Ephesians 5: Submission, Slavery, & Siblings

Last year, I did a 2-month interim preaching gig for a nearby church. I decided to use our time together by walking through Ephesians. Using a tree as a metaphor, I started by talking about our foundations – the roots of our faith, as found in the first 2 chapters of Ephesians. We then went into the “trunk” – what holds us together in unity.

But there was a final section – one that we didn’t reach during the time I was with them. It was “fruit” – what we produce when we’ve got healthy roots and a strong, united body. And a big part of the fruit that we read about in Ephesians comes in chapters 5-6, where Paul addresses the household: husbands & wives, parents & children, masters & slaves.

Honestly, when I planned this series, I wasn’t sure I wanted to tackle that section. As an interim preacher, did I really want to talk about wives, husbands, and submission? Wouldn’t it be easier to stick with non-controversial passages? On the other hand, I’m just the fill-in guy – maybe I was the one to talk about something that isn’t as simple as we sometimes make it.

As it turned out, I never made it into Ephesians 5. The church found a permanent pastor just in time – right before I got to that section. I’m glad for that congregation, and excited about what God has in store for them. Even so, it leaves me chewing on what I would have said – what I still would say – about Ephesians 5 & 6.

And then I began reading God and the Crisis of Freedom by Richard Bauckham – where, in chapter 1, he dives into this section of Ephesians. And while he doesn’t say much about husbands & wives, he does say this about masters & slaves: “…The way the master-slave relationship is here transcended is not by making everyone masters.” In a easy-to-overlook statement, Bauckham points to a profound interpretive key to this passage: Jesus came, not to raise us all to be “masters of our domains,” but to be servants of each other. He came to set us free – and to use that freedom to love and serve others.

As Bauckham points out, Jesus moves us from the category of “ownership” – of who is “in charge” – to the place of “belonging.” In the family of faith that is inaugurated by the death and resurrection of Christ, all are gifted by One Spirit in One Body, as servants. And where servants are involved, it’s not a matter of power or privilege, but opportunity.

Which means, it’s simply not true that the New Testament treats slavery as acceptable; instead, Paul undercuts it at its very root, which is all he and his fledgling community could do. Paul completely upends the Roman structure of power, by saying that in the Church, no one truly owns or controls another – not slave master, not husband, not parent. Rather, in the Church, we all belong to each other, and we mutually submit to each other (which is where he starts, in Ephesians 5.21). Deeper than husband and wife, parent and child, master and slave – the label we all carry in the Church is sibling. In Jesus, we are first brother and sister – equal in our need for him, and equal in our opportunity to serve.

So, if I ever get an opportunity to teach on Ephesians 5 & 6, I think I’ll say something like that. Because there is nothing more transformational than the revolutionary grace of Jesus Christ that calls us to serve one another in love.

Author:

I’m Jeff Dye. After 16 years on staff at a healthy, outreach-minded church, I currently have a ministry called The Paraklesis Project. In the New Testament, “paraklesis” means encouragement — which is what I seek to bring to churches of all sizes through speaking and consulting.

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