In Ephesians 5:15–21 Paul writes,
Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
In the Greek, this was written as one whole sentence. This is important because it tells us that not only are Paul’s arguments all-inclusive but that they aim toward another argument presented in verses 22–33 and the opening verses of chapter 6. Our focus is on Paul’s use of the word “submitting” in verse 21. But first, it would be helpful to look at the purpose of the verse.
Verse 21 is known as a “transitional” verse. That means Paul is leading us from one argument to another, but the two are still connected. We know this because the Greek word for “submitting” is a participle that is dependent on the verb “walk” in verse 15. Paul’s central argument in verses 15–21 is how believers can walk in wisdom. The verses that follow — 22 to 33 — are connected to the word “submitting” and will help to explain it’s proper meaning.
Many commentators interpret the phrase “submitting to one another” to mean that Paul is calling for mutual submission among believers. Especially in Western culture, this egalitarian view is widely popular. However, the Greek word for “submission” is hupotassō (for some reason, it makes me think of the game “Hot Potato”) and it signifies obedience to God-ordained authority. This, then, leads us into Paul’s forthcoming arguments for the marital relationship between husbands and wives, Christ and his church.
In the times of Aristotle (fourth century B.C.), Greek ethics addressed relationships in the family dynamic in a way that would preserve the male headship of the household and the slaves that he owned. Paul contends that because of the sacrifice of Christ, men are called to lead their wives and the church in a way that represents the unity of Christ to his bride (the church) and his willingness to lay down his life for her. Therefore, Paul affirms the divine value of the life of the woman (whose identity parallels that of the church). She is not some passive object, but an active partner with God and man to unite a humanity that is divided by gender, age and economics. But the rule still applies: the man leads the wife, she graciously follows his leadership and they bear fruit together for the Kingdom of God.
This “authority-submission dynamic,” as Owen Strachan would call it, doesn’t just apply to marriage, but to children as well. Chapter 6 of Ephesians tells us right from the start: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” A nonnegotiable commandment that follows Paul’s original argument in verse 21.
So here we have a case for an “authority-submission dynamic.” In the life of the believer, “biblical submission never means lemming-like mindlessness,” Strachan says. Instead, it is an opportunity to follow someone worthy of imitation. But this will not be without a witnessing of their failure. We can never expect those in authority to be perfect. What we can expect are the blessings that come from biblical obedience.
For further study on the “authority-submission dynamic,” see the following Scripture texts: Luke 2:51, Luke 10:17, Romans 13:1–5, 1 Corinthians 15:27–28, Ephesians 1:22, Hebrews 12:9, James 4:7, 1 Peter 5:5.
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