Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
Ephesians 5:21-33 and 6:5-9
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for it, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
Slaves and Masters
6: 5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.
9 And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.
This reading is actually made up of parts of today’s and yesterday’s listed epistle readings. Both are parts of what scholars call Paul’s “household codes” – writings on how followers of Jesus are to relate to one another. The other thing these passages have in common is that they really bother some people.
I think we all know that for ‘way too much of its history, the church has treated women as ‘second-class believers.’ Even today, in many churches and denominations, women are still excluded from positions of leadership. And when they’re pressured to explain why, the male leaders in those traditions tend to point to passages like these in the letters of Paul.
And what’s even worse is that people outside the church seize on these passages as evidence that the church is a backward movement that’s no longer relevant to modern society – and maybe that it’s even harmful.
So what does this passage have to say to followers of Jesus in our time? Well, it seems to me that two things have to be said about this passage and the others like it in the letters of Paul.
First of all, Paul was living in a minority Hebrew culture that was under the control of the dominant Roman culture. Both of those cultures were patriarchal in character – the husband and father was the head of the household. So in part, what Paul was saying is that the followers of Jesus should be orderly members of the world in which they lived – the kind of people others would want as neighbors.
And the second thing that should be said is that Paul was expressing a vision of our domestic relationships as ‘mutually submissive.’ In the case of marriage, Paul says that wives should submit to their husbands. But look at the first verse of the passage – Paul says that all followers of Jesus are to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” While he calls women to submit to their husbands, he also calls for husbands to live sacrificially for the welfare of their wives. Paul says husbands are to love their wives “as Christ loved the church.” In all things, the husband is to demonstrate as much love toward his wife as he would demonstrate toward his own body. Because, in God’s eyes, they are one flesh.
Modern readers might view this passage as representing an old and repressive social order. But what Paul is saying here is a very subversive message: Husbands are to treat their wives as respectfully as they treat their own bodies, and as lovingly as Jesus treats the church!
It’s difficult to imagine that any Christian – male or female – objecting if their spouse genuinely modeled the self-sacrificing love of Jesus in their daily relationship. And it’s just as hard to see how anyone who is genuinely following Jesus could distort the meaning of this passage enough to think it justified selfish and abusive behaviors. I think we all know that happens sometimes, but this passage makes it plain that that kind of abuse is a gross violation of God’s will for us.
The model of Christian marriage seems clear in this passage: two people subverting their own interests for the sake of one another, and seeking to build one another up more and more in holiness and the joy of Christ.
The second part of our reading, the part headed ‘Slaves and Masters,’ also offends some people, and especially the descendants of enslaved people.
You might remember me passing along the story from the great African-American theologian Howard Thurman, who told about being sent as a boy to read the Bible to his grandmother, who had been born a slave. Grandma Thurman would allow him to read any part of the Bible except the letters of Paul. That’s because when she was a slave, the master would send his preacher to read the Bible to the slaves on Sunday, and every single Sunday he would read this passage – “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” Howard Thurman’s grandmother could never quite forgive the apostle Paul for his role in the bondage she had endured as a girl.
But it has to be kept in mind that Paul’s letters were sent to people who lived in the Roman Empire. That was a culture based on slave labor, and abolition was not a possibility at that point in history. If the first Christians had advocated the abolition of slavery in the Roman Empire, they would have been exterminated. Period.
And slavery was also more complicated in the ancient world than it was in North America. It was not racially based. And some people in the Hebrew world became slaves voluntarily, and sometimes just for a specified period of time. And in the Greco-Roman world, some slaves became wealthy and powerful. One of the leading admirals in the history of the Roman navy was a slave.
The real point of Paul’s teaching here is to give followers of Jesus guidance on living within the social system that was a fact of life in the world of their day. And as we said about the Christian vision of marriage, Paul is articulating a very subversive message about slavery. Notice that Paul directs masters to treat slaves “in the same way,” which presumably means with respect, recognizing that in Jesus’ eyes, slaves and masters are equals? That would be a genuinely revolutionary notion in the ancient world.
The point is that every person who encounters us, no matter what the nature of our relationship with them, should encounter Jesus in us. Whatever we’re doing, whether we’re working or playing, worshipping or resting, shopping or driving our cars, we should be governed by the call to live in imitation of the Christ. That’s the central message that Paul is trying to communicate in this part of his letter to the Ephesians.
Let’s pray. Lord, as we live out our lives of discipleship in this world, use your Holy Spirit to soften our hearts so that in all our relationships with others, showing the love you demonstrated in Jesus is our most important priority. Guard us against ever seeing others in terms of what they can do for us. Amen.
Have a great weekend, and worship God joyfully on Sunday.
(The other readings for today are Psalms 130 and 148; Isaiah 45:18-25; and Mark 4:35-41.)