We the People (American Lament) Take a needle, poke a hole in the American pipe dream, and watch it all deflate. We the people never knew how to care for ourselves, our neighbors, let alone the ones that we call strange. We grasp with cowardice to table scraps of life, liberty, happiness, like broken records that keep screeching “we are winning.” We drench our dreams in destiny, like creamy white ranch sauce, so manifest, and love the hero’s journey like it’s ours. We look, like children, for faith healers at the river who can disappear our issues, trip and fall in existential frantic rush to save our souls. We have our pick of saviors, never fail to choose false ones, while real ones we twist violently to make them what they never meant to be. We hold free speech so precious as we shout down all the voices that might teach us, ride our sacred cows like soapboxes up to the ghost town on the hill that never was a beacon to the watching world. We pile our things around us in a huddle as though they could save. And if a rag-clothed rabbi spit, made mud, and offered it to put upon our eyes, might we be brave enough to open them?
In Ephesians 6:5-9, Paul gives a series of instructions to δοῦλοι (slaves or servants―people in a position of subservience or subjection), and then to κυρίοις (masters or lords―people in a position of power).
Here is the passage in the NRSV translation:
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; 6 not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7 Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, 8 knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.
9 And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.
I hope it’s obvious that this passage is, to put it mildly, an uncomfortable one.
It has a hideous history of being used to try to justify chattel slavery in the US. It was spoken often by white enslavers to black enslaved people to try to keep them from rising up, running away, or expressing any other kinds of resistance to the brutal, inhumane system these white enslavers perpetuated.
I notice that (white) Christians now―likely either feeling guilty at some level about how the Bible was used to justify slavery, and/or in denial that this was the case―tend to read this passage with various sorts of disclaimers. Most pastors would likely say, “of course these verses don’t mean that slavery was or is okay! Let’s find another way to think about this.”
(This, by the way, is another reason I find it so galling when Christians read the immediately preceding passage, Ephesians 5:21-33, as a literal prescription for the way wives and husbands should relate to each other today, but then are unwilling to do the same for the verses about masters and slaves. It’s as if we somehow all just “know” now that slavery is wrong…but we’re not so sure about patriarchal marriage.)
I want to acknowledge the pain and awfulness these words about masters and slaves have caused.
And, as I mentioned in my post last week about wives and husbands, I don’t want to excuse Paul for failing to push back against the hierarchical power structures of his time and place―for women, or for slaves/servants.
What I do want to do is offer some thoughts about these verses that might help push the church today in a better direction. To do this, I want to focus on verses 8 and 9. I want to focus on the “masters”―the people with power.
In verse 8, Paul writes that whatever good thing each person might do, this he/she will receive from the Lord (literal translation). This, according to Paul, includes both enslaved people and “free” people―people without power and people with power.
Then, in verse 9, Paul addresses masters. And he tells them to treat servants in the same way as, in Paul’s worldview, servants should treat them (literally, “do the same things toward the servants/slaves”). He then goes on to say, literally translated, that “their and y’all’s lord/master is in the heavens,” and that there is no partiality in this heavenly lord’s presence.
I’m not a huge fan of how Paul instructs everyone equally in these verses. He kind of tramples over and ignores the differences in power and social location between the slaves/servants and the masters/lords.
But I do like how Paul addresses people with power. I think it’s worth paying attention to. What happens when we go back and read verses 5-7 with the “masters, do the same things toward the servants/slaves” part in mind?
I’m thinking here of people in all sorts of positions of power. Employers, bosses, supervisors. Leaders and influencers of all sorts. City councils, judges, congresspeople, governors, presidents, and other elected officials. Police and military. Counselors and consultants. And, of course, pastors, elders, and other church leaders.
What “same things,” exactly, are these kinds of people instructed to do? How are they to think and act toward the people they lead and influence?
Paul wants people with power to treat others with respect and fear, and to live with sincerity and singleness of heart (v. 5). To live their private lives in a way that matches their public persona. (Which, by the way, probably does not involve taking weird pants-unzipped pictures with your wife’s female assistant, and then giving an even weirder drunk-sounding non-apology for it.)
Paul wants people with power not to try to win others’ favor, but to do the will of God from the heart (v. 6). (I enjoy the literal translation: “not according to eye-service like people-pleasers”―two fun compound words in Greek.) Not just to be seen and make a good impression and move up the food chain―and not to be so concerned with self-protection and image management once on top―but to seek God humbly. To try to do what is right and good and just.
Paul wants people with power to serve wholeheartedly, as if serving the Lord, not people (v. 7). To see their leadership not as self-aggrandizement, self-fulfillment, or an ego boost, but as service. And to be willing, whatever the cost, to choose to please God rather than people―one’s superiors, public opinion, etc.―when these two things conflict.
