Thursday, August 27, 2015
A few days ago, the headline in our local paper declared that the mayor of a nearby town was on the list of Ashley Madison users that was hacked and then released to the public. All of us were waiting for it. We knew it would come. Sooner or later, a public figure with whom we had a connection would be "outed" as a slimy, philanderous, dirt-bag who had pursued an online affair with the notorious website. We all knew about Josh Duggar, but we wrote him off as a reprobate a long time ago. We needed something fresh and salacious into which we could sink our bared teeth. We needed something closer to home--someone who, as Brian J. Dixon put it in his powerful blog post, was close enough to throw a stone at.
This local sensation will run its course. And so will the international fascination with this public disclosure of sin. In a few months, we mostly will have forgotten why that pastor resigned or why that legislator did not seek another term or why that police chief killed himself. We will have moved on from this tawdry affair and found a new one, and the state of marriage as a lifelong, monogamous, sacrificial union will not have improved one iota. And that is the real shame of the Ashley Madison fiasco.
On Sunday, we will hear Jesus quote Isaiah and say to the religious leaders of his day, "This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines." The Pharisees and the scribes had found their own religious scandal. Jesus was growing in popularity. People were wondering whether he was the sort of leader foretold by the prophets--the one on whom Israel had been waiting. But his disciples were defying some of the basic religious expectations of that time, and Jesus was doing nothing about it. What sort of teacher--what sort of God-sent leader--can't even get his own closest followers to wash their hands before they eat? And so they approached Jesus to disclose the offending behavior and expected the sort of reaction we all expect from our shamed public figures--a hung head, a contrite apology, a few tears, a leave of absence, and a promise to change. But Jesus didn't give it. He didn't even come close.
With words that eviscerated their hypocrisy, Jesus said, "You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition," which is a fancy way of saying that their deep faithlessness was masked by their show of religiosity. Jesus refused to accept their premise--that religious uncleanness on the outside indicated religious uncleanness on the inside. "Listen to me, all of you," he said to the crowd, "and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come." Jesus knew what we all know--that sometimes rotten apples look delightful, that sometimes wolves wear sheep's clothing, that sometimes sleazy people act righteous. But the real message behind this encounter with the religious elites is that good people sometimes look bad.
Good, sensible, honest, godly folk sometimes do stupid things. Why? Because even the best among us is, at his or her core, a rotten sinner in need of redemption. The Ashley Madison phenomenon wasn't a secret. This wasn't the sort of thing that only the sleaziest among us knew about. For goodness sakes--the website that invited people to have an affair ran advertisements on television! And you and I watched the shows that made money from it. We may not have signed up (or maybe we did), but we're right there, too. We're part of a society that celebrates casual sex. We are a community that has given up on monogamy. Even if we have a basket full of stones to throw at these latest adulterers, we'd better stop and look in the mirror. We may not have signed up on a website, but we've looked at our coworker. We've flirted with the bartender. We've thought about it. We might put on our dark suit and head to church every Sunday morning with bible in hand, but we might as well put on a scarlet letter and stand in the narthex covered in sackcloth and ashes until our penitence proves we belong back among the faithful...at least until next Sunday, when it all happens again.
There is no hope in perfection. There is only hope in forgiveness. The only way our society becomes the kingdom of God--a community in which fidelity is uncompromised--is if we acknowledge our true brokenness, confess our sins, and seek God's forgiveness. The institution of marriage and the status of the family and the moral decay of our society will never improve as long as we are pretending that adultery and theft and dishonesty and all the other sins are someone else's problem. They are our problems, too. Take off the mask. Stop pointing fingers. Admit that you are part of the problem of sin and admit that you need forgiveness, too--no more or no less than anyone else.
Wednesday, August 26, 2015
Isn't the bible remarkable in the way that you can read a passage you've read or heard 100 times and still hear God saying something new? This morning, as I read Mark 14:1-11, I saw a Markan sandwich that I hadn't noticed before. This seems to be one of those passages in which Mark sandwiches two different episodes together into one passage in order to connect their meaning and say something more substantial than both would say on their own.
