Vandy and I are currently reading a book together called “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” by Rachel Held Evans. Rachel took a year and examined different aspects of what some American evangelical Christians would describe as being the biblical ideal for women. She decided to do this because she realized all the mixed messages she was getting about what a Christian woman should be and do. For example, her church taught that women should not have authority over a man so women should not preach from the pulpit because this was a violation of Paul’s instructions to Timothy in 1 Tim. 2:12. But her church would consider conservative Mennonite women to be legalistic for covering their heads even though Paul says in I Cor. 11:5 that that should also be practiced in the church. So Rachel wanted to gain understanding into why some things were emphasized as essential to church practice and others were not. It’s a very thought provoking book.
It raises some interesting questions about why there are certain things in the Bible that we don’t follow today and why there are things in the Bible that seem contradictory. We can see some of this contradiction in Ephesians. There is this beautiful description of the Church as the Body of Christ, where there is no division because Christ has destroyed the dividing wall of hostility and brought peace between God and humanity and between Jew and Gentile. There are no insiders and outsiders in the Body of Christ, for “through Christ we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.” So there are no foreigners and aliens but all are fellow citizens and members of God’s household (2:14-20). In chapter 4 Paul exhorts his readers to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace because there is one Body and one Spirit and we’ve all received one baptism and have one Lord. Yet in this unity, there is also diversity as God has gifted the members of the Body with different gifts and abilities. These are given for the good of all that the entire body might grow and mature and reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God and become mature. (chapter 4). So he’s teaching that we all have a place in the Body of Christ, we all are necessary to it, we all have gifts that are needed and useful to the Body and we are all growing together, supporting each other, towards maturity in the faith.
In the passage we read this morning, Paul is encouraging his listeners to live faithfully as children of the light, doing those things that please the Lord, not having anything to do with those things that are of the dark because they aren’t in the dark anymore. They are now in the light. He means don’t practice those things that are contrary to the kingdom of God anymore. In chapter 4 and into chapter 5 he had listed some of those things such as harboring bitterness, rage and anger, slandering others, fighting with others, stealing, lying, being greedy, impure or immoral. These are not the things that bring glory and honor to God so make sure such things as these are not a part of your life, is what he is saying.
In Eph. 5:15 Paul tells the reader to be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. …Understand what the Lord’s will is…be filled with the Spirit.” He’s saying we are to devote ourselves daily to seeking the Lord’s will, to be living in the power of the Holy Spirit. If we are going to avoid the evil around us in the world, we need God’s help. Only He can truly give us the power to overcome evil, both the evil that exists in our own sin nature and the evil that lurks in the world and would love nothing better than to destroy God’s people.
I made a commitment to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ when I was 16 years old. Since that time I’ve experienced how easy it is to fall prey to evil. You think you’re doing good and suddenly something sets your temper off. Or you start questioning someone’s motives and thinking bad about them. Or you find yourself in a situation of need and you’re tempted to do something about it that you know is against God’s laws. We are all fallible and it takes staying connected to God’s Spirit and to God’s people to keep on track and continue to grow. This is what Paul is encouraging the Ephesians to do. He tells them to speak to each other with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, to encourage each other and instruct each other with scripture. To worship God and give thanks. These things help us remember what God has done and is doing. Thankfulness helps us to keep from falling into despair as we remind ourselves of God’s faithfulness and love. It’s all good stuff.
But then in 5:22 Paul tells wives that they are to submit to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the body. Suddenly we are no longer in the context of relationships of equality and mutuality in the Body of Christ, where we are all supporting one another and encouraging one another as we grow together, but are in a context of hierarchy with the wife being told to take a subordinate position to her husband. As we go on into chapter 6 Paul continues in this vein telling children to obey their parents in the Lord and to honor them and telling slaves to obey their masters with respect, fear and sincerity of heart, just as they would obey Christ. Here we can see very clear divisions in relationships in contrast to Paul’s earlier writings that we are all members of one household, no longer foreigners and aliens divided from one another, but fellow citizens together, members of one body. It’s confusing. It seems like 2 different messages.
In the Church today, the confusion continues. Some churches, like the one Rachel Held Evans grew up in, hold to the view that women submit to men and therefore cannot lead in the church. Other churches say that this teaching doesn’t apply to women in the church, that it is a teaching for husbands and wives and as long as a husband allows it, a woman can lead in the church. Others would say leadership in the church is about who God is gifting and calling and that could be a man or a woman and whoever God is gifting and calling should be allowed to lead or teach or whatever. Paul really doesn’t help us gain any clarity into how this should be applied because in this book and in Colossians, he has these instructions for submission in the household. Yet in his other writings he affirms women leaders in the church, including mentioning a woman named Junia whom he said was outstanding among the apostles (Rom. 16:7). And he writes in Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” There doesn’t seem to be any indication of hierarchy of relationships in that verse.
As far as the teaching about slaves and masters goes, Paul, in his letter to Philemon, actually is advocating for freedom for the slave Onesimus. He writes “Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love…I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains…I am sending him back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me…But I did not want to do anything without your consent…Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good – no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.” He’s clearly telling Philemon that the relationship of slave/master is no more and now they are brothers in the Lord.
