I hope you have enjoyed this extended look at Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians as much as I have. If conversations and exchanges I’ve had with many of you are any indication, this great “love letter to the church” has been just what we’ve needed over the past month as we continue to return from summer and from the ongoing pandemic.
Of course, it would be impossible to cover the entire text of Paul’s letter in just five weeks of sermons.The passages I’ve chosen are representative of the letter as a whole, with one glaring omission that I think is important to point out.
While Ephesians contains some of the most beautiful and profound verses in all of Paul’s letters, it also contains some of the most disappointing and dangerous.
Starting in chapter five, verse 21, and extending through chapter 6, verse 9 (just before where our passage starts today), Paul gives instructions on the “Christian household,” which is modeled after similar Greco-Roman “household codes.” In it, he lays out a hierarchical ideal for the family and the community, with married, property owning men at the top, and everyone falling in line beneath them.
“Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord,” he begins, “For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.”
“Husbands,” he continues, “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word.” He goes on to say that husbands should love their wives “as they do their own bodies,” just as the church is the “body of Christ,” very nearly suggesting that the wife’s body belongs to the husband.
And this continues down the line. Children are to “obey their parents in the Lord,” and slaves, in his ignominious climax, are to “obey their masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ.” For their part, masters are encouraged to “stop threatening” their slaves (suggesting that they had a practice of doing so), for they all serve the same “master in heaven.”
It would be hard to overstate the trauma these words of the apostle have caused through the generations, in the church and the world. They’ve given scriptural backing to systems of oppression to women and people of color, and spiritual cover for domestic violence and abuse. The self-giving, life-affirming love of Christ Paul describes throughout the rest of the letter is contorted to bless the domineering and violent power structures of the surrounding world.
So, to borrow from Paul elsewhere, “what, then, are we to say about these things?”
Well, for starters, we remember that not all scripture is gospel. There are simply some passages that fall short of God’s dream of restoration and wholeness for all people and all things. Put another way, there are some things that we could argue are “biblical” that simply are not “gospel,” slavery perhaps being chief among them.
Second, we remember that Paul was human, and a product of his time. His role in growing the church and spreading the gospel is unmatched in Christian history. But not even he was able to completely escape the dominant worldviews of his time. In this way he is a perfect example of the great struggle of our conflicted humanity, that the same person who is able to write some of the most liberating words in all of scripture–
“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.”
“So if anyone is in Christ there is a new creation,”
“For I am convinced that neither death not life, nor angles, or rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,”
–is capable, too, of telling slaves to obey their masters as if he were Christ.
In fact, when we embrace the context in which Paul was writing, we’re able to see that while his message falls short of the gospel, in its time it was actually subversive in the way it held power to account! Roman culture would not have so limited the sovereignty of the husband over his wife or masters over their slaves.
And finally, for now, reading these texts is a helpful, if not painful reminder of the stakes of scriptural interpretation. In remembering the ways these texts have been, and continue to be used to oppress, harm, and abuse, we’re offered an opportunity to confess the ways our tradition has failed the vulnerable among us, which itself is a critical spiritual discipline.
To take it a step closer, we’re also given an opportunity to confront the ways we use scripture more broadly in our own lives. Are we using it to “build up love,” as Paul puts it in Ephesians? Are we using it to find new and creative ways to give of what we have generously and seek the welfare of our city? Or are we using it to protect what is ours, confirm our assumptions, or bless our prejudices?
It’s easier to take the path of least resistance and just skip these passages entirely. But there’s so much to gain by taking the bumpier road of confronting them, seeking to understand them, acknowledging the pain they have caused, and committing to do better.
In fact, when we do this, we may find the gospel was there all along.