Sunday, 13 March 2016

Paul on Running a Household

Bearing in mind my previous post on the non-legalistic way of understanding the Law and the New Testament, I'd like to illustrate by applying it to Paul's writing about relationships in a household in Ephesians 5 and 6.  It's a long passage so I won't quote it all here.  You can look it up if you want to (read it here), or else just take my word for it.

Paul's letter to the Ephesians follows the general structure he often uses in his letters - theory (or theology) followed by practice.  In the first three chapters he talks about how his readers have been chosen and redeemed, how Christ is now exalted and we have new life in him, how God has broken down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile to make one people and how he (Paul) is a servant of this message.

In Chapters 4-6 he addresses the impact this should have on the way his readers live.  This second half of the letter can be divided into roughly four sections, and in each he provides some general guiding principles of conduct, along with some specific examples of how these should apply.  There is a lot of overlap between the statements of principle - they are variations on the theme of love and service for one another.

The first section (4:1-16) deals with unity in the church.  The general principle is stated in verses 2 and 3:

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

By way of practical example, he talks about the fact that each of us has been given complementary gifts by the Spirit, and we should use these in one another's service to build a unified body out of our diversity.

The second (4:17-5:20) deals with the idea that coming to Christ should transform us and this should have practical consequences for the way we treat one another.  Here general statements are interspersed with more specific examples.  General statements include these.

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (4:22-24)

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (5:1-2)

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light. (5:8)

These are interwoven with specific examples of transformation - truthfulness in place of lying; kindness and forgiveness in place of gossip, bitterness and rage; chastity and moderation in place of lust and greed; intoxication with the Spirit in place of drunkenness.

The fourth and final section is the famous passage about putting on the full armour of God, which points us to the spiritual resources we have at our disposal to promote and sustain this transformation.

The third section focuses on the notion that we should submit to and serve one another.  The principle is this simple statement in 5:21.

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

This is illustrated by a series of examples of how the Ephesians should act within their households - wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters.

These are not three separate examples, they are multiple aspects of the one example - how should people live together in a household?  Paul was writing to a culture in which extended families were the norm.  A single household (whether in a single dwelling or in dwellings located near each other, perhaps in one compound) would consist of multiple generations.  It would generally be ruled by its patriarch (although some households were headed by women, for instance if a widow inherited property) and include his wife, possibly his other wives/concubines, any children who were still unmarried (adult or juvenile), married sons and perhaps also married daughters and their children.  If they were wealthy enough there may also have been slaves (as many as one third of the Empire's population), and perhaps some poorer relatives or younger men the patriarch had taken under his wing.

This means that these are not separate sets of "commands" for each relationship pair - one pattern for wives and husbands, one for children and parents, one for slaves and masters.  It is a single pattern of relationship illustrated by three examples which show how to submit to one another.  What he says to slaves also applies to wives and children, what he says to masters also applies to husbands and parents.  The examples are cumulative.

Paul is suggesting, by his opening statement, that all the members of such a household should "submit to one another out of reverence to Christ".  What could this mean?  He appears to begin conventionally enough.

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour.  Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

There are similar messages to children and slaves.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.

Wives, children and slaves are to submit, to obey their husbands, parents and masters.  This is not exactly revolutionary stuff, it seems to support the status quo.  Who would expect wives (or slaves, or children) to do anything else?

Of course these less powerful people were not always as obedient as they were supposed to be.  They had other options, including open rebellion and deception.  Paul asks them not to do either of these things.  Wives should submit to their husbands "as to the Lord".  Children should "obey their parents in the Lord".  Slaves should obey their masters "just as you would obey Christ".  In each case, their submission is linked to their Christian calling.  They are not simply submitting because they have to, out of fear of punishment.  They are asked to submit as if they were submitting to Christ, with their whole hearts.

The really shocking part of Paul's message is in what comes next.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word,  and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.  In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.

We so often miss the significance of this.  I think it's because we read what we are looking for, not necessarily what's there.  So what we read is that men should be kind and considerate to our wives.  Is this what Paul is saying?  Look again.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her...

