Empowerment and authoritarianism and the armor of God, with shout-out to the Black Panthers

Here is one way I might translate Ephesians 6:10-17 (emphasis added):

(10) Henceforth, (y’all) be empowered in (the) Lord and in the strength of his ability. (11) (Y’all) put on the whole armor of God for the purpose of y’all being powerful to stand up to the schemes of the devil; (12) because the wrestling, for us, is not toward blood and flesh, but toward the rulers, toward the authorities, toward the world-rulers of this darkness, toward the spiritual things of evil in the heavenly places. (13) On account of this, (y’all) take up the whole armor of God, in order that y’all might be powerful to resist in the evil day, and, after accomplishing everything, to stand. (14) Therefore, (y’all) stand, after girding y’all’s loins in truth, and after putting on for yourselves the breastplate of justice, (15) and after shoeing the feet in readiness of the good news of peace, (16) in all things taking up the shield of faith, in which y’all will be powerful to extinguish all the flaming arrows of evil; (17) and (y’all) receive the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit, which is a word of God.

As you may have gathered from the italics I added, I got interested in what these verses have to say about power. In particular, I thought it was interesting that the Greek word δύναμαι tends to be translated a bit more weakly than it needs to be.

δύναμαι is used three times in the eight verses above, so it seems pretty important. On top of that, a closely related word, ἐνδυναμόω, is used in v. 10 (also italicized above).

In most translations, δύναμαι is rendered here as “can” or “is able.” In the NIV, for example, the relevant phrases read:

  • “so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (v. 11)
  • “so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground” (v. 13)
  • “take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (v. 16).

I’m not saying I think this is a bad translation, but I am interested in the fact that δύναμαι could alternatively be translated not just as “can,” or “is able,” but as “is strong,” or “is powerful.” It’s the word from which we get our English words dynamite and dynamic.

I wouldn’t go quite so far as to translate δύναμαι as “is dynamite,” as fun as that might be―boom!―but I do think it’s interesting to try to incorporate this idea of power into the translation. Thus, we might have:

  • “for the purpose of y’all being powerful to stand up to the schemes of the devil” (v. 11)
  • “in order that y’all might be powerful to resist in the evil day” (v. 13)
  • “taking up the shield of faith, in which y’all will be powerful to extinguish all the flaming arrows of evil” (v. 16).

I’ll add another one, just for fun, from the closely related verb in v. 10 (ἐνδυναμόω): “be empowered in the Lord and in the strength of his ability.”

I think sometimes Christians have the idea, even if we might not quite put it this way, that all power is reserved for God―and this means that we as humans aren’t meant to have any. We are meant to be small, and powerless, and weak, and frail, and all-around worm-like in every way.

But the God I believe in―and the God Paul believed in, back in the day―is not an insecure political leader who hoards power for himself and tries to keep others as small and powerless as possible. 

The God I believe in does not hoard power, but shares it. God’s ego is not threatened by the thought that ordinary humans might learn to stand and walk in their power. God wants to empower people. 

God wants people to be powerful―powerful to pursue truth (the belt), and justice (the breastplate), and peacemaking (the shoes). Powerful to stand up to evil and to resist unjust schemes. Powerful to hold onto faith like a shield and extinguish all the flaming arrows of evil. 

I think Paul wants people to know that this is what God is like. Paul wants the average, everyday churchgoers in the city of Ephesus to be empowered (v. 10). He wants them to put on God’s full armor so that they can be powerful (v. 11). 

Paul hopes that, in the “evil day”―in the times when the presence of evil is particularly obvious and oppressive―these ordinary people might be powerful to be part of the resistance (v. 13). And Paul has every confidence that these humble unassuming ordinary people will in fact be powerful (v. 16). 

I find this idea of empowerment via the armor of God particularly striking in the context of Paul’s immediately preceding words. Right before this passage, Paul speaks directly to both wives and husbands (Eph 5:22-33), both children and parents (Eph 6:1-3), and both slaves and householders (Eph 6:5-9). 

Whatever else we might say about these passages (and feel free to click the links above for some of my thoughts), at the very least, it is clear that Paul writes to a church full of all kinds of people, with all sorts of different amounts of power in the structures and systems of our world: husbands, who had a great deal of power in their marriages, and wives, who had very little; parents, who had a great deal of power in their relationships with their children, and children, who had very little; householders, who had a great deal of power in their homes, and slaves, who had very little. 

