Queer Ephesians 5.3-20: Queer Ethics

One challenge faced by queer people is how to find an ethic that applies to us and guides us in our lives. Ephesians suggests an ethic based on integrity and thankfulness will guide us how to live well as Christians, whoever we are, and however else we identify.


The Challenge of a Queer Ethic

3 But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. 4Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk; but instead, let there be thanksgiving. 5Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

One of the things that has been particularly difficult for me as a queer Christian has been trying to overcome the feeling among my secular queer friends that I am no longer any fun, now that I am Christian, and that I am now some judgmental puritan in the ilk of Lord and Lady Whiteadder. But also having to overcome the prejudice many Christians seem to have that, because I am queer, I am somehow inherently immoral, or at least ethically lax. The challenge for queer Christians to live ethically is greater than for their straight or cis brethren, not because we are inherently immoral, but because the Church has simply done a lot less thinking about how we are best to live Christian lives, and so can give us far less help in doing so.

The basic thrust of v.3 is that being a Christian precludes a laissez-faire abandonment of ethical integrity. Whether it be “fornication and impurity of any kind”, what we do with our bodies, “or greed”, how we interact with the world around us and each other, these things matter to us as Christians too much to simply ignore them and carry on as if they don’t matter.

Then comes the rather odd statement that these things “must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints” (v.3). Now, I would suggest that this does not mean that we should not talk about them at all. Far from it! For things such as these are important to Christian living and important enough for Ephesians to talk about them! But rather, the point here is that questions of ethical integrity should not be the object of “obscene, silly and vulgar talk” (v.4). We can have a joke about things like sex or money or relationships, but joking and sarcasm should not characterise our talk in general about these things. As Christians, we should remember that they matter, and we should approach them in the spirit of “thanksgiving” (v.4), taking them seriously and considering them honestly.

Indeed, Ephesians makes it clear that this mindset is key to determining just how seriously Christians are taking the Gospel. If we approach issues of ethics with integrity and seriousness then we are approaching them in a way of seeking to give thanks to God and to honour Christ. But if we do not, if we say that nothing matters, becoming an unthinking “fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy” (v.5), for all greed is a form of idolatry, then we do not have “any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (v.5).

For queer Christians, ethics is more of a minefield, and more of strain than for our straight brethren. But an honest and committed approach to living with integrity in the spirit of thankfulness is vital to our spiritual health, and our growth in the Gospel.

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An Ethic of Integrity and Thankfulness

6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient. 7Therefore do not be associated with them. 8For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— 9for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,
‘Sleeper, awake!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.’

The next section, taken in isolation, might seem a bit baffling. But if we take it in the context of what has gone before, it makes a lot more sense. Christians are called to approach ethics with integrity and in a spirit of thankfulness. However, there have always been those within the Church who have got the wrong end of the stick, conservatives and progressives alike, and have come to some rather odd conclusions about ethics. Think of those who took the Gospel of grace in 1 Corinthians 6 to mean that they could do whatever they wanted with their bodies, and used prostitutes. Or think of those who take the importance of the law to completely close their minds to the possibility that queer people might be morally upright Christians whilst retaining their queer identity. In both of these cases, the laissez-faire or the closed-minded, ethical questions are not being approached with integrity and thanksgiving.

These are the “empty words” (v.6) by which we must take care not to be deceived. If we close our minds to ethical questions, or simply live as if they don’t apply to us, we dishonour God as well as our neighbour and ourselves. And insodoing we become in the truest sense “disobedient” (v.6) to God’s call to love, faithfulness and integrity, rightly provoking his divine characteristic of “wrath” (v.6), the righteous anger which stems from love and vocation spurned. Indeed, the danger of these ways of thinking is so great, Ephesians argues, that if in doubt we should simply “not be associated with them” (v.7). If people are trying to persuade us not to act with integrity and honesty, out of love and thanksgiving to God, then they are not doing us any good.

Then we get an amazing theological series of verses. They are completely not how Paul would have reasoned, and are more like John’s Gospel and 1 John, for they speak in terms of the theological categories of ‘dark’ and ‘light’. As we have already seen, Ephesians is trying to get us to take ethical questions seriously, and in the heart of this paragraph it reminds us: “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord” (v.10). But we do this knowing that a change has been effected in us by Christ, “for once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light” (v.8).

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Knowing that something profound has changed in us, we are called to reflect that in our lives, to “live as children of light” (v.8). Our being faithful people is reflected in how we choose to live, “for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true” (v.9). The light of which Ephesians speaks is none other than Jesus, whom John’s Gospel describes as “the true light, which gives light to everyone” (John 1:9). And so our ethical engagement springs from nothing less than the presence of Christ within us, the gift of Christ himself to us, which we know and feel by our unity with one another in the body of Christ.

