First Mennonite Church
November 17, 2019
For the Sake of Christ
Parts of Ephesians five and six are among the some of the most controversial passages in the New Testament. And it is clear why that is the case. (A good example of that was last week’s fierce criticism against Beth Moore by John MacArthur, Huffington Post) For those who find Paul’s words directed to wives and slaves too difficult to accept, appeal to other passages of Paul’s writings where he has a more egalitarian attitude, especially towards women (Romans 16, Galatians 3:26-28). While others who prefer clear directives regarding family and ecclesiastical structures would take this passage as an absolute rule, without considering its socio-historical context. Therefore, digging the socio-historical context of Paul’s words is not only important for a better understanding of the text, but it is even more so for our Christian praxis for today and within our cultural setting.
So where do we begin? What kind of household was Paul addressing in his letter to the Ephesians, as well as to the Colossians? What kind of family structure was there? And the church, what was its setting? In what ways was his gospel a message of radical transformation?
This section in the letter of Ephesians has properly been called “Codes for the Christian Household.” So how did such household look like? In Ephesians five and six, Paul addresses three sets of people:
Wives and husbands
Children and parents
Slaves and masters
If we take a closer look at these three sets of people, we will see that at some point the second party in each of these sets would likely be the same person—the man of the house. He was likely the husband, father, and master, the paterfamilia. According to Roman census data of those times, men usually got married at the age of 30. Data also shows that brides were usually married before the age of 18. Brides were practically teenage girls, therefore, their husbands were in charge of “educating” them on the rules of the household. The husband commonly had more than one woman, taking women both from among the freedwomen or female slaves of the household, as his concubines. Marriage was not out of love, as we know it, but for the sake of having legitimate children under the law. When a son is born by the wife, the child eventually would become the rightful heir. When a woman could not have children or could not bear a son, she would likely end up being divorced by her husband.
The dwelling place of a household was more like an apartment complex, called an insula; certainly, not a residential home. The household was composed of far more than the nuclear family. In the household, there would be the husband and his legal family, freedpeople, and the slaves, possibly, even the hired hands. By law, the household was led by the man—the paterfamilia who was the master and patron of those who lived with him. He was the master of the slaves and patron of the freedpeople that made his household. Although he might not be always harsh in his treatment of his slaves and freemen/women, his rule was absolute over them. Those under his rule had no means to redress any wrongdoing or grievances he might cause them.
The paterfamilia—master/patron was responsible for providing for his household, as he saw proper. Usually, the household was required to worship the god of the master. Worshipping the god of the master was a way in which order/subjugation was also enforced.
In Acts of the Apostle and in the letters of Paul, we find various references to “households.” We read of the household of Cornelius (Acts 11:14; Lydia (Acts 16:15) the jailer of Philippi, (Acts 16: 34; Crispus Acts 18:8, and others. Paul also refers to these households as the setting of the church. In 1Corinthains, Paul mentions the household of Stephanas, of which he baptized all the members of that household. And oftentimes we read that when someone, a paterfamilia, is converted and baptized, the whole household follows after as well (see Acts 16:15, 34; 18:8; 1Cor. 1:16).
In the letter to Timothy, Paul gives this directive to the paterfamilias: 4 He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way— 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.
What is clear here, as in other passages, is that when a paterfamilia, the household master, got converted, the entire household followed. As a result of that, the household became the church from which the gospel spreads into the city and neighborhoods. Often times, the paterfamilias became the church leaders and their housing complexes became places of gathering for worship, having as members of the church, the household members, joined by others who got converted. Therefore, what Paul says in 1Timothy makes clear sense. Paul makes a clear distinction between the household and householder’s family: “manage his own household, keep his children submissive and respectful in every way.” If the paterfamilia could orderly run his own household and his nuclear family, how could he run the church of God?
Our common assumptions when we read this passage.
Often times when we read Paul’s words regarding the submission of wives to their husbands, of slaves to their masters, and of children to their parents, we assume Paul was talking about the nuclear family. We assume that Paul was addressing all wives in general. But in such a setting of the household as we have seen, although not officially recognized, slaves did marry and also the freedpeople in those households. But even so, the wives within those households were not submissive to their husbands but to the master—the paterfamilia. Thus, when Paul instructed the wives to submit to their husbands, he was revolutionizing the relations and power dynamics within those households. And for husband/wife relation, Christ Jesus is the prime model.
Another assumption we have is that when Paul addressed the household we believe he was referring to the private and basic unit of society consisting of parents and children according to our understanding of the modern family. The family home, as we know it, is a place of refuge from the outside world of work and everything else public. Home is a private space reserved for the family unit. This concept of family and home was completely foreign to Paul. Therefore, contrary to the family home we know, the household of Paul’s times was more of an open, quasi-public, place of production where slaves and freedpeople worked together under the master’s direction to produce what was needed to sustain the household and as a source of income for the household master.
