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Asbury Bible Commentary – 5. Submission as the standard for human relationships (5:21–6:9)
5. Submission as the standard for human relationships (5:21–6:9)
5. Submission as the standard for human relationships (5:21-6:9)

To close the section on life within the new community, Paul takes up the volatile question of human relationships. If Christianity delivers from bondage to the law, how are interpersonal relationships to be conducted? Is there a principle that can be applied to all Christian relationships? Yes, there is. The principle is submission out of reverence for Christ. It was taught with general uniformity in the early church (e.g., 1Pe 2:13-3:7; 5:5). Probably the instruction “does not so much mean that every Christian must be subject to every other Christian, but rather that among Christians there should be willingness to accept the Christian conventions about the deference one group should pay to another” (Mitton, 195-96), subordinating their own interests to the interests of others. Paul said much the same thing in 1Co 8:12-13 in regard to his right to eat meat. Of course, such submission is not to replace reverence for Christ or run counter to obedience to God.

The apostle now applies the principle in representative situations: husband-wife, parent-child, and master-slave. In every permanent relationship, someone has to assume responsibility. Parents exercise authority over their children; masters over their servants; and, in the culture of that day, husbands over their wives. In each of the cases mentioned here, however, the one who has authority is cautioned against abusing it. This may well have been a unique concept in the Roman world.

While wives are instructed to submit to husbands, they are told to do so as to the Lord (cf. Col 3:18). As v. 29 indicates, however, wives' submission must be earned by the husbands, who are to love their wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself to make her holy. While submit is a stronger word than the “obey” of 6:1 and 6:5, both carry much the same idea. The rationale is as follows: the husband has authority over the wife as Christ has authority over the church, of which he is the Savior. In v. 33 the author softens the command, instructing wives to respect their husbands.

Paul, in 1Co 11:8-12, offered a Christian perspective on husband-wife relationships. Both that passage and this show signs that he was a product of his culture even while advancing a loftier, Christian position. Because in relation to faith men and women are the same (Gal 3:28), the new freedom and status given women in Christianity must be practiced in such a way that onlookers will not misconstrue the Christian wives' relationship to their husbands.

Moreover, the author complements the word to the wives by offering a word to husbands: as a wife, who has been freed from second-class citizenship by Christ, submits in order to maintain both harmony in the home and a Christian witness among her neighbors, her husband must reciprocate. He must love . . . just as Christ loved.

Certainly there is more here. Paul believed that submission by wives to husbands was proper. In fact, only in relatively modern times has this idea been questioned. Someone had to be head of the home and take responsibility for discipline and decision-making if chaos was to be avoided. Christian leaders wanted strong homes and model families. To turn society upside down would not have helped their cause in either the Roman or the Jewish world. So the kind of hierarchy about which Paul spoke in 1Co 11:3 is implied here, and as the church submits to Christ its Head, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. However, whereas the emphasis in 1 Corinthians is on the hierarchy, the language here suggests something more profound, using two ideas to illustrate each other. The idea of the husband's authority over his wife helps Christians to understand Christ's authority over his church; the relationship of Christ to the church illuminates the relationship between husband and wife in Christian marriages. Against those who taught that subjection of wives to husbands was a natural duty, Paul argues that submission is a Christian duty.

Moreover, Christ, as Head of the church, does not demand obedience, but, as the Savior who gives the church its life, he deserves obedience. Therefore, the subjection of wives to husbands is governed by several principles: out of reverence for Christ (v. 21), as to the Lord (v. 22), as Christ is head of the church (v. 23), and as the church submits to Christ (v. 24).

Similarly, the husband's obligation to his wife is illustrated by the author in two ways. First, it is patterned after Christ's love for his church (vv. 25-27). How much did Christ love the church? He loved so much that he gave himself to make the church holy and radiant. Also, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. After all, persons do not despise or neglect their own bodies, but feed and care for them. Therefore, as Christ gave himself to nurture his body, the bride-church, so the husband must give himself to nurture his bride. In quoting from Ge 2:24, Paul illustrates the unity that characterizes marriages within the Christian community. Therefore, each husband must love his wife as he loves himself, for in the marriage the two are one, and in Christ they are equally a part of the church. (See also 1Pe 3:1-7.)

Next, the author applies the principle to the parent-child relationship (6:1-4). In doing so, of course, he has on his side the fifth commandment (a slightly edited LXX reading of Dt 5:16). Furthermore, disrespect for and disobedience to parents were seen as signs of disintegration of society (Ro 1:30; 2Ti 3:2), and the early Christians hoped that believers might check the disintegrating tendencies of their time. But notice that again Paul does not allow parents to abuse their authority. To obey is to accept authority; but in exercising authority, parents must not exasperate their children. Instead, they should use their God-given position of authority to provide Christian training and instruction, telling about Jesus and his teachings, and teaching, as Jesus did, by example.

Similarly, the principle can be applied in master-slave relationships (6:5-9). Slaves should obey their earthly masters in the same way as they obey Christ. Such obedience is essential not only when they are under the watchful eye of the master, but even more when they are not. They must remember that they serve another master, that they are slaves of Christ and full of love. Therefore, they are to serve wholeheartedly, for by doing so they demonstrate that they serve the Lord, not merely men in authority over them.

Masters, too, are under the authority of Christ and must demonstrate that fact in the treatment of their slaves. They are exhorted not to threaten them, since Christ, who is Lord of both the master and the slave, makes no distinction between slaves and free men (cf. Gal 3:28) and shows no favoritism (cf. Ro 2:11). To threaten another person unfairly uses one's authority over that person, provoking resentment and destroying the unity that the Christian is to maintain (4:3). (See 1Pe 2:13-25.)

Thus, Paul, through these three examples, illustrates how all Christian relationships are to be conducted. There is always, for the Christian, a third party involved. Not only is Christ the “unseen guest” in every conversation, but he is the Model for all conduct. Every relationship, therefore, must be conducted in the light of Christ's Spirit.