We're currently doing a series of messages at our weekend church gatherings based on Paul's letter to the Ephesians. This weekend we picked up some of Paul's thoughts for better relationships. These are often referred to as the ‘household codes.’ Paul addresses husbands and wives (Eph.5:21-33), parents and children (Eph.6:1-4), and finally masters and slaves (Eph.6:5-9). Just prior to this Paul noted that God calls us to live life carefully, knowing his will and making the most of every opportunity. We are not to get drunk with wine but we are to be continually filled with the Spirit. Paul describes the results of the Spirit-filled life as people whose lives are marked by singing, thankfulness, and mutual submission (Eph.5:15-20). Positioning ourselves to be continually filled with the Spirit is crucial to building the kind of loving relationships that God’s desires for us. Without the Spirit’s power and enablement we can easily degenerate into our old habits patterns of relating from a self-centred perspective.
Paul begins this section on relationships with a call for all believers to submit to one another (Eph.5:21). We are all called to self-giving love and humility modelled by Jesus himself. We are to consider others better than ourselves and to look to other people’s interests, seeking to serve them in any way we can (Gal.5:13. Phil.2:3-4. Rom.12:10). All believers are to place themselves under others in the spirit of humility. Unfortunately, for many the very word ‘submit’ implies a passive and weak approach to life. However, neither Jesus nor Paul was a weak person but they did choose to treat other people with respect and love. The call to mutual submission is the context for all that Paul says about marriage, parenting, and relationships between masters and slaves.
Marriage in the First Century
The society that Paul lived in was completely patriarchal (dominated by men). It was a terrible time for women as they were viewed as being inferior to men and were given relatively little freedom. They received minimal education, could not be witnesses in a court of law, had less economic independence, could not adopt children or make a contract, and typically were kept from public life. When girls married (usually between age twelve and sixteen), they were expected to take the religion of their husbands. They were either under their father’s, their husband’s, or some other male relative’s authority all their lives. Roman law gave husbands complete authority over their wives, who were in many ways seen as the husband’s possession.
Into this environment, where the devaluation of women was the cultural norm, the Christian faith brought amazingly good news for women through the gospel of the kingdom. Jesus allowed women to be his disciples, they were the first witnesses of his resurrection and were sent to proclaim to the men that he had risen, they received the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, they were given spiritual gifts to serve the church, and they ministered and led within the church community (it should be noted that any restrictions placed on women ministering in the early church were temporary and they were given within dysfunctional church communities, whereas in healthy environments, ministry was based on gifting and godliness, not gender). In fact, Paul boldly declared that, because of Christ, gender distinctions, though still existing, were no longer grounds for prejudice or discrimination with the community of faith (Gal.3:28).
Can you imagine the potential uproar that this new freedom for women may have caused within society at that time? Paul’s concern was always for the credibility and the advance of the gospel (see Titus 2:5). Interestingly, he didn’t attack or seek to overthrow the structures of how society worked in his time. For instance, he didn’t seek to abolish slavery, overthrow dictatorial Roman government, or overturn a patriarchal approach to relationships. His focus was primarily on how Christians should live out their faith with the context in which they found themselves (see Eph.6:5-9, Rom.13:1-7 and Eph.5:21-33). However, he did give his greatest challenges to the ones with the most power in that culture – husbands, parents, and masters. He pushed them towards love, kindness and consideration because of the grace that is in Christ Jesus.
Because Paul wrote at a time when wives were expected to submit to their husbands (in the same way that slaves were expected to obey their masters), he affirmed that arrangement (Eph.5:22-24, 33) but balanced it with a reminder to husbands that they were to always act in love, which would have directly affected the way that they expressed their authority (Eph.5:25-33). He also redefined the man’s leadership as being that of a servant who acts with self-giving love like Christ. Interestingly, Paul’s directions to the wives to submit and to the husbands to love are instructions given to all Christians as to how they should act towards each other.