Rebekah Dyer is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. When she’s not writing her thesis, she spends most of her free time playing video games and pondering queer theology.
(This post is back-dated to put it with the correct passages. Actually published 10th April 2016).
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.
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,
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.’
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.
If the writer of Ephesians 5:3-20 had made a canvas rather than written a letter, they would have painted a segregated world of shady secrets and overwhelming light. This passage portrays a community anxious to resist the darkness beyond its doors, desperate instead for the light of a good and moral life. Believers are advised not to even mention the shameful acts the darkness covers.
Depending on your assumptions around the term ‘sexual immorality’ in v1, this fear of contamination might be directed towards those of us who queer ‘traditional’ sexual relationships. As a queer believer, I’m left wondering: are we the untouchables, the unmentionables? Do we represent all that must not be named?
Immoral; impure; greedy (v.3-5). For so long these dogs of accusation have chased us down, or at the very least nipped at our heels. As a bi woman, ‘greedy’ hits me especially hard. Suspicion and prejudice often misinterprets multiple-gender attraction as a result of some kind of debased insatiability. This is also painfully true for those of us who experience life polyamorously. It’s difficult to not read myself into the dark spaces of this passage.
My life, my self, my love — are these to be relegated to the shadows?
Doubtless, the passage has been used to say so by many a church community, by those afraid to even speak our names. It’s hard to see how this insular passage can be read alongside generous love. So, then — how can we read Ephesians 5:3-20 in the light of Jesus’ inclusive gospel?
Maybe the phrase ‘light of the gospel’ avails us of an access point:
For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. (v8-9)
Here, with these verses, I feel on much safer ground. Echoes of Isaiah’s messianic prophecy and the hope of the gospels are undeniable here. This is the story of our faith community, the testament of the church. Queer believers: we cannot be darkness — in Christ, we are already light.
As a much younger Christian — as a teenager, before I had a sense of my own queerness — I liked Ephesians. It seemed to provide timeless encouragement that welded me not just into my present-day community of faith, but to those ancient believers too. I experienced the letter’s call to thanksgiving as endlessly optimistic.
Perhaps there’s something to be said for the optimism of my reading ten years ago.
The light of Christ’s love, sacrifice, and transformation illuminates this passage with hope and seems to save me all over again: this time, from a church and society that would rather keep me silent; and from myself, when I would take their attitude to heart and write myself into Ephesians’ condemnation. But if I am already in the light of Christ, the condemnation of Ephesians 5:3-20 must be reserved for something else.
What kind of secrets do people hide away? There are harmless secrets about surprise birthday parties and useful secrets keeping internet passwords safe. There are the confidences of friends. There are toxic secrets of underhanded dealings, abuses of trust, manipulation for personal gain. And then there are the cards you hold close to your chest to protect yourself: identities that stay hidden for your own safety and mental health. These are the secrets you keep because of the hostility of others.
How we determine which type(s) of secrets to avoid is crucial to how we apply Ephesians’ moral message; and what we think about these secrets informs how we understand what it means to expose them. Ephesians 5:3-20 makes clear that the secrets it condemns are the ones that stand in opposition to Christ-like living. They involve acts that go against all that is ‘good and right and true’ (v9). But we don’t have free license to drag whatever we like out into the open, however toxic a person’s behaviour might be. If we want to see ‘fruit’ in these situations, it’s up to us to handle people’s lives with care; in ways that are good, and right, and true.
Ephesians calls us to thanksgiving and transformation. It asks us to demystify dishonest behaviour by addressing it openly rather than allowing it to generate rumour and distrust. What we must not do with Ephesians 5:3-20 is use its warnings as an excuse to invade each others’ lives. Exposing a person’s relationships, gender identity or health issues in the name of ‘bringing things into the light’ is nothing less than a violence against that person — surely not the kind of community Ephesians is encouraging us to build.
And if were are the shamed, the forcibly exposed —
the unmentionables, pressed into dark and silent spaces —
we are still light.