Queer Ephesians 6.21-24: Grace be with ALL

Ephesians ends by urging us to build relationships with other Christians, even when we might just want to curl up and pretend they aren’t there. And it ends with a remarkable statement of the queer and gracious goodness of God.


 

Build relationships with other Christians

21 So that you also may know how I am and what I am doing, Tychicus will tell you everything. He is a dear brother and a faithful minister in the Lord. 22I am sending him to you for this very purpose, to let you know how we are, and to encourage your hearts.

Throughout this project, Ephesians has stunned me with its reflections on unity, both the remarkable challenge it presents to us, and the wonderful gift it is from God. And so it is not surprising that Paul ends the letter with a very basic statement of unity.

Christians are called to be interested in each other’s activity and wellbeing. Paul sends the messenger Tychicus “So that you also may know how I am and what I am doing” (v.21). This is not just a nice thing to do, but rather is a sealing of their unity as Christians with a concrete practical relationship. And I think there is an element of accountability there, too. We are better in faith when we talk about our faith and share the journey with each other: and this can be healthy or unhealthy. The best accountability is a friendly sharing of the path, not a domineering and paranoid oversight. When we are in touch regularly with other Christians, we are encouraged and built up in faith, and they are too. Relationships are to “encourage your hearts” (v.22).

Paul calls Tychicus “a dear brother and faithful minister in the Lord” (v.22). For us, all Christians are “dear brothers” and all faithful ministers must be welcomed and repected, even if they are difficult. This is a profoundly difficult thing for many of us, especially if we have had hard experiences of Church, and especially when our “brothers” in Christ have not treated us as family. But the change to a more faithful and unified Church begins with us. Though we may want to shut ourselves off from the rest of the Church, or even to discount them entirely and claim that only we have the truth, Ephesians calls us to something better, more graceful, and more Christlike. Even though it’s hard.


Ephesians’ Queer Parting Shot

23 Peace be to the whole community, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 24Grace be with all who have an undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ.

And this difficult call to unity is utterly worth it.  Because the goal is “peace… to the whole community” (v.23), an end to the violence which is so often done in Christ’s name to so many who would follow him. And the goal is “love” (v.23), not just any love but the love that stems from “faith” (v.23), growing and springing up from the love between “God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v.23) in their Holy and Undivided Unity.

And this final sentence of Ephesians is quite remarkable. “Grace be with all who have an undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ” (v.24). Ephesians calls us to know that God’s grace is with ALL who love Jesus, not just a few whom the Church deem worthy, or even with the few who have thrown off the shackles of the heteropatriarchy. God’s grace is with ALL who have undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ.

And, frankly, there isn’t a more universal, more gracious, more evangelical and queer closing statement, than that.

Amen.

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Queer Ephesians 6.10-20: The Armour of God: Faith and Prayer

Each of us is called to share the good news in different ways. For queer Christians, and the Church, it begins with putting on the armour of God, the assurance of our faith and salvation, the reality of our unity in Christ and the Church, and the overpowering deluge of God’s goodness and love. If we begin here, and if we pray… then, says Ephesians, God may just do great things through us.


Be Strong in the Lord

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.

Throughout this series of commentary posts on Ephesians, we have been struggling with the reality of the challenge which the Gospel presents to us. Unity, costly love, mutual submission and service… all these are hard enough on their own, but how much more so in a world which does not seem to recognise them, and which so often seems to be antagonistic to them. When presented with the panorama of the world’s failings in the face of Christ’s challenge, these are the moments when I can understand those who emphasise the fall narratives. The world seems hopelessly lost, and unity, costly love and mutual submission and service seem very far off.

And into this impending despair, Ephesians speaks: “Finally”, after all the challenge I have laid before you, “be strong in the Lord” (v.10). Ephesians does not pretend that the race laid before us is easy, but rather it requires strength. And this is not our own strength, but is “the strength of his power” (v.10). The challenge is so great that we will not be able to accomplish it of our own abilities, but must rely on the power of God.

