Jesus, since the regular Old Testament requirement was to live ‘in the fear of God’. There are several other ‘Christianizations’ of Old Testament thought in this chapter. For example, God’s kingdom is Christ’s (verse 5). We are to please Christ and seek his will, just as before Christ people sought God’s will and pleasure (verses 10, 17), and worshipping God becomes worshipping Christ (verse 19). For in the last three verses mentioned ‘the Lord’ is a title for Jesus.
Such are the wholesome results of the fullness of the Holy Spirit. They all concern our relationships. If we are filled with the Spirit, we shall be harmoniously related both to God (worshipping him with joy and thanksgiving) and to each other (speaking and submitting to one another). In brief, Spirit-filled believers love God and love each other, which is hardly surprising since the first fruit of the Spirit is love.
We need now to return to the imperative on which these four participles depend, that is, to the Christian duty and privilege from which these four Christian attitudes result. It is the command Be filled with the Spirit. The exact form of the verb plērousthe is suggestive.
First, it is in the imperative mood. ‘Be filled’ is not a tentative proposal, but an authoritative command. We have no more liberty to avoid this responsibility than the many others which surround it in Ephesians. To be filled with the Spirit is obligatory, not optional.
Secondly, it is in the plural form. In other words, it is addressed to the whole Christian community. None of us is to get drunk; all of us are to be Spirit-filled. The fullness of the Spirit is not an élitist privilege, but available for all the people of God.
Thirdly, it is in the passive voice. neb renders it: ‘Let the Holy Spirit fill you’. There is no technique to learn and no formula to recite. What is essential is such a penitent turning from what grieves the Holy Spirit and such a believing openness to him that nothing hinders him from filling us. It is significant that the parallel passage in Colossians reads not ‘Let the Spirit fill you’ but ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly’ (3:16). We must never separate the Spirit and the Word. To obey the Word and to surrender to the Spirit are virtually identical.
Fourthly, it is in the present tense. In Greek there are two kinds of imperative, an aorist describing a single action, and a present when the action is continuous. Thus, when Jesus said during the wedding reception at Cana, ‘Fill the jars with water’ (Jn. 2:7), the imperative is aorist, since the jars were to be filled only once. But when Paul says to us, ‘Be filled with the Spirit’, he uses a present imperative, implying that we are to go on being filled. For the fullness of the Spirit is not a once-for-all experience which we can never lose, but a privilege to be renewed continuously by continuous believing and obedient appropriation. We have been ‘sealed’ with the Spirit once and for all; we need to be filled with the Spirit and go on being filled every day and every moment of the day.
Here, then, is a message for both the defeated and the complacent, that is, for Christians at opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum. To the defeated Paul would say, ‘Be filled with the Spirit, and he will give you a new love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness and self-control.’ To the complacent Paul would say ‘go on being filled with the Spirit. Thank God for what he has given you thus far. But do not say you have arrived. For there is more, much more, yet to come.’
Ver. 21.—Subjecting yourselves one to another in the fear of Christ. The last of the participial exhortations depending on the general exhortation of ver. 15 to walk strictly. Most commentators connect it with the three immediately preceding participles (speaking, singing, giving thanks), but are unable to find a link of connection. Better connect with ver. 15. Mutual subjection is part of a wise, circumspect walk, i.e. mutual recognition of each other’s rights and of our obligations to serve them. In some sense we are all servants, i.e. we are bound to serve others; the very father is, in this sense, servant of his child. So in the Christian Church we are all in a sense servants (“By love serve one another,” Gal. 5:15; comp. Matt. 20:26–28; John 13:15, 16). This view is in harmony with the humble spirit of the gospel. Pride leads us to demand rigorously from others what we fancy they owe to us; humility, to give to others what Christ teaches that we owe to them. The one feeling is to be discouraged, the other exercised and strengthened. In the verses following we have this precept split up into its constituent filaments. The reading of R.V., “in the fear of Christ,” has more authority than A.V., “in the fear of God.” It brings to our mind the wonderful example of Christ in this element of character (comp. Luke 2:51; Heb. 5:8). Reverential regard for him should inspire us with the same spirit (Phil. 2:5–8).
21. (Php 2:3; 1 Pe 5:5.) Here he passes from our relations to God, to those which concern our fellow men.
in the fear of God—All the oldest manuscripts and authorities read, “in the fear of Christ.” The believer passes from under the bondage of the law as a letter, to be “the servant of Christ” (1 Co 7:22), which, through the instinct of love to Him, is really to be “the Lord’s freeman”; for he is “under the law to Christ” (1 Co 9:21; compare Jn 8:36). Christ, not the Father (Jn 5:22), is to be our judge. Thus reverential fear of displeasing Him is the motive for discharging our relative duties as Christians (1 Co 10:22; 2 Co 5:11; 1 Pe 2:13).
