Good morning! While reading the second half of Ephesians today (chapters 4-6), I’m reflecting on the fact that this epistle is rather anonymous. Unlike other letters we’ve read to this point, there is very little reference to the local community or their issues, suggesting that the advice and instruction given here could be addressed to any community. Except for several veiled references to imprisonment, the writer doesn’t self-identify much either. It’s almost as though “Paul” could have been anyone, writing a letter chock full of opinions and putting it in Paul’s name. Such skepticism may be unwarranted on my part, and likely arises from the fact that I want to delegitimize the instructions given here. Because the one thing that is very clear about this letter are its explicit instructions on how to live as a Christian in society and at home. We’re going to have some problems with them in the 21st century.
The writer to the Ephesians proposes an ordered and hierarchical understanding of the ideal society, which matches the values of Roman culture and apparently ignores the egalitarianism of the Jesus who befriended women, ate with tax collectors, and honored children. “Paul” here is fond of clean, tidy categories of people. Some are helpful, as in the different types of leaders called to Christian service: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, etc. Others are far more jarring, such as the sorting and hierarchical ranking of the “Christian household”: 1) Christ, 2) husbands, 3) wives, and 4) children. This is to say nothing of slaves, who are told to serve obediently as though their masters are Christ himself. All these commands arise from the presumptions of high privilege and naïveté. The experiences of slaves, women, and children go unquestioned—this is a rule-book written by powerful men, and it imports the same cultural hierarchies that were present in ancient Rome. It shows a corresponding inability to regard with Christ-like grace those who fall short—including thieves, fornicators and impure people, all of whom Jesus showed mercy.
Though I reject most of the premises herein (because I believe Jesus would do so also), I’ve also tried to identify some good things in these chapters. The lofty language of unity in Christ gives a powerful beginning to chapter 4, especially verses 1-6. Ephesians also gives some helpful counsel about how to reasonably be together in community (speaking the truth, limit anger, etc), and the “whole armor of God” passage at the end of chapter 6 is ready-made for teaching children. Most especially, it presents a sense of confidence that the good Christian life is possible to achieve through proper human action and organization. The downside to this, of course, is that grace becomes a shadow of how Christ expresses it, and that people carry the full blame when they fall short.
(Note that the link here is only to Ephesians 4-5. For copyright reasons, you will need to click the button at the bottom of the linked page to read chapter 6.)
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Philippians. Thanks for reading!