A Commentary by John Stott

Ephesians 5:21-23. 1). Authority and submission.

So then, we must not interpret what Paul writes to wives, children and servants in his *Haustafeln* about submission in a way which contradicts these fundamental attitudes of Jesus. Nor should we make Paul contradict himself, as some writers do, for to do this in biblical exegesis is a counsel of despair. No, we must set the *Haustafeln* squarely within the framework of the Ephesian letter, in which Paul has been describing the single new humanity which God is creating through Christ. He has been emphasizing the complete oneness in Christ of people of all cultures, especially Jew and Gentile, while in his parallel letter to the Colossians he has added slave and free man (3:11) and in an earlier letter male and female (Gal.3:28). We may be quite sure that in his *Haustafeln* he does not destroy his own thesis by erecting new barriers of sex, age and rank in God’s new society in which they have been abolished. We must give the apostle credit for a little consistency of thought and allow him to explain himself.

In the light of the teaching of Jesus and his apostles, we may confidently and repeatedly affirm at least three relevant truths: first, the *dignity* of womanhood, childhood and servanthood; secondly, the *equality* before God of all human beings, irrespective of their race, rank, class, culture, sex or age, because all are made in his image, and the even deeper *unity* of all Christian believers, as fellow-members of God’s family and of Christ’s body. It is only when these truths are firmly kept in the forefront of our minds that we are ready to consider the teaching of the *Haustafeln*.

Negatively, the submission which Paul enjoins on wives, children and servants is not another word for inferiority. Positively it is important to grasp the difference which Luther and his followers rightly made between persons on the one hand and their roles on the other. Here is one of Luther’s expositions of this theme: ‘I have often said that we must sharply distinguish between these two, the office and the person. The man who is called Hans or Martin is a man quite different from the one who is called elector or doctor or preacher. Here we have two different persons in one man. The one is that in which we are created or born, according to which we are all alike – man or woman or child, young or old. But once we are born, God adorns and dresses you up as another person. He makes you a child and me a father, one a master and another a servant, one a prince and another a citizen.’

Once we see this distinction, then those who hold an office – whether rulers, magistrates, husbands, parents or employers – have a certain God-given authority which they expect others to acknowledge. Husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants have equal dignity as God-like beings, but different God-appointed roles. As J.H.Yoder succinctly puts it, ‘Equality of *worth* is not identity of *role*. The husband, the parent and the master have been invested with an authority to which others should submit.

Two questions immediately arise about this authority: Where does it come from? And how is it to be used?

In answer to the first question we reply that it comes from God. The God of the Bible is a God of order, and in his ordering of human life (e.g. in the state and the family) he has established certain authority or leadership roles. And since such authority, though exercised by human beings, is delegated to them by God, others are required conscientiously to submit to it. The Greek words imply this, for at the heart of *hypotassomai (‘submit’) is *taxis* (‘order’). Submission is a humble recognition of the divine ordering of society. This is plainly taught in Paul’s *Haustafeln*. He tells wives to be submissive to their husbands *as to the Lord* (verse 22), children to obey their parents *in the Lord* (6:1), and slaves to be obedient to their earthly masters *as to Christ* (6:5). That is, behind the husband, the parent and the master they must discern the Lord himself who has given them their authority. Then, if they wish to submit to him, they will submit to them, since it is his authority which they exercise. The same is true of the mutual submission expected of all Christian people. It is *out of reverence for Christ* that we are to submit to one another, the Christ who both wields authority as Lord and humbled himself as servant.
Tomorrow: Ephesians 5:21-23. 1). Authority and submission (continued).

The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Ephesians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.