In part one, I made the case that Paul’s extended exhortation in Ephesians 5:18–21 concerning how fullness in the Spirit is attained is a cohesive unit that focuses on the body of Christ congregating together for the worship of the Lord Jesus. We are to be made complete in the Spirit through worshiping together as the body of Christ, mutually edifying one another in a few ways,
by speaking to one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,
by singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord,
by always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
by submitting to one another in the fear of Christ. (Eph. 5:19–21)
When Christ’s body congregates together to worship him, reciprocal edification and kinship overshadow the Christians’ daily vocations and suppress their varied stations in life by reciprocal submission “to one another in the fear of Christ” (Eph. 5:21), the fifth and final phrase that completes the apostle’s command “be brought to completeness in the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18).
In 5:22, Paul shifts the focus of his exhortations from the Christian congregation. Now he calls on the members of the Christian home to live harmoniously together under the Lordship of Jesus Christ within three binary relationships: wife and husband, children and parents, and slaves and master (Eph. 5:22–6:9). So, in this article, I will focus on Paul’s household code in Ephesians to argue that God ordained these three relationships as earthly portrayals concerning his attributes, revealing himself as the church’s loving Husband, our true Father, and our Master who redeems us from enslavement to sin.
The Family: God’s Ordered Realm of His Self-Revelation
Within the home, each of the three binary relationships entails complementary roles: wives toward their husbands, children toward their parents, and slaves toward their masters. Whereas these stations in life are less emphasized when believers congregate together for the worship of the Lord, Paul features their role distinctions when admonishing each pair in their home relationships. Unlike his appeal to them when they congregate together as the body of Christ, he does not call for reciprocal submission in the sphere of home relationships—husband to wife, parents to children, masters to slaves. He cannot do so without disrupting God’s created order designed to reveal himself to us. In the sphere of the home, submission acknowledges and upholds divinely appointed positions. Thus, Paul appeals for obedient behavior befitting the functional role distinctions among the members of the Christian household. He frames his exhortations fittingly for each member of the three binary relationships, preserving distinctions while accenting harmonious complementarity in submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
A Harmonious Home Requires Fidelity to God-Appointed Roles
So, Paul’s household code calls for behavior commensurate with one’s God-ordained role. He begins by admonishing, “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands as to the Lord.” She must submit to her husband precisely because he is her head, just as Christ is the head of the church (Eph. 5:22–24). Harmony in the home obligates the husband, whose role entails headship, to love his wife as Christ loved the church and sacrificed himself for her (Eph. 5:25). Of course, there is more to be said concerning the union of wife and husband to which we will return shortly. As the wife must submit to her husband in everything, the children are to behave fittingly from within their subordinate roles under the supervision of both parents obeying the command, “Honor your father and mother” (Eph 6:1–4). Though Paul advises slaves that if the opportunity for freedom presents itself, to welcome liberty (1 Cor. 7:21), here, he commands obedience. Household slaves are bound by their subordinate status to obey their masters “with fear and trembling,” sincerely submitting to them as to the Lord Christ (Eph. 6:5–8). And masters must elicit obedience from their slaves not by threatening them, because the Master in heaven judges without partiality both earthly masters and slaves (Eph. 6:9).
Discontent with God’s Created Order Opposes Christ’s Lordship
Despite the apostle’s straightforward instructions for each member of the three binary relationships in the home, the sin of self-autonomy prompts many to question, dispute, quibble, deflect, writhe, and distort Paul’s command to wives, particularly. The apostle’s command—“Wives submit to your husbands, as to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22)—renders such efforts manifestly disobedient to the Lord Christ. Not just the wife-husband relationship but all three binaries display God’s established basic earthly relationships. More than this, all three binary relationships feature earthly replicas or shadows corresponding to God’s relationship with us, his creatures. It is not as though Paul conceals this truth from us. Instead, with each of the three relationships, he emphasizes how these binary relationships function as earthly shadows of the eternally greater heavenly relationship: (1) “Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22), (2) “Children, obey your parents in the Lord” (Eph. 6:1)—and (3) “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ . . . as to the Lord” (Eph. 6:5).
1. The ESV and NIV translate the Greek expression as “earthly masters.” The NASB, like the KJV, translates it as “masters according to the flesh.”
Plainly, Paul punctuates his household code of instructions with continual reference to the Lordship of Christ Jesus. This warrants closer attention. Of the three earthly binary relationships, Paul develops the earthly shadow function most fully with the wife-husband correlation to the church-Christ relationship. Because we are God’s creatures made after his likeness, all our knowledge of God is analogical, dependent on the created order reflecting the Creator’s character. It is impossible for us to know the Creator or to speak of him as he is in himself. Yet, because God made us in his likeness, he gives everyone access to true knowledge of himself. Because God makes his invisible attributes intelligible through his created order, from the beginning, every human has residual but suppressed knowledge of God. This enduring knowledge of God is ours primarily through five personal and earthly analogical relationships: (1) king and subject; (2) judge and defendant/litigant; (3) husband and wife; (4) father and child; and (5) master/lord and slave. God organically and indelibly stamped his image upon us so that our relationships in this world reflect our relationships with and accountability to him.
