Man from a Woman Bishop’s Rib: a Man’s Perspective on Mutual Flourishing?

When I told people I was going to be ordained by a bishop who was a woman, I was surprised by the response. We need to call each other out on unholy behaviour or dodgy theologies which make those sorts of responses worse.

Since the appointment of Philip North, Bishop of Burnley, to the see of Sheffield, there has been an uproar on social media. Lots of people seem angry.

Since the Church of England began to consecrate women as bishops, guidelines called The Five Guiding Principles (available here) have attempted to achieve “mutual flourishing” of all in the Church, whether or not they can accept in good conscience the ministry of women. But this has not please all. The campaigning group Women and the Church released a statement which comments on the ongoing systematic discrimination against women in the Church, asking: “Who is concerned for the flourishing of women clergy?” Commentators on social media have argued that “mutual flourishing” only exists to protect traditionalists, and leaves women in ministry in the lurch.

The row reached a low point in an unfortunate guardian article reporting the views of Martyn Percy, the dean of Christ Church, Oxford, which quoted him as saying: “The public will neither comprehend nor welcome this rather fogeyish sacralised sexism of the religious organisation – known simply as the Society – and that Bishop Philip leads.” The Society is one organisation of those who do not accept the ordination of women.


Has “mutual flourishing” broken down? The sometimes uncomfortable rhetoric of liberal commentators and the experience of women in ministry might suggest so.

But the trajectory of “mutual flourishing” for the future of the Church is a deeper question than a matter simply of who is in the papers today.

Much of the criticism of the Society from progressive quarters has argued that its members have a theology of “taint” – that is that those who accept women’s ministry, especially bishops who ordain women, are tainted and so members of The Society will refrain from receiving sacraments from them. There are accusations that this is a form of donatism (not without some substance, in my view) and that such a view is inconsistent with an acceptance of Anglican Orders.

But The Society’s leadership has consistently rejected “any so-called “theology of taint”” , so does that mean that the charge doesn’t stick?

The experience of a man from a woman bishop’s rib

I am a man, a cis-gendered man, so in some respects I feel unjustified in writing a blog post on this subject. But, thanks be to God, I am due to be ordained this June by the Bishop of Newcastle…. who is the Rt Revd Christine Hardman.

I was not always due to be ordained in Newcastle. I came from a diocese with a man as bishop. But when Bishop Christine offered me a curacy with an interesting and exciting vicar in her diocese, and when I heard of her growing reputation as an effective and creative Bishop, I was glad to accept.

But not all my friends were as glad as I.


“I’ve got a curacy,” I told one, “in Newcastle Diocese.” “Ah, who’s the Bishop there?” came the response. “Christine Hardman, formerly archdeacon in Southwark.” “Hmmm.”

I’ve got very used to that Hmmm.

It is a response which more men in the Church will begin to experience as the first generations of men to be ordained by women emerge from more diocesan cathedrals. It is a response of disappointment, and often of confusion too.

People don’t know how to respond. On the one hand, they like that a young man straight out of university is going to serve in the Church. But on the other, they don’t like the fact that he is due to be ordained by a woman.

What happens next is often interesting.

It is interesting, I think, because although the theological reasoning may be the same as if they were talking to a woman who had announced she was being ordained, there is a category error: I am theologically in a position which they have generally only encountered as inhabited by women; and yet I am a man, so the social rules of discourse seem strangely altered.

Sometimes people feel they can say things to me that they wouldn’t need or wouldn’t be able to say to a woman directly, or at least I hope they wouldn’t. Here is a selection:

  • “Couldn’t you be ordained by a suffragan bishop who was a man? That would get around the problem.” At no point had I thought of Bishop Christine as a problem.
  • “Why are you throwing away a ministry with such potential?” I guess, unless one is ordained by a man in pure male succession, one can be of no service to Christ’s church.
  • “Well, of course, at least you’re not a woman yourself. That would be really difficult.” I really don’t know how to respond to that, even with hindsight.

What was especially interesting was when, with some young members of The Society and ordinands who aspire to membership of The Society, I have posited the hypothetical possibility of being ordained deacon by the male suffragan in the Diocese, the Rt Revd Mark Tanner, Bishop of Berwick.

