Fatherhood in Flux: Ephesians 5 in Changing Times
Pew Research, one of the largest sociological research groups in North America, surveyed mothers and fathers. Fifty-seven percent of fathers described being a father as “extremely important,” which was virtually identical to the women surveyed (58%). However, most of the moms surveyed said they did “a very good job” of raising their children; among the dads, just 39 percent said the same.
On the whole, fathers care about being fathers at the same rate as mothers care about being mothers, but a significant gap exists in how fathers feel about how they are doing at being fathers. Most fathers feel like they aren’t great fathers. Why is that?
I read an interesting article coming up to this father’s day by Daniel Engber from the Atlantic (I think the Atlantic writes probably the best articles on social issues out there, in my opinion). The article is entitled, “Why is Dad so Mad?” He writes,
Everybody knew that dads used to earn a living; that they used to love their children from afar; and that when the need arose, they used to be the ones who doled out punishment. But what were dads supposed to do today? In former times, the definition of a man was you went to work every day, you worked with your muscles, you brought home a paycheck, and that was about it… What it is to be a man now is in flux, and I think that’s unsettling to a lot of men. Indeed, modern dads were left to flounder in a half-developed masculinity: Their roles were changing, but their roles hadn’t fully changed.
They are left in a kind of lurch. Fatherhood is in a state of flux, retaining some conventional patterns but scrapping others.
I was reminded of this just this morning. My wife called me into the room. “What is it?” I said. She pointed to a spider on the wall. Apparently, in our marriage, it is the man’s job to kill the spider.
I jest, but many men feel seriously caught: if I work too much, as many jobs are demanding, this is no longer considered virtuous, and I am seen as a workaholic, neglecting my family.
If they work too little, society could perceive them as a deadbeat or lazy, particularly by the older generation that built and achieved so much.
Society used to value a man’s more forceful presence in discipline, but most parenting books have denounced harsher forms of discipline.
Women have made inroads in the workforce, but men have not gravitated the same way to homemaking or childcare, traditionally female roles.
There are increasingly fewer jobs that require physical strength. And increasingly, fewer fields of work are considered male careers.
It has left some men wondering: what do I contribute to my family or in my marriage? And this has many men feeling like they have lost their place in society and in the home. They don’t feel valued. They don’t feel what they do has value, or they don’t feel like they are successful in doing it. Fatherhood feels like it is in a state of flux.
In the wake of this, political groups have attempted to capitalize on this feeling of instability and nostalgia for the good old days. The movements by Jordan Peterson, who dies the existence of systemic sexism, or Joe Rogan and Tucker Carlson have tried to say that there is a war against masculinity wagered by feminists and liberals and other monsters under the proverbial bed of culture. These guys have made a lot of money saying what they are saying because this is a message a lot of men want to hear.
However, probably the more accurate explanation is that with the cost of living going up so much compared to what it was decades ago and wages not increasing in proportion, the idea of a single-income household that owns their own property can have a designated stay-home parent, is becoming extinct for the average Canadian, and with it that male role.
Culture is in a state of flux. And when people feel this unease, this displacement of identity, it is very easy to look for someone to blame.
For many Christians, this has caused many to recede into nostalgia, longing for the days when everyone went to church, or when there was prayer in schools, when there was allegedly no divorce, or when, allegedly, everything cost a nickel (why was everythin always a nickel, by the way?).
Nowadays, I’m nostalgic for when gas costs a dollar a litre.
The text I am going to read today is a text that has often been misused by Christians. It is a text we have so often read, wishing to get back to the way things used to be when fathers’ and husbands’ roles were clear and revered.
It is really one of the most important passages on being parents and spouses, as well as being fathers and husbands, in the New Testament, but we often forget that the Biblical writers were writing for matters in their own day. They were writing because their situations were in flux also. We forget that.
It is Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 5, what is often called the household code. I am going to first read this passage, but then we are going to ask some questions about what this means, both in the ancient context and what it means for us today:
21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.
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 splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 ‘For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ 32 This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33 Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 ‘Honour your father and mother’—this is the first commandment with a promise: 3 ‘so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.’ 4 And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; 6 not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7 Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, 8 knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free. 9 And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.
So, let me pause for a moment. Did some of those words make you uneasy a bit (particularly the submission and slavery parts)? Did some of those words sound agreeable (like the love parts)? I imagine most listeners will have mixed feelings reading this passage.
Perhaps you know this passage well. Maybe a pastor told you this is God’s pattern for marriage for today. Maybe you believe it is.
But, if this passage was giving us an obvious, clear, and timeless definition of marriage and parenting, why does it tell husbands to love their wives in order to make them holy and without blemish? Is Paul saying all women are unclean? Or is that what Jews assumed in that culture? May Paul is speaking in a way his audience would have understood.
It also says that wives should submit in everything. Should wives do that today? Aren’t there stories of women who did listen to their husbands and God was honoured, like Abigail or Rachel or Tamar. Maybe Paul is reacting to a certain circumstance woman in Ephesus face.
