Ephesians 5:21-6:9 NIV
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing[b] her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body.31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
Children and Parents
1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise—3 “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”
4 Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
Slaves and Masters
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.
9 And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.
In Ephesians 5:21 – 6:9, Paul deals with some specific family type relationships. Some of these are very challenging to 21st century westerners and are often the most controversial passages in Ephesians. Wives submitting to their husbands as well as instructions for slaves and their masters just don’t seem to sit well with a lot of people. So before sharing some thoughts on these passages, it might be useful to examine the first century family.
First Century Family Life
Does the Bible define an ‘ideal’ family relationship? Or does it provide guidance for dealing with the family situations in the day that it was written in? While there may be some element of truth to the first possibility, I believe the second is more realistic. When Paul gives instructions to families in Ephesians, I believe he is recognizing the current socially accepted family life and is providing guidance to Christians who find themselves in any of those family relationships. And if that is the case, then as the socially accepted family life changes over time, we may need to be a bit more careful in how we apply the guidance provided.
So what was the family like in the 1st century Roman world? While it consisted of a married man and woman along with their children, the resemblance to modern families in the western world ends there. This was a very male dominated society where women and children are little more than property. Marriages were most commonly arranged by the parents, for reasons other than love. The oldest living male in an extended family had overall control, even over grown sons with families of their own. In the ancient world, slavery was an accepted part of society. And slaves were often considered part of the extended family.
Directions to Family Members
To the believers in this type of family Paul gave the following directions:
- Wives, submit to your husbands.
- Husbands, love your wives like you do yourself.
- Children, obey your parents.
- Fathers, train your children in the Lord.
- Slaves, respect and serve your masters wholeheartedly.
- Masters, respect your slaves.
Notice here that wives, children and slaves and told only to do what they are already expected to do; submit, obey and serve. But for all three they are to do it as if their husband, father or master was Christ himself. Treat that one who is authority over you in the same way you would if Jesus was the one in that place.
Upending the Man’s Place
It is when Paul turns to the man that things get dramatically turned around. Rather than treat the other three groups in the family as property, we are to love as ourselves, train rather than frustrate, and treat with respect. This is a pretty radical set of directions that, if followed, would work to transform the family life.
The onus of this passage is really on the man, the head of the family. He was the dominate member of the family, and only as he changed could the family really become something different. The others are encouraged to cooperate with the family head, making his task easier.
So how does this relate to family life today? For most of us slavery is considered to be barbarian with no place in our society. And, while the western world still has some elements of male dominance, it is no longer anything like it was in the first century. So can we ignore the admonitions that seem at odds to our families today? Or is it possible that there is something that we can still learn from them?
In particular, what about the direction for a wife to submit to her husband; something many men dream about and their wives laugh about? Take a look at 5:21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This is a general guideline for relations between believers and would seem to include telling husbands to submit to their wives as much as wives to their husbands. In submitting to each other as believers, as members of the body of Christ, we are putting each other’s interests ahead of our own; something that is challenging, but needful if we are to live in community as a body. How much more important in the context of a marriage that the two put each other’s interests above their own?
In Matthew 20:25-28 Jesus responds to a request for prominence by two of his disciples with some direction concerning kingdom greatness: whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant. To live life as a disciple of Jesus, as a citizen of the kingdom of God, is to live as a servant. Even Christ did not come to be served, but to serve. Do you think it might be then that believing husbands might also reasonably be expected to serve their believing wives?
Love Your Wives
And that is really the instruction that Paul gives to us, to love our wives as Christ loved the church. And to love them as we do our own bodies. What a radical thought for a first century man; rather than be lord of his home, he is to love and care for his wife, as well as the other members of his family. While our wives may be uncomfortable with this passage today, I would bet it was the men who were when Paul wrote it. Regardless the social mores of your day and place, choose to submit to and serve each other within your marriage. Work together for each other’s enrichment and for the strengthening of your marriage.
