In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he writes so that they will understand what is their identity in Christ (Ephesians 1—3) and how their walk should reflect their identity (Ephesians 4—6). Starting in Ephesians 5:15, Paul challenges his readers to walk in wisdom, understanding what God wills for believers’ lives (Ephesians 5:17). They should be filled or controlled by the Spirit of God, who already dwells within them (Ephesians 5:18), they should be singing to each other and to the Lord (Ephesians 5:19), they should be always filled with thankful prayer (Ephesians 5:20), and they should “submit to one another” (Ephesians 5:21).
To “submit to one another” (Ephesians 5:21) is not based on the merits of the other person—believers aren’t to submit to one another because others deserve it; rather, they are to submit to one another in the fear of Christ (Ephesians 5:21b), or because they fear Christ. Christ Himself provides the greatest example of submitting to one another when He lowered Himself to become a man and to die the death of a common criminal on the cross in order that those who believe in Him might be saved (Philippians 2:1–11). In that same way—because of Christ and what He did for us—we should value others. That means being willing to give ourselves up for others or, as Paul put it, to regard others as more important than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). To submit to one another is literally to align oneself below others in rank—to perceive ourselves as lesser in rank for the benefit of the other.
The idea that we need to submit to one another is the most important principle undergirding every relationship a believer might have. Paul gives instructions for various familial and societal roles all based on the principle that believers submit to one another. Wives are to align themselves under their husbands to illustrate the response of the church to Christ (Ephesians 5:22–24, 32–33). Husbands are to align themselves under their wives by loving them selflessly for their sanctification, illustrating Jesus’ love for His church (Ephesians 5:25–33). Children ought to align themselves under their parents in honor and obedience (Ephesians 6:1–3). Fathers need to align themselves under their children by not provoking them to anger and by training them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). Next, Paul addresses slaves and masters. In the culture of Paul’s day, slavery was generally much like employment is in today’s culture. Slaves should align themselves under their masters with sincere obedience, knowing that they are serving Christ (Ephesians 6:5–8). Finally, masters should submit to their slaves by treating slaves “with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart” (Ephesians 6:5, 9). In this final example, it is evident that all of these people are equals in Christ, and even in those familial or societal roles where there may be rank or hierarchy, each person should submit to one another as if he or she were of lower rank.
At first glance it may seem difficult to submit to one another or to treat others as greater than oneself, because it makes the submitting person vulnerable to the other. However, when both parties are treating the other as worthy of more honor than themselves, the needs of both are met wonderfully. In this approach no one person is independent of the other; rather, both are serving the other. It seems this is God’s beautiful design to illustrate the roles He has put in place and to ensure that each one’s needs are met.