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A meditation on Ephesians 5:21


The principle of submission to the other – of forgoing one’s own rights for the well being of the other – is exemplified most clearly in Jesus Christ. As Paul states in Philippians 2, ‘Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Jesus Christ’. Paul then goes on to describe that attitude of Jesus – an attitude of self denial, a putting aside of rights and personal reputation, a willingness to be misunderstood and misrepresented, all for our spiritual well-being. This is the principle of submission: that for the well-being of another, I must choose to deny myself, just as Christ chose to deny himself for my well-being. 

Having stated the principle in Ephesians 5:21, Paul then applies this principle to the three fundamental relationships of life: the husband-wife relationship, the parent-child relationship, and the employer-employee relationship. This principle of submission has a two-way relevance, applying to both parties in each of these relationships. We need to understand here that Paul has not suddenly decided to change his topic and talk about husbands, wives, children, parents, slaves and masters. He is still talking about what being filled with the Spirit looks like [5:18-21], and in particular he is teaching us what one particular expression of a Spirit-filled life – that of submitting to one another – looks like [Ephesians 5:22-6:9]. 

For wives it will mean giving up their independence and living under the headship of their husbands, just as they and the church live under the headship of Christ. For husbands it will mean self-denial for the well-being of their wives, patterned on the self-denial of Christ. For children it will mean obedience to their parents; for parents it will mean modifying their discipline of their children to avoid exasperating or angering their children. For workers it will mean sincere and wholehearted work for their bosses; for employers it will mean fair treatment of their employees.

In each of these Paul is calling us away from the mindset of our contemporary culture in which there is a constant perceived need to defend, justify and promote ourselves, and challenging us to live in each of these relationships with the mind of Christ, in which the well-being of the other is our primary concern.

Thus we learn that being filled with the Spirit does not result in anything that draws attention to ourselves, or attracts glory to ourselves, rather its essence is self-denial; it is not something that is expressed in a public demonstration that sets us apart as more spiritual than others, rather, it is something that is expressed in the practical give and take of our common human relationships, as we, each one of us, follow the example of Christ and, out of respect and love for the other, deny ourselves for their good. 

This principle of submission, in focus here in Ephesians, permeates the New Testament instructions on how to live as the followers of Jesus Christ.


Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2006, 2011