How wonderful that this most necessary help is offered to us, as we saw in Ephesians 1:19: “and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” Ephesians places all our challenges in the context of the magnitude of God’s work in Christ. And so Ephesians closes its challenge to disciples of Christ with a reminder that if they are to fulfil the richness of the wonder to which they have been called, they will have to do it, not on their own, but in God.

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The Need for Armour

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.

Throughout the letter, Ephesians has set the unity which Christ achieves for us within and between us at the centre of its theological vision for the Christian identity and life. And so it acknowledges that the most effective way we can be tempted away from the glory of our vocation is to forget that all things are made one for us in God, and to divide our loyalties with another. “Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (v.11).

There is an Asterix book in which Caesar sends a secret agent who sows division amongst the Gaulish village by his remarkable ability to provoke envy, slander and mistrust. It is a ridiculous story, but it is instructive. The Gauls are nearly overcome, distracted from their powerful unity, by the presence of a malevolent and divisive influence amongst them. Now, you may not be convinced that there is such a one as “the devil”. You may not believe that humanity is fallen and broken and in need of correction. But nonetheless there is something within each of us that is always tempted to discord, towards all the things that separate us from one another.

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And so Ephesians calls us to “put on the armour of God” (v.10), protecting us from those without who might hurt us, with good intentions or ill. But that armour also cements our identity in God. The soldier is not just protected by a uniform: they are unified with the other soldiers and into something greater, an army. Similarly, Ephesians calls us to powerfully identify ourselves with God, and with each other, the children of God, unified by the armour we put on in God’s name.

But this armour is not earthly armour, concerned necessarily with physical violence, “For 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” (v.12). Our loyalties, our fellowship, love and integrity, are pulled in so many different directions, by “rulers”, by “authorities”, even by “cosmic powers” and “spiritual forces” which we cannot comprehend or anticipate.

It is against all the many forces, which seem geared to dismantle the unity which God has effected in Christ within us and between us, that we are then called again to “take up the whole armour of God” (v.13). All of us, but especially those of us who are queer, can point to moments in our lives which are “that evil day” (v.13), moments when all seemed lost and hopeless. But God’s will for us is that, protected and unified by the armour of God, “you may be able to withstand… to stand firm” (v.13). God who has done such remarkable things for us in Christ does not intend for the evil days to have the last word. He does not intend to let us go, now that he holds us so very tightly and tenderly.


The Armour of God

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.

What then is this armour which God calls us to put on, which is to keep us in unity with him and with each other?

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Firstly, before we put on the armour we are called to “Stand therefore” (v.14). Such a teeny phrase, but monumental for queer people. To stand is to make oneself vulnerable, especially in church. It is to be visible, to be public and accountable. It is to present oneself as one really is, appropriately and with integrity. It is precisely the opposite of how many of us have been conditioned to behave by society and even our churches.

And it can be terrifying. It can even be as terrifying as how we are called to “stand” before our Father. We open ourselves up to the deepest scrutiny and judgment. But where we have Christ our advocate to comfort us before the Father’s gaze, where we can be assured always of his love, we cannot always be assured of the wise and just love of our churches, and we can often feel alone. And that is worth noting.

The ways we “stand” before God and the church are different. Standing before society and other Christians is something we need to do carefully. But standing before God is a radical self-giving and honest self-unfolding to the God who formed us in the womb and knew us from the beginning. With Him we can and must be completely open and honest, for it is not us who reveal ourselves to Him: but it is He who reveals the deepest reality of ourselves to us, as we are able to perceive it. Learning to grow into this fact is the root of our integrity.

And standing before God, we can begin to put on the armour: “fasten the belt of truth around your waist” (v.14). Call to mind Pontius Pilate’s response to Jesus’ honesty about His own identity: “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Truth, particularly with regard to human beings, is traded so cheaply in a world where the reality of our being and potential is valued less highly than market forces and political control. Well, we are called to be truthful, honest, and people of integrity when we represent ourselves and the Lord who made us. And that might even entail some humility as to what we do not know as well.

