Scripture Reading: Ephesians 5:21-6:9
I don’t know if you were watching, but our voyage into Ephesians is about to get choppy with one of the hardest texts in all of Paul’s writings. This text has caused a lot of consternation and sadly, abuse. And maybe I’m a sucker for punishment because as I read Ephesians, I felt called to take on this passage. I’ve said before, sometimes it is good to wrestle with the hard passages of scripture with integrity and not ignore them or dismiss them or whitewash them yet discover a word from the Lord for us today. So, I’m going to put on my protective gear as I read this passage in case anyone throws something at me as I read it.
(Keith puts on a hard hat to read the scripture passage)
It probably depends on what I have to say next, but is it safe to take this off? Here we go. This is one of those texts that many people have used to dismiss Paul, especially thinking that he had a negative view of women. Wouldn’t it be easier to take a permanent marker and go over text like these and others where Paul seems to dismiss or degenerate women? Wouldn’t it be best just to get out the scissors and cut out all this talk about wives submitting to their husbands? I will definitely say I have wrestled with this text for a long time, and you can rest assured, this passage was not read at my wedding. When our Greek professor in seminary brought up that this was the passage that was read at his wedding, he needed a hard hat based on the reaction from the female students in the class. But it is precisely because of that education, spending time in texts like these, learning about the 1st century world of Jesus and Paul, that I think Paul has something important to say to us today. In taking the whole landscape of Paul’s writing together, we find that he is more of an advocate for the freedom and the equality of all people in Christ than we could ever imagine. And with that overview of Paul, I think we can hone in on these troubling passages. Paul is trying to bring the gospel message to new and unexpected situations of the first century.
In spending time with Paul, I’ve learned that he says everything for a reason. Why would Paul include these household rules? Just maybe it had to do with Christ’s return. If people believed that Christ’s return was imminent, maybe they were stepping away from their familial relationships and Paul is trying to let them know that these relationships are important, even as they have to wait longer than expected. Just a few verses before this, he instructs them not to get drunk with wine but to be filled with the Spirit. Were they celebrating their new found freedom in Christ in ways that were causing disruption in the family order? Paul wants to ground them. How was faith to affect the ongoing structures of their lives? This just might be the reason we find household codes here in Ephesians and other epistles, tables of duties for husbands, wives, children and slaves, which begin by addressing this concern very concretely with how families are to be faithful to the gospel in the midst of ongoing social responsibilities in love and obedience while they wait.
I can appreciate this effort: The effort to discern how Christian faith shapes our lives at its most intimate and critical points as well as its emphasis on a relationship with the Lord as the means of discerning how we are to treat others. Paul is genuinely attempting to reframe marriage in the context of Christ’s lordship. I can really appreciate that in light of that attempt, Christian husbands are called to love their spouses, not once, but three times. The call is to love, not dominate. Love her, love her, love her. And Paul is clear about this. Love is defined in Jesus Christ. So husbands are specifically directed to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. Which is to say the husband must spare nothing, not even his own life, in care and concern for his wife. This is radical in a patriarchal society in which a wife is required by law to be subject to her husband. Paul admonishes Christian husbands not to stand on their secular rights but to join their wives in mutual submission, one to another, out of reverence to Christ. There is no better description of Christian marriage found in scripture than what is found at the end of Ephesians 5: Where Paul, in trying to define marriage, suggests the mystery found in a marriage is a profound one, one that mirrors the very mystery of the love between Christ and the church. In Ephesians, marriage reflects the very reality of grace.
But that doesn’t mean there are no problems. This text has been used by countless Christians to theologically legitimate a pattern of wifely subordination. It cannot be said that the relationship between Christ and the church, which the text uses to reflect marriage, is a relationship between equals. Thus the text does not address the husband and wife as equals. I struggle with understanding that love is a man thing and submission is a woman thing. This is out of sync with Jesus’ own teaching. When he washed the feet of his disciples the night before his death, didn’t he demonstrate that love and subordination go hand in hand? And didn’t he teach them that they were not to model their relationships of authority of those of the world at large? Didn’t he say that whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant? And whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all? Quote: “I am among you as one who serves.”
Earlier in Ephesians, Paul tears down the dividing walls of those who follow Christ. Has he just put up a new one? If he did, I can’t believe he did it intentionally. Yes, Paul for sure does something amazing when he endeavors to redefine marriage in terms of Christian faith but the first century cultural pattern remains within it as well. And we shouldn’t pull the 1st century Gentile context off the page and plop it down into a 21st Century context. Doing so has led to a legitimation of use of this text in ways I don’t believe Paul would have ever intended. It has become hazardous to women’s health. There was no way that when Paul called wifes to be submissive to their husbands, he was advocating physical violence. But it has been interpreted that way and because of this text, abused women have stayed in relationships much longer than they ever should have.
So, do we get rid of this text? I believe there is still good news here that we can live by even while we fight against the way this text has been abused to allow abuse. It has a word for us today, whether we are married or single, divorced or widowed, or gainfully employed or retired. For wherever you live or work or whatever your circumstances may be, this part of Ephesians reminds us that our Christian faith affects the structures of our lives. Many of us live in families. And God knows that living in a family isn’t always easy, for we all know there are no perfect parents, no perfect children, no perfect spouse, nor perfect in-laws. Life together pulls us and strains us in maybe one of the best ways that God gives us to grow out of ourselves into something more like we were meant to be. And so like those first century Christians, we continue to discern the ways Christian faith shapes and transforms our lives at these most intimate and critical points. How can we in our relationships with our partners, our parents, our children, our siblings we can best love one another, forgive one another, and live in service with one another? This not only impacts our imperfect familial relationships, but our imperfect church family and our imperfect job settings. In fact, it impacts every relationship we have.
Friends, we don’t have to like this text, but we need to embrace the instruction and the underlying concerns and commitments it reveals. Because as we come before this text, what we are witnessing is the new community in Christ revealed, however imperfect it may be, engaging in discernment that we continue in our day, however imperfectly. We see faith being enacted in love and love seeing its transforming power in the midst of this age. This text reminds us that the grace of God in Jesus Christ continues to empower us to transform the structures we find ourselves and discern the ways we can serve one another in love in our time and place. We will find ourselves wrestling with it as part of God’s own work within us forming in us the mind of Jesus Christ over our entire life times. And that’s a voyage worth taking. Amen.
To watch a video of Pastor Keith preaching this sermon in the 9.12.21 Worship service, click HERE.