Bible text: Ephesians 5:21-6:9
When I read a Bible passage, I make it a rule to pay close attention to its context. That context governs how I read the passage as a whole.
Let me offer Ephesians 5:22-6:9 as an example. Here the apostle Paul (or whoever wrote Ephesians) lays out the kind of behavior that Christian households should practice within themselves.
Scholars call them household codes. They seek to regulate behavior between husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves. They presuppose the institution of the household in Greco-Roman societies, an institution that was much broader than the nuclear family of modern America. The household might include extended family members, the family’s slaves, and sometimes other hangers-on.
Within Greco-Roman households (as was also true of Jewish households at the time), hierarchical patriarchy was the unquestioned given. The husband/father/master headed the household, and his authority was paramount.
What Paul says in this passage seems to conform to this particular ordering of society. Wives, he advocates, should be subject to their husbands, for the husband is the head of his wife. Children are to obey their parents. Likewise slaves are to obey their masters. The order of family life is subservience to the father figure.
Some Christians appeal to this passage as divine authority for a continuing patriarchal ordering of Christian families. This is God’s word, they say, not just for first-century Greece, but for the modern world as well.
For other Christians, these codes have become an embarrassment. In the churches where I work, you will seldom hear any appeal anymore to Paul’s analogy that the relationship of the husband to his wife is comparable to Christ’s relationship to his church.
Both sides, whether conservative or liberal, read the passage as an apostolic endorsement of hierarchical patriarchy. The two parties just differ as to whether that family order is a good thing or a bad thing.
But I think this is to read this portion of Ephesians out of context. It ignores how Paul leads into this discussion of household codes. The lead-in sentence comes in verse 21: Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
That sounds a lot to me as if Paul is advocating relationships of reciprocity, not hierarchy. Here is a vision of relationships in which power considerations recede away to be replaced by mutuality.
Now one can ask: What gives here? In what he says in the following verses about household life does Paul immediately contradict himself, caving into the established culture of Greco-Roman civilization? One could argue that. But I would like to offer an alternative reading.
In his heart of hearts, I think the apostle stands for human relationships that are characterized by mutual reciprocity, not hierarchy. That is ultimately the trajectory of the gospel, for Paul as well as for Jesus.
Remember what Paul writes in Galatians 3:28: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. This was the great surprise that the Holy Spirit sprang on the infant church when the Spirit led for the inclusion of Gentiles as equal members with Jews in the people of God.
Paul, however, is also a realist, knowing that Christians cannot implement such a revolutionary style of human relationships overnight in a culture as steeped in patriarchal hierarchy as first-century Greco-Roman culture or Jewish culture. Such a revolution would be seen as a mortal threat to the established way of life.
Furthermore, such a revolution would not endure unless there was also a radical change in the human heart. No outward change in society can endure unless it is accompanied for an ever-deepening shift in mindsets, attitudes, and habitual customs. Such a change in spirit seldom comes quickly.
So in a sense Paul does accommodate to Greco-Roman culture, but with some significant shifts in his advice. Paul counsels wives to be subject to their husbands, but does not dwell on that. In English translations, he spends only three verses on this theme.
When he moves to the responsibilities of husbands, however, he goes on at length, some eight verses. Husbands are to model themselves on Christ. Can one think of Jesus playing the hierarchal card in his relationship to his disciples? One needs only to remember the example Jesus set at the Last Supper when he washed his disciples’ feet.
In his counsel to fathers, Paul urges fathers not to provoke their children to anger. He asks slaves to serve their masters as if they are Christ. But then he tells masters to do the same with their slaves (verse 6:9). This suggests they as masters are to treat their slaves as if their slaves are Christ. Both slaves and masters ultimately have the same master, Christ. And Paul goes on to say, “there is no partiality with him [meaning Christ].”
In all this advice Paul is trying, it seems to me, to broaden the minds of his listeners to begin to understand what it means to be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. As they begin to live out this calling, a revolution will begin to take root in their own households.
That lead-in sentence, verse 21, makes all the difference in the world to me in how I read the 20 verses that follow. It undermines any appeal to these household codes as authority for any eternal hierarchal and patriarchal ordering of human relationships.
One can read verses 5:22-6:9 in isolation. If one does, they can be read as Biblical sanction for oppression. But why should they overwhelm verse 21? If verse 21– Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ—is read as the overarching principle, then what follows strikes me in a very different spirit. It becomes a conditional ethic, not an unconditional one.
That interim ethic belongs to this world, but remember, for Paul, this world is passing away. And so will that hierarchal way of ordering human relationships when the Kingdom of God comes, as it begins to do as the Spirit changes our hearts.