The Teachings, Part Seven
Paul teaches the Ephesians, Philemon, Colossians, and Philippians.
Paul's letter to the Ephesians has as its primary theme the topic of relationships in Christianity. When we are saved we become "dead" to sin and "alive" to God; Jews and Gentiles no longer have a wall of separation between them, though neither becomes the other; we all relate to every other believer as a spiritual sibling. And notice in a well-known passage, Eph. 2:8-10, that we are saved to do good works, not that we do good works to be saved. It is we who are the spiritual Temple, rooted in love, such that there is no more need for a physical one. And note that Jesus, as the Cornerstone, is not on the roof but at the lowest point, supporting the rest of the building— something for advocates of hierarchy to consider.
It is impossible to read this letter without being impressed with the importance of humility and service. And as with the analogy of the human body, the one of a building shows that there is no hierarchy in the individual bricks, unique though each of them is. As with what Jesus had said about "not so with you", this arrangement is the complete opposite of that of the world. But in spite of that, some read Paul's list in 4:11 and see a chain of command, even though the purpose stated in the very next verse is for them to build up and equip all the people, with the goal of us all reaching unity in faith and knowledge. Sadly, most of our so-called Christian education never produces this ever-increasing knowledge, or we would have many teachers by now.
It is in Eph. 4:15-16 that we see confirmation of the idea that the head is seen as the source of life for the body, not as the boss; the head and body are one flesh. This is a common illustration of unity in Paul's letters, as the context in each case testifies. So when he describes the husband as the head of the wife in chapter five, he is speaking of unity of substance, not a chain of command. Unity and cooperation fill the letter, and this is the context of the passage we will now examine that has been a serious source of division in the Body.
Beginning in vs. 18 we see the beginning of a list, because the structure is "Be filled… talking… singing… giving thanks… supporting one another." Each of those phrases depends upon vs. 18 for its subject, and each phrase is a description of how we behave if we are filled with the Spirit. The last one, "supporting one another", is the Greek word hupotasso1, and once again it has nothing to do with an enforced chain of command but a voluntary support. Does not Jesus support the whole building? Yes, He rules it as God, but He also came down to our level in order to support— that is lift up— His bride.
Verse 22 is part of the same sentence and has no verb form at all, but simply adds "wives, to your own husbands, as to the Lord". Paul will continue the list, but he stops to elaborate on this point. Note first of all the curious addition of "own". After all, who else's husband should a wife be supportive of or attached to? And why is there no balancing command for husbands, per Paul's custom, since they are not excluded from the governing statement, "supporting one another"? This is one of those places where knowledge of history has direct bearing on our interpretation of a passage.
Abuse of wives was a common practice. In fact, wife abuse was such a problem that in the early first century A.D., the Emperor Augustus devised a system called "marriage without hand" (sine manu) to protect women from husband abuse. The law provided that the woman and her dowry remained under the jurisdiction of her father's family. A woman could be taken back by her family and married to another man if the husband mistreated her too severely. The law was intended to reduce the divorce rate and stabilize family life, but in fact only contributed to further instability in marriage. An historian of the first century claimed that "the only enduring relationship a married woman had was the one with her blood relatives;" not her husband… Marriage instructions were directed almost exclusively to the wife. She is to defer to the wishes of her husband, to worship his gods, to have no friends of her own, to understand and forgive his sexual relations with courtesans and men.
Now we know why Paul added the word "own". The law was for a woman to be attached to her father, but Paul is telling Christian wives to be attached to their husbands, and he appeals to our unity with Jesus as the comparison. We left the world to become one with Jesus, and so contrary to the law, Christian women must leave their fathers and unite with their husbands. There was no need to say this to Christian men. In obvious contrast, were this a new law Paul was instituting, there would have been laws for both men and women.
Now for the elaboration on this item in the list. As always, Paul uses the body analogy to talk about unity, and he compares Jesus being the source of the ekklesia with the man being the source of the woman.3 The reference to us as Christ's body is obviously a metaphor, so we know the reference to the woman as the body is also a metaphor. And as we learned before, when the Greeks used "head" as a metaphor, it meant source or face, not boss. We cannot inject the divinity of Jesus into this head/body illustration. And so when we read vs. 24, which is Paul's repetition4 of vs. 22, we must remember that the idea is of attachment and unity, not hierarchy.
