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Ephesians 5:21 says,
21 and be subject to [hupotasso] one another in the fear of Christ.
A Greek lexicon gives a longer explanation of the word hupotasso. It says:
“This word was a Greek military term meaning ‘to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader.’ In non-military use, it was ‘a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden’.”
The key word in this longer definition is the word “voluntary” in the context of “non-military use.” The word referred to people “assuming responsibility,” not being forcibly enslaved. Even in the military context, most soldiers in those days were volunteers, not conscripts. They were free citizens who had voluntarily submitted themselves to “the command of a leader.”
So the important thing to note is that Paul was instructing the people to “be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” Paul does not tell believers to subject one another under their authority, for that would be slavery. There is a difference between subjecting oneself to leadership and forcibly subjecting others to oneself.
When many free people voluntarily and freely submit themselves to a common purpose, good leadership is usually required to unify the people and to assign each one a task according to their skills or callings. Teamwork can accomplish much more than individuals working singly.
In Ephesians 5:21, Paul was introducing the idea of teamwork and the value of godly leadership. His intent was not to enslave anyone but to increase their effectiveness and productivity.
Two Horns of the Bull
The Israelites under Moses’ leadership faced two big dangers, either of which can easily skewer people. This “bull” has two horns, and most of the Israelites failed to avoid them.
The first occurred at Mount Sinai, when God summoned all of them to draw near and hear His word. The people were too fearful to draw near, and so they sent Moses up the Mount to hear what God said and then relay the word to them indirectly. Exodus 20:18, 19, 20, 21 says,
18 All the people perceived the thunder and the lightning flashes and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood at a distance. 19 Then they said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us [directly], or we will die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin.” 21 So the people stood at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was.
The nature of the “test” was to see if the people could overcome fear and if they would be able to hear the word of God directly. They failed, so their faith was in Moses, not in God Himself. We read in Romans 10:17, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” When we hear (and obey) the word by personal revelation from God, that is, by definition, faith in God. But when we depend upon a man or woman to tell us what God said, we place our faith in men, hoping that they will tell us what God has said.
Forty years after their Mount Sinai experience, Moses reminded the people of their failure in his second speech in the plains of Moab. Deuteronomy 5:4, 5 says,
4 The Lord spoke to you face to face at the mountain from the midst of the fire, 5 while I was standing between the Lord and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the Lord; for you were afraid because of the fire and did not go up the mountain…
We know that they all heard the Ten Commandments that God spoke to them “face to face” from the mountain. But the Ten Commandments were just the headlines of His word, the basic principles that needed further explanation in the statutes. They also needed to know the judgments of the law, so they would know how to handle violations of the law with justice tempered with mercy.
The clear implication is that the people had been asked to “go up the mountain,” and if they had done so, they would have received the rest of the law. God told them, in effect, “Come on up here, and I will reveal to you the rest of the law.” But they were afraid of the fire of God, so they insisted that Moses should go and hear God and then return to tell them what God had said.
In doing this, they established the precedent of the professional preacher, pastor, or priest in whom they could place their faith—for they respected Moses and his ability to hear God. What they failed to realize is that if they were too full of fear to hear God for themselves, then they would still be unable to hear the word through a prophet like Moses. The carnal mind of the soul is unable to hear and comprehend the things of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:14).
This is the first “horn of the bull” that skewered the Israelites at Mount Sinai.
The second is found in the revolt against godly leadership. Numbers 16:3 says,
3 They assembled together against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone far enough, for all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is in their midst; so why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?”
Korah asserted the truth that “all the congregation are holy, every one of them,” but he did not recognize the authority of Moses and Aaron, who were called to lead the Israelites. Later, when Moses called a meeting with the rebels, they replied in Numbers 16:13,
13 “Is it not enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, but you would also lord it over us?”
The lesson for us today is not to reject godly leadership that God has raised up. God’s callings are to be respected, because each one’s calling comes with authority and responsibility. In the New Testament context, this speaks directly to the fivefold ministry in Ephesians 4:11. It also includes everyone, each in their way, because “all the congregation are holy” and have a calling. Godly leadership is responsible to recognize those callings, so that each may find his/her place in the body and be part of the team in building the Kingdom.
Korah and his faction were blaming Moses for Israel’s failure to enter the Promised Land in Numbers 14:4. The fact is that the people lacked faith to enter the Promised Land because they had not gone up the mountain to hear God for themselves. So when the time came to enter the Kingdom, they failed again. But Korah blamed Moses and was skewered on the other horn of the bull by failing to recognize and accept godly leadership.
Most such examples throughout history come down to a matter of jealousy and competition. Korah wanted to replace Moses as the leader of Israel. Korah claimed that calling, but God had not chosen him. The test in this case was where all of them were told to present their censers to God with incense and then see whose incense (prayer) would be answered (Numbers 16:18). As it turned out, the earth split open and swallowed up Korah and his band of rebels (Numbers 16:31, 32).
This proved that Korah was not called to the position of authority that he coveted, even though “all the congregation are holy, every one of them.”
The bottom line is that everyone has the right to approach God directly and to hear His voice; but in order to build the Kingdom as a team, God has raised up leadership to coordinate this work and to teach and instruct those who are still growing to spiritual maturity. Understanding these two principles will help us to avoid being skewered by either horn of the bull.
Godly leadership is not called to lord it over the church. Godly authority is not the same as worldly authority. True authority is the calling to serve, not the calling to subject others. Jesus explained this to His disciples in Matthew 20:25, 26, 27, 28,
25 But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles [ethnos, “nations”] lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. 26 It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
This is God’s idea of leadership. It is quite different from what most people think. Those who follow the example of Korah are those who seek to lord it over others—that is, to be their masters. But true leadership is the calling to be a servant or slave to God and to others.
So when Paul speaks of subjecting oneself to a leader, we must keep in mind God’s definition of leadership. If we truly understand this, we will gladly submit to it, knowing that this does not mean that we are being enslaved to men. We are, instead, working as a team, having a common purpose in building the Kingdom.