5:21 / The final manifestation noted is in submission: Scholars, and consequently Bible translators, are divided on how this verse fits into the context. Grammatically, it belongs to the section on worship (5:18–21) and should be seen as another manifestation of the Spirit-filled believer. As singing and thanksgiving are to be expressed corporately, members also must willingly submit to one another. Fullness of the Spirit leads to mutual subordination and unity, not to individual pride and disunity (cf. 1 Cor. 14:26–33; Phil. 2:1–5). At the same time, 5:21 is a transitional verse from which the author proceeds to illustrate how that submission is to be observed in specific domestic relationships (5:22–6:9).
If 5:21 is taken as an independent sentence then it serves as a heading for the specific relationships that follow. Some translations, namely, gnb and rsv, use it this way. The niv, however, lets it stand with the previous section. In either case, the position of the verse is not as important as its teaching—a teaching in which believers are exhorted to submit themselves to one another out of reverence for Christ. “We are not asked to yield to the wishes of others, no matter what they wish, but only when what they ask of us is in line with reverence for Christ” (Mitton, p. 196).
Mutual Submission (5:21)
21 Be subject one to another in the fear of Christ.
21 The household code which follows (Eph. 5:22–6:9) is a special application of the Christian grace of submission; it is introduced by this general exhortation to mutual submissiveness. Christians should not be self-assertive, each insisting on getting his or her own way. As the Philippian believers are told, they should be humble enough to count others better than themselves and put the interests of others before their own, following the example of Christ, who “emptied himself,” “humbled himself,” and “became obedient,” even when the path of obedience led to death on the cross (Phil. 2:3–8). Out of reverence for their Lord, who set such a precedent, his followers should place themselves at one another’s disposal, living so that their forbearance is a matter of public knowledge (Phil. 4:7), even when others are encouraged on this account to take advantage of them (1 Cor. 6:7). Even those who fill positions of responsibility and honor in the Christian community, to whom their fellow-believers are urged to render submission and loving respect (1 Cor. 16:16; 1 Thess. 5:12–13), earn such recognition by being servants, not lords (cf. 1 Pet. 5:3). For all his exercise of apostolic authority when the situation called for it, Paul invites his converts to regard him and his colleagues as “your slaves for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5).
The basic principle of mutual submission (5:21)
21 Grammatically, a final participle concludes Paul’s statement concerning the outcomes of the Spirit’s filling of the congregation. To speaking, singing, music making, and giving thanks, Paul adds continual submission to one another. Grammatically, the participle “submitting” functions as the fifth outcome for those filled by the Spirit. That is, the filling of the Spirit produces all these, and mutual submission, the final effect, results in specific behaviors within the household—precisely what 5:22–6:9 describes. However, because v. 21 is conceptually tied to what follows in the Haustafel (household code)—which grows directly out of the verb “submit”—we begin a new section here. Clearly the participle for “submission” is the understood, though unstated, verb that underlies v. 22 and all that follows. The fullness of the Spirit leads not to individualism or independence, or to an attitude of superiority or “lording it over” others. The attitude of “mutual submission” characterizes the congregation filled by the Spirit. Paul mandates mutuality in the church through the use of the reciprocal pronoun “to one another” (allēlois); see also 4:2, 25, 32 (cf. Ro 12:5). This precludes the view of some that Paul intended for Christians to submit only to those over them: wives to husbands, children to parents, and slaves to masters. Jesus himself set the standard when he said, “The greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves” (Lk 22:26). And when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he illustrated the principle and applied it to his followers (Jn 13:1–17). Yet a caution is valid: mutual submission does not relativize the specific commands that follow. (Lincoln, 366, wisely sounds this note.) Apparently, Paul did not view mutual submission and hierarchical roles as incompatible. We ought not to minimize either one at the expense of the other. Paul disagrees with those who infer that subordination always implies inferiority. In the course of his extensive analysis of the household codes, Hoehner, 726, observes, “Subordination does not imply a qualitative difference.”
