Ben (aka Bingo) Allison is a Church of England ordinand in the third year of study. He is a prizewinning performance poet who enjoys writing liturgy, and preaching. He is autistic, and has been involved in various projects reflecting theologically on autism and disability as a whole, including writing a chapter in Disability: An Inclusive Church Resource. He has been married for nearly nine years and has three beautiful children.
Power is not just something to be strived after, a vain and pointless chasing after the wind (Ecc 2:9-11), a product of our own agency. Power is often something which is given and taken away by others, ironically something we may feel powerless to resist. Here, Paul presents us with three pairs of situations in which power has been given or taken away by society:
- Ephesians 5:21-33 The disempowerment of wives and the empowerment of husbands.
- Ephesians 6:1-4 The disempowerment of children and the empowerment of fathers.
- Ephesians 6:5-9 The disempowerment of slaves and the empowerment of masters.
As much as we would want him to do so, Paul does not attempt to challenge these unequal power dynamics. He does not seek to give others the tools to do so. But, instead his focus is on how to exist within them as a servant of Christ.
I am mindful that the way that these verses have been used to legitimise the disempowerment of people brings a level of taint to this passage that may be unsurmountable, and anything I say in apology for them may feel for some like a further disempowerment. Paul lived in a world where slavery, female disempowerment, and abuse of children was normal, and I do not see much evidence here that he saw this as immoral or unethical. However, I do see some evidence that the ethical reflection we saw in previous passages has allowed Paul to begin to see beyond his own “evil times” (Eph 5:16), to see how difficult “building one another up in love” (Eph 4:16) might be in a church rife with inequality.
21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
In verse 21, Paul begins with a kind of ‘catch-all’ statement “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,” a key to everything that goes after it, a guide to the true spirit in which all the advice below it is to be taken. The main verb in the sentence is hupotassomenoi, originally a military term denoting submission to a commanding officer, placing another in command over oneself. Rather than submitting to one specific person, Paul invites each of the Ephesians to submit to allelois – every other. Voluntarily, I should treat every single person I come across as more powerful than me, en phobos Christou, in the fear of Christ. Recognising and respecting the absolute power relinquished by Christ on the cross, everyone should submit themselves to everyone else, all power should be relinquished as soon as it is received.
While Paul understands the importance of relinquish power when it is given to us, Paul is too mired in his own culture to seek to resist the sinful structures that take power away from some people and give it to others in the first place. However, from his reflections on the importance of the church as body, and building one another up, Paul is able to identify some ways in which the powerful might relinquish some of their power, and (to a much lesser extent) ways in which the disempowered acquire some of power which is denied to them.
22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. 24Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27so as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30because we are members of his body. 31‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ 32This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.
In the Greek, vs 22 contains no verb, it reads literally, “Wives to their own husbands as to the Lord.” We might be tempted to use this grammatical idiom to suggest that Paul is not talking about wives submitting at all, however this hope is dashed by the reuse of hupotassomai in verse 24. However, by borrowing the verb from the general statement in vs 21 and using it to make a more specific point about wives, Paul definitely intends this to be understood in the context of everyone submitting to one another. It may also be that we can read a subtle undermining of traditional gender roles in the use of a military (male) term for the action of a wife. Just like a centurion submitting to a senior general, Paul wants the wives to submit in strength rather than weakness, from their own agency and out of respect.
In vs 23, to underline the point, Paul makes the comparison between the husband as his wife’s kephale (head), and Christ as the body of the church’s kephale (head). One might read into the fact that Paul felt the need to specifically remind wives to submit, and not to remind husbands to submit, that in the context of the Ephesians the husbands were already following the main command in vs 21, and not the wives. On the other hand, one might also read some meaning into the use of the word idiois (their own) in vs 22, which is left out of many translations. Perhaps by specifying their own husbands, Paul trying to encourage wives to resist submitting to any other husbands (fathers, uncles, brothers) than that which the law laid down: their own husbands. However, in a context where everyone submits to each other because of Christ’s sacrifice, I feel we must read from vs 23 that just as the church submits to Christ because he has already submitted to her, so the wife submits to the husband because he is already submitting to her.
Indeed, I also feel we can turn the genitive in vs 23 (‘head of the wife’) away from its normal translation which makes it sound akin to him being head of a company, to a more simple genitive possessive, “The husband is the wife’s head,” which makes the position of the husband much more functional and less authoritarian. The husband is the wife’s head in the same way as a pen might be the wife’s pen. She has chosen it, chosen to give herself over to its functional aspects that allow her to write upon a page.
Unless their husbands follow the main command in vs 21, what Paul is suggesting for the wives does not change the situation for them, they are still less powerful than their husbands, but there is something in his suggestion that they submit by choice, because of what has been done for them. Paul is inviting them to claim agency for themselves within culturally proscribed power dynamics, even though he is not necessarily invited them to challenge the power dynamics themselves.
