Biblical Egalitarianism (Part 08) - Ephesians 5

08/05/2009 15:25


The book of Ephesians is divided evenly into two parts. In the first three chapters, Paul discusses our position in Christ, and in the second three, we learn how to live based on that position. Chapter 5—located in the heart of the second section on learning how to live—emphasizes the love that should characterize our lives. Paul begins urging us to imitate God and conduct our lives in love “as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” This phrase seems simple to grasp. Our love should be distinguished by the same kind of complete sacrifice of self that characterized Christ as he went to the cross. The statement, of course, does not mean that we should seek ways to die for Christ. Paul here emphasizes not the action, but the motivation of Christ—the desire to give of himself for the benefit of others. We know from John 15:13 that “greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.” And just so should the Christian conduct his or her life in that outward look toward giving for the benefit of others.

At first glance, verse 3 seems out of place. Verse 3 states: “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.” Paul has just introduced the theme of conducting our lives in Christ-like love, but then in verse 3, he immediately begins to argue against sexual immorality. If we limit ourselves to a surface-level read, it is passages like this that will make us think of the Bible as a reference book instead of a complete story. We can’t let the seemingly sudden change of topic shake us from understanding a cohesive context in which this fits.

Paul is not suddenly changing topics in order to lash out against someone’s illicit sexual exploits. Hold on to the theme. In the greater context, Paul is discussing how we conduct our lives based on our Christianity. Verses 1 and 2 emphasize the love that should characterize our lives. So Paul’s development in verse 3 is to contrast this loving, giving attitude with the world’s selfish living. Sexual immorality and impurity have an inward focus. In God’s pure and purposeful design of sex, the love God encourages between wife and husband in the ultimate human relationship highlights an attitude in which each seeks the benefit of the other. However, in the in the perversion of sexual immorality, the emphasis changes to highlight personal pleasure. That is why in this verse 3 Paul couples immorality and impurity with covetousness. Sexual immorality and covetousness would seem to have little in common without keeping in mind Paul's theme so that we connect the two as both having an inward focus. Covetousness is selfish ambition. Paul’s contrast, therefore, emphasizes the difference between real love (the outward look) and selfishness (an inward desire). He continues this distinction in the next few verses.

In verse 5 Paul states that the sexually impure will not inherit the kingdom of Christ and God. His meaning, of course, is not that anyone who has ever committed an impure sexual act will automatically be excluded from Christ’s covenant people and damned to hell. Rather, verse 6 explains for us that Paul’s intent is to show that God’s wrath on sin condemns those who are not of the household of God. The appeal then to Christians is to avoid acting in a manner that embodies the very reason God condemns the world to hell. We are to imitate Christ. We are to conduct our lives in the light of the Lord. We are to have that outward focus in love. “Wake up!” Paul calls to the Christian. Wake and live in the light! Christ shines on those who forsake the worldly walk in favor of Christ’s imitation. The concluding verses of this general point (vv.18-21) begin with a call to avoid drunkenness. Again, Paul’s argument is not centered on alcohol. Drunkenness is an inward, selfish concern. Paul admonishes us toward the outward attitude of love.

Beginning with verse 19, Paul employs a literary form called chiasm. Chiasm is so named because its structure looks like the Greek letter chi, which is written as an X. Like the first line drawn for the X, the first point (or word or phrase or idea) begins the chiasm and will end the chiasm. The second point (the beginning of the second line drawn for the X) is after the first point initially, but ends up before the repetition of the first point at the end. Okay, if you are not familiar with chiasms, I’ll grant that my explanation may not be very clear. Let me illustrate with a nursery rhyme.

Everyone is familiar with the nursery rhyme Hickory Dickory Dock.

Hickory Dickory Dock     (1st element)

     The mouse ran up the clock     (2nd element)

                 The clock struck one     (3rd and most important element)

     The mouse ran down     (repeat 2nd element)

Hickory Dickory Dock     (repeat 1st element)

This rhyme has five lines. In a chiasm, the first line or first idea matches or is similar to the last line or last idea. In this instance, the first and last lines are not only similar; they are exactly the same--Hickory Dickory Dock. The second line is associated with the second to last line. In the rhyme, the 2nd line has the mouse running up the clock, and the second to last line has the mouse running down the clock--associated ideas. Finally, the middle line, the most important element in a chiasm, is the clock striking one. The whole rhyme climaxes on the striking of the clock--the middle line. So the chiasm builds up to the mid point--the climax, and then it backtracks from the climax with ideas paralleling the buildup.

