A Commentary by John Stott
Ephesians 5:21-23. 1) Authority and submission (continued).
We have to be very careful not to overstate this biblical teaching on authority. It does not mean that the authority of husbands, parents and masters in unlimited, or that wives, children and workers are required to give unconditional obedience. No, the submission required is to God’s authority delegated to human beings. If, therefore, they misuse their God-given authority (e.g. by commanding what God forbids or forbidding what God commands), then our duty is no longer conscientiously to submit, but conscientiously to refuse to do so. For to submit in such circumstances would be to disobey God. The principle is clear: we must submit right up to the point where obedience to human authority would involve disobedience to God. At that point ‘civil disobedience’ becomes our Christian duty. In order to submit to God, we have to refuse to submit to human beings. As Peter put it to the Sanhedrin: ‘We must obey God rather than men.’ (Acts 5:29). This is the exception, however. The general rule on which the New Testament insists is humble submission to God-given authority.
To the second question about the use of divinely delegated authority, we reply that it must never be used selfishly, but always for those others for whose benefit it has been given. Perhaps the most striking feature of the *haustafeln* is that in each pair of relationships reciprocal duties are laid down. It is true that wives are to submit to their husbands, children to their parents and slaves to their masters, and that this requirement of submission (*hypotage*) presupposes an authority (*exousia*) in the husbands, parents and masters. Indeed these two Greek words complement each other. Yet the word *exousia* is not used once in the passage. When Paul is describing the duties of husbands, parents and masters, in no case is it authority which he tells them to exercise. On the contrary, explicitly or implicitly, he warns them against the improper use of their authority, forbids them to exploit their position, and urges them instead to remember their responsibilities and the other party’s rights. Thus, husbands are to love their wives and care for them, parents are not to provoke their children but bring them up sensitively, and masters are not to threaten their slaves, but treat them with justice.
It has seemed necessary, before coming to the actual text of the *Haustafeln*, to open up in a general way this topic of submission to authority. To sum up, ‘authority’ in biblical usage is not a synonym for ‘tyranny’. All those who occupy positions of authority in society are responsible both to the God who has entrusted it to them and to the person or persons for whose benefit they have been given it. In a word, the biblical concept of authority spells not tyranny but responsibility.
The first responsibilities which Paul elaborates are those of husbands and wives. The essence of his teaching is clear. Wives are to ‘submit’, and husbands are to ‘love’.
Tomorrow: Ephesians 5:22-24. 2) The duty of wives.