“Submit” translates the verb hypotassō (GK 5718), which, used in the passive voice here, bears the sense, “subject oneself,” “be subjected or subordinated to some authority”—a word used thirty-eight times in the NT, twenty-three times by Paul (cf. BDAG, 1042). The call to unity (4:1–4) demands this essential attitude. Believers are called to “submit to one another”—to subordinate their own interests to the needs of other believers so that the welfare of these others assumes more importance than their own (cf. Php 2:1–11). Paul calls not for the domination of some but for the voluntary submission of all (cf. Eph 4:2–3). The call for one to submit to another arises within this larger understanding of the mutuality of the body of Christ.
This submission to one another occurs “out of reverence for Christ,” literally, “in the fear of Christ” (so NASB). The “fear of the Lord” appears in both Testaments to describe the stance of those who acknowledge God’s sovereignty (2 Ch 19:7; Job 28:28; Ps 111:10; Pr 1:7; Ac 9:31; 2 Co 5:11). It is the way of wisdom and knowledge to reverence God in one’s actions. Because Christians live under Christ’s authority as judge, they must submit to fellow believers. Paul does not view submission as an optional virtue for some believers; it is the duty of all who reverence Christ. Though the specific command to “submit” occurs in what follows only in the words to wives, clearly it governs the instructions to husbands, children, parents, slaves, and masters. This is how people in a church filled by the Spirit treat one another—even within their own households.
Household codes or regulations were features of the first-century world. Called a Haustafel (German for “house table,” coined by Luther), such a social code governed and explained the expectations for people in various relationships. Lincoln, 358, points out that the household was viewed as the foundation of the state, so such codes were crucial in helping members understand their places and functions in society. Contemporary examples abound, though no exact parallels to what Paul does have been found. Why did Paul use this format here and in Colossians? He adopted this traditional format, as did other Christian writers, because he was concerned about relationships and the outworking of Christian values within Roman society. At the same time, he was eager that believers not violate certain social expectations or norms, and so he delineated behavior that was respectable and appropriate, using a culturally expected means to articulate Christian values that should prevail among church members.
21 ὑποτασσόμενοι ἀλλήλοις ἐν φόβῳ Χριστοῦ, “Submit to one another in the fear of Christ.” As has already been pointed out, this verse is transitional, completing the series of participles which are dependent on the verb πληροῦσθε, “be filled,” from v 18, while itself providing the verbal form on which the first injunction in the following household code is dependent. This enables it to be the appropriate link between the writer’s appeal to the whole community and his advice to specific groups within it. If believers are filled with the Spirit, this should manifest itself in their mutual submission. There are similarities with the earlier paraenesis in 4:2, 3, where “bearing with one another in love” stands parallel to “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit,” and in 4:30, where it is clear from the context that what grieves the Spirit are the words and deeds of believers that are disruptive of communal life. The call to mutual submission “demands readiness to renounce one’s own will for the sake of others, i.e., ἀγάπη, and to give precedence to others” (G. Delling, “ὑποτάσσω,” TDNT 8  45). It is significant that although, as we shall see, there are similar injunctions in the writings of Paul, only here in the Pauline corpus is the actual verb “to submit” employed for mutual relationships among believers. Elsewhere the notion of submission is only used for the attitude of specific groups—women (1 Cor 14:34; Col 3:18; 1 Tim 2:11; Titus 2:5), children (1 Tim 3:4), and slaves (Titus 2:9)—or for the attitude of believers to the state (Rom 13:1, 5; Titus 3:1).
But how does the injunction to mutual submission relate to what follows? On the one hand, it is possible to take it as a general heading for what follows. In other words, there is to be subjection to one another, and then the specific subjection meant is spelled out as wives to husbands, children to parents, and slaves to masters (cf. Clark, Man and Woman, 74–76, who holds that there is, therefore, no appeal for mutual subordination and that what is meant is “let each of you subordinate himself or herself to the one he or she should be subordinate to”). But this does not do enough justice to the force of this verse. On the other hand, it is possible so to emphasize this verse that it is then understood as completely relativizing what follows. Sampley (“And the Two,” 117), for example, goes too far in asserting that it is a critique of the rest of the passage and that the ensuing household code contains a viewpoint with which the writer does not entirely agree. Yet if he disagreed with it, why would the writer have made such extended use of it as is made in this letter? Justice has to be done both to the force of v 21 and to the force of the specific types of submission in the household code. Modern interpreters might perceive the first admonition as undermining or Reconstructing the others, but clearly the original writer did not find them incompatible. There is an interesting parallel in 1 Pet 5:5, where the exhortation “you that are younger be subject to the elders” is followed immediately by the further appeal “clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another.” The latter admonition was not meant to cancel out the former. Rather, the writer holds that there is a general sense in which elders are to serve their flock, including its younger element, in a submissive attitude, but that mutuality goes along with a hierarchical view of roles. Thus there is a specific sense in which the flock in general and the younger in particular are to be obedient to the elders. Similarly, here in Ephesians mutual submission coexists with a hierarchy of roles within the household. Believers should not insist on getting their own way, so there is a general sense in which husbands are to have a submissive attitude to wives, putting their wives’ interests before their own, and similarly parents to children and masters to slaves. But this does not eliminate the more specific roles in which wives are to submit to husbands, children to parents, and slaves to masters. As Schüssler Fiorenza (Memory, 269) correctly notes. “The general injunction for all members of the Christian community, ‘Be subject to one another in the fear of Christ,’ is clearly spelled out for the Christian wife as requiring submission and inequality.”
