Ephesians Part Two: Deep Dive

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How many times have you heard it said, ‘Men are the head of the household; therefore, women must comply with every whim and desire of their husbands, it’s written right there in black and white in the Bible’? Or maybe, ‘The Bible condones slavery, therefore it’s irrelevant and dated document!’ These charges are usually met with a stunned face, unable to conjure an adequate response, or worse, an untrue rendering and application the author’s original and intended meaning. Ephesians 5:21-6:9, as well as other passages within Scripture (Colossians 3:18-4:1, Titus 2:1-10, 1 Peter 2:18-3:7), contain phrases and passages, which when left un-examined and un-tethered by critical analysis, are easy to misinterpret and then to port these misinterpretations into other parts of scripture, a person’s perspective on religion or even one’s worldview. To fully understand what Paul and Peter are saying in these portions of scripture, one must dive into the ancient Greco-Roman world.

It’s important to remember that every epistle that has ever been written has had a purpose. Whether it was to entertain, rebuke, send greetings from one family member to another, correct false teachings, to instruct, or even provide moral guidelines. No author writes from a vacuum.

There are texts and themes within Aristotelian and Platonic corpus regarding family order, known as household codes. These codes were almost exclusively directed to the head of the household, at this time, patriarchs or Paterfamilias. Jeffers writes, ‘By contrast, the New Testament passages listed above address wives, husbands, children, father, slaves and masters in the second person’. This is echoed even by Jewish philosophers and historians, who considered men to be justified in their absolute rule of their household, not dissimilar to the relationship between Emperor and his subjects. However, these codes ‘follow the same three areas of submission, the rationale, that all other household members were considered inferior by nature’. These codes were used to uphold principles that the culture of the time deemed virtuous and desirable. They helped society maintain order within families, which were at the time, the very fabric of society. With this in mind, let’s examine perspectives on what Paul was actually achieving within his writings and how he goes about redeeming these codes, and re-purposing them for usage in the Kingdom culture.

What some scholars believe Paul is doing in this passage (Ephesians 5:21-6:9) would have been scandalous and completely counter-cultural to the epistle recipients of the day. Every citizen or traveler within earshot of this epistle would have completely understood the expected Greco-Roman family structure and the implied hierarchy of relationships within those families. So, when Paul says things like, ‘Wives, submit to your husband, as to the Lord’. he is inherently flipping the system on its head by addressing the women first! Remember, equality between the sexes was not high on the socio-political agenda for this Jewish context. Paul then goes on to address the Paterfamilias of the time, and he calls them to no longer rule over their wives, but to ‘love their wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’. For the Paterfamilias, this required them to be led by the Spirit as Paul has previously mentioned and to submit their own life not just to their wives, but to their children, brethren and even slaves! So, what is dismissed as an act of diminution toward the value of women, children and the direct condoning of slavery, is actually a powerfully Christ-centred, Spirit empowered revolution and cry of exhortation from Paul, in place of the pre-existing codes that had so influenced the society. Paul and Peter use similar rhetorical approaches, aimed at communicating the notion of equality within the family of God regarding children and fathers, slaves, and masters and so on, calling all within families to mutual submission, obedience, and respect for one another, and ultimately God.

The point of this Deep Dive is less about debunking sexist, racial or even hierarchical prejudices (though this is important and should be done) and more about showing how context can drastically affect what is read, interpreted and applied by both scholars and everyday Christians. One needs to do this work carefully, humbly, and most importantly prayerfully, in an attempt to never misconstrue the Word of God.

This table is a visual representation of the scriptures that pertain to household codes, and instructions from Peter and Paul to their respective church congregations. Use it to check out the passages, or pick up a commentary or study Bible and jump in!


Further Reading:

The Greco Roman World of the New Testament Era – James, S. Jeffers

Families in the New Testament World: Households and House Churches – Carolyn Osiek and David L. Balch.

The New Testament in Its Literary Environment - David E. Aune



greco-roman world of the nt era

ephesians part two

next book: ruth

Following the TYB Schedule? Next up is the Book of Ruth!