This post outlines egalitarian movement in the first half of Ephesians and addresses the contradiction between such a movement and the patriarchal emphasis in the household code at the end of the epistle. Three observations are made which help explain this difficulty. First, Paul’s sees it has his mission to reveal the consequences of what he identifies as “the mystery.” The consequences of this mystery relativize modes of identity formation. Second, this mystery serve as a temptation to undermine oppressive systems by empowering the disenfranchised. Finally, it is argued that the household codes are an attempt, by Paul, to walk a fine line between holding identities open to critique, while at the same time encouraging unity.
In an effort to support the claim that the mystery revealed by Christ possesses the power to relativize fixed identity structures, we will begin in Chapter one, with Paul’s complex doxology. For exegetical purposes, I have divided the doxology into five sections:
(a) 1.4-5: For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will–
(b) 1.6-7: To the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins,
(c) 1.8: in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.
(d) 1.9: And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ,
(e) 1.10: to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment–to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.
As is common practice with epistolary literature, the beginning of Ephesians (1.3-1.10) epitomizes the argument which Paul thereafter repeats and extrapolates. In the first half of Ephesians, we find a linguistic terrain rich with metaphors and Old Testament allusions. Paul makes this difficult language clear as he repeats and expands on each section throughout the remainder of his letter. As mentioned above, the mystery referred to in section (d) will be our primary focus.
The first repetition follows immediately after the doxology in verses 11 to 23. It is worth rehearsing parts of this section to observe how Paul initially explains the mystery made known through Christ.
(a’) 1.11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.
(b’) 1.12-14: We who first hoped in Christ… you also were included in Christ when you heard the word… Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession…
(c’) 1.15-18: For this reason… I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance…
Up until this point, the repetition is clear. However, in verses 19-21 Paul omits the word “mystery” and thereby strays from referring to the doxology. The structure of verses 11-23 allows us to reasonably assume that (d’) is a reference to the mystery. Indeed, the fact that Paul intends (d’) to be an explanation of the mystery is supported by his explanation of it in chapter three, a connection that will be addressed in what follows.
(d’) 1.19-21: That the power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.
(e’) 1.22-23: And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
If the references in the text outlined above are correct, then Paul intends (d’) as an elaboration of (d) — the mystery made known to him. The mystery revealed to him is the fact that Christ has been raised above “all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given…” Paul’s mission, then, is to reveal that Christ’s power is above all human political and social structures. On this point, George Caird argues, in his book, Paul’s Letters from Prison, that heaven, in Ephesians specifically, “is the realm of all the unseen forces, good and evil, which struggle to dominate the individual and corporate life of man, through his politics, his religion, his social ideals and mores, and all the other influences that affect his beliefs and conduct.” The mystery of Christ, as Paul argues, pertains to Christ’s role in this invisible realm of social and political identity, a role that makes every one of our identities relative to him. Paul is effectively claiming that Christ’s power and work opens up all authority systems and modes of identity production to the possibility of questioning and reevaluation.
This argument is repeated in Ephesians’ three where Paul summarizes the content of Ephesians’ one and two, reiterating the five points outlined in the doxology while emphasizing his mission to make plain the administration of the mystery of the gospel, especially in terms of the relationship between Gentiles and Jews. Paul states, “this mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus” (3.6). Regarding Israel’s relation with other nations (here symbolized by Gentiles), the mystery results in the breaking of violent identity structures that inhibit others from participating in the grace of God. On this point Paul, invoking Isaiah 57.19, writes, “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations” (2.14-15a). The authors Ched Myers and Elaine Enns point out that in the semantic universe of the author, this dividing wall may allude to several traditions at once. First, in Ezekiel 13.14, “where a ‘white washed’ wall represents the false prophets who proclaim peace when there is no peace.” Second, this verse could allude to the five-foot wall separating the outer court of the Gentiles from the rest of the Jerusalem Temple. Third, it may allude to the “Torah itself, which was often referred to as a ‘fence’ around Israel.” These allusions bring to mind the institutionalized enmity between Jew and Gentile, enforced by complex webs of cultural, institutional, and religious structures/attitudes. The breaking down of these hostile walls is a direct consequence of the mystery as it is revealed in (d’). Just as Ephesians’ three addresses the specific barriers dividing Jews and Gentiles, (d’) refers to the universal work of Christ—the relativization of all hierarchical structures.
This brings us to the question of an empowerment that tempts or encourages the disenfranchised to undermine oppressive structures of identification. If we take a step backward in the text to Ephesians’ two, Paul, expanding upon the nature of the mystery, makes the provocative claim that all those who once were sinful, all those who were “dead in their transgressions,” have been raised up with Christ: “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (2.6). This is truly a bizarre image; humanity, because of the work of Christ, sits in the heavenly realms over and above every “title that can be given” (1.20). Gentile, Jew, female, male, child, slave are all apart of a system of identification that Christ raises the sinful above, a system that Paul, when referring to divisive cultural symbols between Jew and Gentile, names “the dividing wall of hostility” (2.14). If interpreting this claim as “a call to insurrection” is too strong a wording, it is, for those who occupy the bottom of the hierarchical system, an empowering, even revolutionary idea. Due to the work of Christ, all who were sinful are now in a position to question social and cultural modes of identification. Thus, the temptation Yoder identifies in the Gospels is present in the power of Christ as explained in Ephesians.
This temptation created problems for early Christian communities. The second half of Ephesians, beginning in the fourth chapter, stresses Paul’s concern that the mystery of Christ might potentially cause disunity among a young Christian community. Such a community — one in which every mode of identity production (including the community’s self identification) is open to questioning — poses obvious difficulties for leadership and the cohesiveness of the group. Taken raw, without adequate time to cure, the mystery could potentially create debilitating internal conflict. Yet, unlike the extreme violence witnessed in the French revolution or the Arab Spring (which has often escalated into civil war) Paul does not advocate a revolutionary movement which overthrows the elite, dividing society into chaos. Rather, as Paul explains in Ephesians’ four, his call to insurrection is one he envisions as motivated and directed by love, wisdom, and mutuality.
In respect to these notions, Paul finds it pertinent to remind his readers in the first half of Ephesians of two things. First, he reminds his audience that this new freedom is “not from [ourselves], it is a gift of God” (2.9). Second, Paul makes it clear that this freedom is not meant for boasting, but for the purpose of good works (2.10). For these reasons, Paul reminds the Gentiles that before Christ and the fulfillment of God’s relativizing plan (2.14-16) they were “foreigners to the covenants of the promise” (2.12). In warning his audience to handle this newfound freedom with care, Paul anticipates the revolutionary’s tendency to become the tyrant.
In part three, we’ll conclude this series by addressing the connection between the mystery and the household codes discussed in part one, arguing that Paul walks a fine line between holding identities open to critique, while at the same time, recognizing the need to identify as a determinate group or person.