And now, when he writes about the armor of God, Paul makes no distinctions among any of these groups. He writes to the whole church, to everyone in it: I want you to be empowered by God. Whether you have all the power in the world or none of it, put on God’s armor, and be empowered. Stand up to evil. Resist oppression and hatred and deception and greed, wherever you see it. Truth, justice, peace, and faith belong to you. 

I am reminded of a slogan of the Black Panther Party: “All the power to all the people.” 

(I just learned this recently, from a documentary called The First Rainbow Coalition, which follows the story of alliances formed among the Black Panther Party and other working-class community movements in Chicago in the late 1960s or so, including a Latino group and a group of southern whites.)

I think sometimes (white) Christians are afraid of things like this. Not only because we tend to be racist―which we absolutely do―but also because we get nervous about the idea of people having power in general. Sometimes this is for good reason, as we have seen powerful people abuse their power and do a great deal of harm. Sometimes we want to limit power to the tiny group of people whom we think have really earned it.

But perhaps God knows that power can be so dangerous and awful precisely because it tends to accumulate in the hands of just a few―because, when we get a bit of it, we tend to hoard it for ourselves. 

Perhaps if power were actually distributed more evenly among more people―among all people―we would see less in the way of authoritarian abuse of power, and more in the way of ordinary people rising up to work together for the health and wellbeing of the community. 

I don’t think God wants us to think we are worms, weak and gross, always groveling for mercy and thinking we’re the absolute worst. I think God wants to empower us to figure out how to live in a way that honors God, other people, ourselves, and the natural world. I think God wants us to be powerful to be fully ourselves. Powerful to be about truth and justice and peace and faith and healing. 

This is not an easy thing. Often it’s easier to be small. 

It’s hard to stand―that’s why we need the “full armor of God” for it. But it is good. 

So, be empowered in the Lord. God shares God’s power―God’s awesome, good, truth-exposing, justice-seeking, peace-making power―with us. All the power to all the people.

To the people with power

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.

Wives and participles and Bible and I’m done defending Paul

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.

Y’all, be angry!

As someone who has spent a fair amount of time reading the NIV translation of the Bible, I was surprised when I translated Ephesians 4:26 from the Greek to find that it does not really say “in your anger do not sin” (NIV). It actually says, “be angry and do not sin.” (This is all in the second person plural, so one might say: “y’all, be angry, and y’all, do not sin.”)

Y’all, be angry! 

We live in a time when all sorts of racial injustices and government abuses of power are becoming―for more and more people―harder and harder to ignore. Perhaps this makes it an especially good time to seek out and hear the parts of the Bible that invite us to acknowledge anger and embrace it.

Anger is a normal part of the range of human emotions. It is a very appropriate response to the things that are very wrong in our world. And the Bible is not nearly as uncomfortable with anger as some of us sometimes are, or as some of our church communities and church leaders sometimes are.

Ephesians 4:26 reads, “be angry, and do not sin; let the sun not set on y’all’s rage.” 

Three quick side notes on this translation, for the real Greek geeks out there:

  • If you find the “y’all” distracting, try perhaps: “let the sun not set on your collective rage.”
  • I know “let the sun not set” isn’t really how we talk these days, but I wanted to clarify that this is a third person singular (“he/she/it”) command―referring to the sun―and not a second person plural command directed toward Paul’s hearers (like “be angry” and “do not sin”). 
  • I used the word “rage” at the end of the verse to reflect how this word comes from a different root from the word used for “be angry.” 

Side notes aside, I like that Paul uses an imperative (command) form to tell the people of the church of Ephesus, communally and collectively, to be angry. 

I also like that―and here I imagine Paul wouldn’t be averse to adding “as much as possible, as far as it depends on you” (to quote from Romans 12:18)―Paul prefers for these angry people not to find themselves still angry at the end of the day.

What it actually means to “let the sun not set on y’all’s rage,” though, is not exactly clear. But I think it means something more, or something different, from what we might be tempted to think, or what we might have been told: just forgive and let go. 

It seems connected to verse 31: “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” (That’s from the NIV; a more literal translation could read, “all bitterness and wrath and anger and brawling and slander, let it be taken away from y’all, with all malice”―which I kind of like, because the passive voice makes it feel more like a prayer than a command). 

Given this context, it seems that Paul wants the church community to be angry without destroying themselves in the process by giving in to the kind of bitterness that takes root, and grows, and finds expression in things like brawling and slander, and tears apart communities. Paul wants them to be angry, but not to hold onto malice. 