Paul then turns to husbands and explains how they should follow the command in vs 21, having been handed so much power by the society in which they lived. As with the wives, Paul advocates a change in attitude rather than a change in the power structures themselves, with Christ and the church are once again the main images. Vs 27 reads literally, “So that He himself may present the church to Himself in glory.” Christ sacrificed himself on the Cross so that he might look on the church and see glory, and husbands should do the same for their wives. Husbands are expected to sacrifice everything – the power which stems from the gender they were assigned at birth included – in order to look upon their wives and see no blemish, just glory, to lose the taint of power that society imparts. This act of literal self-sacrifice – sacrificing the self – to feed the body/church/wife is what creates unity in the church and unity in marriage, “one flesh.” As with the use of male military terms for the wives, Paul wanders away from gendered norms by suggesting that the husbands need to thalpei (nourish) their wives, a word only used once more in 1 Thessalonians 2:7 in connection with the nourishment provided by breastfeeding mothers.
Paul was wrong about marriage and the power dynamics within it. He endorsed a patriarchal, sexist, homophobic, cisgendered model of marriage that has been used as a stick to beat queer people for hundreds of years. Paul was tied to strictly defined gender roles, so much so that the only way he could conceive of a husband being caring is for him to become a breastfeeding mother, the only way he could conceive of woman exercising choice is by becoming a male soldier. But we do not get to look down our noses at Paul without taking a long, hard look at ourselves and our relationships. Just because we are in queer relationships does not mean that we are immune to unhealthy power dynamics. We now have greater (but still not complete) freedom from ties that bound ways of being so closely to gender, and indeed from the traditional gender binary itself, and with this greater freedom to inhabit different roles within our relationships, but with this comes greater temptation to manipulate different roles to serve ourselves rather than our partners. We must still be guided by the example of Christ, and submit ourselves to one another because he submitted himself to us.
6Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2‘Honour your father and mother’—this is the first commandment with a promise: 3‘so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.’
4 And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
As parent to three small children, I am somewhat aware of how complicated obedience can be. On the one hand, there are times (such as when one of them runs out into the road) when I want complete and immediate obedience from them. I want to shout “Stop!” and know that they will cease whatever it is that they are doing. On the other hand, there are times when I want them to disobey, when I want them to argue it out with me, to ask why, to ignore my advice and find out for themselves. I know that there are times when the only way they can truly learn is by disobeying me. This is why “honour your father and mother” is the first commandment to have an epaggelia, promise, or more appropriately here a consequence. The nature of this ‘consequence’ is the purpose of the command (hina, ‘so that’ can carry the meaning of ‘for the purpose that’): the purpose is the wellness of the child. It thus follows that obedience to the parent that does not lead to wellness and flourishing of the child, is not the kind of obedience Paul and the commandment are advocating.
Many of us have been hurt by our parents. Many of us have been rejected by them because of who we are. Many of us have been ordered by parents to abandon our queer identity. Many of us have been deliberately disempowered by parental relationships. Obedience in this case cannot lead to wellness. Only through disobedience to such parents can we hope to grow up in love and peace.
For those of us who are parents, vs 4 succinctly sets out the balance that we must learn to strike. We must try to bring them up in the truth of Christ, building them up in maturity, keeping them safe…but not too safe. The word translated as provoke…to anger, parorgizete, has a sense of closeness to it, para meaning close or near to and orgizo meaning anger. “Do not make them angry by your closeness,” Paul is saying, “Let them disobey, let them make mistakes. Guide them. Do not micromanage them. Do not hold them too close.”
Finally, let us remember that parenthood comes in many guises. Many of us are called to act as parent or child to someone who is not our biological offspring. In the LGBT community, where so many of us are cut off from our biological parents in some way, let us always be ready to welcome a new family member. Let us build each other in love, and obeying when it will make us well, disobeying when it will make us ill. Let us submit to one another because Christ has submitted himself to us.
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; 6not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, 8knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.
9 And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.
Let us never forget the way in which this passage, and others like it, has been used to legitimise and support the enslavement of people, depriving fellow humans of life and liberty. The medieval feudal system, South African apartheid, the Atlantic slave trade in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, all have been carried out by people who dared to bear the name of Christ, and use passages like this.
Once again, Paul is not interested in the ethical rights and wrongs of the culture within which he lives (oh, how I wish he was!), and which supports the atrocity of enslavement. Slavery was vital to keeping the Roman economy afloat, and the Roman invested a large amount of propaganda and violence to support the system. Instead, he tries to work out how master and slave might live according to his initial commandment in Eph 5:21. As with the wives, Paul does not expect slaves to function differently, but instead he expects a change in attitude. In vs 5, the NRSV entirely omits kata sarka (according to the flesh) from its translation, but I believe this gives the verse its true sense, “Obey your masters with your flesh,” Paul seems to be saying, “Resistance with the flesh is futile, they have complete control over it with violence. The only place left for you to resist is in your heart. In your heart you are obeying Christ, your true Lord, in your heart you are disobeying.” In verses 7 and 8 Paul uses the word kurios (Lord) twice, hammering home that in their hearts, their masters (whom they were expected to refer to as kurios) were not Lords, only Christ was.
Thankfully we do not have to go through the complete deprivation of life and liberty involved in slavery (although we must pray and seek justice for trafficked and enslaved people across the globe who do). But in situations where we feel power taken from us because of who we are, when we feel like we cannot fight these systems anymore, let us remember our true Lord, let us resist in our heart if we cannot resist with our flesh. Let us submit ourselves to Christ because he is our true Lord, because he has submitted himself to us.