Text: Ephesians 5:21 – 28
This is the first of four sermons in our Difficult Passages series.
In the Twelve Scriptures series this summer we highlighted the passages in the Bible that we see as guiding lights. We received a lot of appreciative feedback, although several of you came to me and said something to the effect, “This is a good series, but what I’m really looking forward to is that other one about the bad Scriptures.” That day has arrived, and for the month of October we are switching from the goodies to the baddies, pondering parts of the Bible that we find especially troubling and difficult, even antithetical to our values.
Unlike the Twelve Scriptures Project, our survey in the spring showed no clear top vote getters for the difficult passages, except for one: today’s passage from Ephesians that contains the lines “wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” “For the husband is the head of the wife.” A little later in the passage, beyond what was read, it says, “slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ.” “Fear and trembling” is a pretty good description of how I as the speaker of the day approach the task.
What I’d like to do, rather than preach one standard sermon, is to take up three different perspectives and offer three mini-sermons, each one representing a different approach we might take to a difficult passage of scripture. I will attempt to highlight the good of what each perspective has to offer and will preach each mini-sermon with the full conviction of one coming from that perspective. You listen for what resonates and rings true, and what sounds off base.
In order to not privilege one over the other, I will present these in random order and have asked Eve to draw the titles out of a hat. One is called “That was so first century” and looks at this from a cultural perspective. Another is called “It’s better than it looks,” and searches for the redeeming qualities within the text. The other is called “The whole elephant” and takes into account the full council of scripture.
(Mini-sermons appear in the order in which they were drawn)
That was so first century
The Bible is our sacred text. We read from it every Sunday, hear sermons based on its passages, and study it in our private devotion. We claim this as our faith story and our spiritual heritage. The Bible is our central book.
It’s not a single book, of course, it’s more like a library, a collection of books, 66 total, 39 Hebrew, Old Testament, 27 Greek, New Testament. It did not drop out of the sky in finished form, straight from heaven to earth. These books were written over a period of hundreds and hundreds of years, whose stories span well over a thousand years.
There is no such thing as being able to stand outside one’s time and place. We are culture-bound creatures, gifted by and limited by the sensibilities and understandings of our time. We should never confuse the human word with the divine word. Saying that scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit does not mean that every word is a direct channel from God to us. What’s most important is that we discern together, as a community, in our place and our time, what the Holy Spirit continues to be saying to us, taking into account the Scriptures, other sources of Wisdom, and our own experience, recognizing that we also carry the gifts and limitations of our time.
This epistle is addressed to the church of Ephesus, a particular church at a particular time in a particular place. They had their social norms. They had the way their society was ordered from which they couldn’t deviate too much. Ephesians was very likely written by a follower of the Apostle Paul, several generations after Jesus lived. The words that we have here are a sign that the church was already, even toward the end of the first century, starting to lose its radical edge. In Galatians, an earlier book the Apostle Paul himself had written, it says: “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.” (Galatians 3:28). And now, this. “For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church…” “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling.” The shock waves of the Jesus movement were starting to dissipate in their intensity, going from a revolutionary undercurrent to trying to find ways to adapt to the culture of the time. To be faithful to God, but not too radical so as to upset the boat. A little less Galatians 3 and a little more Romans 13 – “Let every person be subject to the governing authority.” In this part of Ephesians we can see how Christians were trying to navigate these difficult waters of faith and culture. Slavery was such an entrenched practice that the goal was not to abolish it completely, but to mitigate its effects within the Christian community. If both master and slave were believers, they could treat each other respectfully, honoring one another while maintaining their respective roles. In God’s eyes, they were brothers and sisters.
Even if these words were radical at that time, speaking directly to women and children and slaves and giving them a seat at the table, we have moved beyond the place where these words can be helpful to us. They have been too abused, too misused, reveal too much of human fallenness and too little of God’s steadfast love that we should hold them in the same category as certain other Scriptures, like Old Testament law codes, that we just don’t follow anymore. They are interesting for academic study, but they are not a guide for living. For us, these words are descriptive of a certain time and certain place, but are not prescriptive for our time and our place. Let’s take the best of what they have to offer us, and leave the other as signs of where we have been but not where we are going. We see God’s hand at work in the abolitionists, civil rights, and feminist movements, and see there are some ways in which we do progress as a human community. Hebrews 4 says that the Word of God is living and active. God’s Word is not trapped in the culture of the past, but is working – active, alive – to redeem the present culture. May we listen for this Word in our time.
It’s better than it looks.
If we’re willing to come to this passage with fresh eyes, we may be surprised to see that it can be a liberating text. We see lines like “wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord,” and “slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling,” and we’d like to discount the whole passage. Maybe even raise our fist toward Paul and blame him for the next two millennia of patriarchy and slavery. But this would be a tragic misunderstanding of the apostle’s intentions. We can’t allow the way scripture has been twisted out of shape to have the final word. There’s good news here. Read with an open mind, this Ephesians passage contains teachings that lead to what Mennonite scholar John Howard Yoder refers to as Revolutionary Subordination.