Sadly, this passage has been used to say to women that they cannot question or disagree with their husbands. It has been used almost like a club to clobber some people.
Maybe this passage brings up painful memories. I have dealt with women who were told that they had to submit to their abusive spouses because that is what this passage means. Let me be clear and say that whatever this passage means today, it does not mean that.
This passage also mentions slavery. It tells slaves to obey their masters with fear and trembling. I have heard some preachers say that this passage applies to bosses and employees today, but I just don’t think that is the case. There were day-labourers in the ancient world. But more importantly, as an employee with rights living in a country with employment laws, I just don’t think I should obey everything my boss says, let alone with fear and trembling.
But worse still, this passage has been used to justify slavery rather than the good news of God’s kingdom that Jesus announces: “freedom to the captive, that the oppressed can go free” (as he says in Luke 4).
For five years, I pastored the First Baptist Church of Sudbury, which had historic roots in the Social Gospel. The church historically led the charge for the miners of the city to have employment rights, safety standards, and eventually unions. They believe working to improve human life was an aspect of the kingdom of God. I think they were correct.
So, how do we understand this important passage today? How do we understand it as offering words that can build us up?
This will be a bit of a technical sermon (if you have not realized this already). I don’t know if you have met me, but I kinda like to go deep with my sermons. I do this because if we are going to become the fathers and husbands God wants us to be (and of course, this goes for all Christians as well), one vital way we get formed for that purpose is by meditating on God’s word, understanding it rightly, not in facile, careless ways.
Just like navigating what it means to be a man or a father in today’s world, God’s Word takes wisdom and work. So often, the church has assumed that the Bible is always so clear and straightforward it makes us ill-prepared to live in a world that isn’t.
Many want to go to the Bible to escape just how messy the world is, hoping to find a place that is black and white and clear, and there are some passages that are very clear, don’t get me wrong. But often, if you have read through the Bible, you see a lot of passages that cause you to have questions. Some that, at face value, don’t sound all that redemptive. In those cases, the path from what the words on the page say and what it means for us today is not straightforward.
Part of the reason for that is that the Bible was written not as an escape from the flux of history but written in its very midst. It was not written despite our humanity. It was written by humans for our humanity.
The Bible is a complex thing, and it’s complex because life is complex. And if we care about God’s word, we have to be willing to put in the effort to study and think about it in all its depth. It’s only then that its richness is fully appreciated. It’s only then that we realize that God isn’t trying to save us from the complications of life. God is trying to meet us there, in its midst, gently moving us forward in grace.
I sit on the board of an organization called the Atlantic Society for Biblical Equality. It is an organization that was founded by Hugh McNally and Harry Gardner to promote that men and women are made equal in the eyes of God and that when the Scriptures are considered in their fuller context and meaning, it teaches equality in marriage, that women can serve as pastors and things like that. I would encourage you to become members and support the work (perhaps the church could even be a supporting church partner in its mission).
This is one passage that people stumble over. I know people that are content to ignore a passage like this. But as Christians, that is just not a good plan, and so, our work as ASBE is to help Christians understand the Bible better.
My advice is that we need to study the Bible and study the difficult texts: Find the Bible’s meaning in the flux of history because that can really help us understand what it could be saying to us today.
So with that very long introduction, let me ask this: what was going on in Paul’s day that he needed to write this passage?
Well, the Apostle Paul is writing to the Ephesians, a Greek city in modern-day Turkey. It was a very important city both for Greek culture and the church. The Christian church had grown rapidly there, comprising of both Jews and Gentiles coming together, and that had caused some issues. The beginning of the letter speaks about how God’s household is where both Jews and Gentiles come together as one under God in Christ. Later in the letter, here, Paul turns to talk about what individual households could look like through the love of God in Christ. Here, if we do some digging, we find that Ephesus and the church there were experiencing their own state of flux, and Paul had to navigate that.
1. Christianity in Ephesus was in Flux
Christianity came on the scene in the ancient world and caused a profound social change. You see, Christianity preached the individual responsibility of all people to repent and believe in the one true God revealed in Jesus Christ, and this proclamation saw Jews and Gentiles, men and women, adults and children, wealthy individuals as well as slaves seeing the gift of the Holy Spirit, and people trust this and are justified.
In the ancient world, however, if you were a wife, a child, or a slave, your obligation was to worship the god of the head of your family, your father and master. If you were Roman or Greek, you were expected to follow the local gods. Christianity did not uphold this, and it caused friction.
Jesus warns about this in Matthew chapter ten. Jesus says that I have not come to bring peace but the sword, which is kind of a strange thing for Jesus to say. What does he mean? He speaks about how households will be set against one another, and if you are loyal to your family members more than Jesus’ way, this is not taking up Jesus’ cross. In other words, you are not a true disciple. For Jesus says, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Jesus isn’t saying he is going to cause literal wars, but rather that the way of Jesus is going to cause social upheaval, and any peace that means people can claim loyalty to their families against Jesus to please them is not true peace. It isn’t the peace that Jesus’ way offers.
