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Ephesians XX: The Splendor of Submission II - Ephesians 6:1-9

Christians who submit to one another out of reverence for Christ are walking wisely, because they understand what the will of the Lord is. They understand that hierarchy and submission are not problems to be put up with, but facts of life that are built into the creation order by God. While all people are created in the image of God, and are thus equal in worth and value in His sight, they aren’t interchangeable; they don’t all take up the same role in God’s world.

This understanding ought to prepare us to welcome Paul’s teaching in Eph. 5-6, when he outlines the order that relationships take in Christian households. He isn’t ranking people by worth or value; he’s simply expressing God’s plan for good order that reveals and expresses God’s good design for the world. The splendor of submission is shown when we rightly embrace God’s order so that our relationships are peaceful, making the world a better place.

Having discussed marital love and submission in Eph. 5:22-33, Paul turns to four more household groups in 6:1-9: children, parents, bondservants, and masters. God calls each group to submit, and He ordains a specific order for that submission to take: Children submit to parents by obeying them. Parents, especially fathers, submit to the Lord by raising their children His way. Bondservants submit to their masters by obeying them with a good will, and masters submit to God by treating their servants in a Christlike way.

It’s easy for us to miss the radical message that Paul has just given. Household instructions like these were common in the ancient world, but they were almost always exclusively directed at the paterfamilias, the family leader, since he was the one with all the authority. But because of the unity in Christ that Paul has explained throughout Ephesians, women and children and slaves are just as much a part of the Church as husbands and fathers and masters, and even while affirming the authority of fathers and masters, Paul gave them corresponding responsibilities for those under their headship. By uniting all things to Himself, Jesus fundamentally changed what authority meant for the world, and the world would never be the same.

But before we look at the specific instructions given to these four groups, I want to address the issue of slavery as it appears here in Ephesians. We could talk for a long time about how the Bible deals with slavery, but the first thing to say is that God did not command or institute slavery, which means that this relationship is very different than the husband-wife or parent-child relationship. Slavery isn’t built into the world; it arose from life circumstances, which meant that free people could become enslaved, slaves could become free (as Paul encouraged them to do), or a nation could choose to abolish slavery entirely, as I’m grateful that ours has done.

But the big question that many people are asking today is this: “Why didn’t Paul (and by extension, Jesus) just forbid slavery outright, demanding an immediate emancipation for all slaves? And it’s not an easy question to answer, especially in our historically-charged environment.

In response, though, dealing honestly with the Bible means that we must acknowledge that biblically, not all forms of servitude are inherently evil. Racial pride is evil; man-stealing and kidnapping is evil; greed that seeks undue profit at the expense of others is evil; which means that the American slave system was evil, but, according to Leviticus 25, it is not inherently sinful to own servants as property. God is not commanding or encouraging slavery, but He does permit it. That’s what the Bible says, and in our cultural moment, it’s important not to be embarrassed by anything in the Bible.

But also, by asserting a fundamental equality based on the Lordship of Christ between masters and slaves, Paul has severed the nerve of sinful slavery, even without forbidding slavery outright. The fact that historically it survived in Christian countries is an embarrassment to the Church, but we must be careful not to blame Paul or Jesus for the sins of the South. The other error, however, is to judge God’s Word by the reactionary standards of people who have been snake-bitten by their own sins, and we must avoid this mistake, as well.

In the future, we’ll consider how submission and obedience play out in parent-child and master-servant relationships, but for now, let us to give thanks to God for radically transforming our understanding authority and submission, for giving dignity to everyone in Christ, and for making our reverence for Christ the measure of our relationships with one another. When we live this way, our families flourish, our labor becomes a joy and not a burden, and this is the splendor of submission to Christ.

Posted on Friday, November 08, 2019 by CJ Bowen