We are about to consider the relationship between husbands and wives (and those who want to be husbands and wives!), between children and parents, and employers and employees. Nothing tells the truth about the reality of our Christian faith quite as much as the way that we live and behave in the home and at work. Before we consider this we must once again take note of the solid ground rules and foundations laid for us, for this teaching about relationships does not occur in a vacuum. There is a ground prepared for us on which we need to stand if we are to live effectively as Christian husbands, wives, children and employees.
We must consider once again what precedes our text. In terms of the immediate context we previously considered 4 areas in which we should make every effort to live as wise people in days that are evil. These days are not just the days in which we live. They include the entire history of fallen humanity. In regard to this we are called to
(i) 5:15,16 - live wisely with respect to our use of time
(ii) 5:17- not make foolish decisions but seeking the will of God instead
(iii) 5:18- to be continually filled with the Holy Spirit instead of being under the influence of mind altering substances such as alcohol.
(iv) 5:19,20 - our Christian lives ought to be characterized by music in our hearts i.e. joy and thanksgiving.
From the greater context (Eph. 4:17 - 5:21) we also observe that healthy relationships can only be built when we put off falsehood and lies and speak the truth (4:25); by controlling our anger (4:26-27); by giving attention to honesty and work ethics (4:28); by engaging in good principles of communication (4:29; 5:4); by dealing with twisted emotions such as bitterness, wrath, anger, clamour, slander, malice (4:31); by maintaining sexual purity (5:3) etc. All of these aspects are fundamental to happy relationships.
All this leads us to the next important thought in 5:21, “submitting to one another out of reverence (fear) of Christ”. This phrase presents another important building block and in fact a transition to 5:22ff in which the apostle Paul speaks about three vital relationships-marriage, family and work.
But before we deal with these we need to understand the principle of mutual submission in 5:21. In the original Greek this verse forms a part of a sentence which begins in 5:18 and is made up of a whole string of present participles, “….Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence (lit. fear) for Christ.”
Paul here introduces a controlling principle for effective Christian relationships in marriage, in the home and at work: mutual submission! Here we find 2 important principles :
(i) The principle of mutual submission to one another comes before any submission is commanded upon wives to their husbands, children to their parents and employees (slaves) to their employers (masters). Husbands must submit to their wives in fulfilling their God given roles. Parents must submit to their children in reacting in a godly manner to them. Masters (employers) must submit to their employees in being fair to them.
(ii) The principle of mutual submission is subjected to the “reverence (fear) of Christ”.
Let’s consider these in turn:
1. The principle of mutual submission commanded
“…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ”. This principle is deeply rooted in the way Jesus relates to us. Two illustrations from Scripture will help us to see this.
a. Matt 20: 20-28. The mother of James and John came to ask Jesus for a special favour. She wanted her 2 sons to sit on Jesus left and right in the kingdom. Talk about a mother with future ambitions for her sons! Matthew’s account then goes on to tell us that the 10 other disciples were indignant about this presumptuous request. Jesus takes this opportunity to teach them principles of submission and servanthood: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This is Jesus’ explicit teaching on mutual submission and service. It is rooted in His own example. Jesus our great Leader submits himself to His church.
b. In John 13:12ff, on the night He was betrayed, Jesus visibly demonstrated this principle as He washed the feet of his disciples. Then He said to them: 13 “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done for you. 16 Truly, truly I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”
These texts are clear. Jesus in all His infinite greatness laid aside His heavenly splendour and became our servant (Phil. 2:5-8) and supremely so on the cross, by laying down His life for ours. And what does He require of us? He requires of us to submit to one another (Phil. 2:1-4). And nowhere do we see the practical application more than in the mutual submission that we must show to one another in marriage, the family and at work.