Typically, when I read or hear this part of the gospel, my focus falls on the nameless woman. Her act of costly love--breaking a jar of "very costly ointment of nard" and anointing Jesus' head--is the tender moment that captures our hearts. Even Jesus tells us that, whenever the gospel is told, "what she has done will be told in remembrance of her." The drama--the cinematic tension and release--of this story is found here. She does something remarkable, but the disciples can't see it for what it's worth. Knowing their master's simple, unadorned lifestyle, they object to the expense of this gesture and ask how the ointment might have been sold and the money given to the poor. The room grows silent. Onlookers hold their breath. Jesus pauses for a moment and then responds, "You will always have the poor with you, but you won't always have me. You can take care of them whenever you wish, but she has done everything that she could in preparing my body for burial." As the beauty of her gift is highlighted by Jesus, the tension eases, and we leave the scene satisfied that the story has reached a natural, audience-gratifying conclusion.
Only it hasn't.
The bits tucked into the beginning and end of this passage are important: "It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him..." and "Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him." Those parts go together. They make their own interesting story. But they don't really go with what happens in the middle. It's almost as if Mark started to write something, then got distracted by another story, and finally wrapped it up by returning to the point with which he began. Of course, this is no accident.
How do they go together? On the surface, we could say that they are connected through the foreshadowing of Jesus' death in the act of the anointing for burial. It's an anachronistic gesture--Jesus isn't dead yet; how can his body be anointed for burial?--but we understand the loose connection. But I think there's a stronger tie than that. I think we're supposed to revisit the exchange between the disciples and Jesus and allow the unresolved tension and unanswered questions of that moment spill over into the attitude with which we approach Jesus' betrayal and, ultimately, his arrest.
There's something about Jesus' answer to the disciples' objection--you will always have the poor with you--that seems rather incomplete. The disciples' response to her exorbitant "waste" (their word) feels reasonable. It's the kind of thing Jesus might say if the perfume were being used to anoint a rich Pharisee or another person of power. The logic of "you will always have the poor with you" sounds like the sort of justification a selfish person of great means would use to explain why he or she doesn't give more away. But, in this case, it's the argument Jesus makes. And I'm not 100% comfortable with it.
And there's the rub. By the time he gets to Bethany, Jesus has his sights set clearly on Calvary. He knows the fate that awaits him there. He's pressing toward that goal with singular focus. But the disciples are still living in this world. They have to. It's all they know. It's all they can see. And so there is a split that I also feel. Jesus is calling me to have God's kingdom in view, but all I can see is what is in front of me. How will that conflict be resolved?
Jesus' praise of the woman and strange explanation about the poor suggests that his journey to death and beyond is the key to God's kingdom breaking through into the world. It's the only way that all that is wrong in this world--including the plight of the poor--will be made right. But the disciples can't see that yet. And, when Jesus brings them to a crossroads they cannot fully understand, they must choose to follow him down a path they can't see or turn away. Judas' decision to betray Jesus isn't simply a reaction to the woman's lavish anointing, but the contradiction that it represents--the message of ultimate hope through Jesus' death--is the principle Judas rejects. He cannot follow his master into the next world. He is too thoroughly stuck in this one. Thirty pieces of silver are a symbolic anchor to this world. They contrast with the 300 denarii worth of ointment that is freely poured upon Jesus.
We have a foot in this world and a foot in God's kingdom. Of course, those two things coexist, and we coexist in both. God's kingdom is not a magical place in the sky. It's here. It's now. But we still struggle to see it. We still think in limited terms. We still see only the small picture. Occasionally, we get glimpses of God's landscape, and those are the glimpses that give us the courage to follow Jesus to places we do not understand. When this world and God's kingdom are in conflict--when they bump up against each other in ways that don't make sense to me--which way will I turn? Will I be anchored down and unable to see God's kingdom, or will I follow even to places I do not fully understand?
