Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21)
Possibly one of the most difficult scriptural concepts to teach effectively about is leadership and authority. The two extremes of abuse of authority and rebellion against authority are tragic legacies of too many situations in human history. This is why this verse above is so precious, for it explains the governing principle that protects us against the abuse of leaders and the rebellion against leadership.
The Spirit inspired Paul to gently and consistently teach these principles in the epistle to the Ephesians. He so craftily and brilliantly wove these principles into the epistle that we do not even notice them at first reading. But later, as we examine the themes, they leap out to us from off the pages.
Leadership and God
The epistle states the overall authority of God over His creation. There is no where and nothing that should not properly be under His authority. He wrote in chapter 3:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. (Eph. 3:14-15)
He is teaching a principle that God is the ultimate authority over all the earth and over heaven. The key to receive the blessings of our heavenly Father is to “bow [our] knees before the Father” or to humble ourselves before Him.
But is this only expressed toward God directly? Does this mean that so long as my heart is correctly related to Him as the ultimate authority, that I then have the right to disrespect other earthly authorities? Actually, no. Because God has commanded that we respect earthly authorities as His representatives:
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which is from God. The authorities that exist have been appointed by God. (Romans 13:1)
This includes parents, employers, government authorities, and nameless others who have proper authority in our lives. We are not in the proper relationship with God if we are not respectful of His authorities.
Long theological and ethical debates have been made as to how far this submission should go, and there is no easy answer to the question. Following the post World War II War Crimes Trials at Nuremberg, into international law the principle was introduced that, in certain circumstances, an individual may be held responsible for the failure to break the laws of his country. Generally speaking, the principle of civil disobedience is that if earthly authority acts outside the boundary of what is proper, ethical, moral, and Christian behavior, individuals have the right to protest, but their protest should be peaceful and non-violent.
In reactions to abuse of power it has generally been held that people have this right to resist or even rebel, but that it should be exercised as a last resort, for the sake of saving human life. A parent does not have the right to force his or her child to deny Christ. A child has the right to disobey the parent of they seek to force the child to do something unethical or immoral, but these should be of significant magnitude and not a minor issue. In cases of extreme cruelty, for example, a child has the moral right to protect himself or his siblings against parental abuse. But this reaction cannot be justified just on any issue that the child does not happen to like – it cannot be like a teenager who rebels against his parent just because his curfew is 11:30 rather than 12:00.
Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:7)
The Fullness of Christ
In Ephesians we are taught about the fullness of Christ in the church and the fullness of the Spirit in the believer. Really these describe the same thing.
And God put everything under His feet and made Him head over everything for the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all. (Eph. 1:22-23).
But notice that the fullness of Christ in the church is directly dependent on the church recognising His authority over the church. The church may only experience His fullness as it responds obediently to His authority.
And to be filled with the Spirit, which is commanded in Ephesians 5:18 is preceded by: “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” (Eph. 5:17). There can be no Spirit filling for the life that is not surrendered to the will of God. And this includes proper relating to all earthly authority.
True Spirit-filled leaders lead others with a goal to develop them and not to harm them or to control them. God leadership empowers others and seek to strengthen the intimacy between them and God. This starts with understanding one’s limitations and being grateful to the ones God allows them to lead. Effective leaders are those who feel their own inadequacies and trust in the grace of God to overcome them. They are often struck with how much better and more capable than themselves are the ones they are entrusted to lead. They see themselves as stewards of their followers and they are obligated to develop them and to present them to God stronger and more confident than they were.
Gratitude should be part of the conscious thought of the leader. The husband should treasure the wife as a wonderful blessing given him by the Lord. The parent should treasure the child also as a precious person who belongs to the Lord first and who is entrusted to the parents. The employer should respect the employee and seek to develop them. The state should seek to help the citizens become stronger and wealthier. And the church leader should help the church to become stronger and more dependent on the Lord.
It is obvious that unspiritual and unChristian leadership tends to do the opposite – to harm, hamper, limit, discourage, and to control. The cruel dictator tends to keep his people impoverished and ignorant, dependent on him. The cruel parent also seeks to keep his children weak, subservient, and unable to make decisions for themselves. The cruel pastor seeks to control his church, to keep them dependent on him rather than on the Lord and not let them become all they can become in Christ. The cruel husband, likewise, dominates his wife and seeks to put her down.
In terms of the heavenly kingdom, what leadership there may be there – and though the principle is mentioned, the precise nature it will take is still unclear – will not serve to hamper intimacy with God, but rather to facilitate it and to promote it.
