6. Christ's Love in All our Relationships (Ephesians 5:21-6:9)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (26:55)

Detail from Bartolomeo Esteban Murillo (1617-1682, "The Holy Family with a Small Bird" (c. 1650), oil on canvas, 144 x 188 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.
The Holy Family also had to work at submission, love, and self-sacrifice. Detail from Bartolomeo Esteban Murillo (1617-1682, "The Holy Family with a Small Bird" (c. 1650), oil on canvas, 144 x 188 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

This next section of Paul's Letter (Ephesians 5:21-6:9) deals with proper relationships between people, what German scholars call a Haustafel (Table of Household Duties):

  • Wives to husbands (5:2-25)
  • Husbands to wives (5:26-33)
  • Children to parents (6:1-3)
  • Fathers to children (6:4)
  • Servants to masters (6:5-8)
  • Masters to servants (6:9)

It is common in our day to hear people dismiss Paul because he doesn't agree with modern ideas of political correctness and feminism. He encourages slaves to obey their masters. How could Paul expect us to take him seriously if he says such things?

Paul lived in a day when Christianity was just seeking to become established in the Mediterranean world. Christians were already considered "atheists" because they refused to worship the Roman and Greek deities and "cannibals" because they partook of the body of Christ. If Paul had encouraged the women to exercise their freedom and the slaves to rebel against their masters, the vital truths of Christianity would have been eclipsed by social and political issues, and the new faith would have been utterly crushed.

If you've studied history, you've learned that you must judge a person's actions by the standards of the society in which he or she lived, not by modern standards, which change every few years, anyway. Don't discount Paul because he lived in a patriarchal society that condoned slavery. If you take the time to see what he is saying, you'll come to realize that his words are indeed revolutionary. In his careful Christian teaching are the seeds of true equality.

6.1 Christian Husbands and Christian Wives (5:21-33)
6.2 Children and Parents, Employers and Employees (6:1-9)

6.1. Christian Husbands and Christian Wives (Ephesians 5:21-33)

Submit Yourselves (Ephesians 5:21)

While grammatically verse 21 belongs to the previous section on what living in the light looks like, this is a transitional verse that leads into and provides the theme verse for the next section (Ephesians 5:21-6:9) on submission. Paul begins with a generic statement on submission, then, over the course of the next passages, breaks down what that means in various kinds of relationships.

"Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." (Ephesians 5:21)

Let's begin with the observation that the reason for our submission is out of reverence for Christ.204 "Reverence" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "fear" carries here the idea not of slavish fear, but of "reverence, respect."205 The word "submit," however, needs more work to understand correctly.

God did not come to bring chaos and anarchy, but good order (Romans 13:1-6). In a free society I can say nearly anything, but that doesn't make it wise or right. "'Everything is permissible for me' -- but not everything is beneficial" (1 Corinthians 6:12).

One of the key words in 5:21-6:9 is "submit." You'll discover that submission is not the same as obedience. Nor does Paul does not teach "chain of command" like some have insisted. Let's see what he does teach.

(I know this is a bit technical, but bear with me. It is important.) The Greek verb hypotassomai used in the theme verse 21 is used in a reflexive sense, "subject oneself, be subjected or subordinated, obey."206 Paul is saying, "subject yourself." Rather than teaching rote obedience in action and word, Paul is teaching a voluntary placement of oneself under another "out of reverence for Christ" (verse 21b).

While this often involves obedience, it is not quite the same as obedience. In Figure 1 you can see that Paul could have used a number of words if he had meant raw obedience here. Instead, he uses hypotossaomai, meaning "to subordinate oneself," to voluntarily place oneself under another's authority. This is much different than to unquestioningly obey or to obey only grudgingly. Children are told to obey (Ephesians 6:1). Slaves are told to obey (Ephesians 6.5-6), but wives are told to voluntarily submit to their husbands.207

Fig. 1. Overlapping Greek Word Connotations Related to Hypotassomai.
Fig. 1. Overlapping Greek Word Connotations Related to Hypotassomai. (Larger chart)

It is important to note that submission has nothing to do with the inherent worth or value of an individual. Paul teaches equal value and standing before God: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ" (Galatians 3:28). Peter teaches that wives and husbands are "joint heirs of the grace of life" (1 Peter 3:7).