Paul had called for mutual submission and service in such passages as Gal 5:13b and Phil 2:3, 4. In fact, in the latter passage, the qualities of selflessness and a regard for others that does not insist on one’s own rights that the apostle desires to see are linked to the heart of his gospel by being grounded on the pattern of Christ’s life. He did not insist on the equality with God that was his by rights but became a servant. And in the light of this, the Philippians are exhorted to live out that sort of pattern of salvation in fear and trembling in the face of God’s activity among them (cf. Phil 2:5–13). Here in Ephesians, the ground and motivation for believers’ mutual submission, the placing of themselves at one another’s disposal for which the writer calls, is more specifically the fear of Christ. Barth (608, 662–68) is right to insist that translations should not tone down φόβος to the weaker notion of respect. “Fear” need not involve fright or terror but conveys a more serious sense of reverence and obligation than “respect.” In the OT, the fear of the Lord was the appropriate attitude of a creature to the Creator, producing obedience to his will (cf. also H. R. Balz, “φόβος,” TDNT 9  189–219). In Paul’s writings “fear of the Lord” or “fear of Christ” is virtually interchangeable with “fear of God.” 2 Cor 5:11 sounds an eschatological note, “knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade people,” while 2 Cor 7:1 exhorts that holiness should be made perfect in the fear of God (cf: also Phil 2:12). Col 3:22 had talked about “fearing the Lord” as a motivation for slaves, but here it is the attitude all believers are to have. Just as in the OT the guiding principle for wise living within the covenant was the fear of Yahweh, so now the writer of Ephesians indicates that the overriding motivation for wise living (cf. v 15) and relationships within the new community must be the fear of Christ. This is an attitude that looks to Christ in awe at his overwhelming love and at his power and that also lives in the light of his sovereign claim and righteous judgment (cf. also 6:8, 9). The mutual submission required depends on all parties’ having this attitude to Christ, and the specific relationships within marriage that are set out are also to flow from and be an expression of such fear (cf. also the later references to the wife’s fear and to slaves’ fear and trembling in 5:33 and 6:5).
21. Submit yourselves. God has bound us so strongly to each other, that no man ought to endeavour to avoid subjection; and where love reigns, mutual services will be rendered. I do not except even kings and governors, whose very authority is held for the service of the community. It is highly proper that all should be exhorted to be subject to each other in their turn.
But as nothing is more irksome to the mind of man than this mutual subjection, he directs us to the fear of Christ, who alone can subdue our fierceness, that we may not refuse the yoke, and can humble our pride, that we may not be ashamed of serving our neighbours. It does not much affect the sense, whether we interpret the fear of Christ, passively, thus,—let us submit to our neighbours, because we fear Christ; or actively,—let us submit to them, because the minds of all godly persons ought to be influenced by such fear under the reign of Christ. Some Greek manuscripts read, “the fear of God.” The change may have been introduced by some person, who thought that the other phrase, the fear of Christ, though by far the most appropriate, sounded a little harsh.
Submitting (Eph. 5:21). In addition to offering praise to God on that awful Christmas night, my friend John also submitted his pain in faith for the eternal well-being of a young policeman he did not even know. By so shining the light of Jesus, the babe that was born on a Christmas night two thousand years ago was made present again on that Christmas night in 2002.
In submitting ourselves for the good of others, our crucified and risen Savior shines powerfully through us and we are filled with his Spirit. Perhaps that is why the apostle finishes his definition of what it means to be filled with the Spirit with the encouragement to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21), a phrase that sets the stage for the rest of this epistle’s instructions about human relationships (see chapters 5 and 6 on husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants).
