A Commentary by John Stott
Ephesians 5:21-23. 1) Authority and submission.
The RSV may be right to begin the new paragraph with verse 21: *Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ*. We have seen that the Greek verb is a present participle (‘submitting’) like ‘addressing one another’, ‘singing and making melody’(verse 19) and ‘giving thanks’ (verse 20), and that all four participles depend on the command ‘be filled with the Spirit’ (verse 18) and describe the consequences of the Holy Spirit’s fullness. Nevertheless, a Greek participle was sometimes used as an imperative, and undoubtedly the demand for mutual submissiveness leads on to the submission asked from wives, children and slaves. Moreover, there is no verb at all in verse 22, because the call for submission in verse 21 is intended to be carried over into it. So verse 21 is in fact a transition verse, forming a bridge between two sections, which is why the NEB puts it in a paragraph by itself.
What is beyond question is that the three paragraphs which follow are given as examples of Christian submission, and that the emphasis throughout is on submission. Thus, wives are addressed before their husbands and are told to *be subject* to them (verse 22); children are mentioned before their parents and are told to *obey* them (6:1); and slaves are addressed before their masters and are told to *be obedient* to them (6:5).
Now the very notion of submission to authority is out of fashion today. It is totally at variance with contemporary attitudes of permissiveness and freedom. Almost nothing is calculated to arouse more angry protest than talk of ‘subjection’. Ours is an age of liberation (not least for women, children and workers), and anything savouring of oppression is deeply resented and strongly resisted. How are Christians to react to this modern mood?
Our initial reaction to these liberation movements, I do not hesitate to say (although I shall qualify it later), should be one of positive welcome. For we have to agree that women in many cultures have been exploited, being treated like servants in their own home; that children have often been suppressed and squashed, not least in Victorian England in which they were supposed to be ‘seen and not heard’; and that workers have been unjustly treated being given inadequate wages and working conditions, and an insufficient share in responsible decision-making, not to mention the appalling injustices and barbarities of slavery and the slave trade.
We who name Christ’s name need to acknowledge with shame that we ourselves have often acquiesced in the *status quo* and so helped to perpetuate some forms of human oppression, instead of being in the vanguard of those seeking social change. Nothing in the paragraphs we are about to study is inconsistent with the true liberation of human beings from all humiliation, exploitation and oppression. On the contrary, to whom do women, children and workers chiefly owe their liberation? Is it not to Jesus Christ? It is Jesus Christ who treated women with courtesy and honour in an age in which they were despised. It is Jesus Christ who said ‘Let the children come to me’ in a period of history in which unwanted babies were consigned to the local rubbish dump (as they are today to the hospital incinerator), or abandoned in the forum for anybody to pick up and rear for slavery or prostitution. And it is Jesus Christ who taught the dignity of manual labour by working himself as a carpenter, washing his disciples feet and saying ‘I am among you as one who serves.’