Thursday, October 26, 2006
One of the most hotly contested passages in the writings of Paul is the household code found in Ephesians 5:21-6:9. Context plays a crucial role in the interpretation of this passage. Culturally, this letter was written in a culture that had strict patriarchical household codes. Compared to the household codes of the day, Paul’s is surprisingly progressive and redemptive…not to mention deeply subversive. In the context of the letter to the Ephesians, Paul is discussing what it means to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received”. Paul explains that this means pursuing unity in love, with a humble attitude (4:2-3). From that point on, Paul unpacks what it means to live in this way. Generally, it involves putting off falsehood, and speaking truthfully, not allowing anger to control you, and sharing what you have with the community. It also involves being thoughtful about what and how you are communicating. Followers of Christ are told to get rid of all relationally destructive elements, and to replace them with compassion and forgiveness. According to Paul, this way of life is made possible by/in the Holy Spirit…and not living this way “grieves” the Spirit. This is the context of Paul’s household code…and that context (particularly through 21st century eyes) makes all the difference in the world. Paul moves from general principles to more specific application for the different roles his hearers would occupy. Paul’s “household code” is written to the world he lives in. His main point in writing this is to call his listeners to authentically live out the Way of Christ in their world, in their time. However, this Way is deeply subversive, and if allowed to play out, subverts the code itself. Virtually all other household codes of this period locate everyone in the household in relation to the patriarch. On a surface level (at least from our perspective), Paul’s would seem to follow this basic form. When we look closer though, we start to see the subversive elements. First of all, Paul builds in reciprocal/mutual submission (this would be virtually unheard of in their culture). Secondly, Paul actually gives instruction to husbands (who normally could do as they pleased in relation to the other members of the household). He also makes the analogy of: as Christ is head of the Church, man is head of his household. This would present a striking contrast to “headship” as it was currently understood…not as tyranny, but as a headship of self sacrifice and one that considers the other members more important that his desires for himself. It would also cast him as a part of the organism (i.e. head attached to a body) rather than an autonomous individual. Next, Paul goes into the relationship with one’s children. Again, he builds in reciprocity, which was unheard of in a culture that simply considered children “property” and didn’t even assign them gender until they were considered adults. Next, Paul addresses the dicey (to us) issue of slavery. Again, he is simply speaking to the situation of the world he lives in at the time he lives in. Slavery was a fact, so he addresses slaves (not uncommon) and also masters (shocking) and he gives the relationship reciprocity. He also gives implies that the masters have a responsibility to treat the slaves as they themselves are treated by God, and he reminds them that God shows no favoritism. In short, Paul is telling each of them in very practical ways what the way of Jesus will look like when it is lived out in their particular situations and circumstances…in their world and culture. The subversive part is that if they live this out…it will necessarily change their world and culture.