It's been good to sit at home and wonder what people have been preaching on Ephesians while I was on sabbatical leave last year.
I think my summary of what I have heard from those of you who have listened to sermons in the series so far is that they have been challenging - challenging about belonging to the church and challenging about relationships.
So, not because you haven't been listening, but to show you that I have. And because we've had Christmas and New Year since the last in the series, let me summarise:
In Ephesians 1 we read of God's will for humanity. It is God's will to save us and he has acted in history to do this. The prayer for the Ephesian church is that, having been saved, they may grow to maturity.
Chapter 2 explains that there is nothing we can do to earn our own salvation. God's grace and Jesus' death on the cross bridges the gap between humans and God. There are no longer barriers. The church is for everyone. It goes on to say, in Chapter 3, that no-one is excluded from the church and we need to understand the extent of God's love.
In Chapter 4 we learn that this diverse group of people, the church, have different gifts and using them is how the church reaches maturity.
So when we reach chapter 5 and today's passage the letter has been outlining the standards which God expects of his new society, the church; now it gets on to the implications of those standards for relationships.
And the relationships we look at are relationships in the home; relationships that were probably represented in every congregation that first heard this letter read. Husband and wife; parent and child, master and slave.
The church in Ephesus was formed in the fire of Paul being publicly maligned, extraordinary miracles, false prophets, riots and beatings. Paul's farewell speech is a classic example (Acts 20) of Christian example. He says: 'You know how I lived all the time I was amongst you.'
There is some dispute as to whether this letter came from Paul's own hand or his school of thought, but we know about Ephesus and its difficult start as a worshipping community.
The key question for today's student of the Bible is this; which of the Bible's teachings are timeless as written and which are culturally bound?
If a teaching is culturally bound then we need to look at the principles involved and not the specifics. This will be more obvious when we look at the relationship between slaves and masters later. In Bible times slavery's existence was an assumption. The Bible's texts do not challenge it. But since the early nineteenth century all civilised societies have opposed it and worked for it abolition in its many forms.
And so to our passage. At the time of writing there was a hierarchy which was undisputed. So our three sections that follow v21 and its idea of mutual submission emphasise the submission, in those days, required of wives to husbands, children to parents and slaves to masters.
Tom Wright, in his commentary, points out that St Paul lived in a world where women were considered not only inferior to men but also they were people who had bodily functions that might make a man unclean.
In John Stott's 1979 commentary he says:
Now the very notion of submission to authority is out of fashion today. It is totally at variance with contemporary attitudes and permissiveness and freedom. Almost nothing is calculated to arouse more angry protest than talk of 'subjection'. Ours is an age of liberation (not least for women, children and workers), and anything savouring of oppression is deeply resented and strongly resisted. How are Christians to react to this modern mood
Stott then goes on to argue that although slavery is, rightly, now outlawed, obedience to parents by children is not. He equates the authority a husband has in the household as more like the latter than the former.
1979 was a long time ago. I'm not sure I agree. But let's start with three statements we should all be able to agree with:
1. In a Christian household all should be under the authority of Christ. Nobody should forbid that which Christ encourages nor allow that which Christ condemns. So whatever authority is up for grabs it has to be limited authority.
2. Secondly Galatians 3:28. Paul is clear that there is equality in Christ.
3. There is nothing wrong with a woman choosing to exercise submission to male authority in a household. We have moved on from the ages when this was the done thing. It is no longer compulsory; but it is not disallowed.
I don't think we want to argue with those three.
Stott sees a complementarity of roles but in the context of equality. Tom Wright argues that society has made a mess of marriage and that male authority, exercised under Christ's authority, would be the answer.
What do we say?
Whatever we say, we say in a country with a Queen and a female Prime Minister.
Whatever we say, we say in a church with female bishops.
I think we say that leadership is always necessary. Where there is no leadership the people perish. So a couple need to work out, and if they have children model to those children, how decisions are taken.
I think we say that for Christians submission to Christ is always necessary. This is the mutual submission of both parties in a couple submitting to a higher authority. This is the background (v21) of all the relationships discussed.
And I think that we say that this passage suggests that the individuals in a relationship need to love each other, submit to each other, love themselves and be willing to make the sort of sacrifices for each other that Christ made for his church.
Marriage vows are a covenant, not a contract. It is not 'I will do this for you if you do this for me.' It is 'I will do this for you, whatever.' It should not be entered into lightly or selfishly but reverently and responsibly in the sight of almighty God.
It is appalling that in 2018 there are still abusive relationships.
It is appalling that in 2018 women still earn less than men in many situations where they do the same work.
It is appalling that in 2018 marriage relationships break down too easily and are discarded not repaired. As society becomes increasingly throw away with its domestic appliances it should avoid being like that with its domestic arrangements.
But these things do occur. The terrible way women generally have been treated by men, particularly in politics and the arts as we have discovered recently post-Weinstein, is national news. It is good that women have spoken out loudly #metoo
There is, I think, a responsibility on Christian men to speak out for the rights of women.
Our passage's big theme is this - we should allow each other to thrive. Marriage should be liberating not stifling. Freedom in a framework. Trust. Mutual flourishing.
If you are considering whether someone is Mr or Mrs Right and making a commitment of marriage with them? Well it is not a matter of wondering if they might be the right one. It is a matter, as soon as you are married, of treating them as if they are.
But if you are a Christian and they are not it will be hard for this passage to be authoritative for your relationship.
It is clear to me that this sermon could be a series on relationships, and may need to be.