This essay was prepared for a discussion of Ephesians 5:22 - 6:9 on May 21 and 28, 2017. These few verses have been used in arguments about the roles of women and men in society, the church, and the home.
My primary objective in this essay is to challenge the methods of those who gloss over the antediluvian biblical teaching about the household codes set forth by the author of Ephesians[i] toward the end of the letter (5:21-6:9). My secondary objective is to present arguments for gender equality by emphasizing ethical principles consistent with the teachings of Jesus and Paul and simultaneously to challenge the loophole-theology employed by some evangelicals. I have not heard any Christians arguing for slavery in recent years; yet I think a review of Paul’s teaching worthwhile considering the selective cover-up of Paul’s affirmation of this inhumane practice. Paul’s directive that slaves ought to be obedient is crucial to understanding the contribution of first century Christian morality to the temporal extension of the horrific destruction of those who lived in chains of iron as well as those who were even recently restricted by the chains of law and continue to be limited by attitudes that maintain racist walls betwixt people having discernible differences in appearance, behavior, or another recognizable characteristic.
It is a commonplace to consider context when discussing a particular scripture. And it is equally common to criticize another’s arguments by challenging the context. In short, when it comes to selecting a context for any portion of scripture an academic can be as guilty of cherry picking as those who post or tweet a favorite scripture verse with the only context being that person’s fleeting neural activity. My difficulty in limiting the context for Paul’s advice to the Ephesians is his similar comments in other letters[ii] in which he takes us back to the Garden of Eden (1 Tim. 2:14). What we must thus consider is the entirety of the Hebrew Bible.[iii] But even that is not enough.
Other contexts are part of Paul’s cultural milieu. The most obvious of these are norms derived from centuries of Greek and Roman cultures—especially those relevant to an understanding of relationships among God or gods, men, women, children, and slaves. An adequate review of the historical background relevant to Pauline theology would be hard to accomplish in a school semester thus I must risk an abridgement, which will of necessity be incomplete.[iv]
Finally, to understand the ancient text, we must approach the nigh impossible task of decontextualizing the New Testament manuscripts from those aspects of contemporary culture likely to distort any original intent. We have been inundated by perfidious nonsense that passes for instructions to contemporary Christians ignorant of living lives of submission to ancient militaristic male dictators buttressed by divine authority and wielding the chains of imprisonment, which were often a prelude to torturous death for those who might suggest people ought to be treated as equals. Assertiveness is foolhardy when looking at the teeth of a lion.
Without question, the early followers of Jesus were Jews acquainted with the stories and laws attributed to Moses. Certainly, our author quotes or paraphrases many portions of the Hebrew Bible[v] as he offers instruction on one matter or another. So, I begin my look at the Ephesians’ passage by considering the spiritual family and inheritance metaphors with God as a jealous and protective Father (Ex. 20:5) and Israel as the errant bride (Hos. 2:2-23) in a covenant relationship. In parallel to this spiritual family we have an earthly family of nations headed by the patriarch Abraham (Gen 17:5) who was blessed with Isaac, the miracle male child. Following a near death experience explained as Abraham’s obedience, Isaac obtained the culturally desirable blessing of an eternal dynasty of countless descendants. Along the way to Jesus, challenges to the family line emerged but there was always a man to ensure the promised inheritance would not fail.
The stories and laws recorded by the men of Israel reveal the powerful role of earthly fathers who like God retain the power of life and death over their wives, children, and slaves. Moses’ laws[vi] set some parameters on what an earthly father can or cannot do. But like the Greeks and Romans, women, children, and slaves were the chattels of their fathers.[vii] The control over women passed from father to husband. It is worth mentioning that despite the power of fathers and husbands over other humans, the laws differentiated between wives and concubines, male and female children, and slaves. Discrimination has a long history. To understand Paul, we must recognize his use of the slave metaphor.
Paul, a Hellenistic Jew, not only inherited the sacred cultural traditions of his ethnic ancestors but as a Roman citizen born outside Palestine, he appears to be influenced by the laws and customs of the Romans[viii] and the Greeks.[ix] What we have in Ephesians is no surprise to the Ephesians.[x] Everyone knows wives ought to submit to their husbands. Everyone knows children ought to honor their parents. And everyone knows slaves ought to respect and obey their masters. That was the way of the ancient world. And that is the way the secular and Christian world ran, with a few exceptions, until a few decades ago.
What Ephesians might not have known is that Jesus is the head of the church and in this spiritual kingdom everyone lives in submission to Jesus (5:21). Before this Heavenly King, all people are equal—Greeks and Jews, men and women, freemen and slaves (Gal. 3:28). Like earthly Kings, Jesus qua God, has the power of life and death over his subjects (Matt. 10:28). But unlike earthly tyrants, Jesus wants to rule with love (5:1-2).
Like many contemporary pastors, Paul proclaims the spiritual truth of Christ’s love for the church but when faced with liars, thieves, gossips and the immoral, he draws upon old ways to bring about at least the appearance of decency by encouraging the virtuous life. He encourages the Ephesians to shed the old ways as one might remove filthy garments and don righteous raiment (4:22-24). And he reminds readers that our spiritual father holds the power of life and death (5:5-7). The spiritual inheritance of Abraham comes with a high price—the sacrifice of a son. Sharing in the son’s inheritance requires living a life worthy of such high honor.