For the call to truth is also tempered and coloured by the call to “put on the breastplate of righteousness” (v.14). Righteousness is an odd concept. Christians seem to be more concerned with what is unrighteous than understanding what it might mean to be righteous. Well, for queer people, I think the elements of honesty and humility are particularly important. Queer people are reminded more than most of the limits on our ability to make sweeping statements, our sheer inability to define, categorise and comprehend. And we must apply this to ourselves also. For it is Christ who is our righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30). Whatever points we wish to impress on others, on the churches and society, what matters is that we are able to get out of the way, so that the truth can come to them, and to us… not from us, but from Christ. And that means, as we saw in the post on Queer Ethics, taking our own righteousness seriously, as a gift from God to be preciously kept, not frittered away.

Then, “as shoes for your feet” (v.15), we are called to something remarkably practical: “put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace” (v.15). Though we are one in Christ, the reason this is such a miracle is that we are all different. We all have different needs and ways to share the gift of the gospel. And so we each of us need very particular preparation and support.

One of the joys of being at a theological college with others training for ministry is seeing how everyone is prepared for mission in completely different ways. For some the learning is primarily academic, for others it is social, or wrestling with their past, and for others it is primarily a process of growing into their own selves in a more profound way than they have previously been able.

It is vitally important that queer people find a church community that can support us in this formation and development. That is one of the great pains for many queer people who grow up in the church and end up leaving. There is something profoundly lacking when we go long periods without direction and the healthy jostling and nudging that results from sharing time with our fellow Christians. Many seek a spiritual director or go on guided retreats to be helped in discerning what shoes they need to put on to prepare them for sharing the gospel of peace.

And how wonderful that amongst all this military imagery, Ephesians thinks to emphasise that we are not preparing for a hostile campaign, but rather one “of peace” (v.15).


Faith, Salvation and Spirit

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.

And “with all of these” (v.16) we are now on to the finishing touches of the armour of God. The “shield of faith” (v.16), “helmet of salvation” (v.17) and “sword of the Spirit” (v.17) are odd ones to end with. They seem massive, and abstract. But I think they are perhaps, for queer people, the most important.

For queer people, there are so many things that can undermine our faith. At times it can seem that all the forces that should be supporting us and growing our faith are in fact distracting, and detracting from it. The words and actions of those around us can stick in our flesh like “the flaming arrows of the evil one” (v.16), lodging painfully and inflaming us, consuming us if they are not dealt with quickly. And so, the shield of faith is the gift of confidence… not a proud confidence but a healthy, humble and well-placed confidence. It is a confidence that says, ‘I am a child of God, a member of the body of Christ which is the Church. I stand, yes, as a sinner, but a sinner who is utterly and wonderfully loved by God my Father.’ This is a quiet confidence that puts out the flames on those arrows which others fire at us, so that though they may hurt, they will not consume us.

And the “helmet of salvation” and “sword of the Spirit” (v.17) are to remind you that you have received the gift of salvation already. You are not working to be saved. However much the Church excludes you, it is God who by your faith has redeemed you. No one can put that gift in jeopardy, for it is from God. And God has marked you with the seal of the Holy Spirit, filling you with his power, and uniting you to Himself and all other believers. And no one can put that gift in jeopardy either, for it is also from God.

Faith, salvation and sword are a gifts of quiet confidence, and of calm. They remind us as queer Christians that we are called to grow in faith and love and hope, whatever might be thrown at us. And that we have God’s assistance with us always. We are never alone.


Just Pray

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 section is moving. It is heartfelt. Ephesians calls out to us to “pray… pray… pray”. The path which Ephesians lays before us is hard. And so we are called to “Pray in the Spirit” (v.18), not in our own power, but rather the power of God. And this prayer should touch everything that we do or think, for we are called to pray “at all times in every prayer and supplication” (v.18) as we lift up everything that we have and see and are before God.

And this means, though it may be difficult, praying for all those in the Church as well. “To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints” (v.18). We are to “keep alert” (v.18) because the first thing that tends to happen when there is conflict or disagreement in the Church is that we stop praying for each other. And when we do that we are buggered. Not because we are failing in a commandment to pray, but rather because our prayer is the deepest manifestation of our unity. So when we stop praying for one another and with one another, we begin to fragment the unity which we have in Christ’s body. Even with the most difficult of our fellow believers.

