In Ephesians 5:21, Paul finalizes his whole series of statements connected with being filled with the Holy Spirit and walking in wisdom by commanding, "and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ."
In his classic work on this great epistle, Harold Hoehner states: "In this text, a result of believers filled by the Spirit is submission to one another in the body of believers. Unbelievers tend to take great pride in individualism and independence, which leads to selfishness. However believers are to act differently."
Paul, in stressing a walk that is worthy of the calling (4:1) and being filled with the Spirit (5:18), now gives an entire explanation of what it means within the Church body as well as the Christian family "to be subject to one another." All of this is within the context of what it means to "walk in wisdom" from verse 15.
Paul deals with several very important relationships. First, Paul deals with the spousal relationship of husbands and wives. In verses 22-33 Paul gives specific commands regarding how husbands should act as well as wives. He also takes this relationship and uses it as a picture of Christ and the Church. Secondly Paul deals with the parent-child relationship and how children should be obedient to their parents. Lastly, in the culture when Paul wrote his letter, there was still slavery. Paul deals with the relationship between the master and slave. In our time, the principles Paul brings forth are very relevant to the relationship of a worker to a boss or vice versa.
The first issue here is the primary one-submitting to one another. It is amazing how this has been left out of much of the discussion regarding the husband and wife roles/relationships. In essence, the demand is that Christ is first, and as a result there is a willingness of believers to submit to one another. For the husband, it becomes clear that this is an all-out life sacrifice for his wife, just as Christ gave His life for the church. For wives, this is a willingness to submit to her husband's leading just as the Church does with the Lord who is our Head. In both cases, the emphasis is on love and sacrificial serving of one another. Simply put, a husband submits to his wife's need while a wife submits to her husband's lead.
Interesting to note is the amount of space Paul uses to speak to the husband's role. Many times, we focus on the command for woman to "submit" but Paul clearly spends quite a bit of time giving the "why" regarding a wife's submission to her husband. Verses 23-31 are all about what the husband is to do in serving his wife.
With that said, there are several things necessary for husbands that need to be addressed. Spirit-filled, Christ led husbands, are essential in leading their wives, families, and the Body of Christ.
Men need first of all to be surrendered in their hearts to God. In order to be godly leaders, husbands need to know the Lord in deep relationship as He is our Father. The Lord taught us to pray: "Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name…'" (Matt. 6:9).
Elsewhere, Paul writes: "Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him" (1 Cor. 8:6). And to the Romans, he said, "For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!'" (Rom. 8:14-15).
Husbands need to be not only surrendered but also Spirit-filled. In order to lead, husbands need to be led. In other words, men must be followers of Christ who are led by the Spirit of God.
The Spirit strengthens us, as Paul previously stated in 3:16, "that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man." He teaches us: "Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words" (1 Cor. 2:12-13). He leads us: "But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law" (Gal. 5:18).
Lastly, men or husbands who are surrendered and Spirit-filled will serve their wives by submitting to meet their needs. The Spirit of God will produce within us His love, as Paul makes clear in Galatians 5:22-23: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law."
In Ephesians, it is clear that submitting to one another is not only a reflection of being filled with the Spirit but also walking in wisdom. Clearly, husbands are to love their wives in such a way as to serve them, reflecting the tremendous way in which the Lord loves His Church. This can only take place through surrendering to Christ and being Spirit-filled. Are we following the Lord in this? Is the Lord being seen in and through our lives along with the way in which we love our wives? May the Lord lead all of us to submit to one another as we follow Him.
Erik Christensen is senior pastor of Hoffmantown Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico.