Study Guide Prepared by: John McVay
Key Texts: Eph 6:1-9
- What principles should we use in interpreting and applying the counsels of Paul’s “household code” in Ephesians 5:21-6:9? See the “Excursus,” below.
- What “grand substitution” does Paul ask slaves to make? (See Wednesday’s lesson) Since slave masters were active agents of an immoral institution, why didn’t Paul simply dismiss them from the church?
- In considering how to apply Paul’s counsel to children and parents and to slaves and slave masters, Friday’s lesson offers five challenging questions to be considered. Which of those questions do you find most pressing and important? Why?
How might we succinctly summarize the main thrust of this week’s lesson? Paul, as a pastor, addresses children and parents as well as slaves and slave masters, inviting them to relate to the social structures of their time from the vantage point of a supreme loyalty to Christ.
What was it like to be a child in the first century? To be a child in first-century Ephesus was a challenging assignment. Some three per cent of the population lived lives of abundance, for which the famous “terrace houses” of Ephesus provide impressive evidence. The rest of the population—the ninety-seven per cent—lived just above, at, or below subsistence level. Among the realities of the time were high rates of infant mortality, which influenced a low value placed on infants. Fathers had the legal right to “expose” a newborn, to leave the infant in the open to die or be “adopted” by a slave trader. This right was often exercised in the case of newborn girls, especially by the poor. Child mortality rates were also high, with only half of children surviving until age five. Children of slaves lived particularly challenging and insecure lives. By birth they were themselves slaves. They could be sold and separated from their nuclear family at any time. Expected to work from an early age, they had little to look forward to except a life of toil. In offering his counsel to children and their parents, Paul addresses a complex and challenging setting.
How does Paul describe the responsibilities of fathers toward their children? Paul commands “fathers” negatively to refrain from “provoking their children to anger” and positively to bring their children up “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). While Paul addresses children as themselves believers (Eph 6:1), the father is an intermediary, offering instruction and admonition that come ultimately from “the Lord,” from Christ, with the father passing along what has nourished his own loyalty to Christ (cf. Eph 4:20-24). Parents are to help their children move toward intrinsic motivations for sound, mature behavior by nurturing their children’s own personal relationships with Christ. This will require careful, personal instruction. And it will require something more. In a statement widely attributed to Albert Schweitzer, “There are only three ways to teach a child. The first is by example, the second is by example, the third is by example.” The instruction of parents must be supported by their personal example in living out their loyalty to Christ.
How can we discern, honor, and nurture the relationship that children have with Jesus? Reviewing Ephesians 6:1-4, we note that Paul begins his counsel to children by arguing their obedience should be “in the Lord” (Eph 6:1) and concludes his advice to parents with the call to Christ-centered child-rearing, “the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). He signals at the beginning and end of the passage the importance of discerning, honoring, and nurturing the relationship that children have with Jesus. The story of God calling to the child Samuel, 1 Samuel 3:1-21, is a moving, biblical narrative that affirms our mandate to honor the relationship between children and their God. In the story, Eli finally perceives this truth: “Yahweh” is “calling the boy”! (Eph 6:8). We should be alert to that same moment in the lives of the children God has entrusted to our care and be in awe at the realization that the Lord of the cosmos is speaking to that girl or boy.
What was it like to a slave in the first century? Slaves were completely under the thumb of the slave master, subject to his every command. For example, the master controlled the sex lives of slaves and could demand sexual favors from them for himself or for whomever he wished. While some household slaves could hope for “freedom” or manumission around age thirty, this was an advanced age at a time when the life expectancy for males was forty years and for females, thirty. Moreover, with so-called freedom, a slave would become a “freedman,” which hardly resembled the existence of a freeborn person. The manumitted slave retained a durable, demeaning identity as a slave as well as a continued relationship with the former master, who could still require various tasks and could revoke their manumission if it was economically advantageous to do so.
What does Paul say in his brief words to slave masters? Paul’s counsel to slave masters is brief but powerful. They are to “do the same to them” (that is, they should respond to their slaves with deeds of goodwill governed by their allegiance to Christ, corresponding to what Paul has just asked of slaves) and to “stop your threatening” (probably threatening one of the many punishments available to the master, e.g. beating, being sold, extreme labor). Both actions are to be based on the conviction that they share a single Master (kurios, referring to Christ) with their slaves, One who exercises no “partiality” (Greek prosōpolēmpsia, lit. “to accept [or recognize] a face,” an idiom for showing favoritism or partiality) based on social class. The term was used “pejoratively to denote unjust preferential treatment” especially with regard to judges who “were continually tempted to pervert justice by showing favoritism. Most often the temptation was to favor the rich and powerful,” with the early Christian community continuing “to struggle with the problem of discrimination based on worldly social distinctions (Jas. 2:1-9; cf. 1 Tim. 5:21)” (“Partiality” in ISBE 3.671-672). While Paul’s comment about Christ as judge having no partiality accents accountability in the present, it points to the eschatological judgment, to which Paul has already referred in describing “the Lord” (Christ) as the rewarder of faithful slaves (Eph 6:8).