Now it would appear that some Ephesians were not living up to the expectations of the virtuous life (Eph. 5). In reminding wives, children and slaves of their duty, Paul calls on the head of the family to follow Christ’s example. He must love his wife, and practice self-control in disciplining his children and managing his slaves. Remember, Paul advises, the earthly master and his slave have the same heavenly master.
We are not Ephesians
For the most part, we do not live according to the customs of the Ephesians. And few moderns would want to slavishly adhere to the teachings of Paul. Though in fairness, Paul does recognize some degree of mutuality as in his teaching about conjugal rights.[xi]
As I consider the present state of the Christian family in Western cultures I see many families where the woman is the head of a household having a few children and limited resources.[xii] I see churches that would offer very little to their community if it were not for women volunteering to take on a variety of responsibilities.
When it comes to various types of employment, the best person for a position is sometimes a woman and sometimes a man. On average, there are no significant gender differences in intelligence or the capacity to learn. Western cultures have led the way to considering women as equal with men. The church has lagged behind contemporary western cultures in affirming gender equality.[xiii]
Sexism has a long history in Christianity and continues in many overt and subtle ways within many churches[xiv] and Christian organizations.[xv]
Sexism has a long history in Christianity and continues in many overt and subtle ways within many churches[xiv] and Christian organizations.[xv]
Children are still expected to obey their parents but in most cases,[xvi] they no longer fear their father will end their lives in childhood if they fail to comply with his requests. On average, even disobedient children will have longer lives than was the case in previous centuries. In fact, we could argue that Western cultures have reversed the biblical commandment to read, “Thou shalt honor thy children.” We Westerners live in a culture that glorifies youth and families often to the detriment of the elderly. Ageism is a reality that deserves the attention of all Christians. What we really need is a reminder to show love and respect to everyone regardless of age.
And what about slaves? Well, slaves are few and far between in most Western cultures. Yes, people are still slaves.[xvii] And others are near-slaves. But most humans have more freedom than in most eras of recorded history. One thing we ought not to do is gloss over the obvious meaning of biblical texts when the words are referring to slaves qua human property rather than hired servants.[xviii] If your translation reads servant instead of slave you may be overlooking an inconvenient truth. If we gloss over slave language, we fail to recognize the role of Christianity in supporting the perceived right of churches, clergy, and wealthy Christians to buy, sell, and hold people as property.[xix] And we fail to see the biblical connection to apartheid,[xx] racist laws, and race-based discrimination.[xxi]
How should Christians read Paul?
Frankly, I think we ought to exert some effort to understand what is written before reacting from a semi-free twenty-first century Western cultural perspective. Unfortunately, we find that despite similarities among modern translations, Christians disagree on how to apply the teaching to one’s life. I find myself approaching a sympathetic stance toward fundamentalists who claim something like, “The Bible means what it says” or with worn black leather clad Bible raised, “God’s word says!” My respect does not go to the passionate purveyor of priestly placards announcing one absolute truth or another but to their intentional integrity. That is, sincere fundamentalists aim to live according to the texts they quote.
On the other hand, I find myself frustrated with evangelicals who raise voices of protest pregnant with Pauline passages ranting about rainbows, blathering about bathrooms, or pussy-footing around politicians’ peccancy whilst on the other hand they deftly ignore those inconvenient truths prompting love, kindness, humility, and forgiveness coupled with reminders to care for the needy and marginalized.
Further, I think evangelicals have created a loophole theology of biblical gender equality on slender strands of an honorable mention here and there, a quibble over translating a submission verse,[xxii] or even the recognition of a female leader or two.[xxiii] This type of reasoning around the odious texts has become the hermeneutical pathway to destruction for those intellectually deft enough to drive a locomotive through the gender loophole to discover other biblical inconsistencies that interrupt a pleasurable life.[xxiv] When I see evangelicals ferreting out obscure texts I am reminded of the wiles of the first deception, “Did God really say (Gen. 3:1)?”
I would not be so brash as to say I have the correct answer to interpreting Paul’s inconvenient pronouncements for contemporary cultures. I cannot affirm the harmful outcomes of fundamentalist interpretations of the texts. I might affirm the conclusions reached by evangelicals in matters of gender and ethnicity but as I have already mentioned, I question the adequacy of their methodology. I think the carping about culture has led evangelicals into a moral quagmire of relativism, which has been rejected by some in favor of a move toward the certain safety of fundamentalism. I will not hesitate to say I think the principles within the teachings of Jesus show a better way to a life of freedom than methods aimed at finding freedom through the eye of a hermeneutical needle.
Contemporary Christian morality[xxv] ought to embrace the ethical principles of scripture. In the Christian household and the community, the virtuous life promotes positive relationships but even the virtues mentioned by Paul and others must be subject to principles to avoid self-righteous imperatives. Principles promote just policies and laws as long as one weighs their consequences.
