STRENGTHENING THE FAMILY
Sunday, April 6, 2008
Rodney Sadler Jr., Lectionary Team Commentator
Lection - Ephesians 5:21-33 and 6:1-9
(New Revised Standard Version)
(v. 21) Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. (v. 22)
Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. (v. 23) For
the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the
church, his body, and is himself its Savior. (v. 24) As the church
is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to
their husbands. (v. 25) Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the
church and gave himself up for her, (v. 26) that he might sanctify her,
having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, (v. 27) that
he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or
wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
(v. 28) Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.
He who loves his wife loves himself. (v. 29) For no man ever hates his
own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church,
(v. 30) because we are members of his body. (v. 31) "For this reason
a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,
and the two shall become one flesh." (v. 32) This mystery is a
profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the
church; (v. 33) however, let each one of you love his wife as himself,
and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
(v. 1) Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. (v. 2)
"Honor your father and mother" (this is the first commandment with a promise),
(v. 3) "that it may be well with you and that you may live long on the earth."
(v. 4) Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the
discipline and instruction of the Lord. (v. 5) Slaves, be obedient to those who
are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as
to Christ; (v. 6) not in the way of eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as
servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, (v. 7) rendering
service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men, (v. 8) knowing that
whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord,
whether he is a slave or free. (v. 9) Masters, do the same to them, and
forbear threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours
is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.
I. Description of Liturgical Moment
The twenty-first century is a high-speed, gadget-driven, technological era.
Although the Word of God remains timeless, our methods of application are not
and must change so that they are always relevant and useful. Past cultural
wisdom built bridges that brought us over troubled waters, and present
cultural wisdom is remodeling or “remixing” those bridges. In the Hip Hop
family, coupling some of the old with the new is called “remixing” as was noted
in last week’s lection commentary. Just two weeks removed from Easter, it
is important to reflect on the impact of the resurrection on our lives today,
that is, how does the resurrection remix our lives?
The resurrection remixes us on an individual level so we talk about
a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” We often forget however,
that the resurrection also remixes and transforms larger social systems such as
the family. Giving attention to the individual and the social impact of the resurrection,
particularly on the family, is a remix of the typical approach taken when preaching during the
Sundays that shortly follow Easter.
The African American family is often forgotten during the preaching
moment, but a remixing of the implications of the resurrection will not
only help us remember to give it much needed attention, but can also strengthen it.
Resurrection power remixes the lives of our families so that they may truly live.
This liturgical moment may focus on the church as the family of God but it primarily
addresses the breakdown in black families (absent fathers, single mothers, imprisoned children,
domestic violence, et al.) with the aim of building them up. New initiatives
or social programs can be introduced on this day, providing sound solutions
to some of the problems. Families that are “whole” may even “adopt” those
that are deemed broken; revealing that humanity itself is a family. This
day will tell the hurting family that their help does not just come from
the Lord but also from us! “You are not alone” should be the message to our families, all because of the resurrection.
The resurrection remixes or redefines what it means to be family.
In the Hellenistic world, being in Christ radically altered the nature
of what it meant to be a family. Traditional assumptions about the roles
of husbands and wives were transformed. Resurrection power challenges
long held beliefs about power and privilege. Pursuing power and privilege
have hindered healthy relationships in African American communities between
men and women, husbands and wives. This reading reassesses what it means
to be a wife or a husband in terms of God’s resurrection remix
work through Christ Jesus our Lord. No matter where or how we worship,
none of us have been untouched by the skyrocketing divorce rates that
cry out for solutions, not just from society but from sacred halls.
We need to become wiser to know how to make our families stronger. This text helps us do that.
II. Biblical Interpretation for Preaching and Worship: Ephesians 5:21-33 and 6:1-9
Part One: The Contemporary Contexts of the Interpreter
I come to this text as a recovering sexist (as my wife will attest).