This is all easier said than done, of course. But I think the general idea is that Paul wants the Ephesian church community to be angry without self-destructing. Paul wants to see them support one another and speak truthfully and heal wounds and thrive together, anger and all. 

I think an important part of all of this is to seek out ways to meaningfully express the anger that we hold. To―actively and urgently―seek out ways to try to right the wrongs that cause us to be angry. 

Not only is this the right thing to do, but it is also a more effective way of “letting the sun not set on our rage” than trying to just let go and move on. For the things that anger us deeply, is it really possible to just set these things aside and go to sleep? Can we really just let it go―all in one day? 

When we try to do this, we often end up suppressing our anger―which is both unhealthy for us and less than loving toward the people around us, as our repressed anger tends to burst out in harmful ways at other times.

Perhaps we are not meant to just try to stop being angry by the end of the day, but, instead, to not let another day go by without doing something with our anger―something healing, right, and good. 

This is what Jesus did in Mark 3:1-6. Jesus wanted to heal a man’s withered hand, but the religious leaders did not care about the dude and his hand. They just cared about what it would look like if they let Jesus do that on the Sabbath. They were waiting for Jesus to do something that looked bad, something they could accuse him of. And Jesus got angry at them (v. 5). Then, immediately, Jesus asked the man to stretch out his hand, and the man did, and Jesus healed him.

Jesus got angry―and then he moved urgently to do something good with that anger. Something healing and liberating for the man―and, at the same time, something that messed with the worldview of the powers that be (so much so that they went away wanting to kill him, as Mark 3:6 tells us.) 

This is what “be angry and do not sin; let the sun not set on y’all’s rage” looked like, for Jesus, in that moment. 

Maybe for us, in the moment we live in today, “be angry and do not sin; let the sun not set on y’all’s rage” looks like protesting. Maybe it looks like finding other meaningful ways to support the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Maybe it’s getting angry about something racist, sexist, etc. that we witness at work, or at church, or in other settings―and not letting the sun set before we take appropriate action in response. That may mean seeking out the person affected by what happened and expressing support and affirmation, and/or speaking with the person who made a racist comment, and/or bringing the matter to HR, and/or something else entirely. 

Christians sometimes speak about anger as if it’s a bad thing―as if the goal is to try to get rid of our anger, through prayer, or community support, or singing a lot of soothing worship music.

But I think that our goal as followers of Jesus, when it comes to anger, is not to be less angry, but to be angry in ways that align more closely with God’s anger. 

The goal is to get more angry about the things God gets angry about―things like inequity, needless suffering, dishonesty, racism, mistreatment of immigrants, misogyny, murder, rape, abuse of power, religious exclusion, spiritual abuse―and to figure out what to do with this anger.

And the goal is to let go of the other kinds of things we might tend to get angry about―things that are less about equity among people or flourishing among communities and more about our own ego, or convenience, or preferences. 

So, as Paul would say, y’all, be angry! Be angry about the right things. And, before the sun sets, find something good to do with that anger.

Each one with their neighbor

Here is a literal translation of Ephesians 4:25: 

“Therefore, laying aside falsehood, (y’all) speak truth, each one with his/her/their neighbor, because we are members of one another.”

I’m interested in the part about speaking truth, each one with their neighbor.

Some translations try to make this part sound more natural in English, which is nice, but can also change the meaning a bit. For example:

  • “Each of you must tell the truth to your neighbor” (CEB)
  • “Each of you must…speak truthfully to your neighbor” (NIV)
  • “Let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors” (NRSV)
  • “Let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor” (ESV; yes, some translations do still use masculine pronouns to refer to any/all genders…)

I like the literal translation “speak truth, each one with their neighbor,” because I think it captures something that gets missed in the other translations. It captures the sense that there are two, perhaps equally important, levels to this truth-telling. The truth-telling that Paul is talking about is, at the same time, both very communal and very personal. 

As for the communal aspect, the imperative “speak truth” is addressed to the plural “you” (“y’all,” if you will.) Paul wants the community to be marked as a community of truth tellers: to, collectively, hold a high value for truth. To try to get to the bottom of things together when the truth seems murky. To refuse, together, as a community, to settle for nice-sounding, comforting lies. 

