Week of Dec. 30: The examples Christ sets in his love for the church
By Helen and Rev. Sam Rogers
Week of Dec. 30
Lesson Scripture: Ephesians 5:21–6:4
As Christians in the 21st century, this passage seems to be, at first glance, totally at odds with our values and practices. We trust the reader of the scripture and the lesson will take time to discern how progressive Paul was for the culture in which he lived and witnessed to his faith in Christ. May we be just as faithful in applying our faith to the issues of our day!
The student must be careful where the section of scripture begins. If, in reading Ephesians, you put verse 22 as the starting point, you have a problem. The structure of the Greek makes it imperative to phrase the passage beginning with verse 21. In doing so, the entire lesson will be clearly seen as one about the family and the mutual relationships that exist under Christ. The Common English Bible (CEB) has it right – the key verse 21 is truly the key. Everyone – husbands, wives, children, parents (and in verses 5ff, slaves) – is under submission to Christ! All the familial relationships are Christ-centered and Christ-focused. The key verse says: “And submit to each other out of respect for Christ.”
When reading any of the letters of the New Testament, keep in mind the expectation was Jesus would return soon—very soon! With this eschatological (end-time) frame of mind, no one expected society’s structures to change. Thus male dominance, slavery, and a host of other practices were taken for granted. The major shift for the Christian was from dominance to love and nurture, following the example of Jesus. Thus the role of women (wives), men (husbands), children, and slaves was forever changed. As Paul wrote in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew or Greek (gentile), slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Each individual person is valued by God, regardless of status.
The distinctions society makes still cause havoc in our church relationships. Who are you most likely to invite to your Sunday school class or worship service—the new doctor or the Hispanic mowing your yard? The single mother in public housing or the traditional family of four in the neighborhood? The white or African American? As one writer says:
“Just as [first century Christians] did, we must think how to embody
our beliefs in our world. Our world continues to grant status and privilege
based upon social class, race, and sex. The church has to continually think
how to conduct its life so that it is known as a place that rejects the
values that grant favorable treatment to some within society. We
must show the oneness of all in the eyes of God by the ways we treat
those who are different.”
Let’s examine each relationship in turn. We believe there is significance in listing wives first. Yes, the word “submission” intrudes upon our sensitivities, but, please pause to see how it is used. The wife’s relationship to her husband is like that of everyone to Christ. Christology determines the relationship—not superiority—not intelligence, not physical strength, not society’s norms, but Christ! Remember verse 21—the key verse: “Submit to each other out of respect for Christ.” Yes, in the first century males dominated society, but Ephesians shifts the focus significantly. (In the USA males dominated until the 20th Century!) In this shift of emphasis, Ephesians was issuing a dramatic call for change from what was expected and practiced in the first century.
Okay, men—are you ready? The Pauline injunction is for husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her. Wow! Where’s the domination and superiority now? Christ died for the church. Complete self-sacrifice was His dominance. What wife would not dearly love to be loved that way? When one is loved totally and unconditionally, the beloved knows the lover has only the best in mind. There is no ulterior motive or agenda—just the very best.
The scripture now shifts the metaphor from Christ and the church, to how husbands take care of themselves. The assumption is made that everyone will look after themselves. Sometimes this assumption is false, but generally it is true. We bathe, we eat, we exercise, we go to the doctor—in other words we care for and nurture our bodies. In the same way, a husband is to look after and care for his wife as they would themselves. And this is more than just providing physical necessities—it includes spiritual and emotional food as well. The marriage allegory is used. As there is a great mystery of how the church, the bride of Christ, relates to Him, so there is in the marriage of a man and woman. Too often we think only of the physical, financial and practical role of marriage without seeing the divine plan at work. I have had the privilege of performing innumerable marriages over 50 years of ministry. This phrase is used in the service: “to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony, which is an honorable estate, instituted of God and signifying unto us that mystical union which exists between Christ and His Church.” This pattern still holds today—marriage is holy!
Finally, Paul speaks of children, their relationship to parents, and the parents’ relationship to their children. Honor and respect are due parents, as the Fifth Commandment declares. A parent is never to act in a way that demeans, hurts, humiliates or treats a child other than as a child of God. A child will learn how to love and be loved by watching their parents and the experiences they have in their family.
In our struggle to find a balance of love and duty in the family, we learn from Ephesians the best example is Jesus Himself. His love for the church is shown in all our relationships with mutual responsibility and sacrifice. Thus the family is Christ’s representative to the world.
“They will know we are Christians by our love.”