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What Does It Mean to Submit to One Another in Ephesians 5?

by Daniel Darling posted September 17, 2020

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 5:20-21). 

It was a simple gesture, but it caught me by surprise. My wife and I were seated, at an outdoor wedding for a mutual friend, when a colleague of ours, named Bobby, interrupted the conversation we were having. Bobby stood up and announced: “Jeff and Chelsea are back there with their baby and there are no more seats. I’m going to find another seat so they can sit down.”

There were no more seats so Bobby stood the entire ceremony so a much younger colleague could sit with his young baby and enjoy the wedding. It was a simple sacrifice in an otherwise ordinary day but it exemplified a life given to the welfare of others.

This kind of self-forgetfulness is what I think Paul is referring to in an often debated passage in Ephesians 5 when he says that brothers and sisters in the Lord should “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The passage is preceded by an exhortation to live in a state of continual gratitude and worship of Christ. The chapter is in a book that, in rich and beautiful language, describes our status as adopted, redeemed, and rescued heirs of grace.

So submission to each other–setting aside our preferences and comforts–should then be an outflow of the grace that is working its way through our hearts. Worship and sacrifice always go together in ways that make putting others first more reflex than rigor. This is why my colleague didn’t think twice about giving up his seat to a friend in need. He submitted his preference–to sit down at a wedding next to his wife–to the immediate need of another. Meditating on God in worship makes you grateful for his good gifts, which allows you to hold what you have loosely in order to freely give it in service to those around you.

This, really, is what submission is. We put our brothers and sisters first in biblical community “out of reverence for Christ.” If we are his body, to serve another is to give to Christ and to hurt and injure another is to injure Christ. This is why we cannot separate vertical piety from horizontal love. 1 John 4:20 reminds us that if we don’t love our brothers, we don’t love God.

This ethos sets the tone for the entire passage, even as Paul moves into more specific roles in the home and in the church, where God’s ordering of our differences has us subsume our own comforts and desires for the good of our families and our congregations.  We will ultimately resist serving each other and we will buck against God’s call for one-another-love if we do not first worship the one who set the ultimate example of service by offering himself in death on the cross. Filled with gratitude at how Jesus submitted himself to the will of the Father in the garden, we will then submit ourselves in big and small ways to those we are called to love. This is why we submit to each other. It is both stooping to meet needs and accepting help when it is our needs that must be met. It is both using our gifts in service to the church and, at times, bowing to the better gifts of others. The cycle of self-sacrifice and service in a biblical community, then, points others, points the world toward Christ.

The rhythms of worship shape the rhythms of life.

This is why the rhythms of worship matter for us. To quote the hymn writer, Robert Robinson, our hearts are “prone to wander.” The natural, sinful way of our flesh pushes us to seek our own way, to prioritize our own comfort, to ignore the needs of those around us. We want to demand what is ours, push for what suits our sensibilities, and throw a fit when we don’t get our way. But Christ is calling out a new people to a new way of life, one that embodies his sacrificial love for his people. So weekly in church life and daily in time with the Lord, we must have him “tune our hearts to sing thy praise.”

So as we exult in the one who rescued us and marvel at his grace toward us, it should move us to look around and find ways we can lead and serve, give and receive gifts, love and be loved.

I think about this as I type this article, the words so easy to put on paper and yet so difficult to live out in real life. I’m a husband and lead my family and yet, daily, almost hourly, I’m faced with a test. Will I prioritize my comfort or will I submit to the task of serving my oldest daughter with her essay due tomorrow? Will I retreat inward toward what’s happening on Twitter or will I put my phone down and throw the football around with my son? Will I leave those dishes in the sink or will I give my wife a break and do some work so she can have a needed break?

And it’s not just in our acts of service. Submitting to one another can also shape our discourse. To submit to one another means I give up my right to be right in every conversation–a lifelong battle I have yet to master–and listen to those around me. It means, at work I let others take the lead rather than having to throw my opinions around so often and so freely. Sometimes submitting to one another means speaking up and sometimes it means shutting up. Sometimes it means taking the lead so others can flourish and sometimes it means living at the back of the line.

But always, submission means, as my colleague illustrated, giving up our seats. Our seats of comfort and power and prestige in service to others and reverence for the One who gave up his.

Photo of Daniel Darling

Daniel Darling

Daniel Darling's work has appeared in USA Today, CNN, Washington Times, Huffington Post, and The Gospel Coalition. Daniel is the host of The Way Home Podcast and an associate pastor at Green Hill Church in Mt. Juliet, Tenn. He is the bestselling author of several books, including his latest, The Characters of Easter and the host of the podcast The Way Home. 

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