I would love to see more churches embody this more fully. When it comes to race and racial justice, for example, we would see church communities becoming the kinds of courageous places where truth is spoken, heard, and believed―truth about things like the brutal parts of our country’s history, and Christianity’s culpability in it all, and what it’s like to be a person of color in our communities and churches today. 

Paul invites the church, collectively, to lay aside falsehood: to ditch the sugar-coated versions of US history many of us have been taught; to drop the sanitized stories about where our predecessors as people of faith were in all of this; to stop repeating false narratives of progress that refuse to recognize how bad things still are; to reject the tendency to look to white, male, powerful sources for “objective” coverage of history or present-day reality. To move away from shallow, one-sided stories and seek, instead, multiple perspectives, listening especially carefully to people on the underside of power, and people most impacted by the issues at hand.

Paul says: y’all, collectively, lay aside these lies. Y’all, collectively, speak truth. Y’all, collectively, become a truth-filled community.

And then we get to the individual aspect, the personal aspect. We want to do this collectively, Paul says, but the way―or at least one important way―in which we want to do this is “each one with their neighbor.” Conversationally. Starting with the people closest to us―geographically, relationally. With our families and friends and co-workers and other people we interact with on a regular basis. 

Perhaps, thinking about today’s conversations about systemic racism and racial injustice, this supports an idea a lot of people have already been saying (and living out): that we start within our own racial or ethnic communities. 

Anti-blackness manifests differently in different racial and ethnic communities. It’s up to each community to look within itself, to start within itself, to name the ways anti-blackness shows up and figure out how to dismantle it. 

When we think about race, it’s up to us to start with the people with whom we have the most in common in this particular conversation. It’s up to us, each with our own neighbor, to speak truth.

It’s (relatively) easy to make statements on social media that sound good and sound supportive. It’s harder to learn to speak the truth, in love, with one another, personally. 

But the people we know personally might listen and engage in a way they wouldn’t with a Facebook “friend” they don’t know very well. They might learn something from us, and likewise us from them.

After all, as Paul goes on to write, we are members of one another. We belong to one another. We are connected to one another. We need one another. And we need the most honest, truthful self that each person is able to bring to the table.

May we become truthful communities, among which truth is spoken and heard, collectively. May we become individuals who speak truth personally, each one with our own neighbor. And may all of this truth-telling help begin to build a more just world.

Enduring one another

At the beginning of the fourth chapter of Ephesians, Paul writes this:

“Therefore, I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-3, NASB, emphasis added).

Or, in another translation: “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-3, NRSV, emphasis added).

The Greek word translated here as “showing tolerance for” or “bearing with” one another is ἀνέχομαι, and it caught my attention because the definition I have for it on my fun little vocab flash cards is “endure.” Paul invites the people of the church community in Ephesus to endure one another.

I like this translation because, to me, it sounds stronger than “bear with.” “Bear with” sounds like it could have to do with listening to someone, or perhaps reading a somewhat long-winded (but not necessarily uninteresting) e-mail. Bear with me, here.

It also sounds stronger, or perhaps more specific, than “show tolerance”―which could have a pretty general meaning, not necessarily too different from “love one another” or “accept one another.”

I like the translation “endure” because it feels real. Staying in relationship with fellow Jesus-followers―keeping on going to church with all sorts of people, with whom I may or may not naturally connect or have anything in common―sometimes calls for a stronger word than “bearing with” or “showing tolerance.” Sometimes it really does call for “enduring” one another. 

I think about this when I think about some of the reasons why people might leave a church, and why they stay. 

I wonder if sometimes we stay when we should leave. We stay even after realizing that some important things about the church environment, practices, teachings, authority structure, etc. are not healthy for us, and/or perhaps for our loved ones. We stay because we like the people and feel connected with them. We’re not sure what will happen to these relationships if we leave.

And I wonder if sometimes we leave when we should stay. We leave at the first sign of conflict, different styles of communication, or other relational difficulties. We leave when, really, the church is a good place for us, and a growing place for us―and it can continue to be, perhaps for a long time to come, if we are only willing to stay and try to work some of these things out.

When I think about these things, I also think about my experience of two different churches over the course of my two years in Pasadena. 

When my husband and I first moved to Pasadena, we visited five or six different churches, and then decided to attend a church where we had started to feel connected relationally. I knew that I disagreed with the church on LGBTQ+ affirmation, but I liked the people, and I figured it was all temporary. We didn’t plan on staying in Pasadena after I graduated from seminary, so I wasn’t looking for a longer-term denominational home.

