Queer Ephesians 5.21-6.9: Guest Post: Ben Allison

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.

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Introduction

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.


Ephesians 5:22-33

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.


Ephesians 6:1-4

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.


Ephesians 6:5-9

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.

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Queer Ephesians 5.3-20: Guest Post: Rebekah Dyer

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).

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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,
‘Sleeper, awake!
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.

Queer Ephesians 4.29-32: Guest Post: Danny Pegg

Danny Pegg is a first-year ordinand (trainee priest) at Westcott House, Cambridge.

  


29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,* as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Jesus promised that the Comforter – the Holy Spirit – would be with us always until the end, and yet we often feel completely alone. We relate to God as one person in a relationship with another person and its easy to forget that God is not like other people. Other people come and go and we feel close and distant to them at different times.

Remembering that we are sealed with the Holy Spirit from now until the day of redemption when we feel alone might be hard, but this truth is awe inspiring. Just as the Spirit descended on Christ at his baptism and remained with him, so with us, who share in his baptism, the Spirit also remains. We are incorporated into the body of Christ and come to our God and find our salvation through him who is the Way, all because he loves us.

This is a part of Paul’s diatribe on how to live as a Christian, placed between instructions on negative behaviour and actions. He tells us not to speak destructively and not to allow black feelings conquer us and be what we inflict on others, because of the example of Christ. Sometimes though we do say the wrong thing and we do feel terrible – and that’s where we might just begin to doubt God and feel apart from him and his Spirit, or ‘grieve the Holy Spirit’. Paul is reassuring here: you are sealed, so no matter what, that can’t change. Feelings can change, behaviour can change, and we need to know the example Christ has set for us when we fall short – BUT – the truth of the matter does not change: we are part of his body, we bear his seal, freely given.

In the debates concerning sexuality, there can often be a tendency for it to get hurtful or personal. We are called to an example above that – get rid of rage and anger, Paul says. That isn’t always easy or even possible when confronted with someone who calls you a bigot or someone telling you that your innate self is an abomination. However, it should be our aspiration. When we can be kind and compassionate to one another – liberal and conservative alike – and forgive one another when we fall short of that, just as Christ forgave us all, then perhaps we can have more constructive dialogue together about human sexuality.

The seal of the Spirit is on the foreheads of all Christians and we are all together in the body of Christ. The radical love he preaches extends to those who disagree with us, perhaps especially to those who disagree with us. For if there is no Jew or Gentile, no man or woman in the body of Christ, then there is no friend or enemy. There are no sides. We are one – even if we do not look like it or act like it – we are one, in him.

Queer Ephesians 6.10-20: Guest Post: John Whitty

John Whitty is a Master’s Student at Oxford University specialising in Patristics: the study of Early and Late Antique Christianity. His main research interests are hidden knowledge in the Early Church, and the Trinitarian controversies of the fourth century.

 


10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13Therefore take up the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 19Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

This passage of Ephesians is fundamental in understanding how Paul views Christian faith as armour against the evils of this world. In modern circles, one can often find their Christianity is the object of criticism and ridicule. This inevitably leads to a feeling of alienation, where one feels distant from others, and more worryingly, disconnected from oneself through self-doubt. When we look at the way the queer community is treated, we see the same kinds of alienation, albeit in a much more severe and all-encompassing sense. In response to this threat of alienation, Paul advises us to take the source of this alienation, our Christianity, and turn it into our greatest defence. In the gospel, there is steadfastness, and in faith there is defence from alienation.

The second section of this passage deals with the other fundamental risk an individual took in proclaiming their Christian faith in the apostolic age: physical persecution. Other early Christian texts, such as the Epistle to Diognetus and the letters of Ignatius of Antioch also identify this as an issue. To be a Christian at the close of antiquity was to be an outcast from society, and as such, a member of a marginalised group. Though Christianity is now the norm, and most practitioners do not face persecution at the hands of those in power, some Christians still face persecution from both within and without due to other aspects of their identity. However, we cannot all be expected to suffer as the great martyrs of Christianity suffered. John Chrysostom likens a Christian contemplating the fortitude of the martyrs to a greedy man standing in front of a seven-mouthed fountain, with pure gold cascading from each mouth. As tempted as we are to grab every single nugget of gold, we must instead take what we can, and reflect the fortitude of the martyrs to the level we are able, and allow their deeds to empower us to the actions of which we are capable.

Perhaps Paul’s words can be re-applied to alienated of today: that participation in the Spirit will provide the gifts an individual needs to proclaim their beliefs and identity without fear, in the hope that the alienated and voiceless find welcome and their own voice in the contemplation of the divine.