Right not Rights: The household code of Ephesians 5

You might be surprised that I requested this passage to preach on when we were divvying up the book of Ephesians in planning for this month of preaching.  I think I’ve said before that I am attracted to the more controversial texts in the Bible.  It is one of the reasons that I love the Bible.  It is full of texts that challenge each other and we the reader.  Texts that beckon us to challenge and engage them.  This one is right up there – a series of instructions that we would, in our contemporary and enlightened world, rather read around rather than through.

What we have here in chapter 5 of the letter to Ephesians is called a household code.  There are others like it in other letters in the New Testament.  It addresses people in the churches about how the relationships in a Christian household should be shaped.  How should people in the family and household treat and respond to each other?  It references the commonly held understanding and assumption that the husband/father/slave-owner is the master of his house with a right to act as he chooses with relation to those under him.  The household is a pyramid with the man at the peak.

Melanie reminds us that even today in talking about REST ,that women and young girls continue to be victimized because although not codified in quite the same way it has been, many in our culture still have an understanding that men’s right to women’s bodies is absolute.  Specifically because of this, with many contemporary scholars – particularly feminist scholars – of this material, I might have regarded this part of Ephesians as completely non-binding.  We do not condone the holding of slaves simply because slavery is regarded without judgment in many Biblical epistles.   Neither do we condone the silence of women in church, or the primacy of a husband over his wife.   This text and others like it have been used to do all of those things, and likely are still used in that way to further victimize people who are being used in unjust ways.  That is not okay. However, I would like to look at how this letter might have been received and how we are to interpret it in a way that could be liberating rather than oppressive.

In the verses the precede the household code, we read,

“For once you are in darkness, but now, the Lord you are light. Live as children of light…Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them… everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light.”

Let’s look at this passage with the understanding that the household codes are revealing the darkness in the societal norms and assumptions and hoping to transform them.  As I said, there are some assumptions behind this letter.  This is a letter written to a church which lived with the understanding that a man’s rights subsume all others.  There is no doubt that for this reason we hold this text lightly and carefully.

So, with this as the assumption, we need also look both at how the code is introduced and who its first addressees are in the series of instructions.  In verse 21 we read/hear: “Be subordinate to each other in the fear (also translated respect or awe) of Christ!”  We are set up with an instruction about mutuality as a response to Christ. I talked at the beginning of our series and Weldon has also talked about this being a book in two parts.  Part one: what God has offered to us, how God’s love has been poured out on us.  Part two is the therefore: how we Christians are rightly called to respond to God’s great love and grace and to the self-giving non-violence love of Jesus.

‘Christians,’ the author of this epistle says, ‘the right way to be a follower of Christ and to respond to God’s grace, the right way to walk as children of light, is to give of yourselves to each other.’  So the first persons given agency to act rightly in this mutual action are women – wives. This is a letter address to all members of the household – not just to its adult male members.  This household code assumes (unlike the one found in 1 Peter) that all members of the household are present and their assumption about place are being addressed.  Indeed women, children and slaves are each addressed directly as persons with individual autonomy and personal agency.

Wives, be subject to your husbands and further on, respect them. Children, obey your parents in the Lord.  Slaves, yes, obey…render service as to the Lord and not to men and women.  We hear these people directly addressed. (I’m actually a little more surprised to hear children addressed directly even than slaves; I would have thought that ,as is often the case today, children would have been considered not worth mentioning or addressing in Christian worship.  Children, I ask you, and adults can maybe think back to when they were children: doesn’t it feel horrible to have someone talk about you when you’re right there?  And don’t you feel much more comfortable and respected)

Now, kids, you may not like that the instructions that are addressed to you are ‘obey your parents’ – just like women may not like very much hearing, ‘be subject to your husband.’  But the thing is, those instructions are followed up by some pretty pointed instructions to men (in that case, ‘don’t provoke your children’).  All of these in individuals are addressed in their position relational to the men in their household.  But the men overall are addressed at greater length and will feel a greater challenge.  In their world (as in ours) they are the ones who have the greater power.  It’s possible, even likely, that this letter was written a generation after Paul.  That could have meant that the Pentecostal call by Paul to the churches to transcend ‘male and female, slave and free,  Jew and Gentile’ as he did with the Galatians, to relaxed back to conformity with culture – and all the more reason to expose the darkness in it.

The possible transformational power of the instructions of men, and particularly to husbands is that they are to love their wives as Christ loved the church.  And not only just loved the church but ‘gave himself up for her.’  The husband is to reflect the love of Christ, who came as a servant to all and who turned the idea of headship upside-down.  A man who is subordinating himself to his wife in the way that Christ subordinates himself to the world would not take advantage of her, nor would he assume his right or dominance over any other women.  It seems very possible to me that this could have had a few of the men who heard this squirming in their seats.  Were they thinking about how they had been treating their wives and children and slaves.  It was, after all, their right to do so. In these instructions, they were being asked to give up their rights to lordship over in favor of servanthood to.