I entered seminary as a young Baptist minister from an evangelical background
and held fast to the traditional interpretation of this passage as a text
legitimizing the role of the male as the “head of the household” over
the female. I continued to gravitate toward this text because
I felt, in some way, that it was a biblical justification for
a superior role to that of my wife. I heard it saying that
should win the argument. I
should determine the rules.
should get to decide because I
am the man and she was
the woman, my
wife. She should be submissive to me
and support my
decisions. This is how I read it, and heard it taught and preached.
But the more time I spent with this passage during my seminary and graduate studies, the more this
interpretative tradition was eroded. I began to note problems with my interpretive stance as
I encountered African American womanist and feminist readings of Ephesians 5:21ff. I began to
note problems with my way of reading this passage as I gained greater facility with the underlying
Greek New Testament. At first, I thought that the text was simply problematic from a power standpoint,
seeking to protect a privilege with which I was increasingly familiar as an educated middle class black man.
Yet, through much prayer and study, I learned that far from a text that should be ignored, this passage
should be embraced. It is liberating and provides insight into the transformative power of being
“in Christ,” the power of being remixed by the resurrection.
Part Two: Biblical Commentary
Perhaps no bible passage has been more misunderstood than this brief portion of Ephesians 5.
Though part of a larger literary unit, this passage is frequently removed from its overall context.
By doing so, it is left to stand alone as the principally relevant portion of a set of rules known
traditionally as the “Haustafeln,” or “household codes.” These “codes” stem from an earlier
paradigm developed by the philosopher Aristotle and were generally thought to provide
order in the home. Aristotle concluded that free male household leaders were the most
important agents in a household and that other members such as the wife, children, or
enslaved, were beholden to this man. That this way of being in relationships is found
in Scripture demonstrates the tacit Christian agreement with the power arrangements popular
in the larger Hellenistic world. By their actions, some African American males implicitly
agree with this too. They act as if they can do whatever they want, whenever they want,
regardless of what other family members say, just because they are the man of the house.
Through this attitude, they show that they haven’t been remixed by the resurrection.
Many preach this text through the lens of Aristotle’s “codes” and preach it as the
Christian way. Yet, the apostle’s point is different. He does not teach the “codes” but wants
to revolutionize them. He offers an alternative arrangement for Christian families that is at
odds with the ways of the Hellenistic world. The familiar notions of the “household codes”
are remixed in order to show members of Christian families how to relate to each other.
The traditional way had the lower levels serving the top where the free male householder
sat on his throne. Household members had to do whatever he commanded. They were not free,
because everyone thought that the man was smarter. As first century Aristotelian philosopher
Arius Didymus proclaimed:
The man has the rule of this household by nature. For the deliberative faculty of the
woman is inferior, in children it does not yet exist, and in the case of slaves it is completely absent.1
Though there must have been some obligation of the head of the house for proper governance of the
house, this was generally implied, not explicitly stated as was everyone else’s obligation to him.
He was the man
and because rules for him were not explicit, many have used this to discern
their own dictates concerning the obligations of husbands, usually to the detriment of wives.
This is the type of reasoning that may account for a disproportionate number of black men who
do not mind getting women pregnant but mind being a responsible parent. These men make up
their own rules of what it means to be a father. Many times it means to be an absentee
daddy because they think they can do whatever they want, whenever they want, just
because they are male. This leaves the woman to struggle to survive with the
children on her own. This notion of family needs to be remixed.
Remixing has to happen because too often preachers do not correctly divide this passage,
and how we
divide it shows what we expect it to mean. For example, some translations of the Bible
(e.g. the New King James Version and the New International Version), begin the discussion
about submission at Ephesians 5:22 and others at 5:21. Beginning at verse 22 suggests
that the passage is primarily concerned with a wife’s submission to her husband, for
it begins, “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” Those that
begin this subsection at verse 22 may do so based on legitimate thematic and
grammatical considerations, but they miss the author’s main point that actually
spans at least from Ephesians 5:21 until 6:9. That is, “Be subject to one another
out of reverence for Christ.” This is the overall message of the passage—mutual
submission to one another in Christ Jesus.