The natural and simplest reading of the final words of this passage is that we should honor the command to submit to others out of reverence for Christ’s authority over our lives. Unquestionably this is part of the meaning, but there is an additional richness in these words in light of what has already been said. When we perceive the Spirit of God as present in his children, then submitting to them is submitting to Christ in them. And when we submit to them as Christ submitted himself for us, then we are Christ to them.
When we submit ourselves for the good of others by the Spirit of Christ in us, we do not merely reflect the glory of the Son; we become the glory of the Son to them. As we minister in his name, submitting to one another—not out of anyone’s deserving—out of reverence for Christ, then we are filled with his Spirit and so is the marriage, or the home, or the workplace, or the church in which such submitting occurs.
The Necessary Foundation
And be subject to one another in the fear of Christ. (5:21)
This verse is a transition to Paul’s extensive discussion of relationships that continues through 6:9. The general principle of mutual submission, be subject to one another, not only is a product of the filling of the Spirit (as indicated in the precious chapter) but is also the foundation of the more specific principles of authority and submission—in relation to husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves—with which the larger passage deals.
Among the worst tragedies of our day is the progressive death of the family as it has been traditionally known. Marital infidelity, exaltation of sexual sin, homosexuality, abortion, women’s liberation, delinquency, and the sexual revolution in general have all contributed to the family’s demise. Each one is a strand in the cord that is rapidly strangling marriage and the family.
Gays and lesbians are demanding the right to be married to each other, and many states as well as a growing number of church groups are recognizing that as a right. Lesbian couples, and even some gay couples, are bringing together the children they have had by various lovers of the opposite sex and calling the resulting group a family. Many unmarried women elect to keep and raise children to whom they have given birth. In such situations single-parent families are becoming as much a matter of choice as of necessity.
The new mentality about marriage is reflected in the belief of some sociologists and psychologists that marriage ought to radically change or be eliminated altogether—based on the argument that it is but a vestige of man’s primitive understanding of himself and of society. Man “come of age” is presumed not to need the restrictions and boundaries that once seemed essential for productive, satisfying life.
Without a proper basis of authority for relationships, people grope for meaningful, harmonious, fulfilling relationships by whatever means and arrangements they can find or devise. Experimentation is their only resource and disintegration of the family—and ultimately of society in general—is being disclosed as the inevitable consequence.
It is time for Christians to declare and live what the Bible has always declared and what the church has always taught until recent years: “God’s standard for marriage and the family produces meaning, happiness, blessedness, reward, and fulfillment—and it is the only standard that can produce those results.”
Yet confusion about God’s standard for marriage and the family has found its way even into the church. A generation ago only one in every five hundred couples in the church got a divorce. Today the divorce rate in the church is many times that figure and becoming worse, and the church must deal with the problem in its own midst before it can give effective counsel to the world.
Divorce within the church has become so common that one Virginia pastor devised a special service in which, after the husband and wife state vows of mutual respect, God’s blessing is invoked on the dissolution of their marriage. Partly because of the tragedies they have seen in marriages, especially that of their own parents, many young adults opt for simply living together. When one or the other becomes tired of the arrangement, they break up and look for someone else. Whatever minimal commitment may be involved is superficial and temporary. Lust has replaced love, and selfishness rules instead of sacrifice.
Many marriages that manage to avoid divorce are nevertheless characterized by unfaithfulness, deceit, disrespect, distrust, self-centeredness, materialism, and a host of other sins that shatter harmony, prevent happiness, and devastate the children.
With increased divorce comes decreased interest in having children. Some authorities estimate that in perhaps a third of the couples of child-bearing age, one or both of the partners have been sterilized. A growing percentage of babies conceived even within marriage are aborted because they are unwanted. And many who are allowed to be born are neglected, resented, and abused by their parents. Couples who do have children are having them later in life, so that the children do not inhibit the parents’ plans for fun and fulfillment.
The pastor of a large evangelical church reported that, although most of them claimed to be Christians, at least seventy percent of the couples who came to him to be married were already living together. Many of them claimed that it was God’s will for them to be married; but by living in such flagrant disobedience of His moral standards they had no basis for knowing His will about their marriage. Other couples who claim to be Christian come to be married for the second, third, or fourth time—and often maintain that the Lord has guided them each time.
God will forgive, cleanse, and restore the repentant believer, but He does not change His standards of righteousness and purity and does not promise to remove the often tragic consequences of disobedience. If the church seeks to accommodate those divine standards to the foolishness and sinfulness of its own members, it not only offends and grieves God but undercuts its testimony to the world. If marriage cannot be right in the church it can hardly be right in the world, any more than it was in Paul’s day.
