Earthly obedience is not a subject we hear about very often in our churches. Of course, most of us see the continual call towards obedience of the Lord and His ways, but when it comes to how we are to think of obedience in our temporal, earthly relationships, it is a bit harder to discern, and a lot harder to preach. In Ephesians 6:1-9, Paul helps us think about the importance of obedience when we find ourselves under authority. It also has much to say about how the authority figures themselves should act, and what the parameters are for good, healthy obedience toward one another in this world.
For some context, Paul begins his discussion on Godly submission in the middle of Ephesians 5. Paul implores his readers in verse 17 to “understand what the will of the Lord is.” He then discourages drunkenness and debauchery, contrasting being filled with too much wine with “being filled with the Spirit,” an obvious character trait every true Christian possesses (5:18). Some of the ways we are filled with the Spirit include:
1) addressing one another in spiritual song (5:19a).
2) singing to the Lord (5:19b).
3) giving thanks always (5:20).
4) submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ (5:21).
Each of these points certainly deserves their own treatments, but it is the fourth bullet that will launch us into the rest of chapter 5 and into today’s passage. Paul begins to lay out the foundation for a marriage that is centered on Godly and healthy submission, the woman submitting herself to the husband’s headship and authority (5:22-24) and the husband submitting himself to loving, sacrificing for, sanctifying, and cherishing his wife (5:25-29). This brings us into our discussion of how children and parents relate, and how bondservants and masters relate.
If we want to be filled with the Spirit, as Paul calls us to in Ephesians 5:21, submission to authority, and protecting others in our authority, should affect all of our personal relationships. In other words, yes, wives have a Christian responsibility to be in submission to their husbands, but establishing this doesn’t get them “off the hook” from being in submission to their employer, their pastor, their mother, and so forth. Husbands have a responsibility to submit to a lifestyle of loving and nurturing their wife, but this doing so is not a license to be out of submission under their boss, or to mistreat their authority with their children, and so on. All of our earthly relationships should be marked by a healthy weaving together of godly submission and authority.
Paul first argues that children should obey their parents, “for this is right.” By and large, the very design of creation reflects the idea that God has entrusted each child to the care of parents. As the God-ordained caretakers of our lives, we as children are responsible for living under their roof, and thus under their authority. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, as fostering families and adoptive families show, but even these households demonstrate that a child is to live under the authority of his or her caretakers. There are explicit benefits in obeying, and further, honoring, our parents as children (6:3). This verse references Exodus 20:12 “that your days may be long in the land.” We often don’t assign physical consequences to spiritual obedience, but this sentence isn’t taken lightly by God. In turn, fathers have a responsibility to “bring up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (6:4). In other words, we cannot merely place the blame of a wayward child on the child alone, nor the parent (primarily the father) alone, but a combination of each party to some degree.
Then Paul moves the discussion to bondservants and masters. An important thing to recognize about these verses is that Paul is not endorsing nor applauding the existence of this slavery system, but is instead calling Christian bondservants and masters alike to Godly obedience in the midst of its existence. The inclusion of such commentary should bring us relief that the Scriptures are not censored, leaving out the ugly and unfortunate aspects of cultures and societies. Slavery did exist, perhaps not with the same sort of characteristics it did in mid-1800s America, but nonetheless as a facet of human history.
Paul’s encouragement to bondservants entrusted to their masters is to obey “with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart” (6:5a). This is not the kind of fear and trembling that should be created and stirred by threats (6:9), but a fear and trembling that recognizes the urgency of obeying authority “as you would Christ” (6:5b). Such obedience is not merely sweeping the dirt under the rug, taking shortcuts, but working heartily as unto God (Eph 6:6; cf. Col. 3:23). Masters, in turn, have the obligation of doing the same to their bondservants (Eph 6:9). This is a phenomenal and counter-cultural concept, that one in an authoritative position should “stoop” to such a level of treating those beneath them with sincerity, and God-provoked fear and trembling.
Ultimately, God sums up the discourse on submission to authority with an important reminder in Ephesians 6:9b, “that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.” God is the ultimate Husband, the ultimate Father, the ultimate Master. His way of ruling should set the course for how we rule, and Christ’s submission to the Father should demonstrate how we submit to authority.
Overall, these commands are more than “good advice.” They are not merely practical tips. These are reflections of our intended design, from the day God said to man, “Have dominion” (Gen. 1:28). They are words etched by God’s very hand into the tablets in Exodus. They are extensions of the first and second greatest commandments presented by Jesus in Matthew 22:34-40. We should treat these words themselves with fear and trembling. The task before us, as we pursue being in authority and submitting to authority, is weighty, but when done to the glory of God, rich in reward.