A Covenant of Love
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Ephesians 5.21 (NRSV)
Ephesians 5.21—6.4 is the portion of scripture that has been (mis)used to subjugate women, endorse slavery and position the church on the wrong side of issues like domestic abuse. Let’s attempt a fresh look at these often quoted verses.
In the 4th Century B.C.E., Aristotle developed what is called the “Household List.” It contained a description of behaviors and relationships in the Greek domicile. In the time of the Apostle Paul, the Roman Empire had adopted the household list with the Husband/Father as the dominant figure. The Pater Familias (Father of the Family) had absolute authority over children and slaves (who in a sense were seen as property) and much power over his wife, the mother of his children. When Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians, he was concerned that Christians not be accused of disrupting Roman families. Paul did not create the Household List. Instead he sought to provide a Christian commentary for it. Paul offered instructions for any believer who found him or herself in a household governed by the list. Listen closely to Paul’s instructions. First, he counsels all believers to be subject to one another (Ephesians 5.21). All believers are saved by the same Christ and are equal in God’s sight. So, all are to obey God and be submissive to one another; to put the other ahead of self; to practice Christian love (agape). A submissive wife was not an unexpected role but for a husband “to love his wife as Christ loved the church,” this was innovative. It was expected for adult children to take care of their elderly parents, but for fathers to not “provoke their children,” this was new. Slaves were expected to obey their masters but for masters to deal with slaves without threating them, this was revolutionary.
When Paul wrote he was commenting on the status quo of his day. He may not have imagined a world where these household rules did not apply. However, he also gave Christians instruction on how to behave under these rules: “treat everyone fairly,” show love to everyone regardless of status,” “consider all believers your brothers and sisters.” These Christian behaviors slowly, but certainly, helped to unravel the brutal systems of dominance and slavery.
Reverend Steven B. Lawrence