Well, this insistence soured marriages and split families. Christians were viewed as traitors. Paul notes in his first letter to the Corinthians that spouses were leaving and deserting their partners over their change in religion, but Paul tries to say to Christian spouses to do their best to keep their marriages if they can: if their spouses leave, that’s their decision, but for the Christian spouse, commit to working it through, loving the other, hopefully winning them over. That is a good witness to the Gospel.
This is a thing Paul has to keep reiterating. In his letter to Titus, he says to young women to love their spouses so that “the word of God will not be maligned.” Paul’s letter to the Colossians chapter 4, just before it gives a similar household code, says that Christians need to walk wisely in how non-Christians are seeing them. 1 Peter similarly advises Christians to live in a way that prevents slander.
Christianity in the Greek and Roman world was being perceived as a group of people that were disloyal to their nation, to their marriages and families, and therefore were out to ruin society. There were rumours that Christians were cannibals because they ate flesh and drank blood when they got together for worship. Christians were thought to be atheists because they refused to worship the gods of their communities.
For many, Christianity was perceived as strange and even dangerous. Now, while it was true that Christians opposed the worship of Greek and Roman gods and opposed the ways of the emperors, it wasn’t true that Christians hated their families. Far from.
We have to appreciate the irony: today, we look at Christianity and the way things used to be, and we think it’s our culture that has caused all this disruption and flux. For Ephesians, they believed their culture’s values gave stability, and they saw Christianity as causing the disruption and flux. Our contexts are very different.
And so, this helps us understand the statements in the New Testament, where the Apostles keep telling Christians to honour the Emperor (even though the Emperors were immoral people), submit to authorities (even those that were brutal and corrupt as the Roman powers), leave peaceable lives, and so on. Those are passages that also don’t straightforwardly apply today because we live in democracies where we can choose our government, whereas, in the New Testament, they couldn’t.
The Apostles were doing everything possible to prevent Christianity from being perceived as a threat to the well-being of their home communities. They are trying to walk this tightrope of the faithfulness of Jesus and peaceableness with their families and fellow citizens. What were they worried about? Its something we just aren’t worried about in our country:
The Apostles did not want to be perceived as an insurgent movement as they spread the Gospel. Why? Revolutions ended in violence, with Roman soldiers slaughtering anything that could be perceived as a rebellion or disloyal to the Empire, and so, the Apostles tried to be wise in portraying Christianity as upholding certain social mores that Greeks saw as fundamental to social wellness.
What were those? Well, one of those was the Greek household code.
2. Ephesian Culture Believed Men were the Heads of their Households. Paul believed Jesus was the Head
And so, the second important aspect of Paul’s context was the Greek understanding of marriage. Ephesians believed it was good and proper for the husband and father to be the head of the household. The husband was often the educated one, legally was the one who managed the finances, and he was the one that procured the income for the family. Often the man was the religious representative of the family as well.
Because of this, he was regarded as the authority of the family, and Ephesians felt it was only good and proper to have wives, children, and slaves living in complete submission to the family’s leader.
However, men in Ephesian culture were regarded as the heads of their households, and as such, they were afforded power and privilege. Wives, children, and slaves were their servants, all for the purposes of affording them a better life. Husbands had little to no moral obligation to their wives and could act with a great deal of self-interest.
If the Apostles attacked this teaching too forcefully, a lot of women, children, and servants could find themselves without a roof over their head or worse. It wasn’t that the Apostles were afraid to sacrifice for their faith, but they were trying to be prudent to not pick unnecessary battles. In their judgment, in this context, which is different from ours, they choose a cautious and more subtle path.
Women did not have legal rights, no sources of income; there were no women’s shelters; there was no such thing as unemployment insurance or alimony in a divorce. These are things our culture has created, and if we are tempted to see these as an obstacle to living this passage, we must look to the history of Christian suffrage advocates and Christian abolitionists, Christians that have looked at how humans are made in God’s image and said our laws should reflect justice and equity.
Our culture has been influenced by 2000 years of Christian proclamation; Ephesian culture was not. That does not mean we are always better, but it does mean we are in a very different place.
Paul was dealing with a world that operated under certain conditions, things that the culture took for granted as the norms of how things functioned, while Paul was against things like slavery (he was a Jew, after all, that knew full well the stories of the Exodus, where redemption meant liberation from physical oppression), he also realized that for some people, slavery was their sole means of provision or that to oppose slavery in a revolution could end with Roman legions coming and killing everyone involved with a revolt.
We have to do this in similar ways today: We know, for instance, that our use of fossil fuels is not good for the environment, but for many of us, we still have to own gas-powered cars or have homes that use oil. If we tried to just rid Canada of all fossil fuels right now, that probably would leave a lot of people without transportation and without heat in the winter, so we are trying to transition off fossil fuels. I don’t know if we are doing a good enough job of that, but that is a topic for another sermon.
