Authority: Submission in the Family

This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Authority. Click here to see the entire series.

Ephesians 5:22 says:  “Wives, be subject  to your own husbands, as to the Lord.”

Colossians 3:18 says:  “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.”

I Peter 3:1 says, “In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands…”

Lastly, I Peter 2:18 says, “Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable.”

These verses are familiar to all Christians who read the Bible but they are not always recognized as pertaining to a particular class or group.  In the first three examples it is the wife who is ordered to be submissive to the husband.  The fourth seems to be of a different class because it discusses servants or slaves.  The conception that the fourth example is different from the first three is illusory.

I Peter 2:18 is often used as a verse to describe employer/employee relationships.  That is a great confusion with respect to the doctrine of authority.  As you recall, employers and employees enter into voluntary contracts with each other to provide something for each other in exchange for a price.  No coercion is involved.  It is not possible that Peter is telling Christian employees that they must submit to the representative authority (of which they have none) of an employer.  He is certainly not telling Christian employees that they are to do nothing when the employer breaks the terms of the voluntarily entered contract between the two of them.  No, in order to understand the I Peter passage it is important to remember the historical and cultural context in which it was given.

Slavery existed in the New Testament era.  Some Christians owned slaves.  Other Christians were slaves.  In some sense the slave owner was seen as having the representative authority of Jesus, otherwise the slave would never have been ordered to submit to the representative authority of the master.  How could a slave master have Jesus’ representative authority over a slave?  There is only one answer.  Because the slave was a member of the family.

The Old Testament recognized that slaves were members of the tribal family units.  They were accorded some of the privileges that other family members had (participation in circumcision and Passover are two examples).  This did not change in the NT.  Slaves in the NT era were also deemed to be members of the family of the master.  Granted they were inferior members, but they were still members.  As such, they were under the representative authority of the head of the family, the father/husband.

All four verses are referencing the same class of representative authority:  the authority delegated from Jesus to the head of the household.  The Ephesian and Colossian passages specifically mention the fact that submission to the husband/father is de facto submission to the Lord.  Why is this so?  Because the authority of the husband/father is representative authority.  The husband represents Jesus to the family and the family members are ordered to submit to him in the exact same way they would submit to Jesus Himself.

For most Christians the concept of submission, although probably not very popular, is not difficult to understand.  Churches in general do a pretty good job of preaching and teaching this principle to the members.  Very few Evangelicals are unfamiliar with the principle of family submission to the head of household.  That, however, is not the case for the other two classes of representative authority that demand submission to the representative head, who, in turn, also represents Jesus Himself.

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