Tuesday, August 25, 2015
This post originally appeared in our parish's newsletter, The View. To read more of what's happening at St. John's, Decatur, click here.
A few months ago, I decided that it might be fun to teach a class on Song of Solomon—a book of the bible that I have never really studied in detail. Although not intimately familiar with the specific images or language found in the text, I knew that it portrayed the relationship between God and God’s people as that of two lovers in pursuit of one another. Usually, God’s love for the world is described as agape—the kind of selfless, sacrificial love that has no boundaries—but Song of Solomon uses eros—the love reserved for sexual passion. Even before I read the text, I knew that it would be a racy series, but I failed to anticipate just how explicitly erotic the class would become.
I have needed an entirely new anatomical vocabulary for this bible study. Sitting in a room with a few men and a bevy of ladies, many of whom are more than twice my age, I have enjoyed the challenge of discussing bedroom behavior in a church setting. Sometimes I rely on metaphor or innuendo to convey the actions of the two lovers, which the author of the Song covertly expresses (let the reader understand!), but, more often than not, the veil behind which the poet hides their physical affection is thin enough for all to see straight through. If you cannot recall the sort of imagery I am describing, take a moment and read Song of Solomon 7:1-9. You might wonder to yourself why such a poem is found in holy scripture.
That question—why is this text in the bible—has been the focus of our class. It has been the greatest and most interesting challenge of the series. Even more difficult than searching for a modest way to discuss this immodest text, that persistent inquiry has left us scratching our heads. Is this merely a poem about two lovers? Does its supposed Solomonic provenance earn it a place in the Hebrew bible? Should we deemphasize its erotic language and read it instead as an image of God’s relationship with Israel? Or should we shift this text forward in history and understand it purely as a description of Christ’s love for the Church?
Personally, I like to think of it as a little bit of all of those things. The Song, after all, is poetry, and far be it from me to restrict the beauty of timeless poetry to a narrow, singular interpretation. Still, I believe that these verses are supposed to stretch us—to press us into a new, broader, deeper understanding of who God is and who we are in relation to him. These words are supposed to make us uncomfortable—not merely because they describe in vivid detail the physical encounter of two impassioned lovers but more importantly because they force us to consider the fullness of God’s love in a way that threatens our Puritanical sensibilities.
Consider for a moment the proposition that God loves you no matter what. For my entire life, I have heard those words from parents, teachers, and preachers. I say them over and over from the pulpit. But how do we understand those words to be true? As I attempt to internalize the unfathomable love of God, I invent a sort of divine economy in which my failures as a sinful human being are overcome by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. I recognize the limitations of that approach, but it is my best effort in explaining the inexplicable. In that mindset, however, I devalue my lovability and describe God’s love for me principally as a measured trade-off of his Son for my sin. There is value in that sacrificial, cross-centered understanding of agape, but I must also remember that God’s love for me is not meted out in doses of rationality. It is also the reckless, unabashed, all-consuming love depicted in the Song of Solomon.
Like a transfixed lover, God looks upon us with unquenchable love. No blemish, no disfigurement, no distraction can keep him away. In the words of the poet, God says to us, “You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you” (4:7). Humans in every generation have known that kind of blinding love, but who could think of himself in those terms when standing in the presence of God? Although we might pursue God with such passion, who could claim that God loves her like that? Yet that is the invitation of the Song of Solomon. That is why this strange and erotic book belongs in the bible. These holy verses invite us to consider ourselves as lovable in God’s eyes—not because we are perfect nor because we deserve God’s love but simply because God loves us like that and because his love makes us loveable.
What does the Song of Solomon teach me? It teaches me to allow God’s love for me and my love for God make me blush. Sunday's Track One OT reading (Song of Solomon 2:8-13) is a tiny slice of that blush-inducing poetry. Perhaps the preacher might take the opportunity to make all of us blush when considering the magnitude of God's love for us.
I'll have a longer post on Song of Solomon later on today, but here's a short musing on the gospel lesson for Sunday (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23).
