In an essay on “Godly Roles and Relationships: Ephesians 5:21–6:9,” David Powlison makes three arguments:

  1. We all have a common call from God, defining us as peers with each other.
  2. We each have a particular focus without our primary relations, as servant-leaders and servant-submitters.
  3. Most of us wear multiple hats, sometimes called to lead and other times called to submit” (p. 60, my emphasis).

In other words,

  • we must treat everyone the same (with redemptive love) as part of our common call;
  • we must treat people differently, according to our particular focus; and
  • we must submit to Christ by being under some people and looking after other people.

The oxygen in the room typically gets used up on the nature of authority and submission in the particular focuses. But Powlison reminds us of our common call and common identity.

His entire section on this is worth reading in full.

You have a common calling in all relationships to walk worthy of your identity as Wife, Child, and Slave of the Lord. The Lord calls you to please him by humility, forbearance, candor, generosity, and tender-heartedness to all others. This common calling operates irrespective of the social roles you fill.

It establishes a core attitude of mutuality that threads through every single relationship. We are one with each other and we are equals, leveled before God, whether apostle or new-hatched convert, four-star general or buck private, CEO or custodian. We live as peers before him who is no respecter of persons. Difference of competence, power, wealth, intelligence, achievement, opportunity, sex, age, and ethnic background vanish. All of Ephesians 1:1–5:20 and 6:10–24 applies always, to every Christian, in every relationship.

You have been given God’s grace, and commanded by your Lord Jesus to give grace to all others. Whether married or single, male or female, child or parent, employee or boss, you live within a mutuality: one church, members of one body, brothers and sisters to one another.

You are a we. You are called to be patient and constructive in every relationship. A husband and wife, or a parent and child, ought to communicate openly, drawing on each other for help and perspective, seeking to understand and encourage each other, repenting of sins that interfere. No superiority, no double standards. If kids should not backtalk to parents, then parents should not yell at kids. If wives should not be shrewish and domineering, then husbands should not be brooding and domineering. The common calls applies equally to all.

When you think about the core of your identity, you are first and foremost Wife. You are one part of the body of Christ in union with her one Husband (Eph. 5:25–32). Whether you are male or female, married or single, you are Wife to Jesus Christ, called to fear Christ and live subject to him.

Similarly, at the core of who you are, you are essentially Child, beloved of the one Father (1:2; 1:5; 5:1). Whether you are a parent or a child, you are a Child to God, called to obey and honor him.

Furthermore, you are essentially Slave in the Lord (5:8–10; 6:5–9). Whether you are in authority or under authority in your workplace, you are Slave to Christ, called to obey and fear him.

You may be a man, but you are a Wife.

You may have kids, but you are a Child.

You may have people answering to you, but you are a Slave.

Each of us in our core identity is meant to live as a subordinate.

We all receive the love, provision, attention, mercy, protection, and upbuilding grace of our Husband, Father, and Lord. Christ is head, leader, master, and dominant partner. He is our “superior” and we are his “inferiors,” in the good, old sense of the words. We are subjects, followers, and dependents. We stand under him. This subordinate relationship with the God who rules us and cares for us must color every aspect of our lives.

Growth in Christ, then, has a striking double thrust.

First, maturity deepens submission. You increasingly learn to serve Christ, to please him (Eph. 5:8–10).

But, second, this maturity makes you a leader. Submission heightens your likeness to him (Eph. 4:32–5:2), and you increasingly picture the essence of leadership. You say No to self-will and self-striving. You say Yes to a purposeful life for God that embodies clarity, conviction, integrity, wise counsel, forgiveness, generosity, patience, and self-giving love. So as any Christian submits to Christ’s leadership, he or she becomes more of a leader in the best sense of the word. Good subjects grow masterly. Whatever the particulars of your calling as a husband-wise, parent-child, or boss-worker, they never override your core identity and common call as a Wife, Child, and Slave. The common call conditions every detail. (pp. 61–63)

This was also a helpful reminder:

Many who would defend the Lord’s clear words also weaken their force. Some, in effect, only pay lip service to God’s will. They give so much attention to the exceptions to the rule that they fail to establish the relevance, beauty, and authority of the rule. “Yes, God calls a wife to submit, but of course if a husband is harsh, or asks her to sin, or does not consider her point of view, or won’t lead spiritually, or is irresponsible financially, or . . .” But Ephesians lists no exceptions. Paul camps out on the rule only, because the rule of submission so directly challenges our instinctive craving to get our way. (64).

—David Powlison, “Godly Roles and Relationships: Ephesians 5:21–6:9,” in Seeing with New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2003), 59–74.