Ephesians 5:18-21 (Being filled with the Spirit), Part 3

Ruins of Celsus Library in EphesusSubmitting to one another

The final participle forms the “theme participle” of the rest of the chapter and part of chapter 6. In a series of injunctions to husbands and wifes, fathers and children, masters and slaves, Paul gives example after example about how to submit to one another. The command is much broader than the congregational setting or the agap?. But the agap? is illustrative and symbolic of all that follows.

Eating together in ancient times was symbolic of acceptance. Eating in someone’s home was for the host to accept you as a social peer and to come under his protection. In a society highly divided along class lines, largely defined by inheritance, the agap? dramatically turned the world upside down.

The Wikipedia explains —

Social class in ancient Rome played a major role in the lives of Romans. Ancient Roman society was hierarchical. Free-born Roman citizens were divided into several classes, both by ancestry and by property. There were also several classes of non-citizens with different legal rights, along with slaves who had none.

Property-based classes

At the same time, the census divided citizens into six complex classes based on property. The richest were the senatorial class, who were worth at least 1,000,000 sestertii. Membership of the Senatorial class did not necessarily entail membership of the Senate. The wealth of the senatorial class was based on ownership of large agricultural estates, and its members were forbidden from enagaging in commercial activity. With a few exceptions, all political posts were filled by men from the senatorial class. Below them were the equites (“equestrians” or “knights”), with 400,000 sestertii, who could engage in commerce and formed an influential business class. Certain political and quasi-political positions were filled by equites, including tax farming and, under the Principate, leadership of the Praetorian Guard. … Below the equites were three more classes of property-owning citizens; and lastly the proletarii, who had no property at all.



Free-born women belonged to the social class of their fathers until marriage, at which time they joined the class of their husband. Freed women were able to marry but were barred from marriage with senators or knights and did not join their husband’s class. Female slaves were allowed to marry depending on whether their masters would allow them. Women also could not do anything that had to do with the government, this includes voting.


The Latin Right, a form of citizenship with fewer rights than full Roman citizenship, was conferred originally on the allied cities of Latium and gradually extended to communities throughout the empire. Latin citizens had rights under Roman law, but not the vote, although their leading magistrates could become full citizens. Free-born foreign subjects were known as peregrini, and laws existed to govern their conduct and disputes. …


Freedmen (liberti) were freed slaves, who had a form of Latin Right; their free-born children were full citizens. … Juvenal, writing during the Empire when financial considerations alone dictated economic class, describes freedmen who had been accepted into the equestrian class.

Freedmen made up the bulk of the civil service during the early Empire. Many became enormously wealthy as the result of bribes, fraud, or other forms of corruption, or were gifted large estates by the Emperor they served. Other freedmen engaged in commerce, amassing vast fortunes often only rivalled by those of the wealthiest patricians. The majority of freedmen, however, joined the plebeian classes, and often worked as farmers or tradesman. …


Slaves (servi) were for the most part descended from debtors and from prisoners of war …

Slaves originally had no rights whatsoever and could be disposed of by their owners at any time. As time went on, however, the Senate and later the emperors enacted legislation meant to protect the lives and health of slaves. However, until slavery was abolished Roman men habitually used their slaves for sexual purposes. … All children born to female slaves were legally slaves, although many testators (Tacitus, among others) freed the slaves whom they believed to be their natural children.

Paul’s declaration — “submitting to one another” — cut totally against the grain of Roman society. It was counter-cultural in ways we struggle to imagine. It would be like a preacher in 1850 telling a Southern plantation owner to sing with and submit to his slaves. In the American pre-Civil War South, the most spiritual and courageous church leaders urged masters to let their slaves go to church and sit in the back or have their own church. Mutual submission was unthinkable to both master and preacher.

But Paul courageously called on the congregations spread throughout the Empire to submit to one another, not only at the Christian table, but in life. Indeed, we learn from early church history that it was not uncommon for a congregation to be led by elders who were the slaves of masters who were members. The church turned the world upside down.


There would be nothing more abhorrent to Paul than churches divided into separate congregations on racial or ethnic grounds. There would be nothing more abhorrent to Paul than churches that divide over whether to worship the true God with instruments or without or whether to own a fellowship hall. His plea was for unity — a unity built on God’s grace, received by all and extended by all to all. Our persistence in division reveals our persistent refusal to understand grace.

Grace — salvation by grace through faith to do good works — is not just how we go to heaven. It’s how we live and treat each other. It’s how we pursue God’s mission. It’s how the church becomes the Kingdom prophesied in ages past.

And grace teaches us to find a way to get along, to stop demanding our preferences, and to instead submit in self-sacrifice to each other. Indeed, if we could just get this one idea down, the world would be astonished at this church that is so very different from the world, that has found light and left darkness.

This is what Ephesians is about. It’s not a book with hidden messages about how to conduct the assembly. It’s rather about who to assemble with and how to treat those gathered there. It’s about why to assemble.

You see, we are a temple being built together for the Holy Spirit to live in us. Temples aren’t stones. They are stones built together, joined so tightly that no mortar is needed to make it hold together. It’s the “together” that makes the stones into a temple. And the “together” comes from submission, but submission for a purpose — to honor God.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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4 Responses to Ephesians 5:18-21 (Being filled with the Spirit), Part 3

  1. Adam Legler says:

    Great thoughts to focus on on a Sunday morning before services.

  2. Mutual submission was unthinkable to both master and preacher.

    I remember hearing a story set in the early church in the Roman Empire. Just as the assembled saints began their worship, a wealthy man entered the room. The "president" of the assembly welcomed him and asked why he was there. The guest said he had heard much about Jesus and wanted to come to know more of Him.

    The president again welcomed him – and pointed to a seat where he should sit. The visitor said, "I cannot sit there." Again the president urged him to take that seat. The newcomer replied, "I cannot sit by that man. He is my slave."

    The president responded, "Sir, if you want to know Jesus you will sit by that man." Finally, the man understood and sat down.

    The point is that for any of us to even begin to know Jesus, we must give up our ideas of "class" and instead be willing to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

    Jay, another wonderful post!


  3. Anonymous says:

    agape still turns the world upside down … it remains the single illusive goal for Jesus' disciples. If we could get that right, everything else would fall into place.

  4. Doug says:

    Amen! I am convinced that the biggest reason most Christians don't get Agape right is we have so little experience receiving it ourselves. A good dose of Agape will light a fire under a Christian.

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