As time went on, though, I began to feel more and more disconnected, unengaged, and often upset on Sunday mornings.

Sometimes I felt angry about parts of the sermon; other times, I just felt a strong sense that I no longer believed the same things that the pastor believed, on a very deep, fundamental level. This was an alienating feeling. I looked around, wondering if anyone else felt the same way, and it seemed like no one did.

There were so many people at the church whom I thought (and still think) were awesome. But some of my basic convictions about what it meant to follow Jesus and be the church together were changing, and some were growing stronger. 

Regarding LGBTQ+ affirmation, for example, I came to realize more strongly that the foundation of any church I want to be a part of is Jesus’ radical, all-inclusive love and justice―and that, to me, any church whose theology or practices treat my LGBTQ+ siblings as second-class citizens does not actually share this conviction in a way that extends to all people.

(How could we as a church talk about seeking justice alongside marginalized people if we only wanted this to apply to some things, like race, but not other things, like sexuality and gender?)

It wasn’t just about LGBTQ+ affirmation, but more generally about the entire lens through which the church’s leadership saw Scripture. It was a lens that just didn’t fit me anymore. 

Finally, during our last couple of months in Pasadena, we began attending another local church instead―one whose core values aligned much more closely with the kinds of things I wanted to pursue at the heart of my faith. 

Our first Sunday at this new church, though, I saw a student who had gotten on my nerves during a class we had together. And my first thought wasn’t exactly holy. It was probably something like, “UGH! Can’t I just get away from people who annoy me for an hour on Sunday mornings?”

And then my second thought―well, maybe not precisely second, but something I realized upon later reflection―was, “I think this is how church is supposed to be.”

Church is not supposed to be full of what I would consider nice people―people I find easy to get along with, easy to make friends with; people who share a lot of common interests with me, or common communication styles, or Myers-Briggs types. 

Churches are meant to be full of all sorts of people, richly (and difficult-ly) different from one another in every imaginable way―people who come together and stick together, not because they naturally get along well, but because they treasure a common set of deeply held values, a basic common idea of what it means to follow Jesus.

Jesus tends to bring together people like this. Healthy faith communities tend to bring together like this: people who choose to endure one another in love, for the sake of seeking God together and living out the story of Jesus together.

I hope for communities like this, for you and for me. I hope we meet people we get along well with at church, and I hope we meet people we have nothing in common with except our faith. And I hope that, when people, situations, communication styles, personalities, etc. try our patience, we dig in and learn to endure one another in love.

God knows we all need it.

Utterly spiritless

In Ephesians chapter 3, Paul writes about the mystery of Christ that has been made known to him (v. 3). He writes about how God has given him grace to speak about the boundless riches of Christ (v. 8). And he writes that, in Christ, we have boldness and confidence to approach God (v. 12). 

Then, in v. 13, he writes, “I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory” (NIV). (All the “you”s here are plural, by the way, so feel free to replace them with “y’all”s if you feel so inclined.)

I got interested in the word that is translated as “be discouraged” in this verse, in the NIV. Other translations read “lose heart” (NASB, NRSV, ESV). The Greek word is ἐκκακέω (ek-kä-ke’-o).

As a translation of ἐκκακέω, I feel like “be discouraged” is quite mild (and “lose heart” is a common enough English expression that it might as well just mean “be discouraged”).

The word comes from ἐκ, which means “from” or “out of,” and κακός, which means “bad” or “evil.” According to my buddy blueletterbible.org (have I been socially distancing for too long, such that I now consider websites my buddies? probably…), ἐκκακέω means “to be utterly spiritless, to be wearied out, exhausted.” It carries a sense of failing in heart, of being faint.

I appreciate this fuller definition of ἐκκακέω because the real, hard stuff of life often makes us feel something stronger than just discouragement. There are things we encounter―in the news, and in our own lives and circles and communities―that evoke in us a stronger response than just “well, that’s disappointing…not ideal, a little discouraging, but it’s okay. I’ll do some yoga and get a good night’s sleep and feel better in the morning.” 

The real stuff of life―and of trying to live a Jesus-following life that seeks love and justice amidst powerful forces that work against these things―can make us feel utterly spiritless. Wearied out. Exhausted. It can make our hearts fail and our bodies faint. 