In the world of churches and Christian organizations, I think all this would involve leaders doing more (and deeper) soul-searching to figure out what it looks like to serve God in their context. Listening, broadly and intentionally and carefully, to the wisdom and experiences of people in the congregation. Digging beyond what was taught in seminary, what worked well for other churches, what people demand, and what wealthy donors want to fund.
I think it would involve leaders caring less about what things look like and more about how things actually are. When it comes to race, for example, it would involve moving from questions like “do our website photos show lots of happy people from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds?” to questions like “are the people of color in our congregation represented in leadership? Are they respected as important voices in decision-making? Do they feel free to exist and worship as they are, without conforming to white norms? Are they acknowledged and honored as thinkers, leaders, and co-creators of theology?”
I think it would involve, as one more example, leaders being more upfront about their churches’ stances toward LGBTQ+ people and relationships―e.g. whether the church prohibits openly gay people from serving and leading in various ministries, whether the church performs gay weddings, etc.. (And if a leader finds herself hesitant to own up to a particular stance, for fear that it would make the church look bad―for example, that a non-affirming stance might make the church seem unkind, unwelcoming, or judgmental―perhaps it’s worth considering whether this stance may actually be some of these things.)
I don’t want to excuse Paul from the ugliness of the way he takes master/slave relationships for granted.
But I do want to see what would happen if more people with power started taking Paul’s instructions more seriously.
I want to see the kinds of churches and communities we can build together when leaders live and lead sincerely, from their hearts―not to make things look good, like people-pleasers, but doing God’s will, as well as they can understand it, guided by love and justice, from the bottom of their souls.
I want to see people with power using this power for good and not evil.
And maybe, in this way, Paul’s words here―which have been used for such evil―can be turned around and used for good.
I thought I might write a post exploring how the original Greek of Ephesians 5:21-33 comes across a little less patriarchal―or at least a little more ambiguous in some ways―than our English translations suggest.
And there are plenty of things that could be said to this effect.
I could write about how Paul’s call to submit in verses 21-22 is not actually a command form, as many translations would have you think. For example, these all sound like commands:
- “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord” (NIV).
- “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord” (NRSV).
- “And submit to each other out of respect for Christ. For example, wives should submit to their husbands as if to the Lord” (CEB).
In the Greek, however, the word translated as “submit” or “be subject” in verse 21 is actually in its participle form, not its command form. This means that a more literal translation might start off, “being subject to one another…” or “while y’all are submitting yourselves to one another…” or something along those lines. The action is ongoing and assumed, not instructed or commanded.
I could also point out that verse 22, in the Greek, doesn’t actually have a verb. In other words, a literal translation would not read “wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands,” but rather just “wives to your own husbands.” Our translations take the verb “submit” from the previous verse and fill it in here.
Similarly, moving on a couple verses later, verse 24 also lacks a verb. While the NIV reads, “as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything,” a more literal translation would read, “as the church submits to Christ, so also the wives to the husbands in everything.” The part about the wives has no verb in Greek, but translations take “submit” from the part about the church and add it in.
I could write about how these details come together to make verses 21-24 sound less harsh and commanding toward women than one might think.
I could also point out that the first time Paul actually does use a command form is in verse 25: “husbands, (y’all) love (your) wives, just as Christ also loved the church and handed himself over on her behalf.” It’s directed toward the husbands, not the wives.
Husbands are commanded to love their wives, whereas wives are just assumed to submit to their husbands. Thus, maybe Paul isn’t trying to control women’s actions so much as influence and instruct men to be better and more loving husbands―which, of course, if we share for a moment Paul’s assumption of heterosexual marriage, benefits their wives.
I could also say that, in reading this passage in Greek―perhaps because of the Greek itself, or perhaps just because the act of translating forces me to read more slowly and carefully―I was struck by how much this passage is not actually about marriage, but about Christ and the church.
I could say―and I think I would not be wrong―that Paul’s main point here is to work from the cultural assumptions he shares with his readers about marriage, and to use these assumptions to say some important things about Christ’s relationship with the church. What he really wants to do here is help the church community better understand what Christ’s love is like.
He wants people to know that Christ’s love is deep, great, and sacrificial―the way, in Paul’s worldview, a good husband loves his wife. He wants people to see how the church is invited to submit to Christ’s leadership and follow Christ’s example―the way, in Paul’s worldview, a good wife submits to her husband. He wants to help them understand the profound, intimate unity between Christ and the church―not unlike the profound, intimate unity between two marriage partners.