Is it appropriate to simply “port over” Paul’s words to slaves and slave masters to the setting of employees and employers? We should exercise care in applying Paul’s words to very different relationships, like those between employees and their employers, since he addresses slaves embedded in the immoral institution of slavery. However, Paul’s repeated call to put Christ in place of others echoes across the millennia. In our relationships, especially when they chafe and pinch, we may look up, finding fresh orientation and encouragement in acknowledging the exalted Christ. How might I substitute the Lord for the fallible, difficult, egotistical people in my life? (And how might I perceive Christ in those I am tempted to overlook—like the fifty million who find themselves in modern slavery—as we move toward Christ’s final pronouncement, “‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me,’” [Matt 25:40]?)
To what extent does slavery still impact our world today? Friday’s lesson reflects some statistics from the Global Slavery Index, whose 2023 report may be accessed at cdn.walkfree.org (click on “Explore the Global Slavery Index”). The index uses “modern slavery” as “an umbrella term, which encompasses several types of exploitation, including forced labour, human trafficking and forced marriage.” The GSI judges that today 49.6 million people live in modern slavery, up by 10 million people since 2018. When our church was limited to the United States, it participated in the abolitionist movement to combat slavery. What role should a global Seventh-day Adventist Church play with regard to the global phenomenon of modern slavery?
Excursus: How Should We Interpret Paul’s Advice to the Christian Household (Eph 5:21–6:9)?1This excursus represents a significantly condensed version of one included in the forthcoming Seventh-day Adventist International Bible Commentary on Ephesians.
Bible students who understand the Scriptures as “the supreme, authoritative, and infallible revelation” of God’s will2Seventh-day Adventist Church, “Twenty-Eight Fundamental Beliefs,” (2015). must accomplish two tasks as they interpret Eph 5:21-6:9. First, they must appreciate its message in the context of the first century: Paul addresses husbands who could choose to “hate their own flesh” (see Eph 5:28–29), fathers who could berate and “provoke” their children (Eph 6:4), and slave masters who could mistreat and “threaten” their slaves (Eph 6:9). Paul’s counsel extends his “harsh critique of pagan culture” (Eph 2:1–3; 4:17–5:17)3Timothy Gombis, “A Radically New Humanity,” JETS 48, no. 2 (2005): 318. in which the husband-father-slave master, as the “father of the household” (Latin, paterfamilias), held more-or-less absolute authority (“power of a father”; Latin, patria potestas), with the social structures of the time designed to protect his power, reputation and comfort. We will not understand the full force and power of the household code if we fail to understand the challenging context into which these words were spoken.
That Paul addresses Christian slaves and slave masters (6:5–9) casts in high relief this task, since the Seventh-day Adventist Church was, at its birth, firmly abolitionist at a time when Ephesians 6:5–9 and other passages were frequently preached as affirming slavery. We must adopt a way of interpreting the household code in Ephesians that addresses Eph 5:21-6:9 as a whole since the assumptions and structures that supported slavery in the first century were also determinative for marriage and child rearing. Wives and children were the property of the husband and father and he had absolute power over them, including the right to inflict physical abuse and even death. As we do this work, it becomes clear that we are not called to adopt first-century, pagan aberrations of the eternal and biblical models of marriage and child rearing (noting Paul’s citation of Gen 2:24 in Eph 5:31 and of Exod 20:12 in Eph 6:2–3) or the immoral institution of slavery.
Bible students must also accomplish a second task: With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they must be prepared to hear eternal and cross-cultural counsel addressing our relationships today. Paul does not just critique the flawed social structures of the “old humanity” (Eph 4:22). He celebrates the creation of a new humanity (Eph 2:15), which turns away from the corrupt values believers once endorsed. This new humanity, the church, operates on the basis of new values and rules rooted in God’s actions in Christ. It does not exist in the abstract but is embedded within wider humanity with its flawed social structures. From within these structures, believers demonstrate that a new power, the Holy Spirit (Eph 2:22; 3:16; 5:18–21; 6:17–18), and a new, cruciform ethic patterned on Christ (Eph 4:13, 15, 20–24, 32; 5:2, 10, 17, 21–33), have been unleashed in the world, pointing toward the fulfillment of God’s ultimate plan, that the self-giving and self-sacrificing Christ will Himself be the Head of all things (Eph 3:8–12; 1:9–10).
In this new humanity, those in positions of authority no longer operate to enhance their own power and comfort. They no longer misuse and abuse their charges at will, but reflect the self-sacrificing model of Christ (Eph 5:2, 23, 25, 29). Paul accents this insight in the household code, especially in the case of the husband. “As the head of the wife, the husband would have been expected to exercise power over his wife, and not to do so would have been considered shameful.” Paul offers “a radical reversal” in which “the husband as head does not pursue the privileges of leadership for his own gain, but rather fulfills his responsibilities by doing the opposite.” Paul shows “how headship is redefined in the eschatological age of a crucified Christ.”4Michelle Lee-Barnewall, “Turning KEPHALĒ on Its Head: The Rhetoric of Reversal in Ephesians 5:21–33,” in Christian Origins and Greco-Roman Culture (Brill, 2013), 612–13. Those who are in subordinate positions will also structure their relationships with a focus on Christ. They will—emotionally, spiritually, ethically and eschatologically—substitute Christ for husband-father-slave master, offering authentic service to the One who promises full justice and reward (Eph 5:22; 6:1, 5–8).
In offering rules for the Christian household (5:21–6:9), then, Paul provides a ringing manifesto for Christ’s new humanity as he challenges the social mores and structures of the first century. As we listen in, we gain profound insight about how to be truly human and Christian in our own time.