Who are we: living in the light
You have no idea how tempting it is, when you have committed yourself to preaching one week on each chapter of the book of Ephesians, to choose the first half of chapter 5 instead of the second. It’s got some great stuff in it – be imitators of God, live in love, try to work out what is pleasing to the Lord, expose works of darkness.
And, perhaps the key verse for the chapter: “live as children of light, for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true”.
But I foolishly said back at the start of the series that we would get to the words that we’ve heard read for us today, and so here we are.
Wives and husbands.
So let’s start by putting this a little bit into context. Paul has been writing about how the people of Jesus should live in the world. The second half of chapter four and the first half of chapter five has laid out the differences between the old life and the new – the old characterised by licentiousness, greed, argumentativeness, gossip and slander, bitterness and anger, corruption, theft, drunkenness – and the new, of compassion, mutual support, spirituality, kindness, forgiveness, praise, unity.
And now, like any good preacher, he brings his theoretical discussion home. Literally, he brings it to the life of the Christian household. Husband and wife, and then in chapter six, parents and children, slaves and masters.
And what does he do? What does he tell people? Well, in truth I think his message is summed up in verse 21: “be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ”.
And then he takes these three relationships: husband-wife, parent-child, master-slave, and in each case he basically follows the same pattern.
First, he turns to the partner in the relationship who has less, or even no, power, according to the culture of the day: the wife, the child, the slave, and of them he demands…. absolutely nothing more than they are already required by law, and the even more powerful force of custom, to give. Paul does not lay any extra burden on wives – who already were required to be subject, in everything, to their husbands, or to children, who were already bound to honour their parents, or to slaves, who the law required to obey their masters.
Paul is not establishing an inequality in these relationships. He is recognising, and working within, the asymmetric power relationships that already existed. And in that context he offers to the believer a way of living in that relationship which is consistent with their faith. He gives a way for the powerless partner to fulfil what is culturally demanded of them, and do so as an act of obedience to God. “…as to the Lord… in the Lord …as you obey Christ”.
Now remember that in many, many cases, the first member of a household to come to faith in Jesus was one of the least powerful – the faith grew most quickly amongst slaves and women in particular, attracted by the telling of Jesus’ treatment of the outsider, the disempowered. And it’s not hard to imagine the difficulties faced by the faithful woman whose husband did not believe, or the faithful slave with a pagan master. What were they to do, when the demands of those placed over them conflicted with their faith?
What Paul does here is to set people free from a terrible dilemma. Your husband demands you accompany him to the pagan temple? You don’t have to choose between that authority and obedience to Christ, with the terrible personal consequences that might follow from disobedience: you can go, and you can even do as an act of faith in Jesus. Perhaps your witness will even win them over.
In a culture in which the inequality of power in the family is deeply entrenched, Paul offers wives a way to live faithfully both as wives and as Christians.
And then, in each case Paul turns to the powerful partner. And here he radically departs from the social norms and laws of the day. For while there was nothing new in telling wives to obey, commanding husbands not just to love their wives, but to love them as they love themselves, to give themselves up for their wives as Christ did for the Church – that was something never demanded of the partner used to having things all their own way.
And this is why I say that the heart of Paul’s argument lay in verse 21: be subject to one another. The underlying principle that Paul is working from is one of mutuality. For the wife, mutual submission means no more than was already demanded of her; but for the husband, it asked the laying down of his life.
Paul’s instructions to the Christian household are simply his outworking, in a particular culture, in a particular time and place, of this law: be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. For, as he ends this section, in chapter 6 verse 9, you have the same master in heaven, and with God there is no partiality.
Now I’m not claiming here that Paul would have fitted right in with twenty-first century feminism and egalitarianism. I’m sure that he considered the submission of wife to husband to be absolutely the right and natural order of things. He was, after all, a first century Jew. And the most significant example to the contrary, of the elevation of women, was in the cult of Artemis, a pagan worship which he had come into very pointed conflict with.
And (sadly), social justice and equality wasn’t at the heart of Paul’s understanding of the faith, either – far less so than, for instance, is evident in the life and teaching of Jesus! – he was passionate, above all, for the good news of Jesus to be spread, and for the Church of Jesus to remain united. he is not inclined to overturn the social order, for to do so would be an impediment to both of those great passions.
And yet this is also the man who wrote that in Christ there is neither male nor female, who insisted that God shows no partiality, and begged a slave owner to free his returned runaway.
So what would Paul say to us?
It seems to me the core of his message stands the test of time, the test of culture: be subject to one another.
It’s actually, in it’s way, a revolutionary doctrine. For the natural way of the world is to establish the pecking order, the alpha male, the line of succession, the asymmetry of power. That is the way the world works, by establishing who has authority over who, and enforcing that order, by violence if necessary.
But Paul’s touchstone is mutual submission: that there is no relationship in which the inequality of power is not balanced, if only by a matching inequality of responsibility.
For there are many relationships in our culture which remain unequal in power – and often it seems unimaginable that it could be otherwise (though perhaps a future generation will look back on us and wonder how we believed that!). The relationship between parent and child, teacher and student, employer and employee, between citizen and government: we see the asymmetry of these relationships as intrinsic and necessary (just as Paul, no doubt, saw that of husband and wife).
And Ephesians 5 does not ask us to seek to overturn these differences, to reject the authority of a court, of a teacher, of an employer (although there are other texts which do invite us to challenge these authorities when the situation demands – but that is a whole different sermon). Instead it invites us to ask “how, in these relationships, can we live in mutual submission? In those cases where we hold the power, how do we submit ourselves to those over whom we have authority?”
Where there must be submission, Paul challenges us, let it be like our submission to Christ.
But much more: where there must be authority, let it be exercised like the authority of Christ.
And where there can be equality, that is surely the most complete form of mutual submission that can possibly be achieved.
I’m sure Paul was not a twenty first century feminist transplanted to another age. He was not an egalitarian.
But because of what lies at the heart of his writings, I am.