Worship and the Call to Submission
Ephesians 5:22-6:9 is one of the most beautiful and controversial portions of the New Testament. On the one hand, it paints a vivid and captivating picture of the love of Christ for his people. But on the other hand, it calls his people to submit to one another and serve one another in specific and inescapable ways. Unfortunately, the reactions to this call to submission have often clouded the beauty of the glory of Christ that’s here, and they have suppressed the joy of those who would otherwise read, understand, and obey the clear instructions of the Lord. Be that as it may, I want to try in a few words to help us see and savor the life-giving wisdom and soul-satisfying beauty that’s contained in this portion of Ephesians.
The Context of Ephesians 5:22-6:9
It is of utmost importance that we envision the specific calls to submission in 5:22-6:9 in light of the call to worship in 5:18-21. As I shared in the last blog entry, worship is about beholding the glory of God and then giving expression to the awe and humility that naturally arises in our hearts. Awe is most often expressed through praise and thanksgiving, and humility is most often expressed through obedience and submission to the Lord and others. This is why Paul calls us to be filled with the Spirit and then says that, in part, this means that we’re to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21).
Now, Ephesians 5:21 is a call to mutual submission, however, it does not imply that there are any legitimate authority structures in life where some are called to lead and others are called to follow. There are such structures in life and they’ve been ordained by God. Ephesians 5:21 does not obliterate these structures, but it does seek to infuse them with an air of Christ-like humility.
The Structure of Ephesians 5:22-6:9
To make this point crystal clear, Paul goes on in Ephesians 5:22-6:9 to address three specific relationships in which leadership and submission are an integral part of our lives: husbands and wives, parents and children, and slaves and masters, or in our culture, employers and employees. He could also have included the church and the government as examples but for whatever reason, he chose only to include these three. If you’ll look carefully at these verses, you’ll notice a pattern, namely, that Paul always begins by addressing the one who is called to submit, after which he addresses the one who is in authority. And in each case, it’s very clear that his aim is to show how an air of Christ-like humility ought to affect the way we deal with one another, whether in submission or leadership.
Thus, in 5:22-24 Paul instructs wives to submit to their husbands and he makes it very clear that the husbands’ authority derives, not from themselves or from the culture or from the church, but from the Lord himself. But then immediately in verses 25-33 he addresses husbands and in so many words says, “Husbands, don’t you go and get a big head about this. Your authority has not been granted to you so that you can dominate your wives but so that you can lay down your lives and serve them even as Christ served the church.” So, essentially, Paul is saying, “Wives, humble yourselves before Christ by submitting to your husbands out of reverence for Christ. And husbands, humble yourselves before Christ be serving your wives out of reverence for Christ.” There is leadership, there is submission, and there is a clear call for each and all to be humble before Christ and one another. In other words, there is a clear call to the worship of Christ in the specifics of marriage.
Then in 6:1-4 Paul addresses children and commands them to obey their parents, which is just another way of saying, “Children submit to your parents.” But then immediately he turns to the fathers and says, “Don’t you go and get a big head about this. Lead your children not for your own good or for the sake of your ego, but lead them for their good which is ultimately to understand the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Rise up, fathers, and lay your lives down for your children that they might know the ways of the Lord.” There is leadership, there is submission, and there is a clear call for each and all to be humble before Christ and one another. In other words, there is a clear call to the worship of Christ in the specifics of parenting.
Finally, in 6:5-9 Paul addresses slaves (or employees) and he commands them to serve their masters as though they were serving Christ. He not only calls them to submit but he calls them to labor as though Jesus himself were their master or their boss. But then he immediately turns to the masters (or employers) and says, “Don’t you go and get a big head about this. Treat your workers well, knowing that you both have one in the same Master, Jesus Christ, knowing that you both will give account to him, and knowing that Jesus is completely impartial.” In other words, when employers and employees stand before Christ to give an account for their lives the employers will not get extra points because they had power on the earth. God is not partial to anyone but rather judges all with perfect righteousness and equity. “Therefore, masters, employers, take care for how you treat those under your authority because you will give an account of your life to Jesus Christ and he will not be partial to you.” There is leadership, there is submission, and there is a clear call for each and all to be humble before Christ and one another. In other words, there is a clear call to the worship of Christ in the specifics of the workplace.
The Purpose of Ephesians 5:22-6:9
It should now be clear what Paul is up to in this section of Ephesians: he’s giving definition to the call in verse 21 for mutual submission by showing us that authority structures are real and that they do survive in the Body of Christ, but that they’re to be forever infused with an air of Christ-like humility. No matter what our positions in each of these spheres are, we’re to do all that we do for the glory of Christ and the good of others.
And of course this teaching is not new with Paul; it derives from Jesus himself. In Mark chapter 10 we read of a time when a couple of the disciples were jockeying for position and power, a move that made the other disciples pretty angry. So Jesus gathered them together and said this in Mark 10:42-45. “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
What’s Jesus saying? He’s saying that in the Kingdom of God position and power are to be used for the good of others and not for the ego of those in authority. In my view Paul is just expanding on this thought in Ephesians 5:22-6:9 by showing how leaders and followers alike ought to carry themselves toward one another; by showing how Christians, in every sphere and role of life, can bring glory to Christ and blessing to others.
Our Hearts and Ephesians 5:22-6:9
Even though all of Ephesians 5:22-6:9 isn’t immediately relevant to all of us, all of these verses were written to all of us. For instance, some of us are not married or some of us are divorced or some of us are married to an unbeliever or some of us don’t have children or some of us don’t work outside the home and therefore we don’t have an employer. It’s okay that not all of these verses are equally relevant to all of us because we don’t always need the Bible to directly apply to our situation.
Sometimes God teaches us things through his Word for reasons we don’t presently see or know and therefore it’s important that we pay close attention and learn from him in all things, whether we get it or not. The zeal we have in America for everything to be immediately practical and applicable doesn’t always serve us well, so I want to encourage us to trust our Father by trusting in his Word and seeking to understand and obey it as well as we can. And then at the right time and in the right place, our Father will help us to see why he’s taught us what he’s taught us.
In other words, let’s prepare our hearts to worship our Father by preparing them to receive the wise instruction of our Father regardless of its immediate relevance to our lives.
Charles Handren is pastor for Adult Ministries at Cross of Glory Baptist Church and an author residing with his wife Kimberly in Wayzata MN. His wife Kimberly (1991) is a Spanish and English as a Second Language teacher, and his daughter, Rachel (1994), owns and operates a dance studio in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Charles enjoys reading, cycling, hiking, and traveling. He holds degrees from California Baptist University (Riverside, California) and the American Baptist Seminary of the West (Berkeley, California), and is currently a Doctor of Ministry student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.