So, what Paul does then, is try to word the Christian life in as close of terms as possible to the way Ephesians understood marriage and parenting and managing their homes. He meets them where they are at and how they understand things, but he adds a Christian twist to it. He sows a seed of Christ-like transformation in it.
And this is where we really miss the point of the passage when we refuse to read the Bible in its historical context.
Let me read one of the more well-known household codes in Greek culture. Ask yourself, how is Paul’s version different from this? This is from Aristotle’s Politics:
Of household management, we have seen that there are three parts—one is the rule of a master over slaves… another of a father, and the third of a husband. A husband and father rules over wife and children, both free, but the rule differs, the rule over his children being a royal, over his wife a constitutional rule. For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the older and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature… [W]hen one rules and the other is ruled we endeavour to create a difference of outward forms and names and titles of respect… The relation of the male to the female is of this kind, but there the inequality is permanent.
Both Paul and Aristotle talk about husbands and wives, fathers and children, and masters and slaves. That’s how we know that Paul has something like this in mind for the context he is writing in. Did you spot some of the differences?
Aristotle talks about the rulership of all three. Men rule over women. Why? Because men are more intelligent by nature. They are, by nature, superior. They live in permanent inequality, and that inequality is a good thing.
Is that what Paul believed?
Paul is a Jew, and he knows that men and women are both in the image of God. He knows that if women are not equal to men, it is not because of nature but because of sin. The curse of Genesis 3 was that women’s desire would be for their husbands, but men would rule over them.
We have to ask ourselves: is it the church’s job to uphold the curse of sin? Or is it the church’s role to undo the effects of sin in this world with the power of salvation?
Paul says in Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, slave or free, all are one in Christ Jesus.”
If we look at Paul’s writings, we see that he had women leaders spreading the Gospel with him: church leaders like Chloe and Nympha, Pheobe (a deacon from Cenchrea), Eudia and Synteche (apostolic leaders along with Clement), Junia (an apostle listed that the end of Romans). If you have not heard those names before, look them up. Paul very much believed that the Spirit was moving to bring about equality in the world broken by sin.
We need to keep that big picture in mind when we interpret these passages. And when we do, the point of these passages of today becomes clearer:
Ephesians 5 begins with Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. When it gets to the next line, it actually uses the same verb as this sentence: Be subject to one another… wives to your husbands. In other words, wives are doing something all Christians, men, fathers, and husbands included, ought to be doing too. Yet, so often, we preach this passage as if the burden is on women to do something unique to them.
Aristotle’s view of headship in the family emphasizes male rulership; Paul takes that notion of headship in God’s family and emphasizes mutual submission.
The Greek household code said men did not have to care for their wives, children, or slaves beyond food and shelter. Families served the man’s own self-interest. Paul says things like this in his household code:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.
Husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies.
He who loves his wife loves himself.
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger.
Masters, know that both of you have the same Master in heaven.
Aristotle emphasized authority; Paul introduced accountability. Which one do you think then is the principle that applies to us today?
3. Jesus’s Love is the Pattern for Parents
Jesus told his disciples that “anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
In speaking to them about the authority, he said,
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25–28).
Paul summarizes the pattern of Christ in Philippians chapter two when he says,
4 Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
And so, in a culture where men were assumed to be the heads of the household, Paul, in essence, says, “Okay, men, if you want to be the head of the household, then be one like Jesus. Be ready to give up everything for your family.”
But that is not some new way to reinforce male power. It is consistent with what all Christians are called to do. Notice the principle that Ephesians chapter five begins with: Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (v. 1-2).
This is the guiding principle for what Paul says in this entire chapter, and it says all Christians are to live self-sacrificing love towards one another, and when we come to verse 21, the guiding principle for the household code, Paul says all Christians are to submit one to another. The household code is merely applying these to the way Ephesians needed to have it applied in that context. But ultimately, submission, respect, service, and accountability¾these are things all Christians ought to be doing for each other, regardless of gender.
It is funny how we have looked at Ephesians chapter 5, and we have tried to apply it to mean something more like the philosophy of Aristotle than the way of Jesus.
If we defined authority in Jesus’ way, we would give up our authority, not hold onto it.
If we define what it means to be a man through Jesus, we won’t be worried about how we can get power out of our marriages and families, power over our wives and kids. We will ask ourselves: How can I serve them? How can I even submit it to them? What sacrifices do I need to make in order to love them better?
That might mean doing something things that our culture, perhaps even our church cultures, might view as not very manly.
When Meagan and I were first married, we had just bought our first house, a little townhouse in Bradford, one hour north of Toronto. We had our first child, Rowan, soon after moving in.
Meagan was teaching at a Christian school, and the school wanted her to upgrade her teaching degree to a full Bachelor of Education. So, she used her mat-leave to go back to school full-time.
I was also in school, working on my doctorate. I was between work, and I eventually got a contract as a pastoral intern at Bradford Baptist Church, a few hours a week.
But with Meagan in school in an intensive program, I had to pivot to caring for Rowan most mornings as well as do cleaning and some cooking.