But to teach that equal value means equal authority is foolish and leads to anarchy. Even in the most egalitarian of societies, we have authority relationships that must be honored to promote good order. Thus the principles Paul teaches here have validity two thousand years later in modern society. They are just applied somewhat differently in different situations and cultures.

Headship (Ephesians 5:22-24)

"22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything." (Ephesians 5:22-24)

The reason given for a wife to submit to her husband is that he is "the head of the wife as Christ is of the Church" (verse 23). Those who teach "chain of command" from headship, equate "head" with "boss."

The relationship is much more nuanced than a simple understanding as "boss." Again, I know this is kind of technical, but important to understand what Paul is saying in our passage. In his letters, Paul uses the Greek noun kephalē, "head," in a number of ways, some of which overlap, as illustrated in Figure 2:

  1. Origin (Colossians 1:15, 17, 18; 1 Corinthians 11:3). The theme verse of Ephesians is, "to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ" (Ephesians 1:10). Christ is the beginning -- and the end, and all creation finds its right place in him. Unity is a strong undercurrent in this verse as well is throughout Ephesians. The idea of "one flesh" in Ephesians 5:31 is also related.
  2. Source, Creator (Colossians 1:16). We derive our idea of "headwaters" from this concept.
  3. Sustainer (Ephesians 4:16; 1:23; Colossians 1:17; 2:19).
  4. Source of Growth (Ephesians 4:15-16; Colossians 2:19)
  5. First in Rank (Colossians 1:18)
  6. Ruler (Ephesians 1:20-22; Colossians 1:10). Our "headmaster" carries this idea.208

Fig. 2. The Inter-Relationships of Kephale Concepts in Ephesians and Colossians.
Fig. 2. The Inter-Relationships of Kephale Concepts in Ephesians and Colossians. (Larger chart)

But these concepts are related to Christ's headship, not a husband's, you protest. Perhaps, but Ephesians 5:23 seems to indicate that "the husband is the head of the wife as (in a similar way) Christ is the head of the church." We can't push this to its fullest extent, of course, since husbands aren't divine. But as we will see, they do have many responsibilities towards their wives that relate to the concepts contained in kephalē. And nowhere in this passage is "boss" one of those concepts.

Verse 24 indicates that "wives should submit to their husbands in everything." This means that in all areas the wife is to defer to her husband's final decision. Does this mean she is not to disagree with her husband? By no means!

A wife's particular personality and gifts will be different from her husband's in any given marriage. In her areas of giftedness and strength, she will provide strength to the marriage and leadership in those particular areas.

Submission "As to the Lord" (Ephesians 5:22b)

Just because the husband has final responsibility doesn't make him wise or right or omnipotent. When there is a conflict, the wife must do whatever she can to help him see things from a broader perspective. She must lovingly and submissively correct him when he is wrong, not to put him down (that would be placing herself over him), but to build him up and make him a better man (that is, true servanthood).

What if the husband leads the wife and family to do something stupid? I think submission requires going along.

What if the husband requires the wife to do something illegal, immoral, or which endangers her safety or the safety of the children? According to some teachers I've heard, she can tell God, "I was just following orders." That didn't work as a defense for Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg and it won't work here. To submit to a husband "as to the Lord" means that the Lord is the supreme head, and that his commands take precedence over those of a husband when they are in conflict. Sometimes a submissive wife will need to say, "I'm sorry, but I can't in good conscience do that." We can't compromise our faith and conscience to uphold the principle of submission. But, within the wide bounds of a marriage, a wife should be submissive to her husband. So says the Apostle Paul, whom Christ appointed to instruct His Church.

Q50. (Ephesians 5:22-24) Why should a wife submit to her husband? According to these verses, to what degree is a wife required to submit to a husband who is not a Christian or who is a carnal Christian? Does submission mean a wife doesn't verbally disagree? What if there's a conflict with the wife's conscience?

Husbands, Give Yourselves Up for Your Wives (Ephesians 5:25-30)

"25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church -- 30 for we are members of his body." (Ephesians 5:25-30)

If you think submission is difficult, wives, look at what Paul says to your husbands:

"Love your wives, just as Christ loved the church
and gave himself up for her" (Ephesians 5:25).

