Back in the day when I was still a volunteer youth pastor, we were working our way through Ephesians and it fell to me to teach chapter 6. As I began reading and thinking about the passage, I was disturbed and irritated. Now, before anyone starts thinking about disfellowshipping me for being irritated at scripture, let me just say that whenever that happens, I find that my faith is deepened and my understanding is expanded as I pray and think my way through it.
I was disturbed because of the first nine verses. Heck, I couldn’t help but include verses from the previous chapter, starting in 5:22, which are along the same lines. These verses say, to summarize poorly, “Wives submit to your husbands in everything; husbands love your wives as Christ loves the church. Children, obey your parents; fathers, don’t exasperate your kids. Slaves obey your masters; masters, be good to your slaves.” Okay, these admonishments are not so bad, it seems, except that they have been used and distorted by people over time to justify evils–specifically, the oppression of women and the perpetuation of slavery. And, in each of these relationship sets, Paul chooses to address the disenfranchised first. Rhetorically, this organization suggests that Paul’s priority is getting his behavior advice to women, children, and slaves. As if they needed any more rules or restrictions about how to live.
This is not what I want Paul to do. I want Paul to gratify my desire for social justice by saying, “Husbands, treat your wife as an equal and fight for her rights! Parents, put your child’s needs before your own! Masters, free you slaves and pay them a good wage for their work!” But, of course, that’s not what Paul says. He doesn’t argue for women’s rights or improved conditions for children, or even for the abolition of human trafficking.
Instead, he tells people how to act better in their current situation. He’s no revolutionary, that Paul.
But then, I remembered that when Jesus was beginning His ministry, many people were disappointed in Him because they wanted a Messiah who would throw off the mantle of the Roman Empire in dramatic fashion and free the Jews. And Jesus wasn’t really concerned with the empire or politics or social structures. He was concerned with people and souls.
As I thought about that, I realized that the same is true for Paul in Ephesians 6. What he says in these verses is not revolutionary. It wasn’t even new or particularly radical. He’s not looking to overhaul the system. Instead, what he’s calling for is a revolution in the life of each individual. He’s not going to overturn the social hierarchy, but rather individual hearts, minds, and lives.
Paul knows that at the end of a person’s life, it’s not going to matter whether a woman’s husband was a tyrant or a child’s parents were unfair, or even if that person was a slave. In other words, it’s not going to matter what other people did in that person’s life. What’s going to matter is what she did, how she lived (I’ve decided you can forgive me for using the feminine pronoun as universal here). These verses are not about oppression or equality. They are about us each being concerned with ourselves–how we live and who we are. We can never control what other people do, and we can only rarely control our situation in life. In fact, the only thing we ever really have control over is how we respond to the people around us. Paul calls us all–oppressed and oppressors–to lives of integrity, in which we are primarily concerned with how we are living our own lives rather than how others are living theirs.
As this understanding of scripture dawned on me, I realized why Paul would call people to a revolution that takes place in our own hearts, at the spirit level. He explains it in the second half of the chapter; “For our fight,” he reminds us, “is not against flesh and blood.” People are not our enemies because people are not the source of evil in the world. Human actions are merely symptoms of the evil that exists in what Paul calls “the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (vs. 12). And although I think we are also called to fight those forces on a large scale at times, we are certainly always called and all capable of fighting evil in our own lives.
And one of the best ways that I can fight evil in my own life, one way that I can keep the forces of darkness from creeping into my heart and mind, is to live a life of integrity that is characterized by love and actively sow peace and harmony in my relationships–whatever they may be. Because the forces of darkness at large in this world cannot be overcome unless they are first stopped in my own life. I cannot expect the world to change unless I am changing. I think that’s what Paul is talking about in those first verses in Ephesians. He’s not upholding or overturning oppressive social systems either one; rather, he’s suggesting a way of relating to one another that isn’t about hierarchies but is about self-sacrificing love, and that is what paves the road to the Kingdom of Heaven where there is no darkness.