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Digging Deeper

EPHESIANS (Ephesians 5:21 – 6:9)


Posted: 11/3/2013

This week we’ll be studying the important “household codes” of Ephesians (5:21-6:9). There are few sections of the New Testament that have been prone to more misinterpretation, misapplication or outright abuse than Paul’s commands to wives, husbands, slaves and masters.

The importance of cultural context

Before beginning our study of this crucial passage we would do well to pay attention to two critical elements of the household codes in Ephesians (and in other parts of the New Testament)

1) Paul’s cultural context when he wrote these codes. 2) Paul’s missional purpose.

In the first place, the Mediterranean world of Paul’s day was highly patriarchal, which is to say, that it was a male dominated society. Male governance and rule over women and family were the accepted cultural patterns of that time period. Women were generally secluded in the home and were admonished to practice chastity, silence and full submission to their husbands.

Likewise, slavery was part and parcel of the Mediterranean world. Though this system was markedly different from the slave trade in the U.S. in the mid-19th century, it was nevertheless one human being having ownership and rule over another.

Given these pervasive cultural patterns, it is not surprising to see New Testament writers such as Paul (and Peter) admonishing Christians (women and slaves for example) to conform their behavior to honor these cultural codes.

Secondly, in many cases, the New Testament writers appeal to the church’s mission of reaching non-

Christians as the motivation for continuing to uphold these social patterns. (See 1 Pet 2:12; 14-15; 3:1; 1 Tim 6:1) In other words, the New Testament writers did not want to upset certain social patterns for fear of impeding the spread of the gospel (whether we agree with this stance or not).

In summary then: The New Testament writers 1) uphold conventional social patterns in their admonitions and 2) in some cases uphold those patterns for the sake of being a Christian witness.

Applying the household codes to our modern context

These scenarios should be highly instructive for a modern application of these verses in Ephesians.

Women in modern democratic societies are leaders of companies, universities, political bodies and even entire nations. They are fully functioning and equal members of society (though discrimination and various inequalities still exist).

To insist that these culturally specific commands have universal and virtually identical applications as they did in 1st century Palestine is to violate the rules of proper interpretation.  We no longer live in a patriarchal society (though once again, many patriarchal attitudes still remain in place).Furthermore, to apply these household codes consistent with 1st century Palestine is to actually betray the spirit in which some of these commands were given. Our Christian witness is not enhanced, but rather imperiled when we insist that women must be subjugated to their husbands IN THE SAME WAY as they were in Paul’s day.

Finally, in terms of slavery, it is not appropriate to apply Paul’s admonitions to a modern employee/employer relationship. Employees are not slaves and the slave-master relationship is an inadequate description of a salaried employee and his contractual obligations toward a modern corporation or entity. We can speak of respect and fairness in a modern work context, but submission would make the Scriptures say something they never intended to say to our modern world.

Speaking of slaves

The admonitions for slaves (along with similar slave-master codes in Colossians and 1 Peter) have also generated a great deal of controversy over the question of slavery. No doubt, a big part of the controversy has been the historical use of these verses to uphold and perpetuate the inhumane system of slavery prior to the U.S. civil war.

Another aspect of this controversy has been a kind of moral outrage with the New Testament writers for not forcefully denouncing such a dehumanizing system. Indeed, these writers seem to go out of their way to maintain the status quo.

We are all products of the cultures we live in...

Again, it is easy for our modern mindsets, within a Western democratic society, to criticize the New Testament writers for their seeming lack of courage or their moral capitulation over these situations.

However, we should quickly remember that we are all products of the cultures that we live in.

Several hundred years hence, a future society will look back upon our time and wonder how it is that the population of a handful of modern nations lived in relative wealth, abundance and luxury, while 60% of the rest of the world’s population barely had the means to survive.

Maybe 1,000 years from now, some archeologists will wonder how so many modern, technologically advanced and well-educated societies managed to abort so many of their promising young men and women prior to their birth.

Questions About the Passage (Read Eph 5:21-6:9)

1. Who are the different groups addressed in these verses? List them out one by one. Don’t forget the “group” mentioned in 5:20.

2. Next to each group, except the husbands, list out Paul’s command for that particular group and the additional details that Paul provides for each command. In some cases it may be a reason for the command, or an amplification of the command.

3. What is Paul’s advice for husbands? How does Paul substantiate his advice? Make sure you touch on the various aspects. (See 5:25-33)

Questions To Reflect On Your Life

There is only one general question in this section which should generate its fair share of discussion/debate.

1. What is the modern day application for Paul’s commands to each of the groups that are addressed? This question should be answered in light of whether you agree or disagree with the discussion on culture at the beginning of the lesson.