Jesus laid down his life for the benefit of the Church. Husbands are to do no less towards their wives -- that is, if they are serious about their role as "head."

A lot of men I know are selfish, self-absorbed, and immature. Jesus calls us to grow up. Just as Christ humbled himself before his disciples and washed their feet, so husbands must humble themselves before their wives and family in order to serve them unselfishly. At the Last Supper "a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest." No doubt this was the context of Jesus washing their feet.

"The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves." (Luke 22:24-27)

In Mark's gospel, this passage concludes with the words:

"For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45)

This is what it means to be head: source, provider, sustainer, source of unity, source of growth. Yes, ruler, too, but only in the context of this service. Our love for our wives is to match Christ's love for his church. Our service to our wives is to match Christ's giving up himself for his church.

Serving the Imperfect Wife (Ephesians 5:26-27)

Notice that Christ's example of service and redemption to an imperfect church is the model for a husband's love:

"25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish,209 but holy and blameless."210 (Ephesians 5:25-27)

When we become impatient with our wives, our love needs growing. When our wives make mistakes and show their human imperfections, we must love them as Christ loves us imperfect humans and bears with our weaknesses. How much can we put up with, husbands? Our standard is Christ's love for sinful humanity. And his patient, costly, sacrificial quest finally is bringing about a beautiful, radiant Bride that has been cleansed and is whole. We should not imagine that our love for our wives will require less.

Q51. (Ephesians 5:25-30) Does being head of the wife involve being "boss"? Why or why not? What does being "head" require of a husband? What is the example husbands are to follow in headship?

One Flesh (Ephesians 5:28-32)

Paul sets a very high standard for love, patience, and humble service. Then he gives a second rationale. If you can't love your wife because it is Christ's way, he is saying, then love her for your own benefit:

"28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church -- 30 for we are members of his body. 31 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.' 32 This is a profound mystery -- but I am talking about Christ and the church." (Ephesians 5:28-32)

This passage contains a very simple but very profound concept: "He who loves his wife loves himself" (Ephesians 5:28b). Think about it. Why is it true? Precisely this: "The two will become one flesh" (Ephesians 5:31) quoting Genesis 2:24. Jesus also used this ancient verse to teach on marriage:

"So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate" (Matthew 19:6).

"Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies," says Paul. "He who loves his wife loves himself" (Ephesians 5:28). As a young husband I was off in my world doing my thing, and, sad to say, oblivious to some of my wife's struggles and hurts. In the midst of a real struggle she was having, this passage came home to me. This isn't just her problem, this is mine. We are one. What hurts her, does indeed hurt me. What helps her, does indeed help me. When I began to understand this, I began to take her needs much more seriously and began to love her as head rather than try to make her conform to my wishes that were causing her pain.

Now even this seems kind of selfish: If you want to help yourself, then help your wife. Isn't this just love for our own benefit? I don't think so. True headship must consider the needs of the whole body, not just the needs of the head. "If one part suffers, every part suffers with it" (1 Corinthians 12:26).

Paul is speaking to hard-headed, self-willed husbands like me. He's saying, "You dummy! Don't you realize that you and your wife are one? If you can't treat her right for her sake, then treat her right for your own sake."

Our culture has largely forgotten this truth, and our marriages are suffering for it. We have emphasized each partner's rights and freedoms and self-identity so much, that we have under-emphasized the couple's essential unity, oneness. When we marry we are charting a single course together. We are not going our separate ways while living together for economic convenience and sexual pleasure. We are one, whether we understand it or not. And actions that erode that essential unity work against our marriages. Yes, we are unique individuals, and we must not smother one another and try to suppress one another's uniqueness. But the key to marriage is not our uniqueness. It is the uniting of our uniqueness to be one. The body analogy, which Paul uses in our passage, is apt: respecting our individual functions and gifts, we work for the good of the body, the whole, the one couple, the "corporation." We are truly "one flesh" -- that is the core of Paul's teaching here.

