Grace Presbyterian Church
August 29, 2021, Pentecost 14B
The Part We Skipped
We are told in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” I’m pretty sure that was another one of those passages I had to memorize back when I was doing “Bible drill” in my youth.
Note that while scripture is good for teaching, reproof, correction, and righteousness training, nowhere is it said that all scripture is good for emulation. We don’t want to take every part of scripture as a model for how to live. I would hope, for example, that we can agree that this horrifying portion Russ just read from 2 Samuel, in which David conspires to get Uriah the Hittite killed in battle so his taking of Uriah’s wife Bathsheba won’t get called out, is not something we are called to emulate. Hopefully we can agree that no part of that story at all is one we are called to emulate. The only part of that whole sordid story that might be worthy of emulation is that of the prophet Nathan, who under God’s guidance calls David out to his face for his crimes. David may be a hero in other parts of Hebrew Scripture, but he’s not at all worthy of imitation here.
I submit to you that the same thing can be said of today’s reading from Ephesians. It is not that all of what is said in this passage, and the following material in Ephesians 6 that together comprise what is known as a “household code,” is wrong or bad instruction – some of it is quite good and worth keeping. Rather, what fails here is the very existence of this passage.
This passage comprises one of three identified “household codes” found in the epistles; the others are in Colossians 3:12-4:6 and 1 Peter 2:11-3:2. Household codes like these were not Christian ideas or inventions at all; these codes found in the scriptures here are clearly modeled after such tables of hierarchy commonly found in Greco-Roman culture. No less a figure than Aristotle had put forth one such code that was widely adopted and regarded in his time. One might think of these codes as an expression of “family values,” Roman-Empire style.
Roman society in particular, the setting in which the Ephesians letter was written, had as one of its utmost concerns the preservation of power by those who already had it, and the suppression of those “underneath” who might pose any threat at all to that power. The household codes represented the extension of that power structure down into the family unit, which was in Roman society highly exalted and esteemed as a basic unit of Roman society and culture. In those Roman codes the power of the paterfamilias was ultimate and unlimited, and all manner of means to preserve that power and authority (including violence against wife, children, or slaves) were approved in such household codes. Unless the wife was of extremely important family, there was nothing the husband couldn’t do to preserve his authority and power over her. And since most Roman marriages could be summarized by the old Tina Turner song “What’s love got to do with it?”, the husband frankly owed the wife nothing at all.
When seen against the starkness of the Greco-Roman codes, the one found here in Ephesians may seem altogether milder, and indeed some have viewed the code found here as an attempt to subvert or undermine those codes. It does indeed place strong emphasis on the husband loving his wife (again, not typical of arranged Roman marriages, which were as much business transactions as anything). Still, after the spectacular opening verse of this code, the unbalanced and unequal binds placed on husband and wife stick out in glaring fashion.
Indeed, if the author had stuck with 5:21, perhaps as a concluding thought to the instruction covered in 5:15-20, so much would be better. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” is nothing less than an amazing summary of how Christians should live with and among one another. That it is followed by instruction that does notfollow up consistently – submission is mandated for the wife, but never for the husband – undermines the effectiveness of verse 21. The husband has an “out” as a result, and all manner of abusiveness and mistreatment can be passed off as “tough love” (and you know it happens).
The first nine verses of chapter six continue the household code, first addressing the relation of children to parents in a fairly benign fashion. A familiar quote from the Ten Commandments is followed by a mild rebuke to parents to “not provoke your children to anger,” a phrase which could also be translated as “not exasperate your children.” Everyone who has ever been a child of a parent could relate to that one, I suspect.
The last four verses of the household code are the reason this passage was extremely popular in, shall we say, some pulpits in the nineteenth-century United States. Indeed the code addressing slaves and masters offers very little recourse to the slave, and was preached in countless pulpits to justify the continuation of chattel slavery in the US and, after secession, its establishment as a principal feature of the Confederacy. While one might think that this portion of the code can be safely dismissed as irrelevant, but maybe not. A man of Sierra Leone ancestry reported in an interview that the president of a seminary operated by a Minneapolis megachurch stated that it would not be sinful for that pastor to own him, as long as he (the pastor) behaved according to the instruction in this code. This man’s statement was not included in the article for which the interview was consulted, itself a disappointing result.