Looking at where ἐκκακέω (or a very similar word, ἐγκακέω), is used in the New Testament, I see that some of the particular things that make people feel utterly spiritless include:

  • Praying. Especially when it doesn’t feel like there’s an answer. And, in particular, praying for justice that doesn’t seem to be coming (see Luke 18:1 and its context).
  • Being ministers of a new covenant. A covenant that is not so much about following rules as it is about experiencing freedom in God’s Spirit, contemplating God, and being transformed by God―a covenant that is very good, and yet also often not what people want, or think they want. A covenant that pushes back against oppression by invoking freedom, grates against a drive for efficiency and productivity by calling for the slow work of contemplation, and contradicts independent self-sufficiency by inviting communal spiritual transformation (see 2 Cor 4:1 and its context, especially the verses preceding it in Ch 3). 
  • Being hard-pressed, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. Experiencing all sorts of pushback and difficulties, especially from those in positions of power and authority, because we’re trying to seek justice, trying to do the things God calls us to do (see 2 Cor 4:16 and its context, including 4:7-12).
  • Doing good. Galatians 6:9 could read “let us not become exhausted, or utterly spiritless, in doing good.” Trying to do good can be exhausting. Especially when people around us are not.
  • Seeing other people suffer, as the Ephesian church saw Paul suffer (from the verse we started with, Eph 3:13). Suffering is exhausting, not just for the person undergoing the suffering, but for everyone who cares about them as well. Not knowing the answers to our questions of “why?” or “where is God?” in it all can leave us utterly spiritless. Even hearing about the suffering of people we don’t know―especially when it’s unnecessary suffering, caused by powerful people’s and governments’ evil actions―can be completely wearying. 

It is Paul’s hope and prayer that God meets the people of the church in Ephesus in the midst of their total faintness, their complete exhaustion, their utter spiritlessness. For this reason Paul kneels before God (Eph 3:14).

May we, too, not be afraid to acknowledge and engage with utter spiritlessness―our own, and that of others. And may God meet us in our exhaustion, breathe life into our faintness, and lift up our failing hearts.

Gendered titles & getters-of-stuff-done

While reading the biblical books of Ephesians and Colossians in Greek, I have been struck by Paul’s repeated references to himself and others as διάκονος (pronounced de-ä’-ko-nos; it’s where we get the English word “deacon”):

  • Paul says that he has become a διάκονος of the good news of God’s promise in Jesus, according to the gift of God’s grace (Eph 3:6-7).
  • Paul calls his friend Tychichus a beloved brother and faithful διάκονος in the Lord (Eph 6:21).
  • Paul says that the Colossians heard the good news from his other buddy Epaphras, whom Paul describes as a beloved fellow servant and a faithful διάκονος of Christ (Col 1:7).
  • Paul says (again) that he has been made a διάκονος of the good news (Col 1:23).
  • Immediately after this, Paul calls himself a διάκονος of Christ’s body, which is the church (Col 1:24-25).
  • Paul mentions Tychichus again and calls him a beloved brother, faithful διάκονος, and fellow servant in the Lord (Col 4:7).

Different translations, in different places (the passages above as well as others), translate διάκονος as servant, minister, or deacon.

Danker et. al.’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (affectionately known as “BDAG,” which stands for the initials of the four main contributing scholars…not to be confused with a d-bag, which is something else :D) describes a διάκονος as “one who is busy with something in a manner that is of assistance to someone”; for example, “one who serves as an intermediary in a transaction,” or “one who gets something done, at the behest of a superior.”

So basically, a διάκονος gets *stuff* done. On someone else’s behalf. (Feel free to think of that when you read these passages from now on.)

I think I was struck by Paul’s descriptions of himself―and of other friends and fellow leaders whom he clearly likes and respects very much―as διάκονος, because it feels like such a humble term. When you are a διάκονος, you are doing something on behalf of another; carrying out another’s wishes; assisting someone else in achieving their goals, while perhaps putting your own goals on the back burner for a time. 

These are all things that have been historically, and are often in the present, relegated to women. They are things that are expected of women, often much more so than they are expected of men―however much churches and their male leaders might talk a big game about servant leadership. 

Because of this, I’m surprised and glad to see that Paul is proud to apply the term to himself and to his male friends. He doesn’t mind seeing himself as a getter-of-stuff-done on behalf of the good news of God’s promise; on behalf of Jesus; on behalf of the church.

When we call someone a “minister” these days―at least for those who hold some sort of respect for the church and its titles, and I don’t particularly blame those who don’t―it’s a term of honor, leadership, respect. Some churches balk at the idea of female ministers; others (well, more precisely, the same ones, plus a whole bunch more) balk at the idea of LGBTQ+ ministers. 