With what we know about the historical situation, we can now understand more fully what Paul says to husbands in vs. 25-33 (another pericope, per previous note). Sandwiched between the statements about the requirement for a husband to love his wife as he loves himself are statements drawing from common experiences to convince husbands of how natural it should be to so love their wives. We see that Paul goes to great effort to emphasize this requirement, and the reason is because of what he had just said to wives. Since they were not to run back to their fathers for protection from abuse, Paul had to tell husbands about their side of this command. Without it, wives would be at the mercy of men whose culture gave them the right to beat and even kill their wives, and to cheat on them with impunity. So we do have balance in this: the wife is to be devoted to her husband as she is to the Lord, rather than to her father, and so the husband is not to mistreat his wife but to love her as Christ loves the ekklesia.
But we must emphasize the fact that it is the love of Christ, not His divine authority, that the husband is to have. Paul is not telling husbands that they too have the power to make their wives holy, to cleanse them by washing and the Word, or to present them to God without flaw. Paul is simply listing things Christ did for all of us, His Body; he is most assuredly not equating men with Christ. Amazingly, it is this passage which is used to argue that men are bosses over their wives, and that a husband plays the role of Father to his wife's role of Son! Every believer is to follow the example of the humility of the Son; men are not excluded. Not once are any of us told to play God to another believer. And it is disgusting to try and model the husband/wife relationship after a parent/child relationship. It should go without saying that a wife is not her husband's child. The fact that such obvious things do have to be spelled out is a testament to the depths to which Christian theology has sunk.
Then Paul continues the list with instructions to children, parents, slaves, and masters. And we should note that the word translated "master" is identical to the one typically translated "lord". The word translated "slaves" is doulous, as opposed to diakonos, the difference being that doulos referred to the lowest of slaves, specifically the low-level rowers in a galley. This was hardly a position of honor and respect! Yet that is what a true slave of Jesus is, an under-rower, the lowest of the low. These are the ones Jesus said would be greatest in the kingdom of Heaven, and they are not found up on the bridge steering the ship, wearing titles and being saluted! Any believer who vies for that position is a usurper.
Paul's next letter was to Philemon, and once again we see that he does not pull rank but instead makes a request, asking to cash in on a favor. It's actually a little amusing the way Paul twists Philemon's arm, playing a sort of Jewish mother guilt game. But of course the point is that even when Paul has every right to boss someone, he never takes advantage of it.
Now to the letter to the Colossians. Once again we encounter the head/body metaphor, and once again we see the view that the body finds its life in the head, which came first. But he will say more about that shortly. In chapter two he warns against smooth talkers who would lead them astray, and note the details in vs. 8 about high-sounding philosophy and human traditions, which are worldly. But typical translations of vs. 10 would have us believe that there is such a thing as "head over", which would contradict what we know about the Greek metaphor. But the actual vocabulary is this:
who is the head of-every rule [arche] and authority [exousia]
Where is the word for "over"? It is not there. The phrase is "head of", not "head over". So the meaning here is not that Jesus is the boss over every other boss, even though we know that to be the case, but that Jesus is the originator and source of all rule and authority. This is, as we must carefully note, in the context of unity and identification with Jesus, who as Paul goes on to say, has made a spectacle of those rulers, putting them on parade as a laughingstock. Again I ask those who crave rule over others: is this what you really want? It really is what you are asking for.
After all that about what Jesus has done for us and how we have been united with him, Paul refers back to it with "therefore" to show that it is the reason for our freedom and equality. Jesus did away with the old lines of authority and oppression, such that now, in Him, we are not to be put back under them in any way. Yet in spite of these explicit prohibitions, there is much effort made to judge believers in "what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day". Why, in complete disregard of scripture, do these controllers prefer the shadow over the reality (vs. 17)? And how many cults and false religions have grown from the very thing Paul warns about in vs. 18 concerning those who claim to have been visited by angels? Such teachers are not connected to the Head and thus are not part of His Body. All those "do nots" Paul lists have been turned into "do's" by Christian leaders throughout history.
As with Gal. 3:28, Paul repeats in 3:11 that in Jesus there are to be no divisions by race, class, or anything else. If we were to choose one phrase to sum up the teachings of Paul concerning the community of believers, it would surely be "unity in the Spirit". He goes on to list more of the "one anothers", emphasizing our equality as well. Yet the controllers will still read vs. 18 in isolation, as if Paul has never mentioned the relationship between husband and wife before. They claim that since Paul only told wives to hupotasso and husbands to agapao, that this means husbands do not hupotasso and wives do not agapao! But he never made any disclaimers or exceptions in his many references to unity and equality, nor did Jesus grant exemption to anyone in the "not so with you" command. All believers must love; all must esteem others as better; all must support and unify. Paul is merely giving emphasis where there tends to be a problem.