Q52. (Ephesians 5:28) In what sense is a husband's care for his wife's needs just common sense in taking care of his own needs? What is the principle from Genesis 2:24 that underlies this?

The Marriage of Christ and His Church (Ephesians 5:32)

"This is a profound mystery -- but I am talking about Christ and the church." (Ephesians 5:32)

The theme of unity in Ephesians offers a great deal to help our marriages. Unity and love are the underlying themes of this passage, not "chain of command." But this is bigger than just me and my wife or you and your husband. "This is a profound mystery," says Paul, "but I am talking about Christ and the church" (Ephesians 5:32). The principles which underlie our marriages, also underlie Christ and his church: love, honoring uniqueness, and celebrating unity. We all must voluntarily submit to Christ, whether or not we happen to like it at the time.

Pulling It All Together (Ephesians 5:33)

"However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband." (Ephesians 5:33)

This passage began with a call for mutual submission: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Ephesians 5:21). The form of our submission may be different as our roles are different. For the wife this submission takes the form of "respect." The Greek noun phobos, "fear," carries here the connotation of "reverence, respect."211 The Christian wife has respect for her husband's role as head and acquiesces to it willingly (Ephesians 5:33). For the husband this submission means loving his wife so much that he gives up his selfishness to help her and strengthen her.

Moving Toward the Ideal

I am inevitably asked, "Am I to submit to my husband if he is a selfish clod who doesn't care for me?" Yes (1 Peter 3:1-6), and your loving submission can cause him to grow in Christ and grow in his love for you. Can you submit to a selfish man because you trust him? No. Only selfless love builds the kind of trust the church has in Jesus. To an immature, selfish man that submission will require great trust in Christ to help in the situation. To a loving, caring, Christian husband, that submission will be more and more from the heart.

"How can I love my wife and care for her when she is bossy and bitchy?" You are to love her in spite of herself, just as Christ loved us in spite of ourselves, and gave himself up on the cross to free us from our sins. Only Christ's love for an imperfect church could have brought about her cleansing, perfection, and wholeness.

Q53. (Ephesians 5:32) In what sense is Christ our Husband as individuals? As a church? What are the implications of this for our lives? What does this say about Christ's responsibilities towards us?

Ephesians 5:21-33 is an ideal, of course, not where we start, but where we are headed. This is not a Scripture to use to beat over your wife's or husband's head, but for us as individuals to learn from and pattern our own lives after. To the degree that a husband is loving and trustworthy, a wife is able to submit more fully and trustingly. To the degree that a wife is loving and submissive, a husband can care for her and lead the family to a better way of life. As we imperfect spouses stop blaming our mates and seek to be what we are supposed to be in Christ, then -- gradually -- Christ can bring about the beautiful marriage that Paul describes here, a marriage that patterns itself after the marriage of Christ and his church.


Father, we fall so short of this ideal of Christian marriage. Please help us to develop a heart of love so that this can work in our lives and in our marriages. Teach us to submit. Teach us to give of ourselves sacrificially. And forgive us when we fail. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord." (Ephesians 5:22)

"Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her." (Ephesians 5:25)

"In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself." (Ephesians 5:28)

6.2. Children and Parents, Employers and Employees (Ephesians 6:1-9)

Audio (26:28)

James Jacques Joseph Tissot (Ephesians French painter and illustrator, 1836-1902), 'Pharaoh welcoming Joseph's Family to Egypt' (1896-1900), watercolor, The Jewish Museum, New York.
In the Bible we see Joseph as both child and father, slave and master. James Jacques Joseph Tissot (Ephesians French painter and illustrator, 1836-1902), 'Pharaoh welcoming Joseph's Family to Egypt' (1896-1900), watercolor, The Jewish Museum, New York.

This passage continues Paul's instructions on how to "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Ephesians 5:21). First, he discusses the delicate relationship between wives and husbands (Ephesians 5:22-33). Now he turns to the submission of children to their parents.

Children Obey Your Parents (Ephesians 6:1-3)

"1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 'Honor your father and mother' --which is the first commandment with a promise -- 3 'that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.'" (Ephesians 6:1-3)

Childhood is a period of constant testing of the limits. Of "psyching out" parents. Of wheedling. Of manipulating. Of learning to get one's own way. Yes, there are some children who are completely passive and let life happen to them all their lives. But most are pushing, testing. And that is how it should be. That is how growth takes place and maturity gradually takes the place of youthful ignorance.