In New Testament times women were considered to be little more than servants. Many Jewish men prayed each morning: “God, I thank you that I am not a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” The provision related to divorce and remarriage in Deuteronomy 24 had been distorted to include virtually any offense or disfavor in the eyes of the husband. In Greek society the women’s situation was even worse. Because concubines were common and a wife’s role was simply to bear legitimate children and to keep house, Greek men had little reason to divorce their wives, and their wives had no recourse against them. Because divorce was so rare, there was not even a legal procedure for it. Demosthenes wrote, “We have courtesans for the sake of pleasure, we have concubines for the sake of daily cohabitation, and we have wives for the purpose of having children legitimately and being faithful guardians for our household affairs.” Both male and female prostitution were indescribably rampant, and it is from the Greek term for prostitution and general unchastity (porneia) that we get our word pornography. Husbands typically found their sexual gratification with concubines and prostitutes, whereas wives, often with the encouragement of their husbands, found sexual gratification with their slaves, both male and female. Prostitution, homosexuality, and the many other forms of sexual promiscuity and perversion inevitably resulted in widespread sexual abuse of children—just as we see in our own day.
In Roman society things were worse still. Marriage was little more than legalized prostitution, with divorce being an easy legal formality that could be taken advantage of as often as desired. Many women did not want to have children because it ruined the looks of their bodies, and feminism became common. Desiring to do everything men did, some women went into wrestling, sword fighting, and various other pursuits traditionally considered to be uniquely masculine. Some liked to run bare-breasted while hunting wild pigs. Women began to lord it over men and increasingly took the initiative in getting a divorce.
Paul admonished believers in Ephesus to live in total contrast to the corrupt, vile, self-centered, and immoral standards of those around them. The relationship between husband and wife was to be modeled on that between Christ and His church. “For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (5:23–25). The relationship between Christian husbands and wives is to be holy and indissoluble, just as that between Christ and His church is holy and indissoluble. Christian marriages and families are to be radically different from those of the world. The relationships between husbands and wives and parents and children is to be so bathed in humility, love, and mutual submission that the authority of husbands and parents, though exercised when necessary, becomes almost invisible and the submission of wives and children is no more than acting in the spririt of gracious love.
In the Song of Solomon we see a beautiful model for marriage. Although the husband was a king, the dominate relationship with his wife was that of love rather than authority. The wife clearly recognized her husband’s headship, but it was a headship clothed in love and mutual respect. “Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men,” she said. “In his shade I took great delight and sat down, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. He has brought me to his banquet hall, and his banner over me is love” (2:3–4). A banner was a public announcement, in this case an announcement of the king’s love for his wife which he wanted to proclaim to the world. She not only had the security of hearing him tell her of his love but of hearing him tell the world of that love. “Sustain me with raisin cakes, refresh me with apples, because I am lovesick,” she continued. “Let his left hand be under my head and his right hand embrace me” (vv. 5–6). Her husband was her willing and eager protector, provider, and lover.
Solomon responded by saying to her, “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come along. For behold, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone” (vv. 10–11). Spring had come and his only thoughts were of his beloved. There was no hint of authoritativeness or superiority, but only love, respect, and concern for the welfare, joy, and fulfillment of his wife. She expressed the deep mutuality of their relationship in the expression “My beloved is mine, and I am his” (v. 16) and later, “This is my beloved and this is my friend” (5:16).
Families are the building blocks of human society, and a society that does not protect the family undermines its very existence. When the family goes, everything else of value soon goes with it. When the cohesiveness, meaningfulness, and discipline of the family are lost, anarchy will flourish. And where anarchy flourishes, law, justice, and safety cannot. The family nourishes and binds society together, whereas the anarchy that results from its absence only depletes, disrupts, and destroys.
The unredeemed can benefit greatly from following God’s basic principles for the family, but the full power and potential of those principles can be understood and practiced by those who belong to Him by faith in His Son. Paul speaks to the Ephesians as fellow Christians, and apart from the divine life and resources that only Christians possess, the principles for marriage and the family that he gives in this letter are out of context and thus of limited benefit. The basic principle of being subject to one another finds its power and effectiveness only in the fear of Christ. The family can only be what God has designed it to be when the members of the family are what God has designed them to be—“conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29). Just as an individual can find fulfillment only in a right relationship with God, so the family can find complete fulfillment only as believing parents and children follow His design for the family in the control and power of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18b).
Persons who do not know or even recognize the existence and authority of God are not motivated to accept God’s standard for marriage and the family or for anything else. They do not have the new nature or inner resources to fully follow those standards even if they wanted to.
