“The High Calling of Submission” by John Macarthur

We are continuing through Grace To You’s excellent series: “God’s Design For The Family.” In this article Pastor Macarthur teaches the biblical truth that the humbling work of submission is, in Christ, a high calling! Our Spirit-empowered imitation of Christ’s submission to the Father, the humility of a servant (Philippians 2:1–11), is the common principle and motivation for the varied contexts of submission: wives to husbands, children to parents, employees to employers, citizens to rulers, students to teachers, etc.

But how can we submit to one another in the context of a family while still recognizing the God-ordained roles of headship and authority? That is the subject Paul addressed in Ephesians 5:22–6:4. Since submission epitomizes the character of the person who is truly Spirit-filled, Paul outlined how mutual submission should work in a family.

He wrote under the Holy Spirit’s guidance, of course, so this was not merely the apostle’s private opinion (2 Peter 1:20–21). God Himself inspired the very words of the text (2 Timothy 3:16). Paul spoke here to wives, husbands, children, and parents, in that order. And the admonition to wives is simple, covering just three verses:

Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:22–24)

It is important to remember that Paul did not begin by singling out and consigning wives to a second-rate status. There’s a sense in which everyone in the church must submit to everyone else as Paul clearly stated in the preceding verse. Ephesians 5:22 simply explains how wives ought to show their submission.

Also notice that Paul started and ended this short section by specifying whom wives should submit to: “their husbands” (Ephesians 5:24). “Their husband” suggests that the wife should willingly make herself subject to the husband who is her possession. Husbands and wives belong to each other, and thus have unique responsibilities to each other which they do not have to anyone else (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:3­–4).

Women as a group are not made serfs to men in general, and men aren’t automatically elevated to a ruling class over all women. But Scripture calls each woman to submit in particular to her own husband’s headship. In other words, the family itself is the primary arena in which a godly woman is to cultivate and demonstrate the attitude of humility, service, and sacrifice called for inEphesians 5:21.

Macarthur then demonstrates from Scripture several important points about the Bible’s command that wives submit to their husbands:

  1. The command applies to all wives.
  2. It means wives must “line up under” the leadership of their husbands.
  3. This order is ordained by God an consonant with nature.
  4. It is an unpopular command, one that is frequently attacked and undermined even in the church.
  5. Scripture is clear and consistent regarding this command.
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2 thoughts on ““The High Calling of Submission” by John Macarthur

  1. How do you reconcile that when the Bible was written families were just plain different? As I understand it, a typical Roman family was lead by a paterfamilias (father of the family.) He had the legal power to disown his children, sell them into slavery, or kill them at any age. He was in charge of his adult sons and their families, his single daughters, his slaves and their families, and even sometimes over his clients. A family could be an extended network of a few dozen people. Only he could own property. He could do business and was also the ‘priest’ of the family, in charge of religious matters. He was also the family lawyer, who had the power and status needed to interact with the legal system. The materfamilias (mother of the family) was usually much younger than her husband when they got married. She was expected to manage the household, but her power was limited, She didn’t even have the power to disobey her husband when he ordered an infant to be exposed to the elements and left to die. Because the household was a unit of the state, there were laws that governed how households had to operate. Aristotle even wrote (in Book 2 of Politics) about these things in three pairs of relationships: Master and Slaves, Father and Children, Husband and Wife – he considered the master / father / husband to be far more important that slaves / children / wife and that’s why he put them first. It’s understandable then, that early Christians would have questions about how to be Christians when the law had specific demands on what families ought to look like and how they ought to act. I just can’t reconcile the facts with the differences in how modern families are today – as well as how our law is also different. Which means that Biblical submission has to be different as well.

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    1. If the doctrine of submission were based in culture then I would agree. But the Bible specifically bases it in Creation and Redemption. In a special way, each gender Is called to make known the glories of God, and for women, submission in marriage is part of God’s original and renewed design for human life.

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