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Ephesians: Life in the Family (5:21-6:9)

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Life in the Family

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 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. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
​ Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”
Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 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. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.
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.

Ephesians 5:21-6:9 NIV

Family Relationships

In Ephesians 5:21 – 6:9, Paul dealt 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 that existed when it was written? 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 were often 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 adult 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 as 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 were 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 in 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 family life in the Roman world.

The onus of this passage is really on the man, the head of the family. He was the dominant 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 with 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 it is needful if we are to live as a unified body.  How much more important, in the context of marriage, is it that the two put each other’s interests above their own?

In Matthew 20:25-28, Jesus provided 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 husbands, 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 of 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 giving direction to the wife. It is not instructing the husband to force submission on his wife. Those who would seek to use this passage as an excuse to subjugate their wives, or women in general, are seriously misusing this passage.

Parents and Children

Children are instructed to obey their parents in the Lord. The instruction for children to obey their parents is pretty straightforward. But the expression “in the Lord” is not as clear. In the context here, it is likely that Paul is giving instruction here to children who have believing parents. Parents who would not instruct their children to do something that would result in disobeying God. Our obedience to any authority we find ourselves under should always bear in mind that we have a higher authority. An authority that we should submit to first.

In this instruction to children, Paul quotes the fifth commandment. Honoring parents by being obedient to them and learning the lessons they are providing will pay dividends later.

And fathers, as well as mothers, need to not frustrate their children. Don’t tell them one thing and then do something else yourself. Model for them the life you are expecting them to live. And provide spiritual training to them as well. You are establishing a foundation for them to build their lives on. Make sure it is a good one.


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? 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?

And for Today’s Family?

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.

Questions to Consider

  • What role should submission play in family life today?
  • What does it mean for a husband to love his wife? Is this more than a physical or emotional action or feeling?
  • What is the responsibility of a parent toward their children?

You are welcome to respond to these questions in the comment section below. If you do, be sure to check the “Notify me” checkbox just above the Post Comment button so you can get any feedback. Note that all comments are moderated. Only respectful comments relevant to the topic will be posted.

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Ed Jarrett

Just an old clay jar that God continues to see fit to use in his kingdom's work. I am retired, married with 2 children, and 4 grandchildren. I have followed Jesus for many years. And I love to share what He has given me from His word.

A Note to Readers

The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

3 thoughts on “Ephesians: Life in the Family (5:21-6:9)”

  1. great post–my reading of 5:21 in the GNT indicates the verb rendered "submit" is intended to flow through all of what follows–all relationships are bound by submission. keep up the good work.


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