Queer Acts 1.15-end: Discernment and Leadership in the Church

Acts 1 begins to explore the recurring theme of how leadership in the Church is meant to look. It challenges us to reassess our own relationship to authority and power and also to discern our own vocation to minister in Christ’s Church ever more carefully and prayerfully.


Acts 1.15-20: The Reality of Leadership

15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred and twenty people) and said, 16‘Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— 17for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.’ 18(Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20‘For it is written in the book of Psalms,“Let his homestead become desolate,

   and let there be no one to live in it”;

and

“Let another take his position of overseer.”

Who is in charge in the Church? It is a difficult question for all Christians: all of us feel strongly about who should or should not be in charge. All of us have a strong sense of when the wrong person is in charge. And we may feel profound discomfort about at the notion that any is in fact in charge at all. For many queer people, in particular, the overtones of dominance and potential for abuse that the notion of leadership can bring makes us more suspicious than most of the idea that anyone should be in leadership at all.

But in even the smallest communities, whether or not it is intended, leaders begin to emerge. Even the most democratic of Churches ends up being dominated by particular people and groups when certain issues are at stake. And that means that Christians have to take the reality of human leadership and power dynamics seriously, however uncomfortable we might feel about it, or however much we might believe that human leadership and dominance would not exist in an ideal society.

The first thing to note about this passage is that Acts 1 does not offer us a leadership model for the modern Church. Peter stands up “among the believers”… but “together the crowd numbers about one hundred and twenty” (v.15). The Church was tiny. When people point out that the earliest Church did not have leadership structures like the modern Church, all the priests, deacons, bishops and administrators and missioners in between, I have to agree. For the Church of the disciples was indeed not like ours. It was far more top heavy! Of one hundred and twenty believers, about 10% were the apostolic disciples. That’s not to mention the many women who were administrators and resource managers for this early group of believers! In the apostolic Church, as it prepared for its most succesful period of mission, 1 in 10 were clergy. That is a salutary reminder for those of us in the Church of England as it prepares to reduce clergy numbers in many of its dioceses.

But, in any case, it is clear that the Church of the apostles was profoundly different to the Church we inhabit today. What is most interesting about this excerpt, however, is Peter’s mindset when it comes to leadership. For Peter, the maintaining of a full apostolic mission to the world is nothing less than a scriptural imperative: “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus” (v.16). The integrity and importance of the office which Judas served does not seem to have been destroyed by his betrayal of Jesus: “for he was allotted his share in this ministry” (v.17).

This is because, Acts argues, Judas is not in himself the apostolic disciple. Judas has a “share” in an apostolic ministry which is far more fundamental than the individuals carrying it out. For it is not the apostolic ministry which is abolished by Judas’ failure, but Judas himself who, as Luke adds with a dark sense of irony in his editor’s comment, uses the “reward of his wickedness” (v.18) to purchase a field in which he immdiately trips, dying a gruesome death by disembowelment (vv.18-19). Judas’ downfall is not portrayed so much as the failure of an apostolic disciple as of a disinheritance, a demotion and a dismissal from apostolic discipleship. For his death is portrayed as a fulfilment of a psalm about disinheritance: “Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it” (v.20). On its own, this might be read to suggest the end of his apostolic ministry. But another verse makes it clear that the office continues, even when the incumbent has fallen: “Let another take his position of overseer” (v.20: “καί Τὴν ἐπισκοπὴν αὐτοῦ λαβέτω ἕτερος”, if you are a Greek geek!). This, as v.25 will tell us, is the “ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.”

img_3862

And this is Peter’s theological reasoning, as reported by Luke. Peter seems to take the reality of leadership within the Church as a given, and perhaps even as scripturally mandated. There is no sense in which, once the initial disciples have died off, the whole people of God will become a shapeless identical and democratically self-regulating mass. Protestant traditions emphasise the importance of order whilst Catholic traditions emphasise apostolic inheritance (there is not time here to go into all the ins and outs of that particular ecumenical debate). But what is clear is that leadership is something we have to take seriously. We can’t simply turn our noses up at it and ignore it, however egalitarian we may think our churches are. We have to think carefully about what leaders in the Church are meant to look like, what they are meant to do, and so what qualities they must possess and have nurtured in them by the rest of the Church. If leadership is something that exists in the Church, and has always existed in the Church, let it be good leadership, done well and for the right reasons.