“Oh no, there were women at his consecration. He’s not validly ordained, not a real bishop… The communion is fractured. You’d need to find a Society Bishop to do it. Otherwise you wouldn’t be ordained.”

Now this was interesting.

A male bishop, consecrated bishop by men, with women bishops present, would not be able to ordain me validly. That was textbook theology of taint. From the mouths of young members of The Society.

And on another level, women training for ordination and those experienced in ministry are probably used to a certain level of unpleasantness, receiving the cold shoulder if not often direct misogyny. But young men like me are not. It is shocking to hear and receive so openly from fellow Christians. They can’t call me “that bloody woman”, but the frosty chill in the atmosphere doesn’t take the greatest empathy to detect.

Mutual flourishing means respect

Mutual flourishing is a great challenge to the Church. If we learn to do it well it could be a remarkable model for how the Church could preach the Gospel in our increasingly divided society. It could be a model for how Churches riven by schism could come together in something stronger than the mere ecumenism of the last fifteen years.

But mutual flourishing needs to be mutual.

The charge that mutual flourishing is only one way does not follow through in every case. But it does seem the experience of some of us on the ground that a theology of taint is alive and kicking amongst those opposed to women’s ordination.

Liberals have behaved appaulingly at times, our campaigning tipping over the Christian boundary from striving for the Gospel into defamation and disrespect. We must do better. And our bishops must call us out on this when we get it wrong.

But conservatives must acknowledge that bad behaviour, disrespect and bad theology are not limited to liberals. And The Society bishops rightly condemn theologies of taint, but it doesn’t seem that all of its members are listening.

The work of reconciliation between conservatives and progressives cannot come to fruition until the leaders within both groups begin to call out campaigners and those in the ranks when they behave inappropriately. Mutual flourishing means respect, and an honouring of the other, even when you can’t share an altar.

I look forward to ministering alongside those who hold very different views from me, as I have enjoyed training alongside them. And I pray that as we say mass, at our different altars, in different churches, in different “societies”, our sacrifice of praise may join with those of our brethren in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, and with the saints and angels in heaven.

And if I pray this sincerely, I may get angry, I may slip up, but I will try not to defame them, try not to scoff, and I shall certainly try not to exclude them.



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.


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.


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.


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 

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.



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.


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?


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.


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.


A Final Worked Example – Slavery

5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; 6not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, 8knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.

9 And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.

And we see the same pattern repeated again in Ephesians’ discussion of slaves and masters. “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart” (v.5). Now, the temptation is to assume that, to the original audiences, this would have been unshocking. However, there are two profoundly unsettling things about this seeming affirmation of slavery. Firstly, the slave is encouraged to go beyond the call of duty, not just to be consoled in their state but to willingly embrace it. Secondly, the slave is called to emulate, in their current state, their relationship with Christ: they are to obey not as other slaves but “in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ” (v.5).

What we see here is, again, a misreading by many commentators on Ephesians, rendering the latter part of the letter merely a series of statements of Christian social policy. Rather, the latter portion of Ephesians is a profound meditation on the call of the Christian to make the unity of Christ manifest in their own lives. So, the slave is called to live out their state, “not only while being watched, in order to please [their masters]” (v.5) but rather “as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart” (v.6). They are called to “render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women” (v.7).

Always, the focus is on God and our identity in Christ, counselling us in how we should reflect on our own lives and how we make Christ’s love and unity manifest in our own situations, “knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free” (v.8).  And, just as for wives and husbands and children and parents, the application of Ephesians’ theology is balanced. “And, masters, do the same to them” (v.9). For masters as for slaves, unity in Christ has implications: “Stop threatening them” (v.9).


Our unity in Christ has implications for all of us. What I find astounding about Ephesians 5 and 6 is not the scary ways in which these passages have been misapplied. Rather, I am bowled over by the universality of God’s vocation to us in Christ. All of us are called to make God’s love and unity manifest in our lives. All of us, without exception, be we wife or husband, child or parent, slave or free, are united by a common vocation and by the grace which we have been given together in Jesus Christ, “for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality” (v.9).

Rather than being texts of terror for queer people, these are exciting texts, joyous texts and liberating texts, reminding us and the Church of the unity which we share in Christ, and our vocation to live that unity, whether we realise it or not.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.