Always try your best to find the cultural context. In this case, it is Aristotle’s Household Codes, for which what Paul and co. say is a HUGE contrast.
Here is what Aristotle taught in a nutshell:
Law and order depends on the relationships in the household, as that is the smallest unit 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.
1-2. 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. 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
3-4. 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.” Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. Eph 6:1-4
5-6. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. .
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 and Paul had bigger fish to fry.
Because Paul needed to get past the censors who did a 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 blanks” based on their 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.
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FOOTNOTE from Charis
I wanted to point out this additional related resource on the structure of the passage in Ephesians 5 Household Code in Ephesians
Choosing an excerpt from so much great material was challenging. Here is a little taste:
But there is another very pragmatic reason for this instruction. Roman authorities are already suspicious of this bizarre Jesus movement were people of different status, ethnicity, and condition of servitude, meet together for worship and call each other brother and sister. They worship some crucified nobody from the backwaters of Judea yet refuse to worship Roman gods along with their own god. The husband was the head of the household in that he was the member that represented the household to the world. The wife behaving in ways that were dishonorable to the husband would bring reproach not only to the wife but to the husband and the entire household. It would fuel the suspicion of detractors and hamper the witness of the church. Therefore, a wife being subject to her husband was missional in that it rejected the status obsession of the Romans while avoiding giving needless offense to the culture.
The power of the metaphor is this: In submitting to her husband she is submitting to herself as well. Remember that “the two have become one.” The head and body are fused as one and of course she wants the head of the fused body to receive honor. It is her head! The idea of literal human being with a body that purposely does things to make its head dishonorable is ludicrous at several levels.
So in case husbands didn’t get the whole sacrifice thing, Paul makes it unmistakably clear:
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27 so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind — yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish.
Husbands love your wives to the point of death. This is the minimum standard. This is the polar extreme of “husbands rule your wives for the sake of preserving the social order.” Then Paul presents a chiasmus for husbands:
WIFE AS BODY 28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies.
LOVE BODY He who loves his wife loves himself.
HEAD/BODY UNITY 29 For no one ever hates his own body,
SUSTAIN BODY but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it,
WIFE AS BODY just as Christ does for the church [his wife/bride], 30 because we are members of his body.
At the center of chiasmus is the absurd notion of a human being with a head who conceives of itself as separate from its body for whom it holds nothing but contempt. It is not organically possible, particularly when you keep in mind that according to Greek anthropology the head does not control reason and action. You might as well say your foot has developed its own will and hates the rest of the body.
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