But in the midst of this intensely active period, God gives one clear command to children: "Obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right." The verb translated "obey" combine the concept of listening with harkening to or responding to a command, "to obey."212 Notice that this obedience is "in the Lord," that is, obedience to parents is part of our obedience to the Lord. If my parent asks me to do something immoral, my first obligation would be to obey the Lord instead of my parent.

Honor Your Father and Mother

Paul supports his command for children to obey with several buttresses:

First, the command to obey one's parents is Number Five of the Ten Commandments -- "Honor your father and mother." Paul is paraphrasing the form of the command given in Deuteronomy 5:16. Obedience to parents is not only a manmade rule, it is given by God, to be built into the very fabric of our values.

The verb translated "honor" comes from the idea of "to value, to deem worthy," then "to honor."213 Certainly we are to honor our parents when we are children under their care. But it doesn't stop there. Jesus quotes the Fifth Commandment when he castigates the Pharisees for creating legal ways to evade supporting their parents when they were aged (Mark 7:9-13). Proverbs is full of admonitions to honor parents both as children214 and as adults.215 We have a duty to honor, listen to, and care for them that extends beyond childhood. But here Paul is admonishing children still at home.

Promises to the Obedient

The command comes with two promises:

"That it may go well with you ..." is self-evident. Those who obey their parents stay out of trouble a lot better than those who don't. Childhood and teen years are a very self-righteous time. We know what's best. How could parents know?

I remember when I was in high school having heated arguments with my Dad at the dinner table about politics and issues of the day. I was very passionate in my arguments and he was equally strong in his. It surprised me, a month later, when discussing the subject with my friends that I was taking my Dad's position instead of the one which I had so hotly contended for. My sense of right and good still needed molding by his wiser insights. I thank God for my Dad. When I obeyed him, things went better for me.

The second part of the promise is more serious yet: "... that you may enjoy long life on the earth." Obedience to our parents is an invaluable protection that will increase our lifespan. If we don't learn from our parents how to get along with people, we can get killed. The culture of our inner cities is no less violent that that of Old Testament days. Obedience to our parents will keep us alive, now and in the future. It will also help us earn a living so we have enough food to stay alive. Our lifespan is directly dependent upon our willingness to obey.

For children to obey -- and for parents to enforce obedience -- is sometimes difficult. But children learn in "the school of the home" the vital ability to submit their wills to another. How can a child who doesn't learn to obey a parent when wills conflict, ever learn to obey God when self-will is propelling him beyond God's limits? Parents have a sacred task to teach obedience, for their children's spiritual and physical lives are at stake. Obedience to parents is directly transferred to obedience to our Heavenly Father. The Proverbs instruct us

"Do not withhold discipline from a child. If you punish him with the rod, he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death" (Proverbs 23:13-14).

At what point does the command to obey our parents give way to the underlying command to honor them? From the very beginning of the Bible we read,

"For this reason a man will leave his father and mother
and be united to his wife,
and they will become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24).

There is a time of forming a new family, of leaving the old. At that point the obligation of obedience becomes obsolete. But we are always to honor our parents and care for them. We have that obligation until death.

Q54. (Ephesians 6:1-3) What kind of obedience and honor is appropriate for adult children to show towards their parents? What might be the exceptions? How do respect and forgiveness figure in this relationship?

Fathers (Ephesians 6:4)

"Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord." (Ephesians 6:4)

Just because we are parents, however, does not give us the right to rule with the "divine right of kings." Yes, parents are to enforce discipline in the home, but they are to do so wisely.

"Fathers, do not exasperate your children" (verse 4a, NIV) or "provoke" them (KJV, ESV, NRSV). The underlying verb means, "make angry,"216 "to rouse to wrath, to provoke, exasperate, anger."217 Of course, when wills clash there is anger. That's a given. But Paul is directing fathers not to deliberately provoke anger by badgering or turning an incident into a power game. This is a fine line and it has to do with a father's own humility and attitude. Fathers who try constantly to make themselves feel better at the expense of their children are neurotic. While anger is part of a conflict of wills, fathers are not to enflame it needlessly.