When we look at this passage, it’s tempting to go directly to verse 22 that speaks to wives, but prior to this there is an important statement made that applies to all parties about to be addressed. Verse 21 states “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This introductory remark is addressed to all who claim to participate in the church. It sets our relationships in the context of reverence for Christ, and it asks that being subject, or being subordinate, or being under the authority of one another, is the role of all of us. So there is no justification in what follows for any claims that one party or role or person can dominate or subjugate another. We are each to be willing to be under one another’s authority – and that authority is one of Christian love, not abusive power.
Since that verb – to be subject or submit – is so prevalent in verse 21, applying to all, it’s not surprising that verse 22, now speaking specifically to a group of people, wives, should read “wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord.” The author sees in this a reflection of the relationship between Christ and the church. “Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.”
Since everyone is expected to be subject to one another, this is a common task. And when husbands are addressed, they are given a task that demands their whole lives. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Husbands are asked to sacrifice their lives for their wives, after the model of Christ for the church. This is a reverse of what often has happened through history. Usually it has been the wife who sacrifices herself for the good of the husband or family without seeking her own will. If husbands would love their wives as Christ loved the church, it could be liberating for both.
Beyond this note to wives and husbands, it’s significant how this passage is structured. There are three sets of relationships that are spoken to in this part of Ephesians. Wives and Husbands. Children and Fathers. Slaves and Masters. In that order. John Howard Yoder compares this passage to Greek Stoicism of the day, which also had codes of behavior for dignity and ethics, but was addressed only to men, fathers, and princes. Stoic instruction was not addressed to wives, children, and slaves. Yoder observes that here, from Paul, “The admonition…is addressed first to the subject: to the slave before the master, to the children before the parents, to the wives before the husbands.” He goes on to say, “Here begins the revolutionary innovation in the early Christian style of ethical thinking for which there is no explanation in borrowing from other contemporary cultural sources… Here we have a faith that assigns personal moral responsibility to those who had no legal or moral status in their culture, and makes them decision makers.” (JHY, Politics of Jesus, 1995, pp.171-172)
It’s better than it looks. It could even be liberating.
The whole elephant
Perhaps you’ve heard the Indian proverb of the six blind men who come upon an elephant, each one encountering some part of the large creature, each convinced in their own mind that this one part represents the whole. In the 19th century this parable was written as an English poem by John Godfrey Saxe ( 1816-1887). This is how the poem goes:
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” said he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”
The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” said he,
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” said he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
Given that we now have come upon this creature, this piece of scripture, that others have come upon as well and had their say about, here is a somewhat silly poem I wrote that hopefully has some parallels to that proverb.
When paging through the Holy Book
For guidance in the ways of life
Whenever you arrive at Ephesians 5
You’re bound to feel some strife
If you’re the wife.
Wives submit, slaves obey
Is this what they call good news?
Between the Bible and progressive society
are we forced to choose?
If so, in this case, I confess,
To follow scripture and our conscience
There must be a way,
To love the ancient wisdom
And the equality we value today.
About women and slaves
What else does scripture say?
There was at the beginning
Before the awful curse
Male and female created in God’s image
Creation beautiful and diverse
God said that was good,
We made it worse.
And then as things went downhill fast
Humanity more depraved
And empires rose through domination
More power and control to crave
The God of the Bible didn’t back Egypt’s regime
But the Hebrew slaves.
The prophets had the vision
That the world would someday heal
That sons and daughters would prophesy
That all who hunger would have a meal
That the curse
would be repealed.
When Jesus was placed within the grave
Rather than leaving him to become a fossil
It was the women who encountered the risen Christ
And became the first apostles
It was the men who said
And as the church began to spread
And scattered communities would form
For women to be leaders and deacons
Was not out of the norm
Women and men side by side
Slowly took the Roman empire by (peaceful) storm
So is the Bible cutting edge,
Or sadly out of date,
Does is call for revolution,
Or a status quo type state
And if different parts say different things
Then how do they relate?
When fixed upon one passage
Thinking it’s the only feature
Remember we’ve been told a proverb
That can be our teacher
Listen to all the other blind people in the room
And consider the whole creature.
Now I’m back as me with one parting thought:
The Dalai Lama has proclaimed that “the world will be saved by the Western woman.” That’s a humbling thing for an Eastern man to be saying.
I don’t know the context for this statement, but it’s something I’ve pondered, and perhaps more intensely so since I live with four Western women, not to mention four backyard female chickens who miraculously turn our rotten food into tasty eggs. This puts me back at the point of fear and trembling of not wanting to fall into gender stereotypes, but I’m fairly convinced that our era especially calls for those combination of gifts that seem to come more naturally for women: To have a strong mind and a soft heart. To provide leadership that is collaborative and assertive. To know in your body the kinship that humanity shares with one another and all of creation.
I marvel at these gifts, and I submit to your wisdom.
The world will be saved by the Western woman?
So the question for western women might be: will you accept, and be subject to this high and difficult calling? To accept that you now have the resources and opportunity to lead us into a better way of living on this planet. It may not always have been your time, but, by the grace of the Spirit, now is your time.