And then Ephesians calls to mind the context of persecution, which can at times be so close to the hearts of many queer Christians. I wrote at the beginning of this project about the ascription of this letter to Paul in order to make a strong theological point. And here Paul’s imprisonment is brought up again. What strikes me here is that we are called to pray for those who speak, which is probably most of us, “so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel” (v.19). We must pray fervently for all those who speak out, that it may truly be God speaking out good news through them, and not them speaking out their own fear, excitement or ego. And when we speak out, we can feel secure that others are praying the same thing for us.

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Queer speaking out in the church must be prayerful itself, and it must be supported by others’ prayer.

But this speaking out, whether it be vocal or just in the prophetic living out of faithful lives, often comes at a cost, and Ephesians acknowledges this. This is the good news “for which I am an ambassador in chains” (v.20), and anyone who has been backed into a corner or felt trapped by their church will recognise that feeling: “Pray also for me” (v.19) because speaking the gospel into this situation is really really hard.

And here is a final nugget to consider. Ephesians ends the substance of the letter with this phrase: “Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak” (v.20). I do not consider myself a queer activist. And I often am conflicted by the ways in which queer movements have worked out their agenda. But for Christians, the profession and by words and deeds of the truth is something we are called to in boldness. Our identity as Christians means that we are called to make our witness count: the good news we have heard compels us, “as I must speak” (v.20).

Each of us is called to share that good news in different ways. All queer christians are called to different witness. For some it is quiet, for others loud. For some it is publicly expressive, for others it is a faithful approach to daily life. But we are certainly called to express the unity we have in Christ through faith in some way.

For queer Christians, and the Church, it begins with putting on the armour of God, the assurance of our faith and salvation, the reality of our unity in Christ and the Church, and the overpowering deluge of God’s goodness and love. If we begin here, and if we pray… then, says Ephesians, God may just do great things through us.

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Queer Ephesians 6.1-9: More Power Dynamics – Parents and Slave Masters

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.

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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).

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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.

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.

Queer Ephesians 5.21-33: Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord

Ephesians’ teaching on gender roles is perhaps the most controversial element of the letter. But that controversy is because of a consistent reading out of the context of the whole of Ephesians. When we read this section in its theological context, this passage can be good news and a good challenge for queer people. It speaks of our unity in Christ which we are called to manifest in our relationships. What could be queerer than mutual subjection to others who are also ourselves?


Gender roles will continue to be a difficult topic for the Church for many years to come, as will the imbalance of power dynamics in all aspects of human life, with the potential for abuse and the idolatrous assumption of Christ’s role in many painful ways. But Ephesians offers us a way forward. Remember that in all things you are called to manifest the unity of your common faith in Jesus Christ, your common identity in him, your common participation in his body. And subject yourselves, without exception, each and every one of you, to each other, as you subject yourselves to him.

Of all the posts in this Queer Ephesians series, this is probably the one which people who have been talking to me about it have most keenly expected. The last part of Ephesians 5 is one of the most difficult texts in the whole canon for those who feel they do not fit into society’s traditional essentialist understanding of sex and gender roles. It has been used and is still used by many Churches to browbeat women into submission and to exclude those who do not conform to the clear categories outlined in the text. It is used to reinforce the idea that Christians can only be truly Christians whilst operating within the hetero-patriarchy.

In short, this is one of the texts that it is most tempting for the Church to bash queer people on the head with. And it is also one of the texts which we are most tempted to simply reject as not applying to our own lives.

And that might be true. I have a lot of respect for queer people who say, honestly and intelligently, that Ephesians 5 has much to say about male-female marriages, but nothing to say about queer relationships.

But I don’t think that is true. In my opinion, this isn’t a text that is really about straight cisgendered marriage at all. That is certainly the application that is used to demonstrate the theological and tropological message. But the actual message is something far more profound. It is something which calls queer people to sit up and take note… and it is something from which we can draw encouragement and strength.


Be Subject to One Another

21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.

There is one verse at the beginning of this section which is almost universally overlooked in heteropatriarchal exegesis. However, it is a controlling verse. It acts like a subtitle, guiding us in our reading of what follows. And it is not what you might expect. Given how Ephesians 5 is usually read, we might expect something like, “Man and woman he created them”, or “Marriage is an holy state”, but this isn’t what Ephesians give us.