Of course, chiasms may be much more intricate involving several layers of elements. But they all start from an idea, continue on in development to a mid point, and then retrace their steps, offering reverse sequential repetition of the ideas. And the whole point of this literary device is to place special emphasis on that mid point idea.

The chiasm of Ephesians 5:19 through 21 involves love for others and for God. First, let's read those verses: "...addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ."

Now notice the ideas of the chiasm.

1st line (and 1st idea) – “Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,”

 2nd line (2nd idea) – “Singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart,”

3rd line (repeat 2nd idea) – “Giving thanks always and of everything to God…,”

4th line (repeat of 1st idea) – “Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

The first and last lines direct the outward look to one another. The interior lines direct the outward look to God. The importance of the chiastic form here helps us to understand what Paul means by “submitting to one another.” Submission could imply an authority/subordinate relationship. The one who is subordinate submits to the one who is in authority. But the chiasm shows that Paul’s intent for us here in submission is to exhort, encourage, and support other Christians. This is the exact point of his whole discussion so far. He urges us to a full, whole-hearted, Christ-like giving of ourselves for the benefit of others. Instead of a submission to an authority, we are to submit much like parents would submit for a severely ill child. The parents remove from consideration any selfish conduct as they submit their whole lives to the care of the child. In that example, we don’t understand the parents to consider the child an authority figure to whom they must submit. Their submission is removal of self-interest because of love. So ought we to remove self from our consideration as we submit to the welfare of each other. That is love in its purest form. Again, the definition of love is the desire to give of yourself for the benefit of another.

These first 21 verses of chapter 5 are the foundation, and they must inform our understanding of the rest of the chapter. The very next verse (v.22) is an injunction for the wife to submit to her own husband as to the Lord. We know first of all that Paul does not mean for the wife to submit in worship just as she worships the Lord. That would be idolatry. Therefore, we know that we must understand this charge of submisstion with limitations. The limiting consideration must coincide with Paul’s discussion so far throughout the chapter. The submission of the wife is a whole-hearted, self-sacrificial giving for the benefit of her husband—in other words, as we discussed, it is love in its purest form. Paul even continues in the next couple of verses to compare this submission/love to that which the church should show to Christ.

Next, Paul draws on the analogy of the head and body that he has just used in chapter 4. In chapter 4 Paul said in verses 15 and 16, “…speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” Paul’s analogy to the head and body is consistently the same care relationship that we discussed in I Corinthians 11 in the last summary. Paul is not putting forth an authority/subordinate relationship, but rather emphasizing the care-giving/vulnerable relationship we saw in I Corinthians. In chapter 5, he continues that analogy with regard to love submission. In the marriage relationship, the husband is analogous to the head and the wife is analogous to the body because the head gives care to the more vulnerable body.

This instruction for the husband reads as follows (vv. 25-27): "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so 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."

In verse 25, Paul turns his focus to the husband who must love his wife as Christ loved the church. Immediately we should think, “How did Christ love the church?” Paul supplies the answer: “He gave himself for it.” The same idea is presented here that Paul began with in verse 2 when he said, “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” It is the same idea that he has been discussing all along through chapter 5. Giving of oneself for the benefit of another is love, and the husband is to willfully and totally set aside his own selfish ambition for the benefit of his wife. In verse 31 Paul quotes from Genesis 2 the principle that the husband-wife relationship is the ultimate of human relationships. Through this marriage example, Paul brings both partners of this supreme human relationship into correspondence with his charge made at the very beginning of chapter 5 to “walk in love, as Christ loved us.”

Paul closes his comments on the marriage love relationship in verse 33 with very strong language. The husband is told to love his wife and the woman is told to respect her husband. The repetition here for the husband seems as if Paul is warning the husband that he better pay attention—the rightness of his marriage depends on this selfless outlook. The woman’s warning is equally strong as Paul tells her to respect (Greek-phoebeo) her husband. The rightness of her marriage depends on this selfless outlook.

In Ephesians 5, therefore, Paul is not arguing that a marriage should be an authority/subordinate relationship. That is a misunderstanding and dumbing-down of the passage and its intent. There is definite submission language here. But the submission is a submission of love--the giving of oneself for the benefit of another, and it is performed by both the husband and the wife. Paul is speaking of returning to the created ideal of a pure love relationship in which each partner lays selfish ambition aside for the glory of the other and the whole.