This is where I would like us to consider our own assumptions about rights.  No, we don’t assume the right to male dominance, nor to slave ownership, nor even to a parent’s absolute right to do as he pleases with his child.  But we absolutely cherish and uphold the language of rights: civil rights, human rights, women’s rights, the rights of citizens.  The right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’

The language of rights is not Christian language.  I know that I might be pushing a few buttons.  I say that the language of rights is not Christian language, even knowing we are a congregation of members who work hard to protect the rights of individuals who are discriminated against and treated unjustly.  And I know you do this out of a deep conviction to follow the one who preached peace and justice.  The struggle for civil rights for African American  was a just struggle and the fight to  I want to make a distinction between that work – good work – and the theological language of mutuality and subordination.  Yesterday, I’m sure many of you know was the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and the ‘I have a dream’ speech of Rev. Martin Luther King.  It’s a great speech.  It’s an appeal for equality and it is sometimes startling and saddening how Rev. King’s words continue to hold relevance.  It is an appeal to the best of a nation and the best ideals of the powers.   It demands justice and equal rights.  But in Christ, we renounce our rights.

Indeed, the first line of these instructions is, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  It does not say, ‘Claim your rights as a citizen of the nation of God.”  The listeners already knew their rights and were operating within them.  That is not what the people with influence needed to hear.  Those men of faith needed to hear what was right.

Well, my friends.  We are men of faith.  You may be assured that I never would have thought words like those would escape my lips.  We are people with influence.  It’s true, we vary in our income and influence, but most of us need to practice the call to submission and mutuality.  I have to say, this is very very hard advice for me to follow.  I don’t like giving in and I don’t like giving up something I believe to be mine – my right.

Tim Yoder Neufeld, says in his commentary on Ephesians, “Rooting the exercise of authority in the imitation of Jesus Christ necessarily destabilizes hierarchical and abusive power structures in the family.”  And, I would say, in the church, God’s family.  We are called to give up our rights for what is right. The author of Ephesians is not addressing the society at large but a church or community of churches.

But their behavior will set them apart from the way the world operates under the hierarchy of the code.  This distinctive behavior on the part of those in power, abandoning darkness will ripple outside the home as well.  If the men with privilege and authority and power, those with rights over all, renounce their rights, they will be shedding light on the darkness of injustice in the world.

I keep thinking of this video that a few people shared on facebook this week a story told by a black woman that calls white people to acknowledge and use their privilege – in a way that uncovers and exposes it to the light.  She tells of being in the grocery line with her sister-in-law who, although of mixed race, appears white.  Approaching the check-out first the white woman pays by check while the white cashier makes friendly small talk.  She takes her things and stands to the side waiting for her sister.  The storyteller also writes a check for her groceries, but she is asked for two pieces of ID.  Her 10 year old daughter noticing this difference and the much more stony demeanor of the cashier, begins to look distressed, but the storyteller is uncertain of how to respond, knowing that if she protests, she may make it worse.  She shows her ID.  The cashier goes on to pull out the ‘bad check’ book, clearly searching to see if she can find the storytellers check.  The daughter becomes more distressed and the storyteller is torn between standing up for herself and submitting to the humiliating treatment.

At this point, the woman’s white sister-in-law, who has been waiting interjects with, “Why are you treating her this way?” to which the cashier responds, “Well, that’s just our policy.”  And the sister-in-law asks why it was, then that she didn’t have to show ID or wait while her check was examined and compared to bad checks.  “Oh, you’re in here all the time.  I know you.”  And the sister-in-law resolutely says, “No.  This woman has been coming in here for three years.  I’ve only lived here a few months.”  By then, the other women in the line, elderly white women, also saw and heard what was happening and joined the protest.

“The light makes everything visible.”  The storyteller believes that it was only because a person with privilege was able to step into this situation that the ‘darkness’ was revealed and made to be light.

The message to the contemporary church, particularly a church whose concern for injustice is so deep, is to make an examination of what we believe to be our rights and to yield those in favor of advocacy for mutuality.  In Christ, who is ‘’gathering up all things to himself” (Eph 1) our assumption is not of inequality and hierarchy, but that all are equal under God.  The world – even (and maybe especially) this nation – makes no such assumptions.  And if all are ready to serve each other, not because a master or husband or parent demands subservience and obedience, but because of our love for Christ and all God’s children.

We with privilege are called to a response of submission and service to the one who does not, even as Christ offer himself.  Maybe we can use the language of rights, but with the awareness that it is a foreign language.

There is a tension.  I will end by naming it. For those who do not have power, the instruction to submission through Christ can only be valid when practiced in a family or household system that is also subject to mutuality. The author of Ephesians assumed that the world was this way and was not trying to undo the patriarchal system as a whole, but encouraging Christians to Christ-like practices within it.  It is very easy, as the church has often done to use these verse as an affirmation of abusive practices when for the first listeners it was call away from them. It is above all a call to mutuality, to renouncing our rights for what is right.