Some years ago I was asked to speak on the Christian sex ethic to a philosophy class at a large secular university. Knowing the futility of trying to explain biblical sexual standards to those who question or openly reject the authority of Scripture, I began my presentation by saying words to this effect: “Christ’s standards of ethics cannot be understood or appreciated by anyone who does not know Him as Savior and Lord. I do not expect most of you to agree with what Scripture says about sex ethics because most of you do not agree with what Scripture says about Jesus Christ. The presupposition of scriptural standards for anything is that a person have a right relationship to the One whose Word Scripture is. Only when you know and love the Lord Jesus Christ can you understand and desire to fulfill His standards for sex.” One student raised his hand and said, “Well then, maybe you had better tell us how to know and love Jesus Christ.” Gladly following that suggestion, I spent most of the hour showing the necessity and means for believing in Christ and devoted the last few minutes to explaining what commitment to Him means specifically in relation to sexual standards.
Only those who have died to sin and are alive to God (Rom. 6:4–6), those who are servants of righteousness (Rom. 6:16–22), those who are spiritually minded (Rom. 8:5–8), those who are empowered by the Spirit (Rom. 8:13) will rejoice for the privilege of living in the Lord’s standard. Reverencing and adoring Christ is the basis of such a spirit of submission.
Unfortunately, many persons who know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord do not maintain their living according to His moral, marital, and family laws. Because they are not at all times filled with His Spirit and fall to the level of the society around them, they are not sufficiently motivated or empowered to be obedient to their Lord in all things. They possess the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit does not possess them. Consequently, many Christian couples argue and fight worse than many unbelievers. Many families in false religions, for example, and even some unreligious families, are more disciplined and harmonious on the surface than some Christian families. A carnal believer will have discord in his family just as he has discord in his own heart and in his relation to God.
We are drowning in a sea of marriage information today. A book on sex and marriage, whether from a secular or Christian viewpoint, is sure to sell. Many purportedly Christian books are as preoccupied with and indelicate about sex as their secular counterparts. Marriage conferences, seminars, and counselors abound—some of which may be solidly scriptural and well presented. But apart from a believer’s being filled with the Holy Spirit and applying the ever-sufficient Word of God, even the best advice will produce only superficial and temporary benefit, because the heart will not be rightly motivated or empowered. On the other hand, when we are filled with the Spirit and thus are controlled in divine truth, we are divinely directed to do what is pleasing to God, because His Spirit controls our attitudes and relationships.
James said, “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members?” (James 4:1). Conflicts in the church, in the home, and in marriage always result from hearts that are directed by the self rather than by the Spirit of God. When self insists on its own rights, opinions, and goals, harmony and peace are precluded. The self-centered life is always in a battle for the top, and pushes others down as it climbs up in pride. The Spirit-centered life, on the other hand, is directed toward lowliness, toward subservience, and it lifts others up as it descends in humility. The Spirit-filled believer does “not merely look out for [his] own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4).
Be subject is from hupotassō, originally a military term meaning to arrange or rank under. Spirit-filled Christians rank themselves under one another. The main idea is that of relinquishing one’s rights to another person. Paul counseled the Corinthian believers to be in subjection to their faithful ministers “and to everyone who helps in the work and labors” (1 Cor. 16:16). Peter commands us to “submit [ourselves] for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God” (1 Pet. 2:13–15; cf. Rom. 13:1–7). A nation cannot function without the authority of its rulers, soldiers, police, judges, and so on. Such people do not hold their authority because they are inherently better than everyone else but because without the appointment and exercise of orderly authority the nation would disintegrate in anarchy.
Likewise within the church we are to “obey [our] leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over [our] souls, as those who will give an account” (Heb. 13:17). God ordains that pastors and elders in the church be men. “Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness,” Paul said. “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet” (1 Tim. 2:11–12). Paul was not teaching from a personal bias of male chauvinism, as some claim, but was reinforcing God’s original plan of man’s headship. “For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve,” he explained. “And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression. But women shall be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint” (vv. 13–15).
The submissive role of the woman was designed by God in creation and affirmed by His judicial act in response to the Fall. Yet the balance of responsibility and blessing is found in the woman’s bearing of children. She is saved from seeking the role of a man and from identification as a second-class person by giving birth to children and being occupied with them, as well as by having the major influence on their early training and development. Women who have children and pursue a life of faith, love, holiness, and self-control give their best to their family, and thus to society. God has designed and called women to give birth to children, to nurse, caress, teach, comfort, and encourage them in their most formative years—in a way that fathers can never do. That should occupy their time and energy and preclude their seeking a place of leadership in the church.