Can I confess something to you? I am just not as particular about cleaning as my wife is. If there is a dirty spot on the counter, I don’t notice it. My wife enters a room, and it is like radar detection. But in order to have a household that felt orderly enough that my wife did not feel stressed about, I had to learn how to clean better.
Admitfully, after 13 years of marriage, I still am not there.
Of course, not having a full-time job, I got comments from family members: “So, when are you going to get a real job.” The implication is that my current situation was not what a man, a biblical husband, was to do. And I felt feelings of worthlessness, staying home, and caring for our son.
I had learned to equate my worth as a man and father with work and money.
I had to come to a point and say, but what does my family need? It is not about fulfilling some expectation of what a man or a husband or a father is according to our culture or even our church cultures. It is about asking our families, “what do you need?”
What does that mean for a world that is in such flux? Well, it is going to mean something very different for every couple and family.
It means that whatever life entails, it probably is not going to be easy. It means navigating decision-making, household work, finances, and childcare with fairness, with mutual submission.
And that takes sacrifice, and that is what we are celebrating today on Father’s Day. The ways our fathers have sacrificed to show their wives and children they love them.
For many of our fathers and grandfathers, these sacrifices fulfilled a traditional need, but for the younger generations, these sacrifices might look different.
Whether it is working a tough job away from home or working as a stay-home dad, whether it is mowing the lawn or cooking dinner, driving the kids to soccer or reading to them when they go to bed, there are little acts of service that show your families how much you love them.
The tasks may change, but love does not.
Paul says that when we do this, we are reflecting the reality that God is showing us in Jesus Christ, who loved us so much that he came in human form, became a servant, and became obedient even onto death, death on a cross.
Can I just say that Jesus knows a thing or two about changing to love those he cares for in the way they need it?
Fathers, husbands, men in the audience today, sometimes the world tells us that to be a man means relying on no one but yourself, don’t ask for help, don’t be vulnerable. Men don’t talk about love. Real men don’t cry and things like that.
That is just not true. It is not the pattern of Jesus. We can share our needs with our families and friends, but most importantly, we need to share our needs with God.
When we feel frustrated in life, we know that God understands, God is with us, and God is for us. God raised Jesus from the dead in victory over sin and all of life’s struggles.
Ask God, trust him, and he will help.
In all the change and uncertainty of life, God’s love remains constant. God’s love does not change. God’s love is perfect. God’s love is faithful and true. And God loves you.
Fathers, husbands, and men today, can you leave this place trusting that love in a new way today?
Loving and gracious God our Father.
You are our creator, and we are your children, made in your image and likeness.
We praise you today because you are loving and good.
You have shown your love for us in sacrificing your very self.
While we were sinners set against you, you died for us.
God, we are thankful.
And you have called us to reflect this love, this love that is your very being.
Father, teach us how we can do this better.
Many of us feel like we are not all that good at it.
And in a changing world, many of us desire to follow our ways, but the way does not seem all that clear.
God, give us wisdom.
Encourage our hearts: Remind us that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love you have for us.
Show us how we can love our families better.
Thank you so much for all the examples of fathers we have around us. Thank you for the sacrifices they have made, the lessons they have taught, and the fun we have had with them. May we cherish these gifts among us today.
We pray that today the fathers, husbands, and men of this church would know your love in a new way, be able to trust that love, and live that out.
Give us your Spirit, for we know you are faithful.
The Galatians Principle: Or, Do Complementarians Deny Justification by Faith?
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. – Galatians 3:26-29
The other day I was told by a complementarian (a person who upholds that there is a hierarchy between men and women as taught by Scripture) that if I believed that women could be ordained, I no longer believed in the authority of Christ over the church. I supposed by this person’s logic and theology of a chain of authority, if he was correct, this is true. However, I don’t think complementarianism is the best exegetical account of the whole of the Scriptures, and so, here is my gentle push back on what is at stake if complementarians refuse a woman in her ministry gifting. It is my intent, as my deliberately provocative title suggests, to demonstrate that Galatians 3:28, within the context of the argument of Galatians and implicit within the same logic of justification by faith, cannot support patriarchy in the church, especially if leadership is by the gift of the Spirit. As a religious axiom about the gift of the Spirit, it promotes the equalized distribution of all spiritual authority without prejudice. If authority in Christian marriage and church is based on the Spirit, this Scripture supports an egalitarian understanding of both.
Understanding Paul’s Concerns
In doing so, I want to chart a middle ground between what I see as the “civil rights activist Paul” and the “complementarian Paul” readings. Both try to fit a circle into a square hole. Notice also, that this is not “conservative version of Paul” versus the “liberal Paul.” There are biblical conservatives that espouse egalitarianism (such as myself), meanwhile, there are complementarians who are such probably for no other reason than their culture has caused them to read scripture thus.