A closely related passage offers some insight:

"Fathers, do not embitter218 your children, or they will become discouraged."219 (Colossians 3:21, NIV)

Purposely provoking our children doesn't produce good fruit. The result is either outright rebellion or discouragement. The purpose of discipline is training and directing the child's spirit, not breaking that tender spirit. Of course, mothers, too, must keep themselves in check, so that in their diligence to discipline they do not bring hurt.

Training and Instruction (Ephesians 6:4b)

The alternative to provoking the child only to crush him is a very positive commission to parents:

"Bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4)

"Training" (NIV), "discipline" (ESV, NRSV), "nurture" (KJV) translate the Greek noun paideia (from which we get our words "pedagogy" and "pediatrics"). The word denotes "upbringing, training, instruction," chiefly attained by "discipline, correction."220 "Instruction" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "admonition" (KJV) refers to "counsel about avoidance or cessation of an improper course of conduct, admonition, instruction, warning."221 Both of these words can include punishment, but that is not their thrust. "Training and instruction" involve example, maintaining discipline, diligence, teaching, instructing, showing, giving responsibilities, and then supporting them as they learn to keep them faithfully. Warning and admonition are included, too, along with correction.

But what makes this particularly Christian rather than merely parental are the words "in the Lord." Our "training and instruction" are part of our service to Christ. Our children belong to God and we are raising them for him. We are told to "bring them up" in the Lord." The verb means first, "to provide food, nourish," then "to bring up from childhood, rear."222 We are to "nourish" our children in the Lord.

So to children Paul says: obey your parents. To parents he says: train and instruct your children in Christ without breaking their spirit.

Q55. (Ephesians 6:4) What kind of behavior by fathers (or mothers, for that matter) can embitter or cause a child to lose heart? What do you think the "training and instruction of the Lord" involves?

Slaves (Employees) (Ephesians 6:5-8)

"5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free." (Ephesians 6:5-8)

The Bible does not promote slavery the kind of slavery seen on American plantations in the South for hundreds of years. It's important not to import that understanding of slavery into Paul's words here.

In the Mediterranean world of Paul's day there were citizens, freedmen, and slaves. And a great many of the people most open to the Christian message were the poor and oppressed -- slaves. If Paul had taught slaves that they were free, and enflamed them to rise up against their slaveowners, as John Brown did just prior to the American Civil War, the message of the gospel would have been eclipsed by the issue of slavery. Instead, Paul teaches Christians how to live within the evil system in which they find themselves.

I've found it profitable in our day to substitute the word "employee" for "slave," and "employer" for "master," though they aren't fully equivalent. But the instruction Paul would bring in our situation of employees and employers would be very similar. These are his instructions:

Obedience.223 Employees are to do what their employers tell them to. Notice that Paul says "earthly masters." He is reminding the slaves that it will not always be so. Their masters are only in power here on earth and their authority is neither universal nor eternal.

Respect. The obedience is not just to be to the letter of the employer's directives, but is to include respect, literally "fear and trembling." This isn't cowering terror, but respect. The phrase refers to "a proper spirit of Christian reverence,"224 "an attitude of due reverence and awe in the presence of God, a godly fear of the believer in view of the final day."225 We are to be God-fearers and to show due respect for our employers. We are not to despise them in our hearts; we are not to hate the boss. Notice how Paul brings attitude in, rather than mere legalism.

Sincerity of Heart (NIV, cf. ESV), literally "singleness of heart" (NRSV, cf. KJV) translate a Greek noun used of personal integrity expressed in word or action, "simplicity, sincerity, uprightness, frankness."226 More than respect, we are to offer conscientious, careful service. "Sincerity of heart" is the flip side of "eye-service" (Ephesians 6:6).

As we serve Christ. Sometimes it's hard to see our work as direct service to Christ. But it is vital that we bring our love for Christ right into the midst of every important relationship of our lives -- and work is certainly one of those. We are to serve our employers with the same attitude with which we serve Jesus. Our conscientious work is part of our service to Christ, whether we are slaves, or employees, or entrepreneurs serving clients.

