Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. . . . Wives . . . . Husbands . . . . Children . . . . Parents . . . . Slaves . . . . Masters . . . .
Today we begin looking at a new section of Ephesians. In case you’re wondering—no, I did not forget about verse 20, which encourages us to give thanks to God. I’m saving this verse for a few weeks in order to use it as the basis for our reflections around the celebration of Thanksgiving in the United States. So now I’m moving on to a new part of Ephesians, beginning with verse 21 of chapter 5: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
This verse introduces an extended section of Ephesians that focuses on household relationships. After an opening exhortation to all Christians, the text addresses wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters. (Ephesians 6:5-8 speaks to slaves, who were considered to be members of the household in the Roman world.) This kind of guidance for household relationships was common among moral teachers in the ancient world. For example, in his discourse on Politics, Aristotle weighed in on “household management,” examining the relationships among “master and slave, husband and wife, father and children.”
Though we will find much in Ephesians 5:21-6:9 to inspire our devotions, this passage presents several unusual challenges. It contains some of the trickiest verses in Ephesians, ones that bedevil commentators and have not led to consensus about their meaning. Moreover, there is a wide gap between the culture reflected in this passage and our own, seen most clearly in the section on slaves and masters. We do not approach family life today as they did in the first-century Mediterranean world. To make matters even more complicated, there are verses in the “household code” in Ephesians that have been used to defend cruelty by husbands and parents, and to justify slavery. Yet many Christians in our day base their family life solidly on their particular understanding of Ephesians 5:21-6:9. Few of us come to this passage without strong feelings about it—positive, negative, or both at once.
As you can imagine, I’m not going to be able to sort out all of these issues in a series of devotions. My main point in Life for Leaders is to help you experience God’s gracious presence through Scripture, reflection, and prayer. I’m not trying to write a full-blown commentary on the biblical text. (As you may know, I did in fact write a commentary on Ephesians. So if you want to know more about how I interpret Ephesians 5:21-6:9, you’re welcome to consult the commentary.)
I want to conclude today’s reflection with two observations. First, I’m aware that many of my readers are not living with their families right now. Many of you are single, perhaps living far away from your parents. Since I’m going to spend quite a few reflections focusing on marriage, you might wonder if there will be anything of value for you. My simple answer is “Yes.” As we’ll soon see, in the passage on marriage, there is at least as much for all Christians as there is for wives and husbands.
My second observation is perhaps the most basic and important as we begin to look at the household code in Ephesians. Ready? Your relationships matter! They matter to you, of course. But they also matter to God. All of your relationships matter. So, if you’re married, God cares about your marriage and seeks to shape it according to the gospel. If you’re a child or a parent, ditto. And, though Ephesians 6:5-9 deals literally with slaves and masters, there is plenty in it for today’s workplace relationships. God doesn’t just care about your relationships when you’re in church, having a Bible study, or going on a mission trip. God cares deeply about every part of your life, including your most important relationships at home, at work, and in the rest of life as well.
So as we move forward in this series let’s ask the Lord for his wisdom, not only so that we might understand this challenging series of texts, but also so that we might live out his will for our lives in our families, workplaces, and in all the relationships of life.
Something to Think About:
As we begin our devotional study of the household code in Ephesians, what thoughts, feelings, or expectations do you have?
Do you think of this text as a wonderful source of practical wisdom? Or do you think of it as a remnant of an ancient time, something that is more worrisome than helpful?
In what ways are the major relationships of your life being shaped by the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Something to Do:
Take a few minutes to read all of Ephesians 5:21-6:9. Pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that arise in you. Then, talk with God about these. Ask for his help to understand this passage and how it speaks to your life.
Gracious God, as we begin our study of this new section of Ephesians, give us open minds and hearts. Help us to discover your truth and know how it should shape our lives today. May we see your grace in Jesus Christ transform everything, including our most crucial, pivotal relationships. Be glorified, Lord, in our reflections and in our lives. Amen.