In the context of Galatians, Paul is not concerned with a modern grammar of woman’s rights. It would be wrong headed to translate his world into ours, making him into a modern feminist. All benefit to society is enacted indirectly through the practices of the church, within its narrative self-understanding, not political advocacy directly through a universal set of principles. He is concerned with making sure all recognize what the Spirit has done. Paul is concerned about emancipation and gender equality, but his way of going about it is focused firstly on life in the Spirit in the church community. He is not a civil rights activist. He is not political. He has very little confidence in the justice of the Roman government. His concern is for equality in the life of the church as a witness to the world. So, Paul is primarily concerned about spiritual equality in the church (as opposed to political equality that bypasses the church), but that in turn has very real practical consequences. For him, there can be no ultimate dichotomy or between spiritual value and practical role and no discrimination of the gifts
In Galatians, Paul is concerned with Judaizers imposing the requirement of circumcision on Gentile Christians in order for them to be considered full members of God’s family (4:5), Abraham’s offspring/heirs (3:7) and recipients of the covenantal blessing/inheritance (3:19). This context, as it applies to gender, implies inequality as Paul is equalizing Jews and Gentiles.
Paul sees those advocating circumcision as acting out of discontinuity with the acts of the Spirit. The expectation does not match what they are seeing. In compelling circumcision and austere obedience to the law (the former being a metonym for the later), Paul worries that this is simply disingenuous to the event of Christ’s grace on all who believe and therefore detrimental to anyone that buys into it. It becomes “another gospel” (1:6) as it falls into a paradigm of meritorious obedience, which is an unsustainable perfectionism (3:11-12): the law cannot produce justification because those who seek justification by the law are obliged to keep all of it for that to work, which obviously no one can.
Also, imposing circumcision on Gentiles seems unloving (5:6), especially if it is unnecessary. You can imagine how the Gentile men would not appreciate having to cut a piece of their genitalia off in order to appease the unnecessary demands of a religious faction! It would be painful, humiliating, and potentially unsafe (although Paul does not explicitly mention these factors). The act of which implies ethnic superiority, and inequality as well as religious hypocrisy in Paul’s mind as it treats Gentiles by a double standard that even Peter did not follow. Gentiles were being treated as inherently impure, warranting the circumcision faction and Peter refusing to sit with the uncircumcised in table fellowship (2:12), and therefore they are expected to “act like Jews” (2:14) in order to be acceptable.
However, the work of Christ undoes the basis of superiority here. Paul argues that Christ, who died on a tree, took on the cursedness of those separated from God, existing outside the law and covenant, and in so doing redeemed those under the curse (3:13-14). Any blessed/curse, clean/impure distinction is therefore absorbed in Christ. Paul’s logic presupposes quite a bit in 3:14, but it implies that Jesus is the Son of God (2:20) as well as the offspring of Abraham par excellence (3:16) and by dying on the cross, the Gentiles now have the inheritance and blessing of Abraham as if they too are his offspring. The inheritance is the gift of the Spirit (3:14). This gift of the Spirit, making possible new relationship, occurs by trusting the work of Christ alone – justification by faith – not by meritorious obedience. Since the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, God’s Son, those who have the Spirit, are therefore also God’s children, able to cry out as Christ did, “Abba! Father!” (4:6). Paul’s argument then has an experiential base: he has witnessed uncircumcised Gentiles, who do not uphold the entire law, be granted the gift of the Spirit purely because they trusted Jesus, and so, he continues to encourage the Galatians to stick with this paradigm.
This overcoming of cursedness and uncleanliness implies a powerful social revolution in Paul’s thought through the work of Christ. We miss it because we expect him to argue on the basis of civil rights. Women were often restricted because of the uncleaniness associated with their gender. For example, Lev. 12:1-5 states that a woman who has given birth to a boy is ritually unclean for 7 days. If the baby is a girl, the mother is unclean for 14 days. Male babies, therefore the male gender, was considered more clean than then female babies. Women had to go into seclusion during their menstruation cycle, because they were unclean (Lev. 15). Thus, women were restricted in worship. Second Chronicles 36:23 states that women were not allowed in the sacred space of the temple as they has their own space, considered the least sacred.
Thus, given that women were treated as as less pure in the ancient world, the notion that Christ bore the curse of the law and that true impurity is wrong doing (Matt. 15:11) would have opened up unprecedented liberty in Jewish culture.
Some might press the notion that Galatians is only about spiritual equality, so let’s explore it further. Here we see that all are given the Spirit through faith in Christ, which has very practical consequences. Paul is advocating what we might call “pneumatic equality.” Paul does not mention what the nature of the gift of the Spirit does beyond causing adoption and spiritual fruit. Nevertheless, Gal. 3:28 insists that whatever the gift of the Spirit is, the gift is given indiscriminate of ethnicity, economic status, or gender. Whatever the gift of the Spirit entails, it is applied indiscriminately for “you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This is the argument for equality that this passage implies. If one had something or another could not have something on these premises, the result is inequality.
