Sermon for Aug. 22 by Rev. Dr. Paul A. Day

The Good News: Family Values (or how not to read the Bible)                  Rev. Dr. Paul A. Day

Ephesians 5:15—6:9

Introduction: For most of the summer we have been reading through Ephesians with the theme of how to Be the Church.

Chapter One calls us into our Identity and Mission or Purpose in Christ.

Chapter Two stresses the importance of Inclusion and Unity in the Body of Christ.

Chapter Three has Paul’s prayer that we might know the “breadth and length and height and depth” of the Love of Christ.

Chapter Four begins (vv. 1-16) with a look at the functioning of the offices in the Church – especially Pastors and Teachers “to equip the saints for the work of ministry.”

The section we read last week (4:17—5:14) calls us to be “imitators of God” and to “live in love as Christ loved us” so that we might Live as Children of Light.

Today we move on to Ephesians 5:15—6:9 – This particular section has been subject to considerable controversy and misinterpretation. I have subtitled today’s sermon: How Not to Read the Bible. You see, these verses have been used to defend patriarchy, toxic masculinity, domestic abuse, and even slavery.

 

We begin with Ephesians 5:15-21, from the New Revised Standard Version

15 Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.

The problem begins with our English translations—the NRSV is fairly typical. I think most translators must have had the same 8th grade English teacher that I had; we learned that we should not overuse gerunds and try to make sentences flow smoothly. Paul did not have the same 8th grade Greek teacher (even though we thought our teacher was old enough to have taught Paul). Verses 18-21 form one long sentence. Here is a literal translation—

Do not get drunk with wine,

for that is a waste;

but be filled with the Spirit,

speaking to one another psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,

singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord,

giving thanks always in everything

in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father

submitting to one another in reverence for Christ.

There is only one main clause – “Be filled with the Spirit”! Speaking, singing and making melody, giving thanks, and submitting are all subsidiary clauses – in other words, part of what it means to be filled with the Spirit. Most English translations make “Submit” or “Be subject” to one another main verb and another sentence.

To make matters worse, many translations not only make v. 21 a new sentence; they make it a new paragraph linked to the rest of Chapter 5, and sometimes through 6:9. Some even add a new Section Heading, such as “The Christian Household.” And it gets even worse!

Most translation, including the NRSV, repeat “Submit” or “Be subject” in verse 22, thus,

“Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.”

In fact, the verb is not repeated in most Greek manuscripts; it reads simply, “Wives to your husbands as to the Lord.” The context makes it clear that Paul uses marriage as an example of submission, not an absolute command.

The problem begins with translation, but the more significant issue is cultural. You see, when we read “submit” or “be subject” to another, we immediately think in terms of a hierarchy. A lesser person submits to someone above them. So, when we read, “Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the Church, the body of which he is the Savior,” we immediately picture a top-down structure.

Top-down thinking in a marriage or family has led to patriarchy and “toxic masculinity” and, in the worse cases, domestic abuse. Ephesians 5:21—6:4 has been used to defend patriarchy and toxic masculinity – “Wives, submit to your husbands . . . Children, obey your parents” without question. In the past Ephesians 6:5-8 was used to defend slavery—and teach slaves to keep their place – “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling . . . . Render service with enthusiasm . . . .”

At other times, hierarchical thinking has led to power struggles. In “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” the father of the bride tries to assert his authority as the head of the family. His loving wife reminds her daughter, “The man may be the head of the household. But the woman is the neck, and she can turn the head whichever way she pleases.”

Even more distressing, this worldly understanding of power and submission has crept into the Church. Kristin Kobes DuMez and Beth Allison Barr have exposed the history of cultural patriarchy and toxic masculinity in American churches in their recent books – Jesus and John Wayne and The Making of Biblical Womanhood. In recent years, the exposure of patterns of denigration and abuse of women has brought down several mega-church pastors and is shaking the nation’s largest denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention.

Patriarchy and toxic masculinity have affected churches in more subtle ways as well. Just this week I saw an ad for a Hispanic pastors’ conference on “The Role of Women.” The six featured speakers were all men! One of our uniting denominations, Congregationalism, was the first to ordain a woman — Antoinette Brown Blackwell in 1853. Two of my seminary classmates were the first women ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church. Women have made great strides in both the U.C.C. and the E.C.C. but are still under-represented as senior pastors of large churches.

How do we overcome the barriers and live more fully into God’s will for the Church? We begin by rightly translating and interpreting the Scriptures – taking our models from God’s Word and not culture.

There we see that the whole idea of submission is first of all dependent on being filled with the Spirit. Remember, that is the main verb – Be filled with the Spirit! and “submitting” to one another is a subsidiary clause, along with singing and making melody and giving thanks. Second, we understand that Paul calls us not to a top-down hierarchy but to mutual submission. – “submitting to one another in reverence for Christ.”

I won’t read the rest of the passage; you have it printed in the bulletin and can refer to it on your own. Notice how in each of the examples Paul gives, he lifts up mutual responsibilities. In fact, the burden he lays on husbands is far greater than the mere cultural norm on wives. (5:25-33) In the same way, Paul admonishes children to obey their parents – with a promise – and urges fathers to avoid provoking their children to anger. (6:1-4) And even as Paul told slaves to obey their masters, he reminded those same masters of their ultimate equality before God who shows “no partiality.” (6:5-9)

Mutual submission looks like Christ. Elsewhere Paul wrote:

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility think of others before yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave . . . . He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death —even death on a cross.”                                                                                  (Philippians 2:3–8)

“In humility think of others before yourselves.” Someone has said that “true humility is not thinking less of yourself; true humility is thinking of yourself less.”

Jesus, the head of the Church, set aside his own rights and privileges in order to serve and save us. In the same way, for example, we might set aside our rights and privileges – our personal freedom – by wearing a mask and observing other COVID protocols out of love for others. I may be vaccinated and have less to worry about for my own health, but epidemiologists tell us that even so I may transmit the virus to someone else. So out of an abundance of caution and care for others, I choose to wear a mask and avoid crowds. Is it a sure thing? No, but what in this life is?

Mask-wearing is a very minor example of looking to the interests of others before ourselves, of putting others first. Every day, and in many different ways, we are called to make that kind of choice to love and serve one another — and those around us. We are called to Be the Church as a model of God’s beloved community and as agents of God’s grace in the world.

Back to Ephesians 5:15-20 in a couple of recent translations:

Watch your step. Use your head. Make the most of every chance you get. These are desperate times. . . . Don’t drink too much wine. That cheapens your life. Drink the Spirit of God. Huge draughts of him. Sing hymns instead of drinking songs! Sing songs from your heart to Christ. Sing praises over everything, any excuse for a song to God the Father in the name of our Master, Jesus Christ.                                                  (The Message)

Act like people with good sense and not like fools. These are evil times, so make every minute count. Don’t be stupid. Instead, find out what the Lord wants you to do. Do not get drunk on wine, for that is recklessness; but let the Spirit fill your life. When you meet together, sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, as you praise the Lord with all your heart. Always use the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to thank God the Father for everything. Honor Christ and put others first.                                  (Contemporary English Version)

And my own:

Live in the wisdom of God’s will, buying back every precious minute of your time.

Don’t get drunk on spirits — no wonder they call it being wasted!

But be filled with the Spirit — speaking to one another with the poetry of joy and love,

thanking God in all things, and submitting to one another in Christ.

Ephesians 5:15-6:9 (NRSV)

15 Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27 so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33 Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.

6:1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—this is the first commandment with a promise: “so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.”

And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.

And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.