Not merely pretending. Modern translations have rendered this in colloquial language to help us understand the sentiment.

"Not only to win their favor when their eye is on you." (NIV)

"Not only while being watched, and in order to please them." (NRSV)

"Not by way of eyeservice, as people-pleasers." (ESV, cf. KJV)

Oops! The boss is coming. Don't let him see you doing that." Christians are to be faithful to their employers even when no one is there to see. Our Christian work ethic is based on integrity, not impressing the right people.

As Servants of Christ. We are Christ's representatives, no getting around it. When we work, we work as Christ's servants. Our labor may "belong" to our master or our employer, but our underlying motivation is not just money, but "as servants of Christ."

Doing the Will of God from the Heart. Here is heart attitude again. God not only wants to change our actions; he wants to change our attitudes as well.

But what if our employer asks us to do something illegal, immoral, or sleazy? Are we to obey? No, at the cost of our jobs sometimes we must be servants of Christ first, and then servants of our employers second. No matter what they pay us, it must not cause us to compromise our consciences.

We can leave and hopefully find another job. Just think how hard it was for a slave to stand up for his or her faith when commanded to compromise! We must be careful to choose our battles wisely, however. Some issues aren't worth dying for, but others are vitally important to our integrity.

As If You Were Serving the Lord, Not Men. A few years ago, a man objected to me quoting a Bible verse in my free business e-mail newsletter. "Religion and business shouldn't mix," he said. I strongly disagree. We are to bring our Christianity all the way into our businesses. If business does not mix with religion, then it rapidly becomes greedy, exploitive, and oppressive. Of course, we normally can't be overtly evangelizing on our employer's time. But all the time you are at work, you are to work "as if you were serving the Lord, not men." It's an attitude thing. It also relates to our understanding of our true reward.

Knowing that the Lord Will Reward. Our employers may be mystified by our good nature and faithful, conscientious service. But God will be pleased and will reward us for our faithfulness to our employers. (And, conversely, punish us for defrauding and despising our employers.) Paul uses a verb here meaning to "receive as recompense,"227 contrasting man's wages with God's eternal reward.

Q56. (Ephesians 6:5-8) What are the characteristics called for in a truly Christian employee, according to Ephesians 6:5-8? How can these attitudes help us in difficult work situations?

Masters, Employers (Ephesians 6:9)

"And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him." (Ephesians 6:9)

Employers are to treat their employees with the same kind of respect, faithfulness, integrity that God expects of employees.

Some employers rule by threats and carry them out ruthlessly. The better ones, however, lead by example and from a position of respect. Yes, they may need to exercise discipline from time to time (Proverbs 29:21). They may need to fire or let an employee go (one of the hardest tasks employers have to do!), but they must do it with honesty, justice, and integrity.

To masters (and employers) who have lost perspective, Paul gives two warnings:

1. You have a Master in heaven who will hold you to account. You cannot be an absolute tyrant, you yourself are under God's authority. You may be a master, in a position of authority, here. But ultimately you are a servant of your Heavenly Master, and are just as accountable to God as your slaves or employees.

2. God shows no favoritism in his judgment. "Respect of persons" (KJV), "partiality" (NRSV, ESV), "favoritism" (NIV) render a noun that means, "partiality, the fault of one who when called on to requite or to give judgment has respect to the outward circumstances of men and not to their intrinsic merits, and so prefers, as the more worthy, one who is rich, high-born, or powerful, to another who is destitute of such gifts."228 God will not give you a better reward because of your "class" or "station" than he will a slave or employee. He expects exactly the same kind of behavior of each of you. You will be judged by how you have acted in this life, not by the position you held.

The Bible has much to say about God's requirements for employers, such as:

  • Considerateness,229
  • Justice and fair pay for poor and immigrant workers,230
  • Prompt and full payment of wages,231
  • Payment of decent and fair wages,232 and
  • Days off for rest.233

If you are an employer -- or on a church board that sets salaries and working conditions for your pastor or church employees -- God holds you responsible for how you act towards those over whom he has placed you.