To be clear, Paul only talks about the gift of the Spirit in general principle, but the principle is strictly egalitarian. Complementarians can only at best downplay the importance of the principle, silencing it with other scriptures that sound more complementarian. Thus, if the gift of the Spirit implies all the gifts listed elsewhere in Paul’s writings (cf. Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:8-10; 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11, which include the gift of apostles, prophets/prophecy, teachers/teaching, leadership, administration, etc.), the criteria of their distribution should be, by this principle here, indiscriminate of gender as it would be of race and income inequality. It implies that if a Jew can speak in tongues so can a Gentile, if a free person can be a prophet, so can a slave, if a man can have apostolic gifting, so can a woman. Anything less amounts to the denial of the promised inheritance for some.
Thus, it should not surprise us that the Spirit has been so indiscriminate, even in the Old Testament. There we see Deborah, a prophet and judge over all Israel, despite the qualifications a judge in Exodus 18 stating “men who…” (which would form the paradigm of reading the elder descriptions that refer to “a man who…” in 1 Tim 3:2 and Titus 1:7 as generic, inclusive, or non-absolute). Also we see the formidable prophetess Huldah (2 Kings 22: 14-20), who has the God-given authority to rebuke the king himself. We see Philip’s daughters, who are prophetesses (Acts. 21:8-9). There is also Priscilla, who seems to be an apostolic co-worker with Paul along with her husband (cf. Acts 18: 24-26; Rom. 16:3-4; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:19); Chloe, whoever she is, seems to have authority in the church of Corinth such that her people report to Paul (1 Cor. 1:11); Phoebe, who seems to be a deacon of Cenchreae (Rom. 16:1) come to give the church in Rome direction; Nympha, who has a church meeting in her house, which strongly insinuates she lead that church (Col. 4:15); Junia, “prominent among the apostles,” which suggests that she is an apostle in the fullest sense of the word (Rom. 16:7); and finally, Euodia and Syntyche, who are listed as leaders along side Clement, which again, suggests apostolic authority (Phil. 4:2-3). If the implications of these passages are correct, this further corroborates the notion that the Spirit does not show favoritism if bestowing the gifts.
Does Justification By Faith Imply Egalitarianism?
Indeed, anything less than an egalitarian application of the gifts of the Spirit would imply legalism. Gentiles, by faith in Christ, are not obliged to follow rules that no longer function, that detract from the work of Christ (which circumcision did), that do not fulfill the law of love (5:6; 5:14) or do not manifest the fruit of the Spirit (5:22). Where there is the fruit of the Spirit, “there is no law against these” (5:23). Conforming to any laws, whether biblical or not, that do not meet these criteria is problematic. If the Gentile believer took on circumcision, such an act would be an act of inequality, reinforcing the superiority of the Jewish ethnicity before God that God has abolished in Christ. Jews and Gentiles have the same access and unity to Christ. Similarly, denying a slave or a woman the Spirit’s gift to preach or to teach, would be in some way saying that they have less of Christ in them than in a free male, implying almost that their submission and slavery was meritorious obedience. Is a complementarian comfortable saying that not all are truly “one” in Christ by faith? This is what the logic implies.
In fact, to take up circumcision as a meritorious action, functionally becoming a Jew in order to be an heir of the covenant, this action seems to imply slavery: “We are children, not of a slave but of a free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery” (4:31-5:1). Gentiles, who have the Spirit by faith, have everything the Jewish believers have. Gentiles are able to relate to God unburdened by their previous estrangement from God; they are given the same status, namely, children of God and they are given the same inheritance, namely, the Spirit.
Interestingly enough, that argument could be made, albeit provocatively, that since justification by faith and the gift of the Spirit is linked in Galatians and the gift of the Spirit is for Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave or free, if a person imposed laws of gender on a woman that denied her what the Spirit gave to her through her faith in Christ, that person can be understood to be implicitly denying justification by faith in the same way a Judaizer would be denying justification by faith in imposing circumcision on a Gentile. All are one in Christ.
The Preference of Liberty
This sets an applicable pattern: liberty is preferable to slavery, yet liberty is not to be valorized outside the work of the gospel. This has a very real application for gender. Submission is not virtuous if it does not function, and such submission, especially imposed submission by other Christians, implies inequality in Christ’s unity with humans. It implies slavery. Laws that do not function, should not be followed if they are not loving, do not produce spiritual fruit, or promote the notion that the Spirit is prejudiced. Under these principles, gender and economic equality becomes a secondary concern of all who seek the Holy Spirit to be made more evident in creation.