When the church tries to operate apart from God’s system of authority it creates confusion and frequently heresy. When Mary Baker Eddy took to herself the role of church leader and preacher, Christian Science was born. When Madam Elena Petrovna Blavatsky assumed the role of theologian and spiritual teacher, Theosophy was born. When Mrs. Charles Fillmore took to herself the same prerogatives, Unity was born. When Aimee Semple McPherson began preaching, Foursquare pentecostalism was born.
As with leaders in government, it is not that church leaders are inherently superior to other Christians or that men are inherently superior to women, but that no institution—including the church—can function without a system of authority and submission.
In the home, the smallest unit of human society, the same principle applies. Even a small household cannot function if each member fully demands and expresses his own will and goes his own way. The system of authority God has ordained for the family is the headship of husbands over wives and of parents over children.
But in addition to those necessary social functional relationships of authority and submission, God commands all Christians—leaders as well as followers, husbands as well as wives, parents as well as children—to “have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and … humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5–8).
As Paul went on to explain (Eph. 5:22–6:9), the structural function of the family, like that of the church and of government, requires both authority and submission. But in all interpersonal relationships there is only to be mutual submission. Submission is a general spiritual attitude that is to be true of every believer in all relationships.
Even the authority-subject relationships in the church and home are to be controlled by love and modified by mutual submission. Wives have traditionally received the brunt of Ephesians 5:22–33, although the greater part of the passage deals with the husband’s attitude toward and responsibilities for his wife. Paul devoted twice as much space to the husband’s obligations as to the wife’s. The husband not only is “head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church” (v. 23) but husbands are commanded to “love [their] wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (v. 25). “Husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies, … even as [themselves]” (vv. 28, 33). Christ’s giving His life for the church was an act of divine submission of the Lord to His bride, that He might cleanse, glorify, and purify her “that she should be holy and blameless” (v. 27).
Likewise in the home, not only are children to “obey [their] parents in the Lord,” but fathers are not to “provoke [their] children to anger; but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (6:1, 4). Even while exercising authority over their children, parents are to submit to the children’s moral and spiritual welfare. In love, husbands are to submit themselves to meeting the needs of their wives, and together they both are called to give themselves in love to their children.
In New Testament times, slaves were often an integral part of the household, and Paul’s admonition to masters and slaves essentially dealt with family relationships. The husband and wife were masters of the household, of which the slaves and hired servants were an integral part. Here, too, Paul made clear not only that Christian slaves were to “be obedient to those who are [their] masters according to the flesh” and do good things for them (6:5, 8), but that masters were likewise to do good things for their slaves “and give up threatening, knowing that both [the slave’s] Master and [their own] is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him” (v. 9).
Every obedient, Spirit-filled Christian is a submitting Christian. The husband who demands his wife’s submission to him but does not recognize his own obligation to submit to her distorts God’s standard for the marriage relationship and cannot rightly function as a godly husband. Parents who demand obedience from their children but do not recognize their own obligation to submit in loving sacrifice to meet their children’s needs are themselves disobedient to their heavenly Father and cannot rightly function as godly parents.
In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul made clear that the physical relationships and obligations of marriage are not one-sided. “Let the husband fulfill his duty to his wife,” he says, “and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” (vv. 3–4). Although God ordains husbands as heads over their wives, and parents as heads over their children, He also ordains a mutuality of submission and responsibility among all members of the family.
Although Christ was in the beginning with God and was God (John 1:1), was one with the Father (10:30), and was in the Father as the Father was in Him (14:11), He was nevertheless subject to the Father. From childhood Jesus devoted Himself to His Father’s work (Luke 2:49), submitted Himself to His Father’s will (John 5:30; 15:10; 20:21), and could do nothing apart from His Father (John 5:19). In explaining God’s order of relationships, Paul says, “Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:3). Just as the Son is submissive to the Father in function but equal to Him in nature and essence, wives are to be submissive to their husbands, while being completely equal to them in moral and spiritual nature.
All believers are spiritual equals in every sense. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). We submit to one another as the Holy Spirit influences us to do so.
 Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2005). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (p. 1713). Orlando, FL; Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Eph 5:21). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 1946–1947). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 354). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
 Bruce, F. F. (1984). The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (pp. 381–382). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Klein, W. W. (2006). Ephesians. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 146–148). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians (pp. 316–317). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.