Acts 1.21-26: Prayerful Discernment

[Peter continued], 21’So one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.’ 23So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. 24Then they prayed and said, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ 26And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

So how were they to choose a new apostle?

I am tempted to say that they didn’t have a clue. But I don’t think that would be fair to the text. Acts gives pretty clear criteria for choosing the new apostle, and they are wise.

Firstly, they must not actually be new. They must be “one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us” (vv.21-22). The apostle must be experienced, must know the story of Jesus, the Gospel, if they are to be able to witness to it. For the apostle is called nothing less that to be “a witness with us to his resurrection” (v.22). Although I have said that this passage is not a model for leadership in the modern Church, I wonder how much dissatisfaction with some leaders in the modern Church has, at its root, the fact that many leaders are inexperienced and lacking in the knowledge they need to be able to do their task really well. I am always encouraged by preachers and pastors who have well thumbed bibles and well stocked bookshelves. I begin to get nervous when people in the Church say, ‘I don’t need to study.’ The basic subject matter of the Gospel is relatively small, but being able to administer and nourish the Church which it has birthed requires training and study if we are to be effective and faithful.

On the basis of this criterion Joseph and Matthias are chosen. But a second criterion is revealed in the disciples’ prayer. They do not simply pray, Lord, “show us which one of these two you have chosen” (v.24). They pray also, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart” (v.24). The deepest integrity and fittingness of a person for a particular office is a difficult thing to discern. The Church of England has an extended process of discernment for those wanting to enter ordained ministry, and discernment pathways also for those wishing to take up many of the many lay (non-ordained) ministries in the Church. But whilst the church of the disciples seems a little simplistic in discerning this by casting lots (v.26), the point Luke makes here strongly is that the discernment of the heart is hard work. It must be done in the Spirit, or it will not be done at all. And so such discernment must be done in prayer.

img_2184

I have encountered many people who are exploring ministry within the Church, but whom I can’t quite describe as discerning. They are honest and genuine in their self-examination and submission to Church processes. But they aren’t praying it. Leadership at any level is not something which we are called to campaign for. It is not something we make happen by our own endeavours, either to put ourselves in positions of authority or those we support or particularly like. Leadership and apostolic authority within the Church is to important for that. It must be prayed about. And prayed about earnestly.

Matthias “was added to the eleven apostles” (v.26). Maybe you might be as well, one day, a particular apostolic office within the Church. But you are and will always be fundamentally a believer, whose task is prayerful discernment. And, remember, even if 10% of the Church in Acts 1 were official apostles, 90% of them weren’t. And the 90% are just as much saints of Christ’s Church.

As Acts progresses, the question of the shape of apostolic leadership will be a recurring them (this book, after all, recounts the Acts of the Apostles!). But as it explores that theme, Acts will have salutary reminders for us to evaluate our own interaction with Church authority and power, and to discern ever more carefully our own vocation to our role in the Church (for all of us have one!). But Acts, like the Holy Spirit, teaches us discernment slowly, and in many instances. Stick at it. Discernment, wisdom and a fulfilling ministry within the Church will come.

Advertisements

Queer Acts 1.1-14: Scene Setting and Ascension

At the beginning of Acts St Luke sets out his stall: the Church is beginning to emerge from the chrysalis of the Gospel.