This does not mean a person who is not given the gift of teaching, for instance, should feel that God is unfair in giving another that gift. What this is saying is that on principle these gifts are given indiscriminate of race, economic status, or gender, and so, not withheld on that basis. There are different roles in marriage, society, and church, the point is that the distribution of these roles cannot be on the basis just described. While we all may be called to serve and submit on mission for Christ, refusing Spirit-given liberty for another, imposing submission, is slavery. Men can be leaders if they have the character, but then again, so can women. A man can be called to be a pastor, if he has the qualities, but then again, so can a woman, if she is qualified. In principle then, a woman could be given any gift of the Spirit just as much as a man could (or Jew, Gentile, slave or free person), but that does not mean every person gets that gift. Men will be called to listen and submit to their wives (“submit one to another out of reverence to Christ” Eph. 5:21), a man must submit to a gifted female teacher as in the case of Huldah and the King (2 Kings 22: 14-20) or Apollos and Priscilla (Acts 18:28). Thus, we see no basis in Gal. 3:28 that any gift of the Spirit is restricted to a gender. To be clear, this does not take offense at the notion that some are called to have authority while others are called merely to submit and trust that authority. The problem lies with any attempt, especially by Christians, to restrict a gift the Spirit sees as open to all, particularly on the basis of ethnicity, gender, or economic status. It does not take offense at the call of some to be enslaved, but see the unnecessary imposition of submission on another.
This clarifies the rhetoric often used by the complementarian that women are spiritually equal, but functionally different. There is no problem in stating some are called to different things, while others are not. Some are called to more difficult lives than others. A person, who feels that it is there vocation to be an accountant for God, will be functionally very different than the person called to be a missionary in the undeveloped world. However, if we used the example of slavery and segregation in the United States, the problem is then the church limits the liberty of others, imposing a supposedly God-sanctioned social order that prevents some to pursue a Spirit-given vocation to a position of authority.
Is Slavery a Defeater?
One could object that if Paul did not abolish slavery, the application of the spiritual equality that equalized Jew and Gentile, removing the requirement of circumcision, cannot be fully applied to gender equality.
What the Gospel in Galatians does imply is the notion that all people are God’s children, thus able to cry out “Abba, Father” (Gal 4:6-7) and are heirs of the inheritance. This in a very practical sense meant the elimination of social separation between Jews and Gentiles in table fellowship (Gal. 2:11-14), but also in 1 Cor. 11:17-34 mean the equalization of access to food at the Lord’s Supper. This equality was lived out in the community of goods, where believers sold all individual property and live as if a single household (Acts 4:32). It was a scandal if a member of a church had much and another was in need.
With regards to slaves, while Paul did not seek a full and potentially destructive and violent emancipation, he did insist that all members of a church, whether slave or free, were considered family. If a slave was considered the family of a master, the implication is that freedom would be sought for the slave along with all other facets of general well being. It would be despicable that a person would own a family member as a slave. Thus, we see in Philemon, Paul plead (not force, we should note) that Philemon free Onesimus as the runaway slave (a criminal offense) is “no longer a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 16).
Some are called to endure suffering and subjection for the sake of the Gospel, including wives (1 Peter 3:1-6) and slaves (1 Cor. 7:21), however, this subjection is for the purpose of witness vocation. Slaves in Christ are free, and the free in Christ are slaves (1 Cor. 7:22). In the case of a slave, Paul recommends not being obsessed with emancipation, continuing on in the state that the person is in. However, Paul clearly expresses the preference that a person must not become enslaved: “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters.” Again, witness is more important than emancipation for Paul, just as martyrdom is a greater witness than a long and comfortable life. Paul does not easily fit the profile of a social revolutionary. He is an evangelist that sees slavery, hardship and even martyrdom as opportunities to show Christ. However, is social inequality of little significance to Paul? No. Freedom was preferable to slavery.
Again, Paul was not a social revolutionary primarily, but the Gospel does imply liberation. The Gospel implies social progress, but the Gospel does not seek self-assertion let alone violent emancipation to cause progress. Social progress is not the Gospel, salvation to sinners by the free gift of forgiveness in Jesus Christ is. However, the social progress and liberation is a byproduct of redemption as it seeks to remove all barriers to authentic vocation and all effects of sin.
As this relates to gender, the notion that Christians would seek to enshrine and perpetuate limits on women in the home, church, and society, would be going against this principle that Paul offers. Again, Paul is not a human rights activist, and we need to draw close to his logic. He is advocating that the Holy Spirit does not discriminate with regards to the spiritual gifts, some of which imply leadership authority. Refusing to recognized that the Spirit could call a woman to lead, for instance, in the church, is tantamount to limiting the work of the Spirit and perpetuating a requirement of submission that falls back into legalism, subjection to the law.
By analyzing the logic of Galatians 3:28 in the context of the epistle, we see that it offers the principle that the Spirit does not discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, economic status, or gender in regards to the Spirit’s gift, the inheritance of Abraham. Justification by faith implies a type of egalitarianism. Refusing a gifted woman preacher in the church is analogous to imposing circumcision on a Gentile. It is a similar type of legalism. Thus, I offer the provocative push back to some complementarian polemics against egalitarianism, where complementarianism denies justification by faith (which I offer not because I actually think complementarians deny justification by faith, but to point out what the logic implies). While I have worked against the notion that Paul can be absorbed into the caricature of a modern civil rights activist, this does not dismiss the fact that Paul would not allow any inequality in his churches. Refusing to recognize that a woman could have a gift of preaching, prophesy, teaching, administration, or even apostolic leadership is to go against the Galatians principle here.