So what are we to make of all this? Let’s go back to Ephesians 5:21. Before Paul gets into his instructions about husbands and wives he writes “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” That word submit is a military term meaning to arrange the troops in a military fashion under the command of a leader. In non-military usage, it meant a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility and carrying a burden. So Paul is telling the believers at Ephesus to not be stubborn and insist on one’s own way all the time but rather work together, cooperate, assume responsibility for one another and carry each other’s burdens. In this way, the church will work harmoniously and grow.
But then he includes something called the household codes. These were codes of behavior that were followed by households in Roman culture. They gave absolute authority to the male head of the household. They prescribed how life would be lived in Roman culture by giving men total authority over their wives, children and slaves. The difference is that Paul, in his instructions, commands the men to love their wives and treat them well, even as they love their own bodies and take care of them. They are not to exasperate their children but train them in the Lord, and they are to treat their slaves well, not threatening them. The Roman household codes didn’t put any restrictions on men at all, while Paul does put restrictions on them. But still this doesn’t seem to fit in with what Paul’s been advocating earlier about mutual relationships.
To be honest, I don’t know why Paul includes this in his letter. Greater minds than mine argue over Paul’s teachings about submission and can’t come to an agreement, so I don’t feel too bad. The best I can come up with is that he’s telling his Gentile readers who live in Roman culture that, if they are going to follow the Roman household codes, then it has to be transformed by the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That means that men have a responsibility to their wives, children and slaves. It doesn’t just go one way. But I don’t think this is the ideal for the Body of Christ. So I went further back to the creation account to see what God’s original intent was for human relationships.
When we go back to the creation account and read in Genesis 2 where God decides to make woman, we read that God says “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” There was no suitable helper for Adam to be found among the animals. So God caused him to fall asleep, took one of his ribs and made a woman from it and brought her to Adam. When he saw her Adam said “ This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’ for she was taken out of man.’ For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”
Adam needed someone suitable to him, someone who corresponded to him, who literally “went in front of” him or matched him. And this person was give help or aid or support. So Adam needed something that Eve provided. The idea is of two things of equal strength but different abilities that match and make a whole. Now please don’t misinterpret what I’m saying. I’m not saying a single person isn’t whole and you need a mate to be whole. I’m saying in the original male/female relationship the dynamic was to be a team and part of what that particular team needed to do was be fruitful and multiply so, yes, they had to be one male and one female.
But to bring this idea back into the context of relationships within the Body of Christ and into the context of Christian households, I think this idea of relationships being like a team is very valid and fits with the model of the Body of Christ. In a team, people work together and strengths and weaknesses are balanced out. The focus isn’t on one person alone. All work together to reach a common goal. This is what Paul has been teaching all along in this letter to the Ephesians. The goal is maturity in Christ and all are exhorted to work together, to use their gifts, to encourage one another, to speak to each other in psalms and hymns, to guard against those things that destroy unity. The same goal is there in household relationships. The relationship between spouses should be that of a team with the goal of both growing in maturity in Christ. It’s not about one being lifted up higher than the other but rather about both respecting and honoring the other and both using their strengths for the good of the household. In relationships between parents and children the goal is growth and maturity in Christ, not having the last word or putting pressure on our kids to succeed in one area or another. What difference would it make in our relationships with our children if we were more intentional about talking about the strengths they bring to the family system and their value to the family, then we did talking about their weaknesses or areas where they need to improve?
What really stands out to me in looking at these household codes in Ephesians is that relationships can’t be about power. There is one Lord, one Father, one Savior, one Spirit and none of us are that one. The issue of power has been settled. We all live under the power and authority of Christ, whether we be male or female, child or adult, master or servant. So the real issue of submission is to submit first to the authority and Lordship of Christ and then to one another. Remember submission is defined as a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility and carrying a burden. We cooperate with one another in our family relationships. We assume responsibility for one another, looking out for one another, protecting one another. We carry each other’s burdens, adding our strength where the other is weak. And we allow others to carry our burdens as well.
If we want strong families, strong friendships, strong churches, we need to have a good understanding of what it means to be the Body of Christ and how this works in all these areas of relationship. Last week at the women’s retreat we began a conversation about the strengths of women’s voices, the necessity of having our voices heard in the community of faith, in our homes, in our workplaces. We talked about why our voices are silent and what it would take to have them heard again. And we recognized the affirmation we have received from men and women in our lives. We need to support and encourage each other as we grow together.
As we conclude this sermon series on the Body of Christ, I think it is important that we commit ourselves to living as the Body. We need each other, we need the support we gain from one another. We can’t let ourselves be divided in our congregation or in our homes. Last week Pastor Leonard preached about standing together and he used the illustration of the Redwood trees, whose root systems are intertwined. This is what helps to make them strong. We as believers in Christ have to grow like that. We have to draw close so that our root systems can intertwine and give us all strength. This past Wednesday as we prayed together at noon prayer, one of the things I found myself praying for was that those in our congregation who feel like they are on the outside would be drawn in and feel welcomed and a part of this fellowship; that there would be no foreigners or strangers among us. We are all one people in Jesus Christ and we want to commit ourselves to continue to grow in unity and in strength.
I’ll invite the worship team to come forward now and lead us in our closing worship song. As we worship, let’s commit ourselves to continue to grow together, to do the hard work of maintaining healthy relationships both in the congregation and in our homes, and to open ourselves up to continue to welcome others into our circles of relationships, and to grow to maturity in Christ. Let’s pray.