I have rambled a bit in this writing, sharing on an important principle: obedience to the authority of Christ results in the fullness of Christ in the believer and in the church. This obedience to His authority is demonstrated not only in prayerful obedience to the commands and leadership of Christ in our lives, but also through respecting His established authorities in our lives: pastoral, marital, parental, work-related, political, or whatever.
The principle of mutual submission means that established leaders also are commanded to respect their followers: the pastor must be sensitive to the church he leads; the husband must be sensitive to the wife, the parent to the child, the employer to the employee, the national leaders to the citizenry, etc. They must serve in the place and for the purposes of God in the lives of their followers, seeking to strengthen and develop them, not to subjugate and dominate them.
As both the leader and the followers seek to obey Christ in all ways is Christ able to fill them with His Spirit.
The King James translated Ephesians 3:15, “from whom the whole family in heaven and on earth” and not “every family.” But scholarship has said since then that the original should be translated “every” and not “whole.”
The difference is that “whole” teaches that we are all part of the great family of God with the One Father over us all – which is, of course, true. Christ said, “for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Matt. 23:9). We have one ultimate and eternal Father. But Ephesians 3:15 teaches another principle that as one people and part of one eternal family, God exercises His authority as the Eternal Father through individual families. This the meaning of the phrase “every family,” and that the words also include heaven as well as earth indicates that there will be some categorising of the redeemed in heaven just as there is here on earth.
Ellicott’s Commentary has a beautiful description of this truth:
The translation [of “whole family” versus “every family”] is tempting, yielding a grand sense, and one thoroughly accordant with the treatment of the earthly relationship below. But the usage of the word is clearly against it; and we must render it every family—that is, every body of rational beings in earth or heaven united under one common fatherhood, and bearing the name (as in a family or clan) of the common ancestor. Such bodies are certainly the first germs or units of human society; what their heavenly counterparts may be, who can tell? The Apostle looks upon the fathers whose names they delight to bear as the imperfect representatives of God, and upon the family itself, with its head, as the type in miniature of the whole society of spiritual beings united in sonship to the Father in heaven. Hence he declares that it is ultimately from Him that every family derives the name of patria, and by that very name bears witness to the Divine Fatherhood, on which he desires here to lay especial stress.
Earthly and Heavenly Society
We tend to equate any structure or social organisation with segregation, fearing that the organisation will be used against us, that leaders will empower themselves at our expense. But heavenly organisation empowers the individual and strengthens intimacy with God. More than any other of his epistles, in Ephesians Paul explains these heavenly social structures exist:
He displayed this power in the working of His mighty strength, which He exerted in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come. (Eph. 1:19-21)
His purpose was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to the eternal purpose that He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Eph. 3:10-11)
It is common to interpret these “rulers and authorities” as referring to angelic organisational structures. Yet there is no reason to limit it only to the angels in heaven. From numerous passages throughout the Bible we see that God created human society with some structures.
Of the nations of the earth, for example, it is said: “All these are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their generations and nations. From these the nations of the earth spread out after the flood” (Gen. 10:32). The scripture says further that human pride caused further divisions among people at the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9). But the Lord as the Redeemer still cared for the nations:
When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,
when he divided mankind,
he fixed the borders of the peoples
according to the number of the sons of God.
But the LORD’s portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted heritage. (Deut. 32:8-9)
Paul expounded on this in his sermon on Mars Hill in Athens:
From one man He made every nation of men, to inhabit the whole earth; and He determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands. God intended that they would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. (Acts 17:26-27)
God’s intent in doing this – separating and segregating the nations – was two-fold: for the protection of people and especially for the protection of the redeemed. And later it served for the redemption of the nations through the gospel, for this allowed evangelists to come into the nations and preach the gospel in their language and translate the Bible into their tongues. This is the meaning of “according to the number of the sons of God” (Deut. 32:8). So ultimately the divisions of the nations provided for the salvation of many.
So when the scripture speaks of rulers and authorities in heaven, of every family in heaven, it affirms that there will be some social structure and organisation in heaven.
The Perfect Family
Yet we cannot read this without some concern, simply because social organisation and authority on earth is virtually always abused. “Middle men” tend to make their living and become more empowered by limiting the little man’s access to the big man.
But rather than dismissing and extinguishing the concept of family in heaven, God promises to perfect it. The earthly families that we come from on earth are marred and scarred by sin. But in heaven the families will be perfected. Leadership in heaven will not stand between the individual and God in such a way as to block God from view and dismantle apparatuses that would reveal God. Rather perfected leadership will facilitate and encourage more intimacy between the individual and God.