 

Scene-Setting (Acts 1.1-5): From followers to bearers of the promise

1In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’

Acts does not come on its own. It comes as the second part of Luke’s presentation of the Gospel, often referred to as Luke-Acts. Luke is the only one of the four evangelists who gives us a sequel that has made its way into the canon of Scripture. And so Acts functions in a sense as a bridge between the Gospels and the rest of the Old Testament. In a way, it gives us a clearer picture of how the Christian life in the Gospels, following the historical Jesus, becomes the Christian life of the Church. And Luke does this in a clearer, more narrative, way than does the Apostle Paul. Acts is perfect for those of us who don’t get our kicks from wrestling through knotty passages of Romans or the mystical theology of John.

And like any good sequel, Acts dives right in. “In the first book” (v.1), Luke writes to his sponsor Theophilus, I wrote about Jesus’ life up until the Ascension. And he alludes to the resurrection appearances which make up the last chapter of his Gospel – to the women in the garden (Luke 24.1-12); on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24.13-35); and eating a piece of fish amongst the disciples in Jerusalem (Luke 24.36-43) – these are the “convincing proofs” (v.3) in the forty days after the resurrection.

But now Luke rewinds, to take the Ascension more slowly, to focus in on it and perhaps to provide a clear join between the two volumes of Luke-Acts. And this is all leading up to Pentecost.

0422luke-evangelist0020flyer

The first five chapters of Acts are odd, because they are fixed in one particular place. The stage is narrowed, unlike the travelling Jesus of Luke’s Gospel, to the city of Jerusalem. It is claustrophobic. And the wonder of the events narrated are boiling over, the pressure building up as the Gospel threatens to burst out over the entire world.

The particularity of the beginning of Acts is special, because it is commanded by Jesus: “While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem” (v.4). The people of God are beginning to make the transition from those who follow Jesus on his journey to becoming a people who live lives in many different places and “wait there for the promise of the Father” (v.4). The disciples have only ever received the baptism of John, if they have been baptised at all (v.4). But now, for the disciples as for all baptised Christians, the Father’s promise of eternal life through Christ will be partially fulfilled as they “will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (v.5).


The Ascension (Acts 1.6-11): From disciples to waiters

6 So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ 7He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’

Throughout the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), the disciples fail to grasp what God is doing in Christ. And this moment is no exception. The disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (v.6). This question is cryptic. Either the disciples are being incredibly theologically astute and are asking whether it is time for God’s final reign of glory to be consummated; or, more likely, they are being rather as they have been throughout the Gospels and still think that Jesus’ kingdom might in some sense be linked to the political and religious kingdom of Israel. Jesus’ response is direct: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority” (v.8). This must have brought the disciples up short. And it should do the same to us, also.

For queer people – as for all those who experience marginalisation, misunderstanding, maltreatment and oppression – it is tempting to reduce the Gospel of the Glory of God to the good news of our own liberation. Jesus says to the disciples, ‘Yes, that is included, but not in the way you might plan it, and not in the time-scales you decree. The Father has other priorities.’

This is difficult. God at times feels distant, and not a little heartless. Why does he wait to deliver his people? More than others, those who know oppression and injustice cry, ‘How long, Lord? How long?’

But God does not leave the disciples with nothing. Or, rather, he does not leave humanity with nothing. He leaves us all with the disciples to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (v.8). When Jesus’ feet leave the surface of the earth, we shall not be forsaken. For we have the disciples to witness to him. And that is not all the comfort Christ offers at this stage, for those disciples will not be working on their own. The effectiveness of Christ’s presence among us will not be left to this rather unimpressive bunch of misfits, for he promises them that: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (v.8).

This is important because, however far off God may feel at times – and for each of us he does – it is our fellow believers (and often our fellow queer believers) whom Christ gives us as his gift. I have often been told by people that they feel abandoned by the Church, and I ask them how it is that they have sustained their faith through that. And they reply, ‘It wasn’t me. I had friends who were really supportive.’ At times, distracted and frustrated by our struggles with the institutional Church, we underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit to anoint others to minister to us.

