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.

The Most Important Thing I Share With Couples I’m About to Marry

This summer, I will be officiating at two weddings. I won’t be able to do either ceremony like this (though I did once, at the request of the bride. Really.)

Whenever I do a wedding, I sit down with a couple 3 or 4 times — in preparation not just for the wedding day, but even more, the wedded life. Over the years, I have probably married 20 or 30 couples — which has given me 20 or 30 opportunities to help couples walk through the joys and struggles, the challenges and the opportunities of marriage.

But here’s the thing. I’m rarely happy with what we talk about. I am constantly tweaking what I do in those sessions, forever in search of a better way to prepare a couple to share a lifetime of love together. So, after a recent conversation with one of the engaged couples, I went home and immediately sat down and typed out what I want to do the next time I marry someone. This is now the format I want to use; this is the outline that will cover every important detail; these are the subjects that will give them every thing they need to know before saying “I do.”

Except, after I’ve written it down, I come to realize: this isn’t the perfect outline. I mean, why should it be? After all, it wasn’t “the perfect outline” the eight other times I revised it.

And why should I be surprised? For there is no perfect outline to prepare for marriage, just as there is no perfect marriage. There is no way to address every question, just as there is no way to anticipate every question that will arise over 40 or 50 or 60 years of marriage. Instead, I am learning that the most important thing I can do for couples about to step into the great unknown is help them to see that they are, in fact, stepping into The Great Unknown.  The one thing we can say about what marriage brings is that we don’t know what marriage will bring.

Well, there is one thing. The author and psychologist Brene Brown says that her pastor  believes there IS one thing he can tell couples that he counsels: This much I know: in marriage, you will hurt each other.

Sounds like a positive guy. I’m sure he’s swamped with marriage requests.

But I think he’s on to something. And that something is the reality that the risk of relationship (be it marriage, family, close friendship, or even a church small group) is that we tend to hurt each other. And the closer the relationship, the easier it is to hurt each other.

Now, please note: I am NOT talking about physical or verbal abuse; I am not describing harm that must be held to account. I am speaking of the reality of the everyday hurt that is involved when we “do life” with someone.

Even so — even with the reality that marriage involves hurt feelings, hard conversations, and stretches of yawning apathy — why marry at all? For that matter: why get into close relationship with anyone? If hurt will result, why take the risk?

Well, in short, because that’s how we grow. We don’t grow in isolation. We don’t flourish by avoiding risk. In fact, not only do we mature despite the pain and problems that relationships bring, it’s in fact in the midst of the struggles that we grow.

And so, what I want to say to anyone who is dealing with the frustrations of relations (be it marriage or parenting, co-workers or close friends): Relationships are hard; it’s foolish to think otherwise. But through the challenges, we have the opportunity to grow. Through the hard work of learning to love imperfect people, we become more like our perfect Savior. Through the challenge of loving people through the difficult times — and being loved through our difficult times — we become more like Jesus.

Marriage isn’t the only way for this to happen, of course, but it is one way — one that, if married couples will let it, will shape them and mold them in ways that are both painful and powerful. So, even though I don’t have a magic formula, at the end of my conversations with couples getting married, I share these 10 principles — ten guidelines I believe that, if they spend a lifetime practicing, will help them grow (through the good times, and the bad):

  1. Commit to a life time of growing together.
  2. Be ready for it to be hard.
  3. Love like Jesus, trust in Jesus, depend on him to guide you.
  4. Work for unity.
  5. Find an older, mentor couple. (Or, for older couples: Be that mentor couple.)
  6. Laugh together.
  7. Pray together.
  8. Learn to listen well.
  9. Guard your marriage by guarding your heart.
  10. Love each other through life’s changes and challenges.

 

How to Find Yourself: thoughts about marriage that are about more than marriage

This past weekend, I presided at a wedding. As always, the ceremony is a time of joy and celebration. The bride and groom look their best, and everything that happens point to one thing: happiness and smiles.

So, when I stand before the just-about-to-be-married couple, speaking to them (and to those who are gathered), I want to say nice, happy things. I want to add to the festive spirit. And I do.

But I also want to say: Do you really know what you’re doing? Are you really ready for this? Because your vows are real. This is the real deal. And marriage will be one of the most difficult things you ever do.

Now, that’s not what I say. At least not in so many words. But I do say this:

We live in a world that can be cynical about marriage. There are those who doubt that a couple can spend a lifetime of love together. That instead of finding freedom in marriage, it ends up being a shackle.

As someone once sarcastically said, “Marriage is a wonderful institution. But who would want to live in an institution?”

But that’s not how the Bible sees it. In fact, from the very beginning, God makes man, and then provides man a helper; an equal, a partner for the journey. For life – with all its challenges and disappointments, with all of its joys and pleasures – is meant to be shared. The good, the bad, and the ugly. The days your heart aches and the days your heart skips a beat. The day you get a promotion, AND the day you lose your job.

And the way to grow stronger through Whatever comes your way – is by firmly holding onto each other.

In other words, marriage is hard. In part, because life is hard. And there’s a reason that in our marriage vows, we don’t say: “I do, if I feel like it,” or “I do, as long as it works for me,” or, “I do, as long as it’s not too difficult.” That’s not how marriage works. That’s not how life works. The way through the difficult times is to walk through those difficult times together.

I recently read a long article, published by the New York Times, that talked with couples who are practicing what is called “open marriage.” If you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s pretty much what it sounds like. Open marriage is where a couple “opens” their marriage to other intimate relationships, to other lovers. And the article is full of people giving reasons why this makes things better, at least in their minds.

While most of us can come up with a number of reasons why open marriage doesn’t work and doesn’t make sense, perhaps it’s a perfect sign of our times — where so many believe that life is found, not in our commitments, but in our freedoms. That is to say: real life is found by always keeping our options open.

The preacher and writer John Ortberg contends that so many who live for so much freedom end up coming to the end of their lives, and they can’t remember what they did with all the money they were free to make and spend. They can’t remember what they did with all that time they were so busy protecting. They can’t remember what happened to all those relationships that they were so free to exit. In the end, by keeping their options open, and by not fully committing to anything, they end up with a life committed to nothing.

Then Ortberg makes this vital point: It’s not in our freedom, but in our commitments, that we find ourselves.

What an absolutely counter-cultural argument, one that is sure to mystify many. But what a vital truth that is spot on. In a world where so many run from commitment — whether it’s in marriage, or parenting, or a job, or church, or just settling in one place to be a blessing to those around us — it’s really true: real life is found, not in what we keep open, but what we hold onto. In the end, we are defined, we are shaped, we become: not by what we run from, but what we commit to.