Where do we exhibit true religion--on the inside or on the outside? As my colleague Seth Olson noted in staff meeting this morning, all of Sunday's readings seem to ask a question about true religion. What does it mean to keep all of the statutes and ordinances that God gives his people as we read about in Deuteronomy? In James we are urged to "be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves" since "religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." Finally, in the reading from Mark, Jesus criticizes the religious leaders of his day for "abandon[ing] the commandment of God and hold[ing] to human tradition." Together, these readings beg us to "look at [ourselves] in the mirror" and ask whether we are faithful to our core or merely pretending faithfulness where others can see it.
Are we faithful on the inside or only on the outside? How do we know? Going to church is a good thing, but showing up on Sunday isn't necessarily a sign of true faith. Giving alms to the poor, adopting orphans, and walking the tightrope of a holy life are all laudable things, but to what end? Are they empty practices or evidence of real faith? It's easy to say, "Well, God knows," and I'm sure he does, but I don't think it's a simple as that. I don't think our practice of faith on the outside is necessarily a black-or-white reflection of what is happening on the inside. It's always more complicated than that.
Outside and inside are linked. As Jesus says, evil starts in the heart and is then made manifest on the outside. That's true, but I don't think Jesus would say it's as easy as that. This is, after all, the same Jesus who tells the rich young man to sell all that he has and give it to the poor. It's the same Jesus who says that where our treasure is our heart will be also. It's the same Jesus who urges the disciples to wash one another's feet. These are all "outside" practices that lead to transformation on the "inside." Sometimes it's good to wash someone's feet not because you're feeling humble but because you need to learn humility. The same is true of stewardship. With discipleship, outside sometimes does lead to inside, and the same is true with sin.
My physician tells me to limit my drinking to one drink a day. Why? Not because two drinks will be detrimental to my health but because a second drink is far more likely to lead to a third drink than the first. The same is true for drugs and relationships and the Internet (look for tomorrow's post on the Ashley Madison scandal) and just about any other vice that catches up with us. No one wakes up and decides to be a junkie. Outside practices like that extra drink or that one-on-one lunch with the attractive coworker can lead to trouble.
Jesus' invitation isn't to ignore the benefits or dangers of certain habitual acts. Sometimes habits lead to a change of heart--good or bad. Instead, Jesus is asking us to abandon the practice of judging others by what we see. Just as unwashed hands do not necessarily indicate an unclean life so, too, might ritually washed hands disguise an equally unclean life. Who is to judge? Only those who can see the inside. You can't see that in the mirror, but you can see it inside yourself.
Monday, August 24, 2015
This is one of those weeks when I read the lessons for Sunday and realize right away what I think God is calling me to preach to our congregation. I might be wrong--ask the congregation on Sunday afternoon--but, for now, it seems that the gospel lesson (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23) holds great fruit for us. How do I know? Mainly because it makes me uncomfortable, and, when the lesson makes the preacher squirm at his desk, there's a good chance it will make the congregation squirm in the pews.
In this gospel passage, Jesus is approached by some of the religious leaders of their day. They are frustrated (concerned, appalled, confused) by the actions of Jesus' disciples, who, it seems, eat without washing their hands. In the exchange that follows, Jesus brings those religious leaders down from their position of assumed privilege and forces them to confront their own hypocrisy. For the most part, we skip those verses because they're about a confusing concept recorded to us as "Corban," which is actually something biblical scholars aren't sure about. Still, though, the subject of Jesus' criticism comes through. Although I prefer the power of verse 9 ("And [Jesus] said to them, 'You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!'"), the text that we have more or less says the same thing--their fault lies in their blind adherence to tradition.
