God’s Approved Pattern for Submission
The church at Ephesus was established during Paul’s second evangelistic journey. While Paul spent little time at Ephesus on his second journey, we know the church was established because Aquila and Priscilla and other brethren were there when Apollos came to Ephesus (See Acts 18:18-28). During Paul’s third evangelistic journey, he kept his promise to return to Ephesus and labored with the church for about three years. When Paul was concluding his third journey “from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church” (Acts 20:17) to remind them of his work at Ephesus and to encourage them in their work: “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).
Several years had passed from the time Paul met with the elders of the church at Ephesus and the writing of the letter “to the saints…in Ephesus” (Ephesians 1:1). Paul introduced the concept of submission in the first chapter: God “put all things under His (Jesus Christ) feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body…” (1:22-23). While the emphasis here is on Christ’s exalted position of authority at the right hand of God the Father, this also teaches us that “Christ is head of the church…” and “…the church is subject to Christ…in everything” (5:23-24). The words translated “subject” and “submit” mean “to arrange under, to subordinate; put in subjection…to subject oneself; to obey; to submit to one’s control; to yield to one’s admonition or advice” (Thayer’s, p.645). We live in a religious and social environment where submission to authority is not well received. Paul makes practical application of this concept of subjection (submission) to the church and to the individual saints at Ephesus.
Organization, Work and Worship of the Church
Christ, as the head of the church, has determined how His church is to be built and organized. Evidence of Jesus’ pattern for the organization of the church is seen in Ephesians 4:11: “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers…” The church still has apostles and prophets in its organizational structure just as it has Christ as the chief cornerstone and the head of the church. The church has apostles and prophets in the sense that the rich man’s five brothers had “Moses and the prophets” (Luke 16:29). The brothers of the rich man had Moses and the prophets through their writings in the Old Testament Scriptures. The church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (2:20) as it submits to the inspired teachings of Christ, and the apostles and prophets, recorded in the New Testament Scriptures.
Evangelists, and pastors (shepherds, elders) and teachers also serve essential roles in the organization of the church, and we are to submit to them as they teach God’s word with the authority that is inherent in God’s word. Paul instructed evangelists: “I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ…Preach the word!” (2 Timothy 4:1-2); “Speak these things, exhort, and rebuke will all authority” (Titus 2:15). And the Hebrew writer says: “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account” (Hebrews 13:17).
The church is to be subject to Christ, the head, in the work that Christ authorizes. The work of the church involves teaching the gospel to the lost (the work of evangelists) and edifying the church (the work of pastors and teachers). Paul states that Jesus gave some to be evangelists, pastors and teachers “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (4:11-12). The objective of this work is to bring us all to maturity in Christ, keep us from being deceived by false doctrines, and enable us to teach “the truth in love” so we “may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ” (4:13-15).
One element of worship for the church mentioned by Paul is “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (5:19). Any religious group that worships, works or organizes in ways not authorized by Christ, the head of the church, is not a church that is subject (submissive) to Christ.
“Submitting to One Another in the Fear of God”
In the context of the last three chapters of Ephesians, Paul provides several examples of what he means by “submitting to one another in the fear of God” (5:21). In our relationship as brethren in Christ we show our submission to one another “with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” and by being “kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you” (4:2-3, 32).
Paul makes practical application of “submitting to one another in the fear of God” to the marriage relationship. “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church…Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything” (5:23-24). A wife who has a problem with submitting to her husband shows she has a greater problem of submitting to the Lord. Husbands show submission in the fear of God by loving their “wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it…so husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies…for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church” (5:25,28-29). A husband who loves his wife “as Christ loved the church” provides a marriage environment in which his wife’s submission is pleasurable and desirable.
In the family relationship, submission to one another is essential. Paul writes: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord…and you fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (6:1,4).
In the work place (employee, employer relationship), we are to be “submitting…in the fear of God.” “Servants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ…And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master also is in heaven…” (6:5).
To be a church that is “of Christ” the church must be subject to Christ, the head of the church. To be a Christian (one who is of Christ), we must be submissive to Christ’s will in all of our relationships in life, “submitting to one another in the fear of God.”