Instead it gives us this: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (v.21).

Now, remember that throughout the letter the key theological theme has been our unity in Christ, the challenge of love that this presents, and the challenge to come ever closer to realising that unity and love in our lives. Well, here, Ephesians plugs this idea straight into the most personal aspects of our existence.

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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 are reminded that our “reverence for Christ” (v.21) requires us to subject ourselves to all Christians… and it requires them to subject themselves to us. Put another way, Ephesians makes it entirely clear from the outset of this section that any talk of “power”, “rule”, “authority” or “dominion” are utterly alien to a Christian understanding of family dynamics. To ascribe these things to any member of a family is to fail in “reverence for Christ”, to set a member of the family up as an idol in Christ’s place.

There is an argument that Fathers in families represent Christ in exercising authority. And yet again this is to misunderstand a fundamental theological line which has run throughout Ephesians. All Christians are part of the body of Christ. Christ is really present in all believers in their unity and vocation to love. Therefore there is no need for a particular person to exercise Christ’s authority within the family. Christ is truly present in the family of believers because they are believers, not because one of them has authority over the others.

Mutual subjection, out of love, recognising the presence of Christ among and in us, who is the only one who exercises dominion over us. This is the starting point of Ephesians when it comes to gender and power dynamics.

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Wives: The Uncontroversial Bit

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.

It is now necessary for us to read the following application of this theology, remembering the theological objective of Ephesians 5, all that we have just discussed. We must not make the same mistake as many of the heteropatriarchal readings and separate this section from its theological context.

So, we begin with the fact that Ephesians 5 separates this section according to two gender roles, wives and husbands. Note that it does not separate according to sex. This is almost certainly because the link was presumed, but we cannot, however hard we try, read this text as being about women and men, two sexes, because it does not claim to be. It claims to be about two particular expressions of gender, and these expressions of gender not in isolation, but in relationship. Our exegesis is therefore moving on from the heteropatriarchal norm, because we are acknowledging that this is (i) talking about more than simply sex difference and (ii) talking about more than essential identities but relationships.

The first paragraph (vv.22-24) portrays the subjection of the wife in pretty clear terms, and I think it would be dishonest to try to argue that it wasn’t arguing that the wife is subject to the husband in a way analogous to the Church’s subjection to Christ.

However, this is where the exegetical magic happens. We can either, as many queer scholars have done, disapply this text, saying that Ephesians is talking into a particular socially constructed gender context, or that it simply doesn’t apply to queer relationships. Or we can read it as many heteropatriarchal scholars have done, forgetting to link this paragraph to either the theology of the rest of the letter or the paragraph that comes after.

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Or, we can do something incredibly brave, and attempt to read the next paragraph as something that knits the whole together. We have had a controlling verse, highlighting the theme of mutual subjection in reverence to Christ (v.21), then a socially quite uncontroversial passage showing how this might work out in a way not at all shocking to the audience (vv.22-24). But now, Ephesians is going to blow their minds.


Husbands: Ephesians Blows Their Minds

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.

This paragraph also begins with what seems like clear gender roles that would not have shocked the audience, who might have heard these verses in isolation as many conservatives do today. Husbands are to “love your wives” (v.25) also analogously to Christ’s relationship to the Church, in a self-sacrificial way. Husbands’ goal is the holiness of the family (vv.25 and 27), and much is made of “with the washing of water by the word” (v.26) by conservatives who believe men are called to lead family worship.

However, Ephesians 5 starts to do something rather stronger at v.27 which these readings miss. It begins to identify the body of the husband with the body of the wife. At first, it does this gently, using the concept of love, in much the same way as ‘love your neighbour as yourself’: “husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies” (v.28). It is a powerful call to respect and love, but still seems to retain the distinctness of the two people: A must love B as if she was him.

Then it gets a little bit more blurred: “he who loves his wife loves himself” (v.28). Now the two distinct persons are somehow one unified object of actions. Whatever happens to A happens also to B.