Before leaving this section on marriage, I believe it is worth noting what Paul’s instruction to the wife is not. It is direction to the wife. It is not instruction to the husband to force submission. Those who would seek to use this passage as an excuse to subjugate their wives, or women in general, are seriously misusing this passage.
In regards to slavery, are not the guidelines Paul gives useful in the employee/employer relationship? As an employee, should I not try to be pleasing to my boss. And not just when he is watching, but all the time; serving him as though I were serving God? And as a manager, should I not treat my employees with respect and help them to be successful?
I believe it is OK, and actually preferably, if our home life does not model the first century home life that Paul is addressing. But the direction he gives to those homes still has application to us today. Treat each other with love and respect and seek the advancement of your family, even if it costs you personally.
All Posts In This Series
- A Brief Introduction to Ephesians: Who and Why - This brief introduction to Ephesians will share some of the ideas of authorship, audience and purpose that many scholars see, as well as my views.
- Spiritual Blessings – Ephesians 1:3-14 - God has given his spiritual blessings to us in the heavenly realm. And we have these blessing because we are in Christ. Praise God for all he has done.
- Prayer – Ephesians 1:15-23 - In Ephesians 1:15-23, Paul's prayer for the recipients of this letter is for a spirit of wisdom and revelation so that they could know God better.
- From Death Into Life: An Act of Grace – Ephesians 2:1-7 - In my natural state I was spiritually dead, separated from the life of God. But by his grace, I have been made alive, with a life that will never end.
- Amazing Grace – Ephesians 2:8-10 - Grace. More specifically God's grace. As believers we talk about it a lot, frequently defining it as God's unmerited favor towards us. And indeed it is. It is by God's grace that we are saved, and not by anything we can do (Ephesians 2:8). God's grace has dealt with our sin and we now have a future with him. It is unfortunate however that we often leave it there.
- Tearing Down Walls – Ephesians 2:11-22 - In Christ it makes no difference whether we are Jew or Gentile. We are all one body in him because of grace. It is by faith in what Jesus did that we come into relationship with God now; not by adherence to the commands and regulations of the law. Because observance of the law as a means to righteousness has been replaced by God's grace, we are all equally able to stand before God, not because of what I have done, but because of what he did.
- The Mystery of Christ – Ephesians 3:1-13 - And the mystery is not only that the barrier that separated Jews from Gentiles has been eliminated. But also that the need for a priestly intermediary has been removed. All believers now also serve as priests and each have direct access to the throne of God.
- Rooted and Established In Love – Ephesians 3:14-21 - Paul prays that the Ephesians would be rooted and established in love, a suitable dwelling place for the Holy Spirit.
- Walking Worthy – Ephesians 4:1-6 - What does walking worthy of our calling mean? In the context of Ephesians 4:1-6, it refers to our role in the body of Christ. Be the best member you can be.
- Growing a Mature Church – Ephesians 4:11-16 - Christ provides his church with the necessary equippers to that we can be a mature church, fully equipped to do the work he has called us to.
- Out With the Old, In With the New – Ephesians 4:17-32 - How do I live as an effective member of the body of Christ? It involves personal transformation, putting off the old self, and taking on the new self.
- Imitators of God – Ephesians 5:1-20 - Don't be like the world around you. Instead, be imitators of God by living a life of love, living as a child of the light, and living with wisdom.
- Married to Jesus – Ephesians 5:22-33 - One of the images for the church in the New Testament is the Bride of Christ. This image pictures the intimate relationship between Christ and his church.
- All In the Family – Ephesians 5:21-6:9 - Paul's instructions to first century families contains useful information for families today. It also contains advice for workplace relationships.
- Spiritual Warfare – Ephesians 6:10-20 - A spiritual battle is raging all around us. So take up the armor God provides so you can stand your ground and be engaged in that spiritual warfare.
- June 12, 2012: Original post
- September 28, 2018: Updated for content and SEO