Q57. (Ephesians 6:9) How should Christian employers conduct themselves towards their employees? How should church boards conduct themselves towards church employees? How do you determine a just wage -- not merely the one you think you can afford?

This concludes Paul's teaching on submission which began in Ephesians 5:21. Marriage has its moments of despair for both husbands and wives. No one said that being a parent or child is easy. Being a faithful employee or a fair employer is fraught with frustration and difficulty, as well. But in our respective roles, God expects us to live as his servants, with our hearts and attitudes trained by his Spirit. Only as Christ's life is being worked out in our own are we fully and truly Christian.


Father, we find ourselves as both children and parents, and in the various seasons of our lives as both employers and employees. Help us to live out our lives for you with joy and integrity no matter where you have placed us for now. Lord, I'm inclined to complain about my circumstances and whine. Forgive me. Help me to live and serve as part of my service to you. And thank you for your immense grace towards me and each of us. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right." (Ephesians 6:1)

"Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord." (Ephesians 6:4)

"Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free." (Ephesians 6:7-8)


Section 6.1

[204] The earliest Greek texts nearly unanimously read Christou. KJV Teou comes from the later Byzantine texts.

[205] Phobeō, BDAG 1062, 2bα.

[206] Hypotassō, BDAG 1042. Hypotassomai is a compound of two words hypo, "under" (from which we get our "hypodermic," "under" the skin) + tassō "to place, to station, to place in a certain order" (Thayer 615).

[207] For a careful study of submission and headship, see my paper, "Headship (kephalē) and Submission (hupotassomai) in Ephesians 5:21-33." www.jesuswalk.com/ephesians/kephale-headship-ephesians.htm

[208] Kephale, BDAG 541-542.

[209] "In splendor" (ESV, NRSV), "radiant" (NIV), "glorious" (KJV) is endoxos, first, "pertaining to being held in high esteem, honored, distinguished, eminent," then, "glorious, splendid" (BDAG 332, 2). "Spot" (ESV, NRSV, KJV), "stain" (NIV) is spilos, "spot," figurative, "stain, blemish" (BDAG 938). "Wrinkle" is rhutis, "wrinkle" (BDAG 908).

[210] "Holy" is hagia/hagois, "holy, sacred, being dedicated or consecrated to the service of God" (BDAG 10). "Blameless" (NIV), "without blemish" (ESV, NRSV, KJV) is amōmos, "being without defect, unblemished," then figuratively, "pertaining to being without fault and therefore morally blameless, blameless" (BDAG 56, 2).

[211] Phobos, BDAG 1062.

Section 6.2

[212] Gerhard Kittel, akouō, ktl., TDNT 1:216-225. Hypakouō comes from the root akouō, "listen."

[213] Johannes Schneider, timē, ktl., TDNT 7:169-180.

[214] Proverbs 1:8-9; 15:5

[215] Proverbs 20:20; 23:22-25; 28:24; 30:11, 17

[216] Parorgizō, BDAG 780.

[217] Parorgizō, Thayer 490.

[218] Erethizō means "to cause someone to react in a way that suggests acceptance of a challenge, arouse, provoke," mostly in a bad sense, "irritate, embitter" (BDAG 391).

[219] Athumeō means "to become disheartened to the extent of losing motivation, be discouraged, lose heart, become dispirited" (BDAG 24). The word is compounded from the prefix a, which means "not" + thumos, "spirit, courage." The idea is "to be disheartened, dispirited, broken in spirit" (Thayer 14).

[220] Paideia, BDAG 748-749.

[221] Nouthesia, BDAG 679.

[222] Ektrephō, BDAG 311.

[223] Hupakouō, as in Ephesians 6:1.

[224] Bruce, p. 400, fn. 18.

[225] O'Brien, p. 450.

[226] Haplotēs, BDAG 104, 1.

[227] Komizō, BDAG 557.

[228] Prosōpolēmpsia, Thayer 551.

[229] Leviticus 25:42.

[230] Deuteronomy 24:14; Proverbs 22:16; Malachi 3:5.

[231] Deuteronomy 24:15; Leviticus 19:13; Romans 4:4; James 5:4.

[232] Matthew 10:10; Luke 10:7; 1 Timothy 5:18.

[233] Deuteronomy 5:14

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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