2. See Ardel Caneday, “Veiled Glory: God’s Self-Revelation in Human Likeness.”
God Loans His Titles to Humans to Reveal His Character
Paul’s household code of behavior features the latter three of these five binary relationships. What significance does this hold? God made the material universe with his ordained order to reveal his attributes (Rom. 1:20). Thus, we would be gravely mistaken to think that God surveys his creation to identify elements by which he can make himself known to us, his creatures. That is perverse and inverted reasoning. God is King, but he does not borrow his title from earthly kings. Instead, God, who is King, lends his own title to rulers on earth and not only the title. He also ordered his creation by appointing humans to have dominion over the earth to rule and govern it according to the righteous laws of his character irrevocably embedded into his created order, including us who bear his likeness. So, when Jesus comes as King and announces, “The Kingdom of God is near,” the King and his Kingdom are not figurative expressions. The earthly kings and their kingdoms are the earthly figures and shadows of the heavenly King and his Kingdom. The Heavenly is the original casting the earthly shadows.
3. Richard C. Trench, Notes on the Parables of Our Lord (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. Ltd., 1906), 12–15. Milton S. Terry cites Trench at length in Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1874), 244–46.
Concerning the five relationships identified above, Herman Bavinck helpfully explains,
[W]hile it is true that we call God by names derived from the world of creatures, these names were first increated in those creatures by God himself. It is true: we first apply to creatures the names by which we speak of God because we know them before we know God. But materially they first apply to God and then to creatures. All perfections are first in God, then in creatures. He possesses them because they belong to his essence; we possess them only by participation.
4. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 107.
Hence, as an infant, I first came to know the one who sired me as “father.” Later, as a toddler, I learned to pray, “Our Father who is in heaven. . . .” However, the sequence of my acquiring knowledge is the inverse of the true order. Under godly parental instruction, I came to learn that God did not borrow the title from my earthly father. It is the other way around. God was pleased to loan his title of father to my earthly father, as the Apostle Paul affirms, “I bow my knees before the Father [patēr], from whom all fatherhood [patria] in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph. 3:14–15).
The same holds true for God’s title, “Lord” or “Master.” He loans his title to earthly lords and masters. He does not borrow from them. Is this not readily evident from how the apostle admonishes slaves and their masters? He begins by commanding slaves, “Obey your earthly masters [kurioi] . . . serve wholeheartedly as if serving the Lord [kuriō] and not man.” Paul completes his admonition, “Masters [kurioi] do the same things to them . . . knowing that he who is both their Master [kurioi] and yours is in heaven and that there is no partiality with him” (Eph. 6:5–9).
Right thinking obligates us to acknowledge that the master-slave relationship is not first an earthly one. Humans did not originate the master-slave relationship that prompts the apostle’s admonitions in Ephesians 6:5–9 and Colossians 3:22–4:1. This should caution us lest we step into the yawning trap of activism that blinds us to the truthfulness that the master-slave relationship originates from God. The Heavenly Master/Lord, over his entire created order, instructs us about himself and ourselves. Thus, proper Christian “activism” opposes enslavement to sin and all that opposes God’s ordered creation. For we, his creatures, are either slaves of sin and lawlessness or slaves of righteousness (Rom. 6:12–23). If we are the latter, it is only because the Lord Christ has redeemed us from Master Sin and brought us by his Spirit into submission to his Lordship. Such submission is that to which Paul admonishes both earthly slaves and their masters.
The Family Is Integral to God’s Ordered Creation & His Self-Revelation
God ordained the earthly master-slave relationship as a crucial aspect of his created order by which he reveals himself as the only one who has the power to redeem us from enslavement to wickedness. Hence, the Apostle Paul never became an activist for the abolition of first-century slavery, though he encourages slaves to seize the opportunity for freedom whenever the occasion arises. Instead, Paul understood something of God’s grand revelatory purpose for ordaining the earthly master-slave relationship: (1) It teaches us that Christ Jesus is Lord Over All, and (2) We need redemption from enslavement to our Master—Sin. Thus, Paul did not proclaim the gospel to abolish slavery as a human institution, an aspect of first-century families. Instead, he preached the good news to redeem slavery from its perpetuation of wickedness. He calls earthly masters to behave like their Heavenly Master, and he calls slaves to willingly and heartily render service to their earthly masters, knowing that their Heavenly Master will reward them richly with eternal life.
What is true of God’s titles of Father and Master is also true of his revealing himself as Husband. We are mistaken to suppose that God looked around his creation and found marital union between a male and a female a suitable pattern for his relationship with humans. From the beginning, the Creator established the union of husband and wife as an earthly image or copy of the heavenly union of the Messiah, the true Husband, with his people, the true bride. Paul understood marriage, first revealed in Genesis 2:24, this way. Hence, he cites the passage: “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” Then he exclaims, “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32). By saying this, the apostle is not retrofitting marital union to his theological affirmations. Once again, it is the other way around. Paul insists that the Creator designed the union of one man and one woman as an earthly figure of the heavenly reality God designed to reveal as an unfolding mystery, the union of Christ and his people. Hence, his household code of instructions to Christian wives and husbands, to children and parents, and to slaves and masters flow from the theological structures with which the Creator suffused the created order, an orderly arrangement that reveals the character of God.
Conclusion: Submit to God’s Ordered Creation
We, then, are obligated to uphold the family (1) as God’s principal unit of his created order and (2) as the primary context within which he reveals himself to us from infancy to adulthood. To subvert the family household is to oppose the Lord God, the Heavenly Father, Christ, the Husband of his bride, the church. Let us happily submit by obeying our Father, our Lord, our Husband.