And then Ephesians goes for the theological slam dunk. “For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the Church” (v.29). Having eased the audience in, Ephesians explicitly identifies the relationship between the two individuals with the relationship between Christ and the Church. And we know that this is a profound unity and indwelling “because we are members of his body” (v.30).

This is the point at which some of the audience are probably cottoning on that this is a far more profound statement on the nature of Christian unity than they were prepared for. Not only do the audience have to come to terms with the fact that they are all radically united with each other in Christ, but they even have to apply this to their families, despite all the secular and pagan cultural roles and philosophy which have formed them. This is a profoundly shocking passage for the heteropatriarchal paterfamilias (father of the family) of the ancient world.

And it gets worse. He has probably nodded along to the description in vv.22-24 of how his wife should be subject to him, as many conservatives might today. But now, he realises he has been caught up in the rhetoric! If his wife is so profoundly unified to him in Christ, then the injunction that she be subject to him is tantamount to saying that he be subject to her who is himself, and she be subject to him who is herself! The dividing line between person A and person B is broken down! There is only Christ, effecting his profound unity upon the whole Church and even the family! Christ is submitting them both to themselves and one another, and in so doing, he submits them to himself. The controlling verse “Be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ” (v.21) has landed, and it has landed with a thump.

And to cement this, Ephesians quotes the rationale for marriage, emphasising the central role unity: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (v.31). In Christ, it is nonsense to say that one be subject to the other, and that one should have authority over the other. Not only is to do so to fail in “reverence for Christ” (v.21), but it is to fail to acknowledge the unity effected in believers through Christ that makes a nonsense out of such power dynamics.

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Ephesians expects the objection that this is all too complicated, that it is making an unnecessarily convoluted argument when it says, “This is a great mystery” (v.32). And Ephesians makes it clear that it is not considering family in isolation from its wider theology when it says, “and I am applying it to Christ and the Church” (v.32).
What we see here is a powerful piece of rhetoric, subverting pagan gender roles with a powerful theology of Christian unity and mutual submission.

But this is not an excuse for disrespect of lack of love. Again, as with the post on Queer Ethics, Ephesians is conscious that this wonderful unity might be taken the wrong way. If I am united with my husband or wife, I can love only myself or respect only myself, and it will not matter, because I am really loving or respecting them at the same time. That is why Ephesians includes this powerful “however” in v.33.

Regardless of this unity, husbands should still love their wives, and wives should still respect their husbands, as wives love their husbands and husbands respect their wives. The wonderful union is not an excuse for taking people for granted.


Good News for Queer People

What then for queer people? Well, I think this has a lot to say to us, mainly because of its not really being a passage about husbands and wives and the roles they are called to adopt.

What matters for Ephesians is that, in all things, including our personal relationships, we acknowledge the powerful unity that is effected between and in us in Christ. The unity that is important is our Christian unity. The unity of relationships is simply and expression of that deeper unity. And Christian unity consists in mutual submission. It is not about power and authority. If we think along those lines, then we are replacing Christ with a familial idol. Nor is it about the harmony of the sexes in their respective roles. If we think along those lines then we are superimposing a debate that is completely alien to Ephesians onto this passage, and ignoring what it really does have to say.

“This is a great mystery” (v.32), how we are called to express our union in Christ in all aspects of our lives. It is painful and at times damning. We are constantly called to reassess each and every detail of our lives to ask whether we are making that unity visible, even in our intimate relationships.

Does this have consequences for our understanding of sex and romantic love and commitment? Yes, of course it does. I am with a man who is in many ways much more hench than me, and I really struggle at times to theologically work through my struggles around gender roles. But if I try to use Ephesians to help me work through that question, without considering its teaching on the more profound unity that exists between Evan and myself… well, I am going to miss the point entirely.

Gender roles will continue to be a difficult topic for the Church for many years to come, as will the imbalance of power dynamics in all aspects of human life, with the potential for abuse and the idolatrous assumption of Christ’s role in many painful ways.

But Ephesians offers us a way forward. Remember that in all things you are called to manifest the unity of your common faith in Jesus Christ, your common identity in him, your common participation in his body. And subject yourselves, without exception, each and every one of you, to each other, as you subject yourselves to him.

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 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).