The “works of darkness” (v.11), in contrast, are unfruitful, though this is not because of any character they may have, or because they are without effect. Rather, because they do not have Christ the light as their source and guiding principle, these works cannot have the fruit which really matters and is truly good, the fruit that shows the love of God in Jesus Christ.

So, in our own lives and the life of the Church, we are called to “take no part” (v.11) in these sort of works, “but instead expose them” (v.11), for their root is not Christ, and they do not give the fruit which Christians are called to give. Secrecy is a serious problem in early Christian ethics, and this stems from the Graeco-Roman obsession with things done furtively and in secret as being inherently dangerous, dubious and wrong. And the inference in Ephesians is that what people do in secret, not with integrity or with thankfulness to God, must be so shameful that it would be “shameful even to mention” (v.12) them.

In contrast, the Christian is called to live with integrity and thankfulness, prepared to give account for their actions and decisions, and ready to give thanks to God at all times for all that they do. This is a tall order, and would be impossible if it was a question of merely having a clear conscience. All of us have a certain measure of guilt. Rather, Ephesians is saying that it is Jesus who brings our ethical quandaries out into the open. It is Jesus, the light, who enables us to debate and discuss how to live with integrity and thankfulness, for “everything exposed by the light”, that is Jesus, is not hidden but “becomes visible” (v.13).

In Jesus, we do not have to live doing shady deals and having secret meetings in back rooms. We are called to engage openly and honestly with the Church and the world, bringing problems and questions out into the open, where the Church can see Jesus is at work, “for everything that becomes visible is light” (v.14).

Now, for many queer people, the call to bring things out into the open might be rather more difficult and complex than for our straight and cis brethren. And it isn’t calling us either to come out en masse, or to feel we must air our dirty linen in public. Rather, what Ephesians is getting at is that we can live with greater integrity and in a fuller spirit of thankfulness when we are able, in the fulness of time and with the right circumstances, to talk honestly with one another and within ourselves about ethical questions. Problems buried or denied only tend to get worse.

This is nothing less than a resurrection issue. The coming out of queer issues and all ethical questions is akin to the coming out of Christ from the tomb: “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead” (v.14). And if we seek to live with integrity and a spirit of thankfulness, the light of “Christ will shine upon you” (v.14), helping us to see and direct our steps in his way, with fuller integrity and fuller thankfulness.

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Be Careful How You Live

15 Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

To take Ephesians’ reflection on ethics even deeper, it links “how you live” (v.15) with the Old Testament concept of wisdom. Now for all that queer theologians like to use the concept of sophia-wisdom to blur the gender of Christ, I don’t think that’s a helpful line of thought here. Rather, the Old Testament quality of wisdom, in figures like Job or Solomon, is integrally linked to the knowledge and love of God. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9.10, cf. Proverbs 1.7; Psalm 111.10).

So when Ephesians says, “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise” (v.15), it is not making a point about intelligence or education, but rather about living in a way that reflects that fact that we know and love God. The opposite is to be “foolish” (v.17), not “understand[ing] what the will of the Lord is” (v.17), because that person does not know or love him. We are to live “making the most of the time, because the days are evil” (v.16), remembering always that our judgment may be just round the corner, and that we are called to always show the love we do have for God, in our words and our deeds.

So, a case study for how this works in practice. Verse 18 is a painful verse for many anglicans. We love to party, and “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery” (v.18) is a cruel thing to quote in isolation. But actually, that injunction doesn’t stand in isolation. For the alternative to getting drunk is “be[ing] filled with the Spirit” (v.18). In other words, what Ephesians is talking about here is a problem of displacement. The fool does not know and love God. By definition that is what makes them a fool. But rather than seeking after God, they fill themselves with a different sort of spirit, something that distracts them from the problem. But what does the wise person, the one who knows and loves God do? The one who is wise and is filled by the Holy Spirit lives “as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts” (v.19). Their merrymaking does not distract them from God but praises him and builds them up in love.

This is how Ephesians calls us to consider ethical questions, and it is useful advice particularly for queer people who are more adrift in this area. Our ethical engagement must be marked by honesty, integrity and openness, building us up in love for God. And our living must always be characterised by thankfulness and praise, even the things we find most difficult to evaluate.

Christians are called to be ethical beings, making moral decisions with integrity, “giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v.20).

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