The Exaltation of Submission-pt.1

In Ephesians 5:22-24, the Apostle Paul begins the section of his epistle that is devoted to household instructions. He speaks to wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves, and masters. He follows the same order in Colossians 3:18-25. He begins this section by addressing the wives. This is probably for two reasons. First, in v.21, he has just written that everyone should submit to one another. Since he is talking about submission between everyone in the church, he goes directly to the one whom the instruction most readily applies to-wives. Second, wives have tremendous sway in the household. Very often, the wife actually runs the home because of the laxness of the husband. So, Paul, as a wise pastor (1 Cor. 3:10-11), deals with the wives of the families in Ephesus first.

There are a few things that need developed first. As I just mentioned, in Ephesians 5:21, Paul has instructed the church to “submit to one another.” This verbal, which is a participle, is modifying the main verb in v.18, “be filled” with the Holy Spirit. This verb is a passive verb that indicates a command to receive filling by the instrument of the Holy Spirit. The cross-reference is Colossians 3:16 which indicates that Paul, who wrote Colossians and Ephesians back-to-back, means that instead of being permeated with wine in your inner system, be filled up with the Word of God instead. This is just like the Old Testament injunctions to “treasure God’s Word in our hearts” (Psalm 119:11), or “ These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:6). The idea is to imbibe the Scripture so that it permeates all of you and thus you are “filled” with the mind of the Spirit, who is the Author of Scripture. The result of such obedience is singing songs, submitting to one another, and righteous, Eden-like, family relationships.

With that in mind, we have to comprehend what Paul is saying here. Borrowing the participle from v.21, he writes v.22. There is no verb in v.22, but rather repeats the verbal from v.21 without writing it in the actual sentence. This is called ellipsis. Some would argue for a mutual submission idea from v.21 to apply to all parties of the household. The idea that a man would submit to his wife and her needs and that children would submit to their parents and parents submit to the needs of the children and so on. Although I understand that rationale and agree with the conclusions, i.e. that I need to provide for my children and care for them selflessly, I cannot make out that a husband submits to his wife the same way that a wife submits to her husband. First, there is a real ranking in one sense by order of creation. When Adam was created, he was given certain responsibilities by God and those responsibilities have never been removed or changed. The woman was not given those responsibilities, but rather was given others, along with her husband. Those distinctions of responsibilities indicates a distinction in authority and a distinction in accountability to God. Therefore, the man, who is called to rule the earth (Genesis 1:26-27) most directly, has the greater responsibility and the greater authority. That being said, however, there is no superiority with the man in anyway. He is not somehow a better creation than the woman. In fact, it can be argued from the narrative in Genesis 2, that the pinnacle of creation is the woman and as such, she is to be given great honor and love. However, that tension from the beginning (the woman recognizing and joyfully submitting to her husband) was in place from creation.

Second, Paul stating that submitting to one another as an effect of being filled with the Spirit seems best to be understood that where there is authority in the body, each person should recognize that and appropriately submit to it. That would make more sense than a blanket submission from one with great authority (i.e. masters), to one with no authority (i.e. slaves). Paul does not seem to be turning the authority structures upside down, but calling those that need to to get in line with those structures and as an example, he begins with the wives of the church. That seems to make more sense to the flow of the passage. Also, it maintains a more normal sense of the verbal “submit” as an act of one person recognizing and submitting to another of greater authority. So, wherever in the church that there needs to be the recognition of authority and appropriate submission to that authority, then they are called to be submissive to one another. By the way, that makes more sense given the pattern of Ephesians 5:22-6:9 of: one who submits, the one who has authority. Wives to husbands (vv.22-33); children to parents (vv.6:1-4); slaves to masters (vv. 6:5-9). Paul writes that those who submit to authority should do so, and those who have authority should not “lord it over” the others, but rather exercise love in their authority. Perfect balance without diminishing proper authority structures, without which the world would fall to pieces.

So, Paul begins this section commanding the wives to recognize the authority that their husbands have and submitting to it. This assumes that the wife is Spirit-filled. Again, that is to say, this assumes the wife understands, believes, and concurs with the true teaching of Scripture on the issue of the authority of men and the resultant submission of wives to their own husbands. Paul has written this elsewhere (see 1 Corinthians 14:34; Colosians 3:18). Peter also has written this same command (1 Peter 3:1). It is in the very fabric of creation (Genesis 2; 3:16). The fact that many women fight against it and that most struggle with it, does not mean that it is not expected of them. It only indicates that they need to be filled with the Spirit in order to obey this command from God (1 Corinthians 14:37).

In the posts to come, we will be examining the lofty position of submission. Oftentimes, because of the sensitive nature of this kind of thing, pastors try to soften the blow by making submission out to be more positive than it sounds to people. That is entirely unnecessary. The position of the wife in the marriage is that of the church to Christ, as we will see. She has the unique and magnificent opportunity to display the bride of Christ to the world in a way that may not be apparent to others, but is clearly apparent to God! After all, she is not submitting merely for the applause of men, is she? And men are not leading and ruling merely for the his own personal gain is he? No. These things should be done because they please the Father.