Christ didn't love the church by being kind and considerate.  Christ wasn't the perfect gentleman towards the church, opening doors for her and pulling out chairs for her to sit down, bringing her flowers and taking her out for candlelight dinners.  He loved the church by "giving himself up for her".  By dying for her.  By the ultimate and complete act of self-sacrifice.

In case you missed the point, he repeats it more succinctly when talking to slave-owners.  After asking slaves to obey their masters as if they were obeying Christ, serving them whole-heartedly even when they are not watching, he says:

And masters, treat your slaves in the same way.


...treat your slaves in the same way.

Masters, in other words, are to serve their slaves in the same way that the slaves are to serve their masters.  They are not simply asked to be kind and gentle with their slaves, although that is part of it (he tells them not to use threats), they are asked to serve them, like the husbands, because

...he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favouritism with him.

Hence, while the commands to the weaker party in each relationship pair can seem fairly conventional, the demand on the powerful party is anything but.  The husband/parent/master (who might be the same person) is asked to make a radical change in order to be Christ-like.

Paul is pointing his readers back to Christ's self-giving on the cross, but also to the whole pattern of self-giving shown in his life and death.  He might have in mind the poem he records in Philippians 2, in which Christ,

...being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death –
        even death on a cross!

In other words, Jesus' service does not consist merely of his death, but his whole life.  

He may also be thinking of Jesus' teaching recorded in Mark 9 and 10.  In Mark 9, following an argument among his disciples about which of them was to be the greatest in the Kingdom of God, he gathers them and says:

Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.

In the next chapter, in response to a direct request from James and John for positions of honour, he repeats the point in more depth.

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,  and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

John's gospel dramatises the point at the beginning of Jesus' final night with the disciples (John 13) through the story of the foot-washing.  Here Jesus takes on the job of the most menial household slave, washing the disciples' dirty feet before the meal.  Having performed the service he interprets it for them so they can't miss the point.

I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.  Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.

In other words, just as he has been prepared to take on the role of the slave, they should do the same for each other.

This is the upside down world Paul is commending to the Ephesian disciples when he says they are to "submit to one another out of reverence to Christ".  Certainly the powerless are not exempt from this submission and service, but the greatest change is asked of the powerful.  If you are a slave, it is no great stretch to be a good and faithful slave.  But if you are a master, how hard is it to voluntarily enslave yourself, and that to your own slaves?  If you are a husband how hard is it to serve your wife and give yourself for her when everything in your culture and upbringing, and hers, tells you that she should be serving you?

Ultimately this means that a Christian household cannot be like a conventional Roman household.  It cannot be a place where good order is kept by a strong authority figure who metes out rewards and punishments impartially and whose word is law.  Instead, it has to be a place where everyone serves one another humbly and willingly, where no-one is too proud or important to take on the most menial tasks, where no-one stands on their dignity.  It is a place where people give their lives for one another, not just once in a dramatic act of self-sacrifice but every day through the washing of feet or the cleaning of toilets.

Paul chooses to illustrate his point through the household example, but "submitting to one another out of reverence to Christ" need not be limited to this, as Jesus' wider teaching makes clear.  We are all servants of one another.  Some parallels are widely acknowledged - for instance, I have heard and read plenty of expositions which apply the slave/master relationship to employees and employers.  Sadly while I have often heard it used to say that, for instance, employees shouldn't strike, or shirk, I have never heard anyone suggest that employers should serve their staff, or give their lives for them.  And how would we apply this principle to students and teachers, or to rulers and subjects, or to life in an urban neighbourhood?  How should it apply to leadership in the church?

So in a sense this passage does provide us with a "biblical pattern" for marriage and parenthood.  However, the pattern is not some abstract understanding of gender roles and proper authority.  Rather the pattern is that set by Christ - the pattern of self-giving service, reversal of power relationships and daily self-sacrifice.  Sure the wife should obey her husband, but the husband should also obey his wife.  Each should be trying to outdo each other in how they can serve one another.  If this means flouting convention, so be it.  And this doesn't just apply to them, it applies to everyone.  Servanthood is the norm for Christians, the pattern of Christian life, the pattern of Christ.  If in each situation we come across we are not asking, "how can I serve this person" then we are not being Christian.
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