Ephesians 5:21- Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Paul offers tips for healthy family relationships as he brings his letter to a close. He talks about husbands and wives, parents and kids, slaves and masters–calling for mutual respect in every relationship.

Husbands and wives. Countercultural in this male-run society, Paul ask husbands to submit to their wives-and wives to submit to their husbands. It’s not just blind obedience he’s asking for. He wants husbands and wife each to lovingly put the other first. Oddly, he’s not asking them to do it out of respect for the person. It’s out of respect for the Person.

It’s a metaphor. Paul says that when husbands and wives do this, they’re imitating Jesus . When the wife follows the lead of her husband in areas of his responsibility, she’s doing what the church does: submitting to Christ. And when the husband treats his wife with loving devotion, he’s imitation Christ, who “loved the church” and “gave up his life for her.” Healthy families don’t spin around arguments over who’s the boss. They spin around obedience to the new commandment Jesus gives: “Love each other” (John 13:34).

Parents and Kids. In advising the kids, Paul could have used a stick. Maybe an ancient Bible quote such as, “Anyone who dishonors father or mother must be put to death” (Exodus 21:17). Instead, he uses a carrot. Two, in fact.

  • “This is the right thing to do” (Ephesians 6:1).
  • “If you honor your father and mother, ‘things will go well for you, and you will have a long life on the earth’ ” (Ephesians 6:3, citing Exodus 20:12).

Even in Roman times, fathers have the power of life and death over their young children. Yet, staying true to his theme of mutual respect, Paul urges fathers not to exploit their authority by antagonizing the children.

Masters and Slaves. How could Paul advise anything but “Masters, free your slaves just as Christ has freed you from slavery to sin”? That’s what we want to hear Paul say. Instead, he tells slaves to obey their masters–“with deep respect.” You’d think he was a slave master, if not for the advice that follows: “Masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Don’t threaten them; remember, you both have the same Master in heaven, and he has no favorites” (Ephesians 6:9). He’s one smart apostle. When most of us try to change things, we generally jump right to the end of the process, telling people how to behave. But Paul tells them how to think. He nudges their attitude toward godliness, knowing that the appropriate behavior will follow. Slavery was usually much different in Roman times than it was in the United States. Most slaves were freed by age 30. Many actually sold themselves into slavery to advance economically, rather than struggle on in poverty. Supported by a richer person, many were able to learn a trade, save money, raise a family, and even buy property. That’s not to excuse the exploitation. And it’s certainly not to embrace the philosopher Aristotle’s take on slavery: “A slave is a man’s property. . .a living tool.” But perhaps it helps us understand why Paul didn’t go further in trying to change the social structure. His advice to slaves makes even more sense when we consider what turned up in the garbage dump of a disappeared city in Egypt. The city was Oxyrhynchus. What turned up was a collection of writings called the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus, which includes a lot of information about the rise of Christianity during Roman times. One document reports that a large group of slaves was set free because of the faithful devotion they showed to their master. As Oxford lecturer Dirk Obbink describes this ancient report, Christianity “starts our as a small social phenomenon, then just takes over everything. . . .It’s all reflected in the papyrus.”

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