In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
This is a difficult passage for many of us and a volatile one for the church. It can be such a hot button issues that people will avoid certain churches or churches may even split over the issue of the role of men and women in the church (or, as in today’s passage, in the family). We need to understand several factors that influence how we understand, and therefore how we feel, about this issue.
Firstly, men and women are different. This is, I think, indisputable (although I recognize that there are many who will indeed dispute it). But this is not to say that we are completely different – there’s a lot of crossover, a lot of similarities between men and women, because we’re all human. But we are not identical. However, different does not mean unequal. These differences in no way determine value.
Secondly, I think it is likewise indisputable that women have suffered at the hands of male dominated societies. I think that women have frequently, over the course of human history, been devalued, under-appreciated, and repressed. I think this is a grievous error.
Thirdly, for some years now we have been going through a reaction to this imbalance between the sexes. Depending on a number of factors, not the least of which is whether you are male or female, but also including factors like your relationship to your father and mother, what kind of church you grew up in, etc., your reaction to this reaction will vary.
Now I think it’s useful to keep these things in mind as we consider our passage today. One of the first things to notice is that this passage is very similar to a couple of others:
- Colossians 3:18 – 4:1
- 1 Peter 2:11 – 3:7
The similarity to Colossians can be easily explained as Paul wrote both letters and both letters tend to share a lot of similarities. The similarity to 1 Peter is a little more difficult to explain. It’s possible that either Paul borrowed from Peter; or Peter borrowed from Paul. But here, the difficulty seems to be that this is a pretty isolated instance of borrowing. There isn’t much else to say that either was influenced in their writing or theology by the other.
Another possibility is that they are both borrowing from or referencing a third, common source or influence. The possibility exists that both Paul and Peter are referencing a (fairly well-known) household code from the Greco-Roman world. Now the ideas themselves are fairly well recognized, but the similarity in the structure of the passages leads us to believe that there might have a been a particular reference to which both Paul and Peter are pointing. One possible candidate for this seems to be found in Aristotle’s work, Politics. Here are the relevant passages for our discussion:
Of household management we have seen that there are three parts–one is the rule of a master over slaves, which has been discussed already, another of a father, and the third of a husband. A husband and father, we saw, rules over wife and children, both free, but the rule differs, the rule over his children being a royal, over his wife a constitutional rule. For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the elder and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature. (Emphasis mine)
Notice that Aristotle’s “three parts” corresponds precisely with Paul and Peter’s three categories of household relationships.
But this is not all. Aristotle goes on to say about these household relationships:
Now, it is obvious that the same principle applies generally, and therefore almost all things rule and are ruled according to nature. But the kind of rule differs; the freeman rules over the slave after another manner from that in which the male rules over the female, or the man over the child; although the parts of the soul are present in and of them, they are present in different degrees. For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature. (Emphasis mine)
If we take as convincing that both Paul and Peter are referencing Aristotle’s household code (or something quite similar to it – i.e. a culturally understood and accepted norm), then what we notice is that the application of and rationale for this household code in the NT is markedly different than the Greco-Roman one.
Aristotle’s rationale, in a nutshell, is that men are superior. So what we see in typical Greco-Roman society, in which the Jewish world and the Church existed, was that households were led by a male patriarch who ruled, both morally and legally, with an iron fist. Women, children, and slaves were considered property.
In each case in the NT, the Christian rationale is very different: In Peter’s letter, he is talking about how to live as Christians in a hostile, non-Christian world. His rationale for living in a household in a particular way is summed up in the beginning of his passage:
12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:12)
Paul in Colossians seems to be speaking about how to live in peace with one another. And here in this part of Ephesians, as we have seen, Paul is talking about how we live as a community, a people of God, in a way that gives glory to God. In this, he says quite distinctly, be different from the world:
17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. (4:17)
In other words, in each case, in Ephesians, Colossians, and in 1 Peter, we seem to be seeing a Christian response to the Aristotelian (Greco-Roman) household code that is intended to be different and set-apart.
Now let’s take a closer look at what’s going on in our specific passage in Ephesians. Firstly, I want to make mention of how I’ve chosen this particular passage. Specifically, the passage that we’re looking at today begins in verse 21. The NIV translates the passage this way:
v. 21: Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
The NRSV, NLT, RSV also do this.
But if you prefer to read another version, you’ll notice something. ESV, NASB, ASV, NKJV all render v. 21 as part of the previous sentence.
18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Emphasis mine)
This again is a situation where I think the ESV (and others) have gotten it right because it better reflects the Greek. In the Greek, “submit” (NIV) is actually a participle – same as “addressing,” “singing,” “making melody,” and “giving thanks.” These are all participles modifying “be filled with the Spirit.” In other words, these are all ways in which the being filled with the Spirit are lived out. Furthermore, the being filled with the Spirit is the way in which we are called to live which is set in contrast to walking in the way of the world. As Paul says earlier in his letter:
17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live (walk) as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. (4:17)
Everything that follows, husbands and wives, fathers and children, masters and slaves, happens in that context. Unlike the Greco-Roman world, husbands, fathers, and masters (notice that in a Roman household, these would all be the same person) should not treat their wives, children, or servants as property. They should not belittle or abuse or dominate. Rather, he should treat them as Christ loved the church. Likewise, wives, children, and servants should not just fear the husband/father/master. It shouldn’t just be about mindless obedience, but about relationship.
So What Now…?
The Christian household should be different. The Christian household should be marked by what Christ has done for all of us. Be set apart. Be different. How we do family should be different. How we do community should be different. How we do life should be different. Be made of different stuff.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in questions of structure (i.e. who should be in charge?). And these are not necessarily invalid questions. But often, when we ask these questions, we are really talking about power. Who has the power? We get consumed by questions of power because that’s what we each have been seeking from the beginning. In seeking to be our own gods, our own arbiters of right and wrong, we have lost our sense of self and seek to establish it through our position over others.
But throughout Ephesians, we see that God is restoring the proper order of things. God is restoring His kingdom and His people. In our relationships with each other, as the chosen, redeemed people of God, we demonstrate His kingship by living in right relation with one another – not as the world deems it, but as God has made it.