And Jesus ascends, leaving the earth until his coming at the last day (v.9). How interesting that Luke emphasises that “a cloud took him out of their sight” (v.9). Jesus is now forever veiled to the eyes of the flesh and can only be seen by the eyes of the spirit. In eastern icons, that truth is represented by a mandorla, an almond shaped barrier, separating Christ from earthly view, sometimes several layers representing the depth into which Christ’s human life is taken into the inner life of the Godhead.

an00275056_001_m

But this does not mean that we are left alone. Remember the promise of the Spirit. The disciples of course have failed to grasp the full meaning of that promise, and are standing, waiting, “gazing up towards heaven” when “suddenly two men in white robes stood by them” (v.10). Some commentators say that these are Moses and Elijah, who stood either side of Jesus at the Transfiguration. But we don’t really know. What we do know is that their task was to send the disciples on their way: “Men of Galilee, why do you stan looking up towards heaven?” (v.11). They are not meant to squander their life, gawping into the sky, but are to wait for a day when he “will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (v.11). The chapter closes for the disciples on the days of their talking with Jesus as friend. They are no longer disciples, but waiters, beginning the Church’s long wait for the kingdom of God to be established on earth. Even now, we stand and wait with them.


 

The Ascension’s Aftermath (Acts 1.12-14): Fellowship from loss to prayer

12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

After the Ascension, Luke reflects on two aspects of life in the Church: journey and place. The disciples return to Jerusalem (v.12) – they travel from the place where they last knew Christ in the flesh to the place of the Jewish Church, the holy city which was the home of the temple, the house of the presence of God – from the Mount of Olives, where Jesus had prayed to the Father on the night before His Passion. Time and place is being collapsed in the journeying of the fledgeling Church, as the events of the Gospel are being wrapped up into one package: this new community. They carry within them the life, passion, resurrection and ascension of the Lord. Galilee, Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives, they embody them all.

And now they come to an upper room (v.13), like the “large room upstairs” in Luke 22.12 in which the Last Supper takes place. The upper room, with its table fellowship and prayer, sandwiches the events of the passion, resurrection and ascension. Table fellowship and prayer are the key for the Church: they are the essence of the Church. For those of us who are members of the Church, they are the most important thing with offer to the Lord, and they are the most wonderful thing we receive from Him in the Church.

hb_1975-1-7

But many of us who are queer find this difficult. Whether we find it hard to be ourselves in Church, or whether we are explicitly or implicitly excluded from the congregation, simply saying that table fellowship and joining the faithful in prayer are important is not sufficient. But Luke throws something interesting into the mix for those of us who experience exclusion in the public life of the Church. “All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer” (v.14) – that is the disciples, the people who might be considered most legit. and most appropriate to be present at the worship of the Church. But Luke goes on: “together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (v.14). Luke explicitly opens up the community of the Church beyond the male and approved disciples. The Church in its prayer is developing beyond the narrow bounds of a particular group (not that, when you really read the Gospels, the disciples were the only ones who followed Jesus and spread the Word – lots of people did!). But in Luke’s explicit inclusion of people other than the disciples in the community of the early Church we see a powerful challenge to the modern Church to explicitly include ALL the members of Christ’s body in the prayer and table fellowship.

But there is a challenge to queer people, too. In the upper room of the Last Supper, all the disciples were gathered, including Judas. In the upper room of the early Church too, all the disciples were gathered. Scripture does not give us much to go on if we want to know about their relationships with one another: the internal politics of the first Church. But this much is clear: it isn’t up to us to choose who is in the Church either. This challenge is particularly difficult for us if we find a home in an explicitly LGBT-inclusion focussed denomination. It is incumbent on us in those situations, just as in any case where we are in a small or secluded congregation, to remember that Christ calls us to welcome ALL into His prayer and table fellowship. This begs the question: How do we make Church safe and nurturing for queer people, whilst making explicit our welcome to all, even those who are not queer, or who can at times be antagonistic? And if it is not possible for us to  physically welcome such people into our congregations, out of a desire to protect our weaker members, how do we make explicit our connection and fellowship with them around the one table, in one prayer to one Father, and in one upper room, the body of Christ?

