I was very appreciative of the greater-than-normal feedback I received from my sermon a few weeks ago regarding “equals.” As I noted in that sermon, I was struck by the reality that the ordinary emphasis the fifth commandment (“Honor your father and your mother”) is a focus upon those who live under authority, and that despite my frequent, additional emphasis upon the restraints which the Bible places upon those who exercise authority, there is also a third category of our relationships with one another that is almost always overlooked. Namely, our relationship to one another as equals.
Authority has to do with power, with the right and responsibility to exercise a measure of influence and even control over someone else’s life. God has clearly established and defined such relationships within the family, the church, employments, and with respect to the civil government. Some people are called to exercise authority and others are called upon to submit. Therefore, I don’t want to imitate the current thinking of our modern age that would argue for an egalitarian relationship in every case. There are times when we are rightly to be in submission. There are times when we are rightly to exercise authority. But there is a third way in which we must learn to relate to one another, namely as equals.
I believe that this third category is too often neglected in our study and preaching. Sadly, much more dangerously, I believe that this third category is too often neglected in practice, too. Thus, those in authority become oppressive and overbearing. Those under authority are quickly and easily exasperated.
And yet, as I read and study the Bible, this third category actually receives the emphasis in Scripture. The Bible has more to say about our relationships with “one another”, as equals, than it says with relation to submission and authority. A simple Bible search of the words “one another” will prove this point I’m seeking to emphasize. Over and over again, with more than 20 specific references, we read about how we are to relate to “one another.” I would, therefore, propose that this definition is the primary definition of our human relationships.
To be sure, I am not denying nor even under-estimating the proper place for authority and submission. More importantly, Scripture doesn’t deny it either. But immediately preceding the Apostle Paul’s injunction to wives to submit to their husbands (which too many preachers and counselors seemingly present as the only teaching on the marital relationship to be emphasized from the Bible), he calls us all as Christians to submit to one another. (Ephesians 5:21-22)
So what does that mean? How do we live out our relationships with “one another” as equals? How do we preserve the proper exercise of authority and practice proper submission while, at the same time, give full weight to what Paul writes in Ephesians 5:21, “submitting to one another in the fear of God?” In other words, what is mutual submission?
I would suggest a few simple, but deeply profound answers to those questions as found in Scripture. Here I will refer to just a couple of the many so-called “one-another” passages. First, submitting to one another, which is essentially the same thing as relating to one another as equals, means that we give one another mutual honor. In the words of Romans 12:10, “Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another.”
There it is! That’s the key to relating to one another as equals. The English words express well the original language. Be kindly affectionate. No single English word will suffice, but there is emotion in those words, a tenderness, reflected in the ordinary, godly and healthy relationship of brothers and sisters. Brotherly love. Then, with a most practical instruction, this is how we treat one another as equals: “in honor giving preference to one another.”
That, of course, requires great humility. It is a humility too often absent in our day from those who exercise authority, the humility to honor others even when that overlaps the exercise of authority. Exercising authority doesn’t mean you always demand your own way. It doesn’t mean you always insist on getting your own way. Exercising authority is not inconsistent with giving preference to others, giving them the honor that accompanies and embodies your tender affection and brotherly kindness.
Secondly, submitting to one another as equals involves what the Bible defines as a mutual servanthood. It is the servanthood so perfectly exemplified by Jesus, who never gave up his authority as the second person of the Trinity even as he came to serve. He humbled himself to assume the place of a servant, and he calls us to do the same. Specifically, we read in Philippians 2:3-4, “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.”
Within the church, all of this is put into a personal and direct focus, because according to Paul’s definition of the church, we “are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.” (Romans 12:5) In other words, equals. Not simply members of the church, but members of one another.
So please give all of these thoughts your careful attention. For more detail, you can listen to that sermon again on our website or read through a full manuscript. (https://mtairyopc.org/sermons/the-fifth-word-part-2/)
Please think about what this actually means for you, yourself, in relation to one another in the church. Please think about this primary way in which we are called to relate to one another—as equals, giving honor and preference to others in humility. Please think about how you can put these thoughts into practice in your own life. It is a high calling, but it is the calling our Lord gives to us all.
Yours with a pastor’s love,