We said these Pick-a-Verse drawings weren’t just for your favorites. And I’m suspecting this is nobody’s favorite, so it may well be Phil Kober’s effort to stump the preacher!
Last month, you heard me reference this passage as being among the things in the Bible we don’t like or find objectionable. I said that more than our contemporary culture, it was actually corrupting better, earlier Christian theology. This gives me a chance to unpack that with you.
The first thing to know in this description of household order is that we’re dealing with the economy. That’s a Greek word that is very helpful to know in its root form. The first part, “eco,” means house. So ecology is the logic of our house. An economy is the law of our house, or house-rule, how the household is organized or run.
In Greek economy, three basic relationships organized a household: husband/wife, father/son, master and slave. You see those weren’t very inclusive (for example daughters weren’t part of it). Also one person—one man—filled the role in each of those pairings. The one who made the rules and was in charge was the man, who was husband, father, and master. He was the center of the economy, and was also therefore the only one with a voice as citizen for society.
Next, notice that Christian faith actually undid that whole economy. We see it very well in Paul’s writings. For example, contrast Ephesians with a central verse in Galatians where Paul wrote, “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. There is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female” (Gal3:26, 28). You can hear it almost directly opposing the old household code, the Greek economy. It undoes male/female, undoes master/slave, and says you’re all children, that God is the only Father. Jesus taught the same way, talking about mothers, brothers and sisters (Mk3:35), but reserving the term Father for “our Father in heaven.” And even that subverts hierarchy or patriarchy, because God isn’t the authoritative master kind of father, but one of kindness and love.
Ephesians, however, was trying to reshape the earlier Christian beliefs, to return to the Greek version of family and household, with hierarchy of male domination back in the center. So this passage tries to change both our view of culture and our view of God. They play off of each other.
Like the image of God and Father, this interplay also corrupts the image of body and members. In this body image, the head matters most, and everything else is less important. This separates God from us, and severs men from women. It says Christ is the head, controlling the church, and so men control women and the economy and society. A woman does not even have a “self” in this language; she only counts as part of the man.
That’s very different from how Paul used the metaphor of the body in 1Cor12. It was without hierarchy. He said that all together we are the body of Christ. If you cut off any of us, the body suffers. A little toe is as much a part of the body as a hand, an eye as an ear. Each has its role and is important. A single hair cannot fall away without counting as a loss (Mt10:30). Paul even says that our more shameful body parts we clothe with greater respect. That’s how we treat each other in the body of Christ. You are not discounted because of disability or weakness but may be all the more important for the rest of us.
You might argue that Ephesians tried to compromise with Greek culture so Christianity had a foot in the door, to put it back in with a softer edge at least. Maybe it’s trying to make men a bit gentler and more respectful, to encourage us to be loving.
But if so, it’s been a pretty terrible compromise. After all, what lives out from this passage is not that respect or grace should rule. Instead this reading continues to burden us by emphasizing inferiority: to be subject, to obey, to keep suffering. There’s still much too much of telling people to suffer patiently, instructing that the Christian thing to do is to put up with abuse.
Yet that is not the only voice of the Bible. As even our Psalm realizes, those who are oppressed and made to suffer and insulted will end up not loving, but praying for the death of their enemies. When Jesus teaches us to love our enemies and to take up our cross, it is not grudging, forced submission but redemptive suffering with choice and willpower.
Even further, the example of Jesus, revealing God for us, undoes any view of hierarchy. God is not the highest and biggest authoritarian to whom we are simply obedient and passive. In Jesus, we meet God as servant, not as master. He is a brother. He is a lover. He welcomes the outsiders. He shares compassion, suffering with us. This one won’t operate at our expense, but is God with us, alongside us, collaborating—working with us to achieve God’s good ends.
If we’re still trying to redeem Ephesians, maybe an indirect benefit of this passage is in raising the question of how our faith fits into society, or what needs to change. Our households are not the same shape as those of Greek culture. In the past century and half we have at last begun to get past slavery, and in recent decades our marital relationships have taken a different view. Though the process in this country began with only the male head of a household, our democracy now opens up room for more active participants. Imagine how different the past two millennia could have looked if we went with the vision of equality and collaboration and compassion instead of the blueprint of domineering, controlling men.
So if Ephesians should not be the faithful shape of our relationships or homes, then what would we say today about Christian economy? How should our understanding of God in Christ shape our relationships? For starters, if our general household code, our economic order, is to love your neighbor as yourself, it negates the ranked structure set up in Ephesians. When marriage relationships are about trying to love and support and care for each other mutually, that’s a very different pattern. The next hymn we’ll sing is a wedding hymn, and you can notice how different the terminology is than what we heard in Ephesians, how it is broadened, how the relationship is meant to reflect the kingdom or household of God. More, if we’re not worried about who’s the boss, about a male to be in charge of the female, but simply about shared mutual love, then that also can quickly change much of the recent concern about same-gendered relationships.
Continuing along those lines, if our ethic is love, of mutual service and concern, we also quickly realize that the economy isn’t limited by Greek patterns, within the walls of our household. How we organize our relationships and behaviors stretches all around us. This begins to fit more closely with how we would typically use the term “economy.” It becomes a system of international relationships as globalized trade means we have to attend to the neighbors of our household that now includes far on the other side of the planet.
If the shape of our relationships should be that loving mutuality, then we can’t disregard others or use them only to our advantage. We cannot dominate them, as if we are the masters who control the economy, control the household with slave labor for our benefit. Instead, we have to be asking ourselves how our purchases, for example, either help or hinder or even potentially harm those who produce them, whether farm laborers in California or African miners or factory workers in Bangladesh or the store employees here.
On this refugee Sunday, we are called to recognize the big family of our household, that we cannot consign people as “other” or stranger or foreigner, much less “illegal aliens,” but all are equally brothers and sisters.
Again, as we’re realizing what a big household this is, that brings us to the even larger picture of economy, tied back to ecology, our whole earth household. We are not masters to subdue the earth, abusing and expending it, treating it as if it’s only there as a resource for us. In Christian economy, in God’s household, where we serve each other in love, we have to ask what creatures, what other life, what environments and habitats, we are damaging, what we need to treat with more kindness and respect, where our behavior and decisions and desires are selfish and out of line.
Those are obviously huge questions. So you may not have liked the economic outlook of Ephesians, with its word about wives being subject to husbands. But this is an even grander task. If it seems impractical, we’d better start practicing, following the rule of love when you live in God’s household.
Hymn: This Is a Day, Lord, Gladly Awaited (ELW #586)