Christian Relationships

December 3, 2005

Read: Eph 6:1-9

Comments on Eph 6:1-9: Most English translations have difficulty expressing 5:21 as is stands in the Greek which is a participial clause that connects with what precedes it grammatically but with what follows it topically. The grammatical structure would look like this in outline:

And do not be drunk with wine, which is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit,

Speaking to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,
Singing and making melody in you heart to the Lord
Giving thanks always on behalf of everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father,
Submitting yourselves to each other in the fear of Christ,
Wives to your husbands…
Husbands, love…
Children, obey…
Fathers, do not provoke…to anger…
Slaves, obey…as you obey Christ…
Masters, do the same…not threatening…

In this way the mutual submission of believers to Christ at worship becomes the defining relation that should hold among the members that typically belonged to the ancient household: wives / husbands, children / fathers, slaves / masters. In this way these relationships are transformed. We tend to focus on the acts of submission and obedience of the weaker parties and neglect the directives stated or intimated for the persons in power in each relationship: husbands are to love, not hate; fathers are to discipline and instruct, not provoke to anger; masters are to share the slaves obedience to Christ, and not threaten them.

Family admonitions to submission in hierarchical relations were common among the moral philosophers and a comparison with them is instructive. The following is one example:

Household management falls into departments corresponding to the parts of which the household in its turn is composed…The investigation of everything should begin with its smallest parts, and the primary and smallest parts of the household are master and slave, husband and wife, father and children; we ought therefore to examine the proper constitution and character of each of these three relationships. [Aristotle, Politics, trans. H. Rackham, 2 vols., Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1944), 1253b, vol. 1, p. 13.]

My former colleague, Dr. John Brunt, has pointed out not only the reversed order of Paul’s address to the partners in these relationships, but also the unmistakable impact this would have on his contemporary readers who lived in a social order dominated by honor and shame. While still admonishing the socially weaker members of these units to proper submission and obedience, in Christ Paul surprisingly addresses them in a way that equalizes their honor within the Christian community.

While this is so, most of these “pagan” writers admonish the powerful party to gentle and generous behavior towards the subordinate member. Paul’s Jewish heritage did not always have such a moderate or kindly attitude and advice. When we read the following quotations from Ecclesiasticus, i.e. the Wisdom of Ben Sirach, we are grateful they are in the apocrypha and not the Protestant canon! It dates from about 200 B.C.

If you have a wife who pleases you, do not cast her out; but do not trust yourself to one whom you detest. (7:26) If she does not go as you direct, divorce her. (25:26)

A man who loves his son will whip him often so that when he grows up he may be a joy to him. (30:1)

The ox is tamed by yoke and harness, the bad slave by racks and tortures. (33:27)

Keep close watch over a headstrong daughter, or she may give your enemies cause to gloat,…. For out of clothes comes the moth, and out of woman comes woman’s wickedness. Better a man’s wickedness than a woman’s goodness; it is woman who brings shame and disgrace. (42:11-14)

Whenever anything positive is said by this author about a man’s wife, son, or daughter, it is almost invariably commented upon in terms of bringing or displaying the man’s honor! In Ephesians honor is not left entirely aside, but it is place in the overarching honor each one gives to Christ. This may be seen by the use of the word phobos and its cognates translated variously as “reverence” by all for Christ (5:21), “respect” of the wife for the husband (5:33), and “fear” of the slave toward the master (5:5). The common denominator for all these relations would be then some form of “respect.”

Questions to think about: If we should think philosophically at a high level of generality, it is true that without structure there is no way of establishing meaning. In social life a total absence of structure would translate into chaos. In Gal 3:28 Paul states that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. What does he mean by this dissolution of distinctions there, and this support of family, hierarchical distinctions here?

If hierarchical distinctions are necessary, how does Paul’s analogy between the church and Christ serve to illustrate and provide sensibilities and norms for the wife and husband relationship?

Fathers are admonished to discipline their children. Not provoking them to anger is a good start on what discipline should not do, but how should one conceive of such discipline positively in Christian terms? Why has “discipline” become a negative word today? How essential is it for our well-being?

For someone to own a person essentially robs them of personhood and reduces their identity to thing-ness? Why would Paul give instructions that seem to preserve an institution such as slavery which would seem integrally wrong from a Christian perspective?

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