So here we are, with many things to say that might seem to make this passage more palatable, especially to women―and, perhaps, to all modern-day humans who have no particular interest in building their marriages on the dubious foundation of ancient Greco-Roman gender roles.
Ultimately, though, via something of a fraught and winding journey, I find myself now in a place where I no longer feel the need to try to soften Paul’s words or make them sound better. And it’s very freeing to be able to say that.
I find myself no longer able to deny what I very much wish were not true about Paul: the fact that he says some patriarchal, sexist stuff.
(Or, more precisely: he says some stuff that likely made things a bit better for women of his time, compared to what they would have experienced otherwise―but which, when we try to apply it to our lives and marriages today, tends to have the opposite effect.)
After all, Ephesians 5:21-33 might be (relatively) indirect and gentle toward women in its tone in Greek―and it might be about Christ and the church more than it is about marriage―but there is a parallel passage in the book of Colossians that offers none of these sorts of caveats. And I don’t think we can speak honestly about Paul’s words toward women if we’re only willing to talk about one passage and not the other.
Colossians 3:18 really does directly command wives to be subject to their husbands. There is no nuance of missing verbs, or participle forms, or anything like that. There is no analogy to Christ and the church that we can focus on to make us feel less uncomfortable.
There isn’t really any getting around Paul’s patriarchal instructions.
And I think I’m done trying to argue otherwise. I think I’m done defending Paul―trying to make excuses for him, sanitize his writing, make him sound more palatable and less sexist.
Paul really does, in both Ephesians and Colossians, write about husbands and wives in the same breath as masters and slaves, and parents and children―each, in Paul’s mind, clearly a hierarchical relationship in which there is some kind of analogous power dynamic. Paul takes commonly known Greco-Roman household codes and makes some Christian edits to them, but he does not really make an effort to change the hierarchical assumptions they are built on.
(The master/slave part, of course, is a whole other can of worms―a critically important one, and one I’m also not particularly interested in trying to sanitize or explain away. But that’s another post for another time.)
When I read passages like this, as a woman, I don’t think that I can settle for trying to find ways to make them sound gentler and more palatable as I apply them to my own life. The core of what they say and assume about women and men and relationships exists in too much friction with everything I am and want to be, everything I have experienced as good in this world, and everything I see Jesus saying and doing.
And I think that Paul’s letters are best read in relation to all these things. They are not meant to be read in isolation from the words and life of Jesus, or from our own lives and experiences. And they are especially not meant to be read in isolation from the lives and experiences of the people who are most vulnerable to being dehumanized, marginalized, or otherwise abused by them.
We can take the Bible very seriously and believe very deeply in its truth while also admitting that there are some passages which, if applied in our time and culture in any kind of direct and straightforward way, diminish the humanity and dignity of women, or people of color, or LGBTQ+ people. And we can lament this and seek to walk a different path, rather than making excuses for it.
The Bible is a complex set of books, not meant to be read like a list of instructions or do’s and don’t’s. It’s a lot more complicated than that―and a lot deeper and more interesting.
It’s meant to be read in community, among a wide diversity of people who are all empowered to speak freely and candidly. And in this diverse community that reads and understands the Bible together, women’s voices should be at the center of the conversation when it comes to passages like this one.
(For that matter, communities would also do well to center the voices of single people and of LGBTQ+ people―people whose experiences of gender, sexuality, and relationships may be very different from the experiences of people in heterosexual marriages.)
The Bible is both a deep well from which to draw living water, and a set of ancient texts written in times and places very different from ours. There are so many things we can learn from it and so many ways it can be life-giving for us. And we can do this learning and life-receiving without needing to share all of each human biblical author’s assumptions about how things are or how things should be.
So, I’m done trying to explain away Paul’s patriarchy. But I’m not done reading his writings and being inspired by them. I’m not done pondering what truths about God, life, and community lie among them.
May we learn, in diverse communities together, with every voice heard and honored, to read and love the Bible in all of its beauty and its complications, without needing to airbrush its ugly parts or try to reduce its maddening, wonderful complexity.
God is Calling Her Children God is calling her children to the garden, to walk through wildflowers in the place where life grows slowly and unveils itself in its own time, to let soil slip through fingers in the place where we do not need to be trailblazers, conquerors and colonizers, chairpeople and board members, but, rather, midwives: those who care and watch and move to catch the world that is to come. So God is calling, listen as she calls forth feminine ambition: the kind that runs with Spirit wind behind and does not lose its breath until its tiny corner of the world bursts with divine love, until our eyes see God in every person and our hands have done the good that they could do and let that be enough.