Ephesians | interpreting Paul on submission

Ephesians | interpreting Paul on submission February 27, 2023

Ephesians | interpreting Paul on submission

In the ancient Greco-Roman Empire something unique takes place.

Philosophers begin to influence the private lives of citizens with ethics for private life that are known as household codes. Philosophers like Plutarch and Aristotle teach them.

The great Hebrew philosopher Philo teaches household codes as well. He lives during the first century as a contemporary of Christ and the Disciples.

To fully grasp family passages in the New Testament like Ephesians 5-6, we need to compare them to the Greco-Roman household code.  Passages like Ephesians 5-6 are the household code, the house rules for Christians.

what makes a NT household code unique?

The New Testament (NT) Church does not accept Roman household codes. They adapt them to faith. The NT Church adapts household codes to certain contexts, i.e. home, church. One major difference is the NT Church calls for mutual submission, which is unheard of.[1]

When we discuss a Christian household code, we have to start with submission.

“submit . . . as to the Lord,” (Ephesians 5.22, ESV)

Let’s remove some barriers to the term submission from the beginning.
Are there roles in the home and church?  Yes!
Is there an authority structure in the home?  Yes!

If we have any authority at all, does that mean we lord it over others?
Perhaps a better question is, does Jesus lord it over others?  Let that sink in.

Think about the humble leadership style of Jesus. Why in the world would we not want to submit to Him?

“And Jesus called them to him and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.'” (Mark 10.42-45)

Jesus Christ is exactly the type of leader we want to submit to.

defining submission: submit is also often translated as subject

This is actually a mistranslation. A better word is subordinate. We subordinate our lives to our Lord and come under His authority. Then, we step into our God-given roles, the “proper place in the order of things.”[2]

We live in a world of order and roles that must be fulfilled. Without order, we witness real pockets of anarchy around the globe. I wonder if some of our homes look more like pockets of anarchy.

We subordinate our Church and homes as outposts of God’s Kingdom.

“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” (Ephesians 5.22-24)

God blesses marriage as an institution, as a good order.

applying submission: submission is not only about the household code

Subordination means coming under Jesus Christ and His church.

There is a renewal movement known as Renovaré. One of the founders is Richard Foster. He explains the significance of submission in these terms:

“SUBMISSION: Subordination to the guidance of God; within the Christian fellowship, a constant mutual subordination out of reverence for Christ, which opens the way for particular subordination to those who are qualified to direct our efforts toward Christlikeness and who then add the weight of their wise authority on the side of our willing spirit to help us do the things we would like to do and refrain from doing the things we don’t want to do.”[3] (bold mine)

Take note of these phrases: “particular subordination . . . those who are qualified . . . wise authority.”

We can subordinate ourselves to Jesus Christ. He is holy. Jesus is the 2nd Person of the Trinity. He is our Savior.

We can even submit in family. Most families have some sort of structure.

However, why would we want to come under the covering of a church? When we’re discussing the NT household code, it begins in church, not the home: Ephesians 5.18-21.

The English Standard Version is right. Verses 18-21 are all 1 sentence in the Greek. Verse 21 belongs with verses 18-21. Submission begins in the House of God.

In other words, no family is sovereign over the church. If a Pastor can’t speak into a family situation, a family that is attending his/her church, then this principle of authority is being ignored.

The husband is subordinating the family to the authority of the church, and the wife is coming under this line of authority.

if we don’t submit to Jesus and to each other in church, are we lost?

Have you ever heard of the term Dechurched?  It’s a fairly newer term. It’s about people who used to be in church but are no longer in church.

I lived in Traverse City, Michigan for 7 years. Traverse City is on a lot of “Top Lists” like tourist lists, ice cream lists, etc.

Traverse City is also on the Top 20 Most Dechurched Cities list – #14 in the USA![4]

Is something wrong with town: the churches, the people, etc.?

Are churches still providing a covering that people and families need?

Are Traverse City people church-hoppers: many churches, no commitment?

In my time as a Pastor in Traverse City, I found that most of the time, the Dechurched are just hurt.

When it’s time to talk about submission to church or home, it’s never easy. On the other hand, God’s Word is pretty clear that a line of submission within the family is fully Christian if the family is in submission to a community of faith.


pic credit: Hannah Busing | girl wearing floral dress reading bible alone in grass | 04.13.22 | unsplash

  1. Paul J. Achtemeier, Joel B. Green, and Marianne Meye Thompson, Introducing the New Testament: It’s Literature and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001), 524.
  2. Ibid., 387.
  3. Spiritual Disciplines Index: Submission, in New Revised Standard Version: The Life with God Bible, ed. Richard J. Foster (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 533.
  4. Barna, “Church Attendance Trends Around the Country,” Barna Group: Cities and States, May 26, 2017, https://www.barna.com/research/church-attendance-trends-around-country/

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