As a result of resurrection life and our new relationship in the resurrected Christ, what it means to be
family changes. Family is remixed and becomes stronger. Women serve men but men
also serve women. This becomes clear when the entire section is read to its
conclusion in 6:9 “…with [God] there is no partiality.” Hence, the entire
passage should be read in its totality as “Be subject to one another out
of reverence for Christ…with [God] there is no partiality.” Or, as the
King James Version puts it, “neither is there respect of persons with [God].”
The woman, who has been the bedrock of black families, deserves just as
much respect as the man. No less and no more.
Through this interpretation, the man-ruling-others-serving Aristotelian
old-time way is remixed into
“mutual submission” in Christ. The wife submits to her husband but her
husband is charged to love his wife as Christ loved the Church (5:25)
and we know that Christ died
for us. In Christ’s ultimate act
of submission, husbands find their model for loving their wives. In the same way, an
obligation of parents to children (6:4), and masters to slaves (6:9), is briefly stated.
Love flows from heart to heart, breast to breast, bottom to top, top to bottom.
One cannot miss this message of mutuality.
However, certain parts of the passage have been shunned. In her 1991 article in
Stony the Road We Trod2
Clarice Martin notes how African Americans have traditionally
shunned the latter part of this literary unit that described the obligation of the enslaved
to the master, yet African American male preachers have gravitated to the earlier part
of the passage that lifts up the obligation of the wife to the husband! Logic would
dictate that to challenge one portion of the passage, “slaves obey,” would undermine
the other, “wives submit.” However, such “logic” does not seem to have overshadowed
the self-serving desire to find a biblical justification for the subjugation of women to men.
This has been the source of no small amount of concern in our community for it has been used to justify
everything from the universal authority of men over women, to the reason women should not
preach, to the physical and psychological abuse of our mothers, grandmothers, sisters,
and daughters. This is poor resurrection theology which means it is not good liberation
theology. Rather, it is dead theology because it kills the lives of women who are
crucial to the black family remix. Families will be strengthened when men and women,
husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, have mutual respect
and love for each other.
“There is no favoritism with [God].”(NIV)
We are all equally obligated to each other in Christ.
A family is most viable when there is interdependence,
because each member is responsible to and for the other.
To lose sight of this or to preach a gospel of “favorites”
from this passage is to abuse the Word of God, twisting it
for our own selfish purpose. The revolutionary nature of being in
a resurrected Christ transforms and remixes traditional power arrangements
in the family. Rather than saying “I don’t need you in my life” we would say
“I need you to survive.” We communicate better if we realize that we are
interdependent. We can face family challenges without packing our bags
if we realize that we are interdependent. Everyone ends up with a safe
place to fall if we live like transformed couples who are interdependent,
firmly establishing this model for our children.
What good news it is that we serve a God who does not play favorites. What a powerful resurrection message to daily
keep in mind. No one can trick us or demean us into believing that any of us is worth less than someone else or
worthy of less respect because of our gender or position in the family. God restores families to wholeness
in Christ as we realize that we are all equally important to our Creator-Redeemer and all equally obligated to each other.
This text does not relate a story, but offers instruction.
Many of the sensations present in a narrative are thus absent from this passage.
That being said, possible images are:
5:26 the image of the wife being cleansed by water; the image in
5:31 of the husband and wife merging into one flesh; see the image of the
unwrinkled church that appears from 5:27; and
: hear the washing of the water in 5:26.
Boring, M. Eugene, Klaus Berger, and Carsten Colpe. Hellenistic Commentary to the New Testament.
Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995. p. 530
- Martin, Clarice J. “The Haustafeln (household codes) in African American biblical interpretation: ‘free slaves’ and ‘subordinate women’.” Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation. Ed. Cain Hope Felder. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1991.