One of the most challenging parts of Paul's writing for me, as a feminist and activist, has been Ephesians 5:21-6:9, often entitled "Instructions for Christian Households." I have seen this passage, together with other passages (often including others by Paul) used to support patriarchal structures in society as well as social/racial injustice like slavery.
A quick Google search confirms that the Bible's comments on slavery, especially that in Ephesians 6, are found disturbing to most Christians-- as most modern people find the institution of slavery to be immoral, and the Bible-- Old Testament and New-- contains guidelines for slavery and the humane treatment of slaves, but no outright statements condemning it.
Similarly, debates can go verse-for-verse regarding the treatment and position of women-- with seemingly contradictory sentiments akin to both feminism and patriarchy in different places. (That same quick Google search on the Bible and slavery offers information on the differences between slavery at the time and modern slavery, although this appears controversial. Similarly, there are a variety of interpretations which give a more coherent view of gender roles-some by taking context into account, others by shifting focus in other ways.) Typically, though, Ephesians 5&6 has been held up, to me at least, as a very traditional passage, nodding approval at the status quo-- and, at best, suggesting everyone be treated well, benevolently.
My most recent reading of Ephesians, however, challenged this reading. Instead of traditional Paul, I saw my radical Jesus speaking in these words. I discussed some of my current understanding of a portion of this section in my last post, but here I want to give a more full view of what Paul is saying, taking the context of the whole section into account. My last post noted that I believe Paul is arguing for mutual submission in marriage relationships, but I believe the context takes this much further-- and makes it much more daring, even revolutionary.
Sarah Bessey, in her book Jesus Feminist, introduced me to the idea of "God's redemptive movement." The idea here is that God moves us slowly "further along toward his full intention" (Bessey, 2013, p. 27).
We see this, she states, in how Jesus talks. For instance, the six times in Matthew 5 when He uses the phrasing "You have heard... But I tell you..."
21"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment."
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery."
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all..."
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also."
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you"
In Ephesians 6, Paul even starts off his section on parent-child relationships by quoting the law in Deuteronomy, much as Jesus begins by quoting the Law in Matthew 5. Ephesians 6 begins,
1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise--3 “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”
4 Fathers, do not exasperate your children...
If we read verse 4 as a command-- as verses 1-2 are-- this is an interesting subversion of the typical direction of authority, placing a requirement on the party which was used to holding the authority. (Which, nowadays, we might call "privilege.")
Can you hear Jesus' "But I tell you" in this passage? Moving ever to the fullness of His purpose-- to mutual humility and submissiveness, making the last first. This is not a negation of the command for children to obey their parents, but an extension.
This is the same thing Paul does with marriage relationships in Ephesians 5, as I discussed in my last post, but let's look at it again in context now:
22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. 24 Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.
But then-- the "But I tell you"--
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her
When we see glimpses of the Kingdom in its ideal form, we see egalitarian images such as Joel 2:28-29 (quoted in Acts 2:17-18 as referring to "the last days").
28 “Then, after doing all those things,
I will pour out my Spirit upon all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your old men will dream dreams,
and your young men will see visions.
29 In those days I will pour out my Spirit
even on servants—men and women alike."
Finally, Paul ends with this in Ephesians 6:
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ
But then-- the "But I tell you":
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.
What we see in Ephesians 5 & 6 was-- and is-- counter-cultural. It is giving up one's privilege/privileges (or, perhaps even legal rights, in the case of men and slaveowners in the passage, and depending on political/social context) for the sake of humility in service to Christ. It moves ever-closer to the unity God desires for us, as in Galatians 3:28:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
After this I looked and saw a multitude too large to count, from every nation and tribe and people and tongue, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.
As we look around our world today, and see the divisions that exist, splintering us into factions and causing bickering on online forums, social media, and around dinner tables, may we remember the unity we are called to.
May we remember that we are not called to uphold the status quo, but that we are called to the most revolutionary and subversive of all actions: to love our God and love our neighbor, in submissive, counter-cultural humility; making the first last and the last first.
May we approach one another-- regardless or race, gender, relationship, class, or any other division-- with grace and humility and love.
May we remember that Jesus calls us to a world turned upside-down where predator and prey sit together and the playing field is evened.
May we truly see and hear those who are speaking about oppression as they testify about their experiences (whether we feel oppressed or not), and may we prayerfully look for the ways we can show humility and submission to them, being more and more transformed to His Kingdom, and less and less conformed to the kingdoms of this world.