Ephesians Study 15: Submission

Hello! This one might be one you’ve been waiting to see how I address it for a youth group. Let’s jump in.

Teaching Text: Ephesians 5:17-33

17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives and Husbands
22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Eph 5:17–33). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Okay, so I’m not quite done with the big passage covered in the last two lessons (lesson 13 / lesson 14). The last paragraph, which we’ve covered a little bit about, ends with this phrase: “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Remember, Paul has been talking about unity in the body of Christ and has been describing the loving actions of those who follow Christ. As members of the body of Christ (Ephesian 4:15-16), we should live in a way that is Christlike.

This is not a journey we are on alone. We are in a process of transformation with others who are also in a process of transformation. And as we look at others in the body of Christ, we should see them as such. We should see them as though they are Christ. With this in mind, let’s talk about submission for a quick moment.

Submission to One Another

The Greek word used for “submitting” in verse 21 means to put yourself in a lower rank or to be subject to. As Americans, we have a hard time with this concept. The whole mentality of our country was founded on not being under the rule of a king. Through the years, our country and its citizens have leaned into life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Though not exclusive to this time we are in, we live in a time where the rights of individuals find themselves in conflict with one another. There exist many debates about whether or not we should be required to give up something, wear something, or make decisions about our own bodies. This goes on in both sides of the political spectrum and even outside of politics. The idea of submission to someone else can go completely against the American ideal.

We don’t see it modeled much so we need to have a better picture for what submission looks like. Though Paul doesn’t use the word specifically, this idea of putting yourself in a lower rank is used in Philippians 2:

2 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Php 2:1–11). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

The whole passage is important, but take a look in particular at verse 3: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” Paul goes on to show that this is the example we have of Christ who came to Earth as a man and did not consider himself equal to God. If Christ himself did not consider himself more significant than others, how can we? I refer you again to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, in particular Matthew 5:38-42 for specific examples he laid out for fostering this mentality. Though we are not compelled to travel miles with Roman soldiers, in what other ways can we set aside our rights and preferences in favor of what will benefit something else?

That last phrase of Ephesians 5:21 is key. Why are we doing any of this? “Out of reverence for Christ.” We see others in the body as Christ. We see others outside of the body as those Christ loves. Our submission to one another then is a righteous action that brings us closer to God’s presence and thus furthers our transformation into being more like Christ.

Okay, so this part is probably what is more applicable to you now, but let’s move into the next part of this chapter.

Submission and Love in Marriage

Verses 22 through 33 have often been controversial. While society has been historically patriarchal (led by men), in the last 100 years this has changed and women have risen to leadership positions in politics and business. Context is everything and this passage offers no particular commentary or instruction on societal women roles. However, in the 21st Century, some wonder if a passage like this is still relevant even within the context of the marriage relationship.

Paul does give differing instructions to the husbands and the wives. To the wives he says they should submit to their husbands (v. 22, 24) and respect them (v. 33), with respect having a similar reverent mindset to submission. And to the husbands, he says they are to love their wives (v. 25, 28, 33). Think about how we just defined submission. And go back to lesson 4 (or just re-read 1 Corinthians 13) where we talked about love. If both parties in a marriage conduct themselves in the way that Paul instructs, the couple becomes a great testimony that exhibits the love Christ has for the church and the submission the church has for Christ. In both directions of the relationship, though different instructions, love and submission places the other as higher than themselves.

One author offers commentary on this passage of Ephesians that is a great summation:

“Viewed closely, Ephesians 5 is a withering critique of common conceptions of “traditional” gender roles that have often amounted to privileging men and patronizing women. In the drama of marriage, the wife’s needs come first, and the husband’s drive to prioritize himself is cut down with the brutal axe of the gospel. This is no return to Victorian values. Rather, it is a call to pay attention to the character of Christ. If we hear the call to husbands as a mandate to oppress and dominate, we are forgetting that Jesus came not to be served but to serve, not to lead an army but to give his life as a ransom. When husbands are called to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” the word translated “gave up” is the same one the Gospels use when Jesus is handed over to be crucified.”

McLaughlin, Rebecca. Confronting Christianity (pp. 142-143). Crossway. Kindle Edition.