And that's where I start to squirm. Tradition. Is any word more important in our church? Is any word more important to a clergyperson like me? Of course we want the answer to be yes. "Jesus" is a lot more important. So are "grace" and "love" and "sin" and "forgiveness" and "reconciliation" and "salvation." We might know in our minds that tradition isn't the content of our faith but only the method through which that faith is expressed, but our love affair with the way we do things--our traditions--burns even brighter. As yourself which would be more controversial--questioning the divinity of Jesus from the pulpit or exchanging the altar for a simple table in the middle of the room? Exactly. And that's exactly why Mark 7 begs me to preach on it.
Although I have made it a practice never to mention "the Greek text" from the pulpit, I do study it in preparation for my sermons. This is one of those weeks when the Greek will have a direct influence on my sermon, and those who read my blog may be able to hear those influences in the finished product. The Greek word that is translated as "tradition" is the word paradosis. Over and over, it is translated as "tradition," and there isn't really any wiggle room in that. But the etymology of the Greek word is worth noting. As you can see here, it comes from para, which means "from" as in having come from close beside something, and didomi, which is the verb for "give over." That means that the root for the word "tradition" means "to hand over from close beside." Imagine that. The Latin root for "tradition" isn't far from that (trans + dare = "to give across"), but it carries some etymological connotation shared with "betray," which is another sermon entirely. Since the New Testament was originally written in Greek, I'll stick with the Greek and ponder in what ways our "traditions" are merely closely kept things that have been handed over to the next generation.
Last week, someone mentioned to me in passing that he had inherited many sentimentally important things from his mother that have no value except to him. "When I die, I'd guess they will all be thrown away." I understand that feeling. I have it about many things. For example, I still have two soccer goalie jerseys from high school hanging in my closet. They remind me of a chapter from my past, and, even though I can't imagine I'll have an opportunity to wear them (except maybe for Halloween), they still hang in my closet. Shame on me! God forbid one of my children think they were important enough to keep for another generation. Imagine that--our children holding on to something we'd just assume throw away but can't find the will to go through with it. Sound familiar?
As the joke goes, "Do it once, and it's an experiment; do it twice, and it's a tradition." How much of what we do is out of tradition? All traditions have their root in something, but is that something worth holding on to? Last night at EYC, we had an "Instructed Compline," to help prepare the youth to lead the service each Sunday night for the rest of the year. When we got to the Vs and Rs, Kristin explained that those were for "versicle" and "response." In a moment of panic, I worried someone would ask me where those came from. I have an idea that versicle refers to a statement of scripture used as a liturgical call and response, but I can't justify its continued use in the prayer book. Maybe it's time to let that go. Maybe it's time to let a lot of things go.
Jesus doesn't defend his disciples' practice of eating with unwashed hands. Instead, he questions the Pharisees' reliance on tradition. "Do you know what you're saying?" he seems to ask them. "Why is that so important to you? Can't you see what really matters?" Jesus isn't saying we should throw all of our traditions away, but he is asking us to focus on what's important. And, when our love of tradition grows to be out of sync with the content of our faith, we need a realignment of our priorities. Maybe I'll spend the first half of this Sunday's sermon talking about the importance of moving the altar away from the wall (at St. John's it's still fixed as for an eastward-facing celebration of the Eucharist). Then, once everyone is angry as hell, I'll spend the rest of the sermon asking them why they got so upset. That is, unless they've all walked out before the end.
Thursday, August 20, 2015
In John 6, after teaching the crowd that he had come to feed the world with the "bread of life," and clarifying for "the Jews" (John's word for his opponents) that his own flesh was the bread that came down from heaven to give life to the world, Jesus met with a large number of his disciples, who were uncomfortable with his strange, seemingly un-Jewish message. They grumbled (often translated "complained") among themselves and said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" And Jesus, perceiving that his disciples were unhappy, said to them in a nice, parentally sarcastic tone, "Oh, I'm sorry. Does that offend you? Deal with it."