Much of my foundation for approaching this subject was laid in a book by one of my seminary professors, Frances Taylor Gench of Union Presbyterian Seminary. Her book Encountering God in Tyrannical Texts includes today’s passage among a number of readings that have a history of being used for oppressive purposes. Dr. Gench describes her own struggles coming to terms with such passages and formulates some basic guidelines for approaching them. The first of those guidelines was this: remember that “the difficult text is worthy of charity,” of generosity, from its interpreters.”
In case Dr. Gench somehow sees this service or reads the text of the sermon, I want to make this clear: I tried. I really tried. Perhaps I am too limited a pastor, but I am really struggling to be charitable or generous with this passage, mostly because of the 1900 or so years of history that has followed in its wake.
We’re talking about a passage here that has been the primary instrument of suppressing women called by God to proclaim the gospel. In every age this suppression takes a different form: the demeaning of women as “inferior” characteristic of the Middle Ages, the strictures of enforced gender roles popularized during the Reformation; the writing-out of women in biblical translations such as the King James Bible, even going so far (for example) as to change the name “Junia” to “Junias” in Romans 16 because obviously a woman couldn’t be an apostle. This is a small sampling of how those who like having power have used the household code of Ephesians as justification to hold on to that power.
Perhaps most exasperating is how the household code of chapters 5-6 in Ephesians is in stark contradiction to, frankly, most of the New Testament up to this point. Paul’s unflinching statement in Galatians 3:28 – “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” – simply can’t be reconciled in what is written into this code without humiliating oneself. Romans 16 includes not just the apostle Junia, but also the deacon Phoebe, another victim of old translation shenanigans; the word translated as “deacon” back in Acts is suddenly translated “servant” here. And to be frank, there’s not really much way to square the confining gender roles of this code with much of anything Jesus ever said or did in any of the gospels. It doesn’t even read well with the rest of Ephesians, where Christ is the only one to whom any human should be subject. (To explore this more I recommend another book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Baylor University professor Dr. Beth Allison Barr.)
Apparently it still needs to be said. Wheh abused wives still get told by pastors, by seminary presidents, by religious authority figures of any kind to stay with abusive husbands, to avoid calling the police when beaten, to seek help only from the church (the same church to which the husband belongs, most likely), and too many women end up dead as a result; when the sexual abuse of multiple priests and pastors in differing traditions gets covered up unless a skillful outside reporter happens to uncover the story; in which such pastors caught in abuse can simply lay low for a while and pop up again in another pulpit accumulating more power and authority, all shielded by exactly this reading…my apologies again, Dr. Gench, if you ever see or read this; my capacity for charity or generosity for this passage is just not there.
That said, there is still “teaching, reproof, correction, and righteousness training” that can be done even from this reading. We can learn from 5:21 indeed to be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ, a teaching which has a lot of application in our current situation in the world in which some folks (including a whole lot of self-proclaimed “Christians”) are quite willing to abuse and sicken and harm others in the name of “freedom.” We can use this passage for reproof and correction when we are tempted to let the standards of the society around us lead us away from submission to Christ as our one and only model and guide. We can learn that compromise with the culture around us has consequences that are long-term and damaging, even deadly. We can learn that accommodating the sins of the world around us damages our own witness in ways that can take centuries to repair.
We can learn from this passage. We can use it for instruction or correction or for a lot of things. What we cannot do, except maybe for that part about parents not exasperating their children, is to try to make it our rule for living – at least not if we’re truly going to take the rest of the New Testament, especially the life of Jesus, seriously.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #324, For All the Faithful Women; #317, In Christ There Is No East or West; #451, Open My Eyes, That I May See.
 Frances Taylor Gench, Encountering God in Tyrannical Texts: Reflections on Paul, Women, and the Authority of Scripture (Louisville: Westminster John Knox), 19.
 Barr, Beth Allison. The Making of Biblical Womanhood; How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2021.