Like the passages on Gender Roles, the passages on slavery and parenthood smack of the power dynamics which can cause queer people so much pain in life. Rather than being texts of terror for queer people, these are exciting texts, joyous texts and liberating texts, reminding us and the Church of the unity which we share in Christ, and our vocation to live that unity, whether we realise it or not.
Pagan Power Dynamics and Christian Unity
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.
This is a section I really wanted to deal with along with the previous section, that infamous part of Ephesians 5 which is so often interpreted to be about gender roles or the relationship of the sexes in marriage. And so I am going to begin this section with a refresher from my commentary on Ephesians 5:21-33.
We are called to be “subject to one another” (v.21). Note that the emphasis here is mutuality. Ephesians does not set up this discussion by justifying imbalanced power dynamics. Rather, it begins with mutual service, our obligation to give practical reality to the unity we have in Christ by loving one another with mutuality. Indeed, the very fact that this passage begins with the concept of mutual subjection holes below the waterline any exegesis which sets it up as a justification of domination.
We must remember that the theological theme has been how we show the unity between us which is effected in Christ, and that this section comes in the middle of Ephesians’ applications, or examples, of how this might work out. In my commentary on Ephesians’ approach to wives and husbands, we explored how the letter unfolds the reality of the replacement of pagan gender roles with the mystery of Christian unity. And so it continues.
As with its treatment of gender roles, Ephesians starts with a profoundly orthodox statement, to the secular mind of the Roman world, of family dynamics: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (v.1). And it plugs this directly into the Old Testament, the decalogue no less: “‘Honour your father and mother’ – this is the first commandment with a promise” (v.2), the promise being in v.3 long life, in the standard way of divine promises in Exodus and Deuteronomy. But note that the obedience demanded of parents is not secular obedience, but rather “in the Lord” (v.1). What is being talked about here is not simply obedience and domination as the world understands it, but something that is marked by the Christian character of our oneness in Christ.
And there is another complication. When Ephesians says “obey your parents in the Lord” (v.1), is “in the Lord” attached to the obedience or the parents? The context, of familial relationships seems to suggest that this is about familial fathers and their children. But could “parents in the Lord” also apply to our spiritual families, our parents being those who have brought us up in the faith? To those who have not grown up in Christian families, the implication that Ephesians could also be speaking into the Christian parents we do have, who might be very different from our biological parents, is a helpful one.
But, as with Ephesians 5 and the discussion of husbands and wives, what seems like a relatively uncontroversial statement enforcing Graeco-Roman morality is then made far more complex in the passage that follows. “And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger” (v.4). Unlike in the pagan family, the Christian father must not dominate his children, or rule them unjustly. To do so would be to dishonour the unity which exists between them in Christ. Rather than a dynamic of power and subjugation, Ephesians envisages a relationship in which parents do not bring up their children in their own discipline and instruction, but rather “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (v.4). The authority of the parent is only what is necessary to bring up children to be able to recognise the only subordination and subjugation which is true and good, their subordination and voluntary subjugation to Christ. At all times, the Lordship of Christ, not the father, is emphasised, and the dynamics which Ephesians envisages are entirely shaped by the theology of unity in Christ which undergirds this passage.
A Final Worked Example – Slavery
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.
And we see the same pattern repeated again in Ephesians’ discussion of slaves and masters. “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart” (v.5). Now, the temptation is to assume that, to the original audiences, this would have been unshocking. However, there are two profoundly unsettling things about this seeming affirmation of slavery. Firstly, the slave is encouraged to go beyond the call of duty, not just to be consoled in their state but to willingly embrace it. Secondly, the slave is called to emulate, in their current state, their relationship with Christ: they are to obey not as other slaves but “in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ” (v.5).
What we see here is, again, a misreading by many commentators on Ephesians, rendering the latter part of the letter merely a series of statements of Christian social policy. Rather, the latter portion of Ephesians is a profound meditation on the call of the Christian to make the unity of Christ manifest in their own lives. So, the slave is called to live out their state, “not only while being watched, in order to please [their masters]” (v.5) but rather “as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart” (v.6). They are called to “render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women” (v.7).
Always, the focus is on God and our identity in Christ, counselling us in how we should reflect on our own lives and how we make Christ’s love and unity manifest in our own situations, “knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free” (v.8). And, just as for wives and husbands and children and parents, the application of Ephesians’ theology is balanced. “And, masters, do the same to them” (v.9). For masters as for slaves, unity in Christ has implications: “Stop threatening them” (v.9).
Our unity in Christ has implications for all of us. What I find astounding about Ephesians 5 and 6 is not the scary ways in which these passages have been misapplied. Rather, I am bowled over by the universality of God’s vocation to us in Christ. All of us are called to make God’s love and unity manifest in our lives. All of us, without exception, be we wife or husband, child or parent, slave or free, are united by a common vocation and by the grace which we have been given together in Jesus Christ, “for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality” (v.9).
Rather than being texts of terror for queer people, these are exciting texts, joyous texts and liberating texts, reminding us and the Church of the unity which we share in Christ, and our vocation to live that unity, whether we realise it or not.