I agree with others who have observed that there is a resemblance to the categorical imperative within Jesus command to love our neighbors and, by an alternate wording the commandment sets a no-harm consequentialist parameter.[xxvi] Thus, in one phrasing, Jesus points toward the two great approaches to morality (Matt. 7:12; 22:39).
Jesus also points people in the direction of making ethical decisions that appear to violate customs such as providing healthcare on the Sabbath (Matt. 12). It takes courage to go against cultural customs—especially religious customs thought to come from God. Finally, I add the words of Jesus echoed in the writings of Paul to replace the old with the new. Old customs and cultures like old garments and old wineskins (Matt. 9: 14-17) are not good enough for the truth that in the Kingdom of heaven there are no ethnic minorities, no gender minorities, and no socioeconomic minorities (Gal. 3:28). Paul points his readers toward freedom and equality as heirs with His Son.
If we are free and equal before God, then let us be free and equal in society, in the church, and in the home. Let us show respect to all persons regardless of gender or age. And let us embrace people regardless of social group as we work with them to sever spiritual and social chains.
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References & Endnotes
Althouse, P. (2016). Jesus, empire, and Christian ethics: Implications for the moral critique of mass incarceration in the United States. In G. W. Sutton and B. Schmidly (eds). Christian morality: An interdisciplinary framework for thinking about contemporary moral issues. Eugene, OR: Pickwick.
Burgess, R.V. (2016). A woman’s place: Perspectives on gender equality. In G. W. Sutton and B. Schmidly (eds). Christian morality: An interdisciplinary framework for thinking about contemporary moral issues. Eugene, OR: Pickwick.
Frankenna, William K. Ethics. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963.
Furnish, V. P. (1985). The moral teaching of Paul: Selected issues. 3rd Edition. Nashville, Abingdon Press.
Mostert, J and van der Spuy, M. (2010). “Truth and Reconciliation: A South African Perspective”. Chapter in Mittelstadt, M. and Sutton, G. (Eds.) Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Restoration: Multidisciplinary Studies from a Pentecostal Perspective. Pickwick Publications.
Sutton, Geoffrey W. A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2016.
[i] Henceforth, I shall use the traditional name of Paul for the author because I do not consider it crucial to this topic to become entangled in a justification of pseudo-Paul, whomever he or they might be. For readers who do not know, many scholars believe Paul did not write the Pastoral Epistles.
[ii] e.g., 1 Cor 14: 34-35; Col 3:18 – 4:1; 1 Tim 2: 11-15.
[iii] In addition to the Septuagint, Paul’s writings have some language in common with works in the Apocrypha. See Goode (2015). https://bibleresearchtoday.com/2015/10/26/which-book-of-the-apocrypha-did-paul-use-most/
[iv] I have written more about conservative and progressive views of Christian marriage and gender issues in A House Divided, 2016.
[vii] Bible quotes illustrating humans as property: Ex. 20:17; 21:7; 22:16-17
[viii] For an example of Roman customs, see http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/primaryhistory/romans/family_and_children/
[ix] For an example of Greek customs, See http://www.ancientgreece.co.uk/dailylife/home_set.html
[x] Previously mentioned by Dr. Martin Mittelstadt of Evangel University.
[xi] The mutuality in 1 Cor. 7:3-4 appears to lessen a male-centric marriage suggested in older Hebrew texts.
[xiii] See Furnish (1985) chapter 4, “Women in the church."
[xiv] I was reminded by Stan Burgess that some Pentecostals (e.g., Assemblies of God) ordain women. This is particularly interesting because of the Assemblies’ conservative position on other matters. I have heard Pentecostals comment on the ministry of women related to their gifting by the Holy Spirit.
[xv] For example, see Ruth Burgess (2016) for a discussion of sexism in religious texts and the church.
[xvi] Child abuse leading to death continues to be a problem in many cultures. Of the people in the household code, contemporary laws only allow adults to hit children. Spanking is legal in all 50 US states and is allowed in many school districts (Nicks, 2014). In 2014, TIME identified 43 countries where spanking is illegal. https://timedotcom.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/map.jpg
[xix] For example, see “Why did so many Christians…” http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-33/why-christians-should-support-slavery.html Also see Morrison. “The Religious Defense…” https://www.kingscollege.net/gbrodie/The%20religious%20justification%20of%20slavery%20before%201830.pdf
[xx] Mostert and van der Spuy, 2010.
[xxi] For example, see Althouse, 2016.
[xxii] For example, hypotasso missing in Eph. 5:22 but present in Col. 3:18.
[xxiii] Ruth Burgess (2016) reminds her readers of the Gospel of Mary. According to some feminists, this document and other texts suggests a repression of female voices in early Christianity. For more information on the Gospel of Mary see http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/maps/primary/mary.html Also, http://gnosis.org/library/marygosp.htm
[xxiv] Different writers emphasize one point or another to mitigate Paul’s blunt teaching about women. A more scholarly example is the writing of Craig Keener http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/200102/082_paul.cfm
[xxv] I make no difference between ethics and morals, which is the common practice in moral philosophy.
[xxvi] For one example see Frankenna, 1963; http://www.bard.edu/iat/newsletters/IATNewsletter/documents/Thursday_April17.pdf