In an introductory session, I remember Tony Lewis, the Molly Laird Downs Professor of New Testament at VTS, telling our Ephesians class how angry Paul made him when we wrote about slaves and masters. When we got to that section of the text, however, I recall the conversation containing less vitriol than I expected. This morning, however, all the anger and frustration I once anticipated seems to have resurfaced in my reading of the text.
This morning’s New Testament lesson (Ephesians 6:1-9) is the latter half of the “Household Code”—that section of text in chapters five and six of Ephesians in which Paul tells everyone how he or she is supposed to behave. The former half, which was yesterday’s reading, contains Paul’s less-than-modern (and quite offensive) instruction for wives to “be subject” to their husbands. Because this morning’s lesson, which commands slaves to “obey [their] earthly masters with fear and trembling,” has been separated from the part about husbands and wives, there is nothing else to receive the ire of the reader. As I read this part by itself, I realize just how infuriating it can be.
Some writers attempt to redeem Paul, arguing that in his day he was actually progressive. Although a 21st-century reader finds his Household Code anachronistic and distasteful, a 1st-century Christian would have been amazed at how inclusive and forward-thinking Paul was…or so the argument goes. But I don’t want to redeem Paul. I don’t want to let him off the hook. I want to read this passage in all its unholiness and be angry and resentful. Instead, I want to take Paul at his word and then argue how completely necessary it is for modern Christians to be willing to depart from the instructions contained in ancient texts when they clearly contradict our contemporary understanding of God’s will.
No one would argue that slaves (those of the 1st century, of the 19th century, or of the 21st century) should meekly obey their oppressors. Simply identifying the threads of progressivism within Paul’s letter and discarding the rest isn’t good enough. We can’t just look for the positive within an abhorrent text. We must be willing to face the sin of scripture head on and name it for what it is. Then, we can unlock our faith from distant past and make it relevant for today’s world.