Paul's letter to the Ephesians is one of the key books of the New Testament in shaping Christian theology. In it, Paul expresses an over-arching, cosmic view of God's work in the world, telling his readers that God chose them even before the foundation of the world, with a plan for the fullness of time, so that everything might be united under the Lord Jesus (1:3-23). He gives a clear picture of salvation by grace and through faith, not by works (2:8-9), and he expresses the great mystery of God now revealed - that both Jews and non-Jews are united co-recipients of God's grace and blessing (3:6).
Therefore Paul calls his readers to unity under Christ in the Holy Spirit, with humility, gentleness, patience, love, and peace (4:1-3). Not that unity requires that every Christian be the same - rather, Christ has given different people different gifts, and these are to be used for the benefit of others, to help them to grow in maturity and to keep them from being deceived by worldly schemes (4:11-16). But all Christians are called to put away sin, anger, slander, malice, and impurity, and instead imitate God in kindness, forgiveness, and love (4:31-5:2).
The part I want to look at a bit more today is the last section of the letter, which begins like this:
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all 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 for Christ.
Ephesians 5:18-21 (ESV)
Paul presents two alternatives. The first is getting drunk with wine, and that is debauchery and should be avoided. The alternative is to be filled with the Holy Spirit - this means addressing one another with psalms and other songs, singing, thanksgiving to God, and also submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. So all these things are good, and are part of what it means to be filled with the Spirit.
I take it that the passages that follow spell out some of the ideas behind that last phrase, "submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ". Paul gives the examples of wives submitting to their husbands and husbands loving their wives, children obeying parents and fathers teaching their children, and slaves obeying their masters and masters treating their slaves well. I'll look at each of these sections in reverse order.
Slaves and masters
Slaves are given the command first: they are to obey their earthly masters sincerely, not merely as people-pleasers. In fact, they are to do their work as if the Lord Jesus himself were their master. The reasoning is that Jesus is the true master of every Christian slave, and unlike earthly masters he has eyes that see everywhere all the time, and will give to each what he or she deserves. On the one hand, this should produce "fear and trembling", since any wrongdoing cannot be hidden from him, but Paul strongly expresses the positive form, saying that the Lord will give back whatever good you do, whether slave or free (6:8).
It's interesting that slavemasters are told to "do the same to them" - which would seem to be saying that masters should be obeying their slaves (which seems to be the main verb in the command to slaves). Masters are also told to stop their threatening. Both they and their slaves ultimately have a common master in heaven, who sees no difference in the earthly distinctions between slave and free, holding them all accountable alike. Therefore even slavemasters are to do the will of God sincerely, not scolding their slaves while guilty of lip-service toward God.
For slaves and masters, submission means doing good work knowing that you are serving Christ and that he is able to reward you fairly. For slaves, it means obeying their masters with the same respect they have for Jesus.
For us who live in a country where there are no slaves (or at least we do not see them), we must remember that God does not have different requirements for slaves and for free men and women when it comes to doing good. If slavemasters were not to threaten their slaves, how much more shall we be held to account who speak malice toward our equals and superiors? Do we serve others with only our lips, not realising that ultimately our service to others is serving Christ himself?
Children and parents
Children are told to obey their parents in the Lord, simply because it is the right thing to do (6:1). Paul feels no need to explain this further except to quote the fifth of the ten commandments, "Honour your father and mother that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land", adding that it is the first commandment with a promise. You want things to go well for you and to live long in God's kingdom, don't you? Then God's command is for you to honour your father and mother, which means the obedience of children toward their parents.
Fathers are addressed as well, being told not to provoke their children to anger, instead bringing them up "in the discipline and instruction of the Lord". It seems that there are three responsibilities placed on fathers: not to make their children angry, raising disciplined children, and teaching their children the way of Jesus.
In the two cases we've seen so far, the command is firstly for one person to submit to another in whole-hearted obedience. One reason is that you are ultimately serving the Lord Jesus Christ, who will repay you for the good and bad things you do in service of others. Another reason given to children is that God commands people to honour their parents. Moreover, he links this command with a promise, so there is all the more reason for children to obey their parents.
As well as the command to slaves and children to submit in obedience, Paul also commands the person in authority. Slavemasters are not to threaten their slaves but are themselves to behave as slaves toward Christ. Fathers are not to provoke their children but to bring them up with discipline and teaching. Masters and fathers are not told to submit to slaves and children, but they are to submit to Christ - which includes treating slaves and children well. For fathers, it also means leading their children to Christ so that they live disciplined, honourable lives in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus.
I will leave this post here. Next time, I'll consider what Paul says to wives and husbands in Ephesians 5.