The word translated "obey" for children and slaves is hupakouo, which as we learned before5 means to listen to or answer to. Why are these words being translated into English in a way that gives the reader the impression of blind subservience? Ask the controllers.
In his letter to the Philippians, the first thing Paul does is to identify himself as a doulos. How many leaders in Christendom would follow his example in practice? The test would be to see if their "service" would change if we took away the titles, offices, recognition, respect, salaries, and followers. And this time, along with the whole ekklesia, Paul does mention the guardians and servants. But again, they are not addressed exclusively.
While vs. 6 is typically cited in the matter of assurance of salvation, Paul isn't even talking about that here. He has just praised the people for their partnership in the gospel, which cannot refer to salvation because salvation is something that happens at a point in time, not an ongoing process. Spiritual growth, on the other hand, certainly is a lifelong process, and we have work to do along the way. This is what Paul means by God finishing what He started.
Verses 15-18 is a good passage to remember when discussing what to do with people who teach correct doctrine but live in a way that denies the gospel. Paul is happy that the truth is preached, but from all he has written we cannot think this means we must never criticize anyone as long as their message is Biblical. Certainly Paul would not recommend keeping such people in the fellowship, as we recall his instructions to the Corinthians. Bad behavior can be grounds for exclusion, but Paul would not chase them down outside the fellowship and tell them to be silent. Remember that we are to judge those among our own group.
As is his habit, Paul continues in ch. two with the message of unity, equality, love, and humility. If we truly value others as better than ourselves, we will not seek to rule over them or demand compliance with our personal convictions. This is where we are given one of the most powerful passages on what Jesus came to do, and it is a lesson in extreme humility. This is what those with power or privilege are to do; this is how we follow Jesus. He stooped down to lift us up, and served those He created. He did not jealously cling to that which was rightfully His, but laid it aside for a greater purpose, that of redeeming us.
But in vs. 12 we see yet another instance where hupakouo is translated as "obey". Can anyone have any familiarity with the letters of Paul and think he suddenly decided to demand obedience? And would he also tell them to work for salvation, having made it more than clear that salvation is a gift? No, Paul has neither changed nor contradicted himself, and he even adds in vs. 13 that whatever work is being done, is being done by God. Salvation, which happens at a point in time, is then worked out, not for; our spiritual growth is the lifelong process that happens after salvation.
In chapter three Paul specifically warns against legalists, people who look on the flesh and want control over others. This sort of attitude angers Paul, as we can see in his calling them names! They are enemies within and they must be strongly opposed. As Paul has had to do before, he repeats the fact that if credentials were anything, he'd have them all. But, in the crudest possible terms, Paul now considers such credentials to be nothing but a pile of manure (the literal Greek meaning). His righteousness is not his own and neither is ours, so no one can brag about it. And again, in vs. 12-14 we see that Paul speaks of striving for a goal to win a prize, which cannot refer to a salvation that is a gift received by faith. When preachers keep their listeners in fear of not striving enough, of not doing enough, instead of motivating them with a desire to please their Savior, they show their ignorance of the nature of salvation, as well as the fact that works follow, not cause, salvation.
In vs. 17 Paul states the need for us to follow his example. Again, how is lording over in line with this? Paul never acted like a boss or pulled rank, so who is anyone else to do so? We are to keep a sharp eye on those who model the humility we see in scripture, and to oppose any who do not follow that example.
In the last chapter Paul mentions two women who are evidently arguing about something. Would their names be in scripture if this is just an ordinary dispute? Or, considering the context, can we presume that these women are elders whose examples are becoming marred by their differences? Paul calls them co-workers, so I think there is contextual support for this interpretation.
We have nearly completed our tour of the scriptures as they relate to the matter of power and control in Christianity, and so far we still have not encountered any support for such a thing. In fact, there has been much of the opposite, through both teachings and examples. If Paul really were trying to pass himself off as an authority, rule maker, boss, alpha, or any such thing, he has done the poorest job of it. His message is one of unity and equality, not hierarchy and its inherently divisive nature.
- 1 see The Teachings, Part One
- 2 http://www.directionjournal.org/article/?653;
- 3 the Greek words for man/husband are identical, as are the words for woman/wife
- 4 vs. 22-24 form what is called a pericope or contained unit of thought, with beginning and ending statements that act like bookends
- 5 see A New Creation