People and churches who find their place in the more conservative streams of Christianity often end up doing a great deal of verbal gymnastics to try to delineate which roles and titles are available to women (and/or LGBTQ+ people) and which ones are not. Some churches want to allow women and/or LGBTQ+ people to be deacons, but not pastors; children’s program directors, but not ministers; or teachers of other women, but not elders who make decisions on the behalf of the entire church.

Paul’s use of διάκονος―servant, minister, and all-around getter-of-stuff-done―to describe himself pushes back against these odd distinctions churches sometimes draw. 

Paul was a gifted pastor who saw himself as a διάκονος, a deacon. He was a director or co-director of many ministries who saw himself as a διάκονος, a minister. He was a man willing to be taught by women and recognize their leadership―women like Phoebe, whom Paul also calls a διάκονος in Romans 16:1.

Distinctions like deacon vs pastor, director vs minister, or teacher vs elder have been manufactured by subsequent generations of Christians; they are not part of the mindset in which Paul and others wrote the parts of the New Testament that people look to for guidance in these things. 

I’m not exactly someone who would try to make Paul a feminist by modern standards (as much as I might wish he had been), but I do think it’s very much worth pointing out the (many) places where he pushes back, even just a bit, against the particular brands of patriarchy and misogyny so prevalent in his own time and culture―in the hope that this might help us learn to push back against the particular brands of patriarchy and misogyny so prevalent in our own time and culture.

And so, I like that Paul isn’t afraid to name himself and his fellow bros as διάκονος. 

(As a bit of a side note, I’m wary of translations that make gendered choices around how to translate διάκονος in different places. For example, the KJV, ESV, and NASB all translate διάκονος as “minister” when applied to Paul in Eph 3:7, but “servant” when applied to Phoebe in Romans 16:1. Paul didn’t make this distinction; why would we?)

Here’s to breaking down the false distinctions we tend to set up in order to justify discriminatory attitudes and practices.

Here’s to powerful religious leaders like Paul learning―often slowly and painfully, I’m sure―to be a διάκονος: to get stuff done on behalf of something (the good news), someone (Jesus), and some ones (the collections of people who make up church communities) other than themselves.

Here’s to churches thinking more about honoring the gifts and the faithful service-ministry of women and LGBTQ+ people, and less about restricting them, controlling them, and limiting how they are allowed to lead or what titles they are allowed to have.

I think that Paul―the self-proclaimed διάκονος―would approve.

Grace overflows into us

In a lot of translations, Ephesians 1:7-8 reads something like this: “In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us” (NIV, emphasis added). 

When I was translating, I came up with this: “In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the sending-away of trespasses, according to the wealth of [God’s] grace which [God] abounded into us” (emphasis, again, added).

There are a few things I thought were interesting here.

First, “riches” vs “wealth”: it’s not a big difference, but for some reason I like the idea of God having a “wealth” of grace. Perhaps it has a different feel from “riches”―less of a pile of gold vibe, and more of a vast endless ocean vibe?

Or maybe I just liked it because I’ve heard the other translation before, and sometimes it’s nice to put things a little differently. It helps it feel fresh, and helps my brain not to fall asleep while reading.

Second, the word translated as “lavish”―περισσεύω―has to do with abounding, with overflowing. The sense is that the subject (in this case, God) is so rich―or has such an abundance of something―that it exceeds measurement. It overflows. 

Which is kind of gross if we’re talking about money―like a person hoarding lots and lots of money (going back to that piles of gold vibe)―but kind of awesome when we’re talking about grace. About goodwill, favor, joy.

What I really thought was interesting, though, is the idea that God’s grace overflows―God’s grace abounds―into us. 

I’m not quite sure why the connecting word εἰς tends to be translated in this verse as “on,” rather than its much more common use, “into.” But I like the thought that perhaps God abounds grace not just on us, but into us.

“Lavished on” kind of makes it sound like we’re just passive recipients in this interaction. Grace flows onto the outside of us, like a shower that washes away our sins. And then the grace keeps flowing…elsewhere. Maybe it goes back to God, or something.

I like the translation “overflowed into” because I like to think that, even though there is perhaps an aspect of God’s grace that washes over us like a cleansing shower, there is also an aspect of God’s grace that goes into us. Grace doesn’t just wash our sins away from the outside but enters in to actually change us, to make us (more) full of the kind of grace that God is full of.