2. The principle of mutual submission is subjected to the “reverence (fear) of Christ”.
In submitting to one another we are expressing our active reverence (fear) of the Lord. This is our supreme motive why we submit to one another: out of reverence for Christ! The word used here is used in the sense of a reverential fear for Christ which inspires us in terms of a constant carefulness in dealing with others. It has nothing to do with phobias. It has nothing to do with slavish fear. It has to do with a great respect for the person of Jesus Christ, for whose sake we discipline ourselves to love and serve others. Be reminded that this is the disposition of those filled with the Spirit (5:18). We bear the fruit of the Spirit to one another (Gal. 5:22-24)
The ‘fear of Christ’ is a significant and weighty phrase. The term is generally used in the OT in terms of ‘the fear of God’. So here we see Paul attributing divinity to the Lord Jesus Christ. We see this also in the way Paul easily substitutes ‘God’s kingdom’ as ‘Christ’s kingdom’ (5:5), and ‘God’s will’ for ‘Christ’s (the Lord’s) will’ (5:10,17), and ‘worshipping God’ becomes ‘worshipping (the Lord) Christ’ (5:19). So, we need to step back and see the Lord Jesus Christ for who He is – He is Christ the Lord. “He is the Word, the Word who was with God, the Word who was God… the Creator of all things… the Life and the Light of men.” (John 1:1-4). He is the One whom we must revere, and we must have Him in mind when we deal with one another.
In particular we must now remember that it is this Jesus who has created all mankind in His image (Gen.1:27). When you look into the face of another human being, and even your enemy and the person who hurts you, you must remember that this person is an image bearer, belonging to God. Remember also that this person (and you) will one day give an account to God (Rom. 14:12. Matt. 12:36; 2 Cor.5:10; Rev. 20:12; 1 Pet. 4:5). And so, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ must begin there. This is a very great truth. We should greatly fear lest we forget and abuse this truth.
But this is supremely important when we speak about our closest relationships, beginning with our husbands, wives, families etc. The reason why we have breakdowns in these relationships, is because we stop fearing Christ; we lose sight of Christ, and when this happens our sinful self gets in the way. The apostle John warns us about loving the world and the things of the world – the desires of the flesh, the desire of the eyes and pride of life more than Jesus. (1 Jn. 2:15). The chief of all sins is pride. Pride is the devil’s original sin-and it is ours. It is the arch sin, and it colours and disfigures so much of our life together. It does not even spare us in the church. Pride is intensely self-centred, and when focus is on self then God and others move into the background. This is what we see when chauvinist men claim to be superior to women and when feminism despises the male counterpart. All racism, tribalism, nationalism is built on this idea that some races or tribes or nations are superior. The further our society drifts from the doctrine of man and God the more divided and confused it becomes.
We need the reverential fear of Christ, the fear of God to guard our relationships. My fallen nature needs this steady reminder in order for me to be a good husband and a father and a friend and a pastor to you. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 1:7). It guards me. It keeps me steady. I must submit in reverential fear to Jesus to be a Christ-like husband to my wife, to be a Christ-like father to my children – a Christ-like pastor to my congregation. That is my call from God. To submit myself to Him and therefore to you in the exercise of these duties will ensure that you receive the best from me.
The Christian doctrine of mutual submission is not man’s idea. It is God’s idea. And God requires us to submit to one another in humility, by seeking the best for each other. In this Christians are not bound by cultural norms and laws of submission – which in the hands of fallen people can actually be very repressive and demeaning. The Christian’s conscience is bound to our unchanging Jesus, who is the final word on everything and who has given us a blueprint for living.
Learn the fear of the Lord. Learn to look at people from His perspective. Learn to understand what your God –given duties are, and then do them. You say that you love God? Then fear Him by doing what is right in terms of being a godly husband, a godly wife, godly parents, a godly church member.
How will your works be judged on the day of Christ’s coming? One day you shall face that penetrating gaze of your Lord Jesus. What will you say? Will you say: “I believe that You died for me, and that You shed Your blood for me, but I did what I wanted; I did not obey Your commandments; I did not do what You clearly told me to do; I did not live the life of holiness about which You spoke to me from Eph. 4:17 – 5:21; I did not want to submit to my God given duties. Can you imagine what it will be to look into His eyes on that day?
The Lord Jesus is about to speak to us about how to submit to one another in the fear of the Lord – as husbands, wives, as children and employees. What excuses are you making in not submitting to everything that is written in the Scriptures? It is quite a thought that my lack of disobedience and my lack of submission out of reverence for Christ would harm you, and would harm the reputation of Christ upon earth. And sadly, the modern church is by and large compromised in this area. We are good at many things. But this one thing we lack! May God have mercy upon us.