Well, he didn't exactly say that, but he came pretty close. "Does this offend you?" What a slaying statement from Jesus! He doesn't say, "Is this hard to understand?" or "Are you confused?" or "Why is this troubling you?" He strips all of that away, gets right to the real issue, and says, "Does this offend you?" Through the wording of his question, he's letting them (and us) know that the real problem--the real thing getting in the way of our belief--isn't a difficult theological teaching but our own selfish sensibilities. Think about it. Anytime someone asks, "Does this offend you?" they aren't looking for an answer. They're essentially saying, "It's your problem; deal with it."
There's a complicated but beautiful exegesis to be made about grumbling. That recalls for us the Israelites during their wandering through the wilderness. "Have you brought us out here to kill us?" the people grumbled against Moses. They demanded a sign, and God through Moses gave them bread from heaven. Now, Jesus has been asked for a sign (John 6:30). He gave them bread in the miracles of the loaves and fish. Still the people aren't getting it. Now even his own disciples won't get it. Perhaps there's an implicit question in their minds and hearts about what sign Jesus will show them to prove his authority to make these other-worldly claims. Regardless, Jesus jumps ahead and tells them what that sign will be: "What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?"
In other words, Jesus says that the proof you're looking for is even harder to grasp than the message I'm already preaching. There was legend of Moses' ascent into heaven. Elijah, too, is known to have been taken into heaven in God's chariot. Jesus is ranking himself among the greats of his people's religion--even greater, in fact--and even his dedicated followers weren't willing to hang around long enough to see that. As we read in Sunday's gospel, "Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him." They couldn't hack it. They didn't believe. They were offended. They walked out.
Stop and think about that for a moment: Jesus' message was so hard to hear--so offensive--that his disciples started deserting him. But did he care? "What, does this offend you?...It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe." Jesus called them out. He didn't sugar coat his message. He didn't backtrack. He didn't flip-flop. He preached the truth and let the people deal with it. And the truth is that the gospel is offensive.
If people aren't getting up and leaving in the middle of church, then preachers like me aren't doing our job. You don't like it? This offends you? There's the door. If your life and your work and your sermons and your ministry and your relationships are fully immersed in the good news of the gospel, let them walk. As Peter said when asked by Jesus whether the twelve would turn and go, "To whom can we go? [These are] the words of eternal life." If the preacher is really preaching the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ, people will walk out, but those who seek the truth and true life will stay.
That isn't a good recipe for building a resume. It isn't a strategy for endearing the church leaders to the preacher and her/his message. But Jesus wasn't very popular with the religious authorities either. That's a painful, costly road to walk, but we walk it behind our savior. Take the gloves off of the gospel. Let the sharp word of Jesus Christ be preached. And leave the doors open so that people can walk out--and so that those who seek the truth can find their way in, too.
Wednesday, August 19, 2015
We don't have too many weddings in our parish--an average of three or four a year--but for some reason this year has been especially busy. In the last few weeks, I've had four different couples in premarital counseling. As each wedding draws closer, the couple and I spend our last session discussing the service. The couple's homework (yes, there's homework each time) before that final session is to read all of the appointed lessons and choose together which ones are appropriate for their wedding. As I discuss the possibilities with the couple, I always explain that, they may choose the reading from Ephesians 5, which is a wonderful passage of scripture, but I will preach on that passage, and it takes a little bit longer than 5 or 10 minutes to wrestle with that text on a wedding day.
I've been having that conversation a good deal lately, so Ephesians 5:21-33 has been on my mind a lot, and I was shocked, dismayed, disappointed, and distraught to see that, as we make our way through Ephesians in our Sunday-morning lectionary, the RCL skips that passage entirely! When I noticed that this Sunday we will jump into the "armor of God" bit from Ephesians 6, I scratched my head and thought, "Where did 'Wives be subject to your husbands' go? I thought it was in there?" So I went back and checked the old BCP lectionary, and, sure enough, the epistle lesson for Proper 16, which is this Sunday, is Ephesians 5:21-33. You can compare the RCL and BCP lessons here and here, respectively. As I said earlier this week, I'm not preaching on Sunday, and, if I were, maybe I'd be thankful that we leapfrog over this tough part of the bible, but, from where I sit, I think it's a shame that the preacher isn't invited to tackle this bit of the bible.