The language “into” helps me think of God’s grace as something to internalize. Something that can become a part of who we are. Something to embrace and hold onto and make an integral part of the way we interact with other people and this world.

To make the difference between “lavished on” and “overflowed into” more concrete, let’s think about the scenario in which I, as a white person, realize that I have a racist thought or attitude, or that a co-worker said something racist and I didn’t speak up about it. 

Grace “lavished on” me, in this case, means that I can pray and be forgiven and I don’t have to feel guilty about these things anymore. And then I can go on with my life unchanged, not trying to make any of these wrongs right. I know God will keep lavishing grace on me as many times as I need it.

Grace overflowing into me, on the other hand, means that grace does not just absolve my guilty conscience but perhaps may also show me a better way of living.

Grace may enable me to begin to notice and root out these racist attitudes in myself.

Grace may help me have a more gracious and humble posture toward others so that I can drop my defensiveness and learn.

Grace may prod me to look for ways to right these wrongs where possible―maybe, for example, it’s not too late to have a conversation with the co-worker who said something racist.

Grace may empower me to speak up in the moment the next time a similar thing happens.

May God not just “lavish grace on” but also “abound grace into” our lives, churches, communities, and world. In this time of wider recognition of anti-Blackness among white and other non-Black communities, God knows we need this kind of grace: the kind of grace that doesn’t just make us feel better about ourselves, but that actually has the power to change us.

Predestination is not that interesting

Over the last couple years of studying Greek―three quarters at Fuller and then studying on my own since then―my vocabulary has reached the point where I know every word that is used at least ten times in the New Testament. 

So, when I translate, I tend to plug along until I come across a word or two I’m not familiar with, and then I hit up my old friend blueletterbible.org for help. Sometimes I translate merrily away on my own for several verses at a time (I see you, John―as far as New Testament authors go, he tends to be the easiest to read); sometimes there are several words within just one verse that I need to stop and look up (oh hello, Paul).

I share this just to give a bit of context for an observation that struck me recently as I translated the first chapter of the book of Ephesians. 

The observation is this: I was surprised to notice that I had to look up the meaning of the word προορίζω, often translated as “predestine.” As in, “in love [God] predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:5, NIV). 

(The “sonship” part doesn’t actually need to be gender-specific…but that’s another issue for another time. Thanks, NIV.)

I was surprised that I didn’t know the word―surprised that it’s used in the New Testament less than ten times (to be precise, it’s used a whopping total of six times)―because it’s kind of a crucial word in a lot of people’s theology. I wonder how much air time it gets in a lot of churches, seminaries, etc.―whether arguing for it or reacting against it―compared to how much it’s actually spoken of in Scripture.

In προορίζω’s six appearances in Scripture, the sense is that God has determined (at least some) things before they happen. Or, God has (at least in some cases) set some limits in place and holds what happens within those limits. Or that God, existing in eternity, not bound by the ways we think about time, has said that some things will or won’t happen, and that’s how it is.

This is a fairly innocuous way of putting it. I don’t think many people who believe in God would disagree with these things. It’s a fairly weak way of putting it, compared to what Protestant reformer John Calvin wrote about when he wrote about predestination, and what many churches staunchly believe today―but that’s the point. Why would we both speak of predestination more strongly than the apostle Paul does and put so much more emphasis on it than Paul does? 

Maybe this observation is just interesting to me because I’ve never been terribly interested in debating about predestination vs free will, or Calvinism vs Arminianism, or what have you. (I fit in really well in seminary…) 

It all seems like a lot of unnecessary distinctions, and perhaps sometimes an unwillingness to hold and honor the complexities and paradoxes of life as the complexities and paradoxes that they are.

So maybe I’m just reading my own biases and interests (or lack thereof) into the observation that προορίζω isn’t used very often in Scripture. But maybe it’s significant that the writers of the New Testament were perhaps not all that interested in it, either. 

Maybe Christians would be better off spending less time arguing about predestination and more time pursuing, with focus and urgency, the things the New Testament writers speak of many times more often―for example, justice (δικαιοσύνη, often translated righteousness, used 93 times) and peace (εἰρήνη, used 92 times). You know, the kind of words seminary students learn in first quarter Greek, because that’s how crucial they are to the message of God in the New Testament.

Here’s to getting more interested in the things the New Testament writers were interested in, and less interested in the things they found less interesting.