And one last assumption we have is that of the church Paul speaks about. We know the church as the people who meet at a particular location or loosely speaking, the place we go to for worship. But the church Paul was addressing was the Christ-converted household, composed of the master, his wife, and children, the freedpeople, slaves and hired hands that worked and lived in the master’s insula, plus those from outside who gathered with them.
What, then, is our biggest problem with Paul’s instruction given here in Ephesians five and six? On the one hand, if we miss to understand the social and historical contexts of it, we would believe Paul is speaking directly to our context, which he is not. Our concepts of family, home, church, and human relationships have changed radically from what was Paul’s. Any direct application of this text without taking into consideration the social and historical contexts will cause violence to the message of the gospel Paul was communicating then and should communicate to us today. On the other hand, for those who welcome the gospel as the liberating message of God for all, often become frustrated because Paul did not undo or at least condemned the social structure of his time to what this has become today—more egalitarian. Such a perception, however, fails to take into account the earth-shattering and absolute radicalness of the message Paul delivered to those in those households.
An excellent summary and picture of what those households looked like are found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In Galatians three, we read: For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 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. (26-28).
But it is in Ephesians where Paul says how that happens.
18 Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Paul was mindful of the chaos and immorality that were typical in the pagan households. Therefore, in his instructions as to how those Christian households should live the new life in Christ, he commanded that instead of drunkenness, all the household members should be filled with the Spirit of God. (Let me just say here that from verse 18 to 23 consists only one sentence. A typical example of Paul’s long-sentence writing habit.) Paul knew that God’s transforming power only happens under the operation of the Holy Spirit. If the new life in Christ should be visible, it could only happen through the unrestrained action of the Holy Spirit in those who receive the message of Christ.
Therefore, imagine, my dear brothers and sisters, the novelty such Christian household became to its surroundings. Instead of a madhouse, due to unrestrained immorality and violence, the insula—the dwelling place became a sanctuary filled with sacred music and singing, reverence towards God, prayers of thanksgiving, and a place where everyone gave honor and respect to the other. Imagine a household that would come together to break bread and drink the cup in the name of Christ, committing to serve, to love, and to honor one another. Imagine a household where the master would sit down along his servant and eat a meal together. Imagine how radical the household became, where the husband lived with his own wife, loving her, taking care of her, even sacrificing his life for her wellbeing. Imagine a household, where the father was loving, patient and considerate to his children. It was no wonder why the world had such difficulty with these early Christians, and why they were considered to be “haters of humanity,” because they so willingly broke the rules—not by tearing down the structures, but by making them ultimately irrelevant! To the world around, these Christian communities seemed like anarchists. They did not abide by the norms of the culture and completely disregarded the rules of the social structure.
Therefore, if it is true that Paul did not condemn nor try to undo the social structure of his time, yet his message was radically transformative to those who received it. Those households reached with the gospel became beacons of God’s power operating among those who accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior. If Paul kept the social structure, where wives were to remain subject to their husbands, where children were to obey their parents, and where slaves were to obey their masters, the effect of the most transformation took place on the one who had absolute authority, the paterfamilias—the man.
It is to the husbands whom Paul urged three times to love their own wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself to make her holy (v. 25, 28, 33).
It is to the fathers whom Paul urged to be considerate and gentle to their children.
It is to the masters whom Paul exhorted to treat their slaves with respect and fear and with sincerity of heart and not threatening them because Jesus was the new Paterfamilia. That was amazing! That was radical.
How could the church of today be a place where God’s radical transformation is clearly visible like city on the hill and which because of its countercultural practices unsettles the world around it? First we need to see that the culture around us is a human construction. Every culture has good and sinful/fallen elements. But what defines the church is Christ, his message of sacrificial love. For the church, Christ is Lord. And out of reverence for him, we all honor one another. We accept the gifts and the vessels Christ, the Lord, chooses to use, regardless of gender. In Christ, we are all equal, sons and daughters. Christ abolished every human construct of order, status, gender that pitied one group of human beings against another.
I believe the church would be the vanguard of social justice if we were to really listen to Paul’s words here in Ephesians. The church would not only laud the advancement of women, advocate for the rights of the oppressed, and take the side of the poor, but would actually see it as part of its proclamation without feeling out of place. Its proclamation would not only be of words but through its practice. But unfortunately, even Christians were against the abolition of slavery. Even parts of the Christian church was against the civil rights movement. Even part of the Christian church continue to promote and hold as holy the patriarchal culture of Paul’s times, in complete disregard to the progress that our society considers just for women. Even part of the Christian church continues to believe that social justice is outside the scope of the gospel message.
In God’s household, Jesus is Lord. As for us, members of that household and in our own homes, we have been called to live Christ-like lives where:
We seek God’s shalom—peace and holistic wellbeing for everyone.
We seek to be filled and led by the Spirit of God.
We give honor to one another.
Submit to one another out of love.
And all this for the sake of Christ Jesus, the new Master of God’s household. Amen!