In what many would call "shockingly outdated" language, Paul writes, "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as you are to the Lord. 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 Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands." Read those words again. Remember that they are in the bible--the same bible that proclaims "there is neither male nor female," the same bible that declares "God created humankind in his own image...male and female he created them," the same bible that instructs "the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death." And here's the real question: what do we do with verses like those? How will the church handle them?
We can skip them altogether, which is what the RCL is suggesting we do. Sure, great idea. We'll ignore them--pretend they aren't in there--and trust that people won't worry about that part of the bible. The problem with that, though, is that other preachers are talking about Ephesians 5:21-33, and they are using those verses to subjugate women to the physical, verbal, and emotional abuses of misogynistic husbands, relatives, and church leaders. Our silence creates a great vacuum from which there appear to be only two options: accept misogynistic Christianity or reject the Jesus-movement altogether. Surely we have something to say about that, and say it we must.
How do we make sense of Ephesians 5:21-33 in a church that believes in the full inclusion, full participation, and full redemption from oppression of women and their voices in biblical, theological scholarship and leadership? I might not be the best person to ask, but here's what I think.
Some of us might reject this bit of scripture as impossible to transfer from its ancient context into modern culture. That is, some might say that these words of Paul do not and cannot have a place in today's church. They were written at a time when things were fundamentally different and so are not applicable today. We use this hermeneutical approach to read lots of scriptural passages--including the bit about stoning adulterers to death. But I think that's almost as bad as skipping it completely. I think there is good, genuine, gospel hope in these words, and, as reticent as I might be to utter them, I think Ephesians 5:21-33 is an important passage for couples to consider as they prepare for and journey through marriage.
Consider briefly Paul's understanding of the headship of Christ. He likes the body image and repeatedly affixes Jesus as its head. That is the root of the image in these verses: "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 Savior." Paul makes it clear that no part of the body is indispensable. All are interconnected. Yes, the head takes a role of prominence, but that doesn't mean it's better. Consider 1 Corinthians 12:22-25:
On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.I wouldn't conclude from this that the head/man has less honor than the rest of the body/woman, but I would say that this passage shows the headship image used in Paul's understanding of the body of Christ is not about hierarchy as we might initially think.
Going a step further, consider what sort of headship Christ demonstrates in Paul's theology. The exaltation of Christ is principally the product of his humility, as Paul writes in Philippians 2:5-9:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name...The word "therefore" is a strong statement that causally links the sacrificial humiliation of Christ with his exaltation. For me, this is the core of what Paul writes in Ephesians 5:21-33. He isn't commanding wives to submit to their husbands in blind obedience. He is inviting them to identify their role in the wife-husband relationship as one that benefits from the sacrifice of the husband and so participates in the relationship through sacrificial love. As Paul begins the whole passage in verse 21, "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ."
Paul could have reversed the husband and wife images. He could have started with what he says to the men: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy..." But he didn't. I think that's because he wanted to lead his readers down a path of their own expectations before shocking them with the necessary, egalitarian message of a husband's sacrificial love. To the ancient ear--just as to our own--there isn't much surprise to a male church leader declaring that women should submit themselves to their husbands. That was the "easy" part for Paul's audience to read. But then Paul forces them to go back and read the whole thing again when he pulls the rug out from under their feet by saying that husbands must love their wives sacrificially--even to the point of giving up their lives for the ones they love. "Wait, what did you say?" they might have said to themselves. "Let's go back and read that bit again." And then we're drawn into the fuller, mature understanding of headship, which is to say of humiliated, sacrificial connectivity.
Is Paul a misogynist? I had to write an essay on that in seminary. I concluded the answer was "no," but only because I wanted it to be "no." Since then, I've been married and enjoyed married life for almost a decade. I'm starting to learn what Ephesians 5:21-33 really means. And, trust me, it isn't about misogyny. There is real, egalitarian, gospel-centered love in this passage. Let's not skip it entirely.