Tuesday, June 12, 2012

All In the Family

In Ephesians 5:22 - 6:9, Paul deals with some specific family type relationships.  Some of these are very challenging to 21st century westerners and are often the most controversial passages in Ephesians.  Wives submitting to their husbands as well as instructions for slaves and their masters just don't seem to sit well with a lot of people.  But before sharing some thoughts on these passages, it might be useful to examine another issue first.

Does the Bible define an 'ideal' family relationship?  Or does it provide guidance for dealing with the family situation in the day that it was written in?  While there may be some element of truth to the first possibility, I believe the second is more realistic.  When Paul gives instructions to families in Ephesians, I believe he is recognizing the current socially accepted family life and is providing guidance to Christians who find themselves in any of those family relationships.  And if that is the case, then as the socially accepted family life changes over time, we may need to be a bit more careful how we apply the guidance provided.

So what was the family like in the 1st century Roman world?  While it consisted of a married man and woman along with their children, the resemblance to modern families in the western world ends there.  This was a very male dominated society where women and children are little more than property.  Marriages were most commonly arranged by the parents, for reasons other than love.  The oldest living male in an extended family had overall control, even over grown sons with families of their own.  Slavery was an accepted part of society and slaves were often considered part of the extended family.

To the believers in this type of family Paul gave the following directions:
  • Wives, submit to your husbands.
  • Husbands (man), love your wives like you do yourself.
  • Children, obey your parents.
  • Fathers (man), train your children in the Lord.
  • Slaves, respect and serve your masters wholeheartedly.
  • Masters (man), respect your slaves.
Notice here that wives, children and slaves and told only to do what they are already expected to do; submit, obey and serve.  But for all three they are to do it as if their husband, father or master was Christ himself.  Treat that one who is authority over you in the same way you would if Jesus was the one in that place.

It is when Paul turns to the man that things get dramatically turned around.  Rather than treat the other three groups in the family as property, we are to love as ourselves, train rather than frustrate, and treat with respect.  This is a pretty radical set of directions that, if followed, would work to transform the family life.

The onus of this passage is really on the man, the head of the family.  He was the dominate member of the family, and only as he changed could the family really become something different.  The others are encouraged to cooperate with him and make his task easier.

So how does this relate to family life today?  For most of us slavery is considered as barbarian with no place in our society.  And, while the western world still has some element of male dominance, it is no longer anything like it was in the first century.  So can we ignore the admonitions that seem at odds to our families today?  Or is it possible that there is something that we can still learn from them?

In particular, what about the direction for a wife to submit to her husband; something many men dream about and their wives laugh about?  Take a look at 5:21: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ."  This is a general guideline for relations between believers and would seem to include telling husbands to submit to their wives as much as wives to their husbands.  In submitting to each other as believers, as members of the body of Christ, we are putting each other’s interests ahead of our own; something that is challenging, but needful if we are to live in community as a body.  How much more important in the context of a marriage that the two put each other’s interests above their own?

In Matthew 20:25-28 Jesus responds to a request for prominence by two of his disciples with some direction concerning kingdom greatness: "whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant."  To live life as a disciple of Jesus, as a citizen of the kingdom of God, is to live as a servant.  Even Christ "did not come to be served, but to serve."  Do you think it might be then that believing husbands might also reasonably be expected to serve their believing wives?

And that is really the instruction that Paul gives to us, to love our wives as Christ loved the church, and as we love our own bodies.  What a radical thought for a first century man; rather than be lord of his home, he is to love and care for his wife, as well as the other members of his family.  While our wives may be uncomfortable with this passage today, I would bet it was the men who were when Paul wrote it.  Regardless the social mores of your day and place, choose to submit to and serve each other within your marriage.  Work together for each other’s enrichment and for the strengthening of your marriage.

Before leaving this section on marriage, I believe it is worth noting that Paul’s instruction to the wife to submit is not the same thing as instruction to the husband to force submission.  Those who would seek to use this passage as an excuse to subjugate their wives, or women in general, are seriously misusing this passage.

In regards to slavery, are not the guidelines Paul gives useful in the employee/employer relationship?  As an employee, should I not try to be pleasing to my boss, not just when he is watching, but all the time; serving him as though I were serving God?  And as a manager, should I not treat my employees with respect and help them to be successful?

I believe it is OK, and actually preferably, if our home life does not model the first century home life that Paul is addressing.  But the direction he gives to those homes still has application to us today.  Treat each other with love and respect and seek the advancement of your family, even if it costs you personally.


  1. great post--my reading of 5:21 in the GNT indicates the verb rendered "submit" is intended to flow through all of what follows--all relationships are bound by submission. keep up the good work.

  2. I shared this on my page! Great perspective!