And there is another dimension too which is cause for encouragement. The disciples have been locked in the psychology of loss. Jesus, the tangible friend and teacher, has been taken from them, tried, executed, and then raised up into glory. But here they move into a new psychology: of prayer. Prayer is vital for all of us who know loss, and all f us, not just queer people, are in that category. But mourning at stages in our family relationships, in our personal growth and in our journey of faith will weigh us down unless it can be harnessed to bear the fruit of prayer. Christ gives the vocation to prayer as his good gift, that though in our loss we are separated from things we desire and love, in prayer we are joined to Him whom we need. The injunction in 1 Thessalonians 5.16-17 comes to my mind: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing…”. Prayer is the means by which Christ turns our mourning into joy.


If you have feedback on the Queer Acts project, or would like to contribute a guest post (in any format appropriate for you, and which can be anonymised), please email me on t.m.sharp@durham.ac.uk 

NEW PROJECT: Queer Acts – Call for contributors

 

img_5566

Some time ago I wrote in pieces a queer commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. It was a satisfying project, not least because of the fascinating conversations with people on line and in the flesh it provoked. Questions like: Can there ever be a queer commentary on the Bible? Is it doing violence to scripture to read it from a queer perspective? If queer readings of scripture simply seek to free the Bible from certain narrow readings, surely they should just be called orthodox?

There is a blog, an essay and a book in each of those questions.

But what I was amazed by was how queer people around me were freed to engage with a scripture that some of them felt had been denied them. This, and only this actually, is my answer to the question: Why bother reading the Bible from a queer perspective?

Scripture, if it is truly God’s Holy Word, will slip through our fingers, will overpower us and run away from us, if we try to contain it, to direct or to make it say what we want it to say. It is only when the Church allows its members to read Scripture prayerfully, humbly, and in love of fellow members that the Church can come to a fuller understanding of what Scripture really is saying.

The prayer, humility and love of queer people is a vital and largely untapped resource for the Church when it comes to Scriptural elucidation.

And in the same way as feminist, womanist, black, liberation and other newer opportunities to read Scripture don’t get everything right, just like the many different perspectives which have been offered in the Church’s past, this reading of Acts will get things wrong. In some senses it will be unfaithful to the Word it exegetes. In many cases, it will simply not have spent enough time learning about the many wiser people who are out there writing on the same Scripture.

So this queer reading of Acts does not claim to be authoritative. Nor does it claim to be anything particularly new.

But it does claim to contribute something for the Church’s consideration, and for the nourishment of its members.

As part of this, I welcome contributions from anyone who might like to write a guest post, reflecting on their reading of a portion of Acts of the Apostles. This need not be in the more formal style which I shall use, but may be in any medium which allows you to communicate effectively.

Please contact me at t.m.sharp@durham.ac.uk if you would like to contribute.

And please pray for me as I undertake this project. Devotion to the study of Scripture is hard for queer people, and hard for people who work hard, and even harder for people who study theology with the rest of their time! But I believe it is utterly necessary for those of us who seek to live as disciples of Christ.

May God bless you.

It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:7-8)

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.

Christ_Pantocrator_-_Capela_Palatina_-_Palermo_-_Italy_2015


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.

Screen Shot 2016-04-30 at 13.24.37

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?

Archangel-Michael

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.

Rembrandt_St._Paul_in_Prison.jpg

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.

Screen Shot 2016-04-30 at 13.33.40

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.

normal_gay_art


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).

ChristTheKing2

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.

20150322_155143000_iOS


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.

15_to_c

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.

Window_Christ_the_King_RopeDSCN7515


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.

6-ways-to-be-a-submissive-and-respectful-wife2

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.

Married-Couple-Marriage-Wedding-Kneeling-Beautiful-Altar-Church-Parish-300x258

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.