EPHESIANS 5 INSIGHTS
by Don Johnson
In the study of Scripture, looking at cultural context can provide insight. In the case of Ephesians 5, Paul’s teaching contrasts with that of Aristotle’s Household Codes.
Here is what Aristotle taught in a nutshell:
Law and order depends on the relationships in the household, as that is the smallest group of people. These relationships should be as follows:
1. Master rules the slave.
2. Slave obeys the master.
3. Paterfamilias rules the child.
4. Child obeys the Paterfamilias.
5. Husband rules his wife.
6. Wife obeys her husband.
The paterfamilias was the family father, the closest we have in English is the Mafia “godfather” concept, he is the male who is in charge of the extended family and his word is absolute law, including ordering a wife to abandon a newly born child to die. No one in the family could take the paterfamilias to court, as it was just assumed that the paterfamilias would represent them, as Aristotle taught that they were considered extensions of his body and no one hurts their own body.
Compare the household code with Eph 5:
Do you see the HUGE differences in the verbs?
Also, Paul makes all the nouns plural.
1. Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men.
2. And masters, treat your Slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.Eph 6:5-9
3. Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.
“ Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”
4. Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. Eph 6:1-4
5. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.
6. Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her …However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. Eph 5
Another aspect of the historical context in which Paul is writing is that Rome was on the lookout for any group that told slaves to rebel, as they would eliminate that group. Being a slave society, they had a great fear of slave rebellion, as all slave societies do.
Paul is writing for 2 audiences, the censors and the believers. The censors were looking for anything that might be considered sedition, such as encouraging slaves to rebel. This was simply not tolerated by the state. Anyone who wrote such things, delivered a letter with such things, or kept a letter with such things could be considered seditious, a threat to order and killed.
Because Paul needed to get past the censors who did a quick surface reading, some who do only a surface reading come to conclusions that the censors would endorse, such as the US South slave owners in the 1850′s. We need to be careful not to do a similar thing. One of the keys to doing a deeper study is to realize that Paul was being very precice in some places and vague in others. The vagueness allowed each reader to “fill in the gaps” based on their own worldview and this allowed things to get past the censors, since they were looking for specific things.
Paul wrote some things that were very subversive to the existing Roman social order, yet they did not appear to be such on a surface reading and this was simply a brilliant accomplishment. Since the Christian recreation of the world was from the inside out, each believer in the body was given a charge to act in a more loving and just way; but in ways that did not appear to subvert Aristotle’s household codes.