Guests: and

Study Guide Prepared by: John McVay

Key Texts: Eph 5:21-33

Key Questions

  1. What element of Paul’s discussion of the relationship between Christ as Bridegroom and the church as bride (Eph. 5:25-27, 29) do you find most inspiring? Why?
  2. How does Paul’s “one flesh” model of marriage enrich the common models debated by Christians today—the “complementarian” model (which looks to creation as establishing enduring, complementary roles for men and women in marriage) and the “egalitarian” model (which also looks to creation, this time for an enduring understanding of the equality of husbands and wives)?
  3. What strategies might struggling families find in Eph 5:21-33 to aid in moving toward wholeness and healing? What might it look like to take a step toward “one flesh” unity (Eph 5:21-33), toward the reconciliation of Calvary (Eph 2:15-16)?

What does it mean that Eph 5:21-33 is part of a “Household Code”? It means that Eph 5:21-6:9 discusses household relationships in the context of the Greco-Roman “household,” which included parents, children, slaves, clients (free persons who depended on the householder), and even customers. Aristotle (384-322 BC) treated three sets of relationships as the building blocks of society—husbands and wives, parents and children, and slave masters and slaves—and many others took up this topic of household relationships. In both Ephesians and in Colossians (Eph 3:18-4:1), Paul discusses these same three sets of relationships. In Ephesians, Paul offers advice to: Wives and husbands (Eph 5:21-33); Children and parents (Eph 6:1-4); Slaves and slave masters (Eph 6:5-9; cf. other NT passages that treat various family and congregational relationships in a similar way: 1 Pet 2:13-3:7, 5:1-5; 1 Tim 2:1-3:15; 5:1-6:2, 17-19; Titus 2:1-10).

How does Paul’s “Household Code” differ from discussions by others? Sirach, a Jewish document (c. 198–175 BC), advises husbands, “Do you have a wife who pleases you? Do not divorce her; but do not trust yourself to one whom you detest” (7:23–26). It advises fathers concerning treatment of a son, “He who loves his son will whip him often,” “Pamper a child, and he will terrorize you; play with him, and he will grieve you,” and “Discipline your son and make his yoke heavy, so that you may not be offended by his shamelessness” (30:1–4, 7–13). With regard to slaves, “Fodder and a stick and burdens for a donkey; bread and discipline and work for a slave” and “Yoke and thong will bow the neck [of an ox], and for a wicked slave there are racks and tortures” (33:24–30; NRSV).

Like Sirach, most ancient authors wrote only to the husband-father-slave master in this tone: “Here’s how to treat those around you to pump up your authority, reputation, and honor.” Paul’s take is radical, edgy, different. He addresses everyone: “Here’s how to treat those around you the way Jesus has treated you.” When set in the context of other counsel, Paul’s advice in Ephesians 5:21–6:9 radiates respect and care for wives, children, and slaves in the context of loyalty to Christ.

Is the purpose of Paul’s “household code” in Ephesians to undergird patriarchal authority and affirm the institution of slavery? While many see it that way, a different view is taken here—that Paul’s counsel is distinctly countercultural: The household code in Ephesians “presents a comprehensive vision of the eschatological New Humanity [2:15]—the new creation politeia [state]—realized under the conditions of this present fallen age. It is a manifesto for a radically new society . . . a radical confrontation to the corruption and abuse in patriarchal systems found within the Old Humanity” (Timothy G. Gombis, “A Radically New Humanity: The Function of the Haustafel in Ephesians.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48, no. 2 [2005]: 322, 328).

How does Paul develop the marriage metaphor for the relationship between Christ and His church? What are the elements of that metaphor? In Eph 5:25-27, 29 Paul develops the idea that Christ is the bridegroom/husband and the church is His bride to set forth Christ as the great example for Christian husbands. Paul borrows various elements and roles in ancient weddings in developing his metaphor: (1) Christ is the bride price. He “gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25); (2) Christ bathes His bride (Eph 5:26); (3) Christ speaks “the word” of promise (in the betrothal?; Eph 5:26); (4) Christ presents the bride to Himself (Eph 5:27), providing an important “picture” of the second coming; (5) Christ dresses and adorns His bride (Eph 5:27). A powerful and inspiring theme emerges as we watch Paul concentrate elements and roles of the ancient wedding ceremony in Christ: Jesus is everything to His bride, the church.

In what way is Christ also the example for Christian wives? Sunday’s lesson asks, When Paul says wives are submit to their husbands “as to the Lord” (Eph 5:22), does he mean a wife is to submit to her husband as though he were Christ; or does He mean that Christ is the truest and highest focus of her submission? In affirming the second view, the lesson points to Eph 6:7 (where slaves are to serve “as to the Lord, and not to men,” NKJV) and Col 3:18 (where wives are to submit to their husbands “as is fitting in the Lord,” NKJV). Ellen White writes, “There is One who stands higher than the husband to the wife; it is her Redeemer, and her submission to her husband is to be rendered as God has directed—‘as it is fit in the Lord’” (AH 115-116; see Friday’s lesson). Additionally, we should not miss the fact that both husbands and wives are included within the image of the church as the bride of Christ.

How might Eph 5:21-33 be understood in the context of slavery? Interesting features of Paul’s counsel should be considered in view of the existence of slavery in Christian house churches (Eph 6:5-9): (1) Often masked by English translations, the Greek text repeatedly emphasizes loyalty to “one’s own” spouse. Wives are to submit to “their own” husbands (v. 22), husbands are to “love their own wives” and “the one who loves his own wife, loves himself” (Eph 5:28), while in the citation of Gen 2:24, the husband “‘holds fast to his wife’” (Eph 5:31); (2) Christ is described as “Himself savior of the [church as His] body” (Eph 5:23) in a way that suggests the Christian husband is to be the “savior” of his wife. These features may be understood in view of the common practice of the slave master’s sexual access to slaves. Paul may well be defending slave marriages, which were not recognized as legal ones, as valid, Christian marriages to be respected by all and he may be activating Christian slave husbands to protect their slave wives against abuse. If so, a passage demeaned as hopelessly patriarchal instead offers a dramatic, counter-cultural stance opposing a common feature of slavery.

How is Paul’s use of Genesis 2:24 the apex of his argument? In Eph 5:21-33, Paul develops the idea of the husband’s identity with his wife, culminating in his citation of Gen 2:24. Given Paul’s discussion of the submission of the Christian wife to her own husband (v. 22), it might have been natural for him to cite Gen 3:16, “‘Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you’” (NKJV). Fascinatingly, he instead chooses a pre-Fall passage, Gen 2:24 to complete his argument: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (cf. Jesus’s own citation of Gen 2:24 in Matt 19:3-6).

Does Paul have in mind only ideal marriages or does he address imperfect and flawed ones? Paul hints that Christian marriages were often less-than-ideal. Husbands seem inclined to abuse their wives, too-ready to exercise their near-total authority (Eph 5:25, 28-30). The temptation to adultery and other forms of sexual immorality hovered close at hand (Eph 5:3-11). The Christ-saturated, grace-filled gospel in Ephesians applies to real marriages and families, which have become part of God’s grand family (Eph 1:5; 2:19). He is the Patēr (Father) from whom “every patria (family) in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:14-15). He lays claim to their imperfect families and to ours, including us in the wide circle of His family and His grace.1See John McVay, “How to Enjoy Your Imperfect Family” in Building Family Memories: Adventist Family Ministries 2015 Planbook (Department of Family Ministries, 2014), 25-29. He is drawing your family into His grand plan to unify all things in Christ (Eph 1:9-10) and calling you to imagine your family as part of that plan.

Comments are closed.