The Mystery In Ephesians: Part 3, Paul and Deconstruction

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Part 1, Part 2

A final noteworthy point, in consideration of household codes, is the fact that the call to peace between Jew and Gentile mirrors Paul’s later call for peace between husband and wife; child and parent; and master and slave. Yoder argues that the household codes promote peace and, at the same time, undermines its own hierarchical structures. In the same way, Paul applies the principles revealed through the mystery of Christ to the barriers dividing Jews and Gentiles, arguing that they are to be dismantled when they fail to establish unity, the very principle on which they were founded. Given Yoder’s argument, there is a clear parallel between the performative function of the household codes and the work of the mystery, which Paul is called to administer.

Household codes embody the tension between unity and the temptation to undermine destructive modes of identification. On the one hand, household codes as explained by Yoder, have an inner egalitarian logic that undermine hierarchical power structures, while on the other, they promote cohesive relations between members of society. Paul negotiates a fine line, arguing that Christ subverts identity structure, and encourages believers to identify as a determinate group or person. A well functioning community requires its members to make determinate decisions regarding ethics and identity. Without these decisions, the unity Paul desires to see made present in the world would remain an abstract principle. Yet, these determinate actions must also be suspended when they fail to live up to the principle of unity, which they endeavor to embody. Thanks to the power of Christ, movement is now possible between determinate actions and the principles they make present. Identities are not decreed by fate or immune to change, rather they must be negotiated in a context, responding to historical needs of a community or individual.

urlIn summary, Paul reveals the possibility, by means of Christ’s work, for humanity to hold social expectations and identities in question. Now that we sit with Christ over and above all social ideals and norms, it becomes legitimate to reevaluate and negotiate social expectations placed on wives, children, husbands etc. The mystery reveals that one should always hear a temptation to undermine the social order if it proves inadequate to justly deal with the particularity of each new situation. It is this relativizing mystery enacted through wisdom and love that sets the stage and provides the paradigm through which we should understand the household codes in Ephesians. In the case of Ephesians, an egalitarian reading of Paul can remain consistent, demonstrating that contemporary biblical readers do not need to rely on material external to the epistle to explain the temptation or call that provokes the need for household codes.

Perhaps we should end this paper by pointing in a constructive direction for living in community with difference. To do this it is necessary to hold our names loosely, names that include: Gentile, Jew, Canadian, Christian, Muslim, male, female. In this way acknowledging that while they may enable us to relate, when they become hostile barriers, we must be able to respond to wisdom and love and renegotiate new, more adequate names. It is my suspicion that Paul recognized the radical nature of his discovery and it was for this reason that he did not create a systematic theology or book of doctrine. Rather Paul chose to write letters, addressed to specific communities that dealt with specific problems. Paul was more concerned with attempting to describe a mode of being in the world that was wise, sensitive to the spirit, and capable of discerning healthy human conduct, than constructing a social ethical system to be followed in his age and all the ages to come.

Download a pdf of the full version with citations here

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5 thoughts on “The Mystery In Ephesians: Part 3, Paul and Deconstruction

  1. Pingback: Deconstruction and Ephesians: Part 2 The Egalitarian Mystery | (un)conditional

  2. I want to get back into the conversation game again, as I have lost my way over the past few years.
    First thing I want to acknowledge is that all three parts of this blog post(ing) are well written and at times, border on complex for my simple mind. However, ultimately I strongly believe there are some fundamental issues at hand. First just to rundown what you are actually saying here and if I’m not mistaken I want to provide a summary. The crux of the issue at hand is that at first glance most people would believe that Paul is saying that husbands should be head of the family and wives are to be a respectful and submissive or secondary in their power with these verses.
    “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” Ephesians 5.23-24
    All of this is an attempt to replicate how the church submits to God as the verse points out nicely. In reality, what you are saying in a nutshell, is that what really is at play here and Paul was cognitive of this fact, is that Christ identifies certain group powers and as you state “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.” Furthermore, you go on to state that when Paul refers to when God will rise us up and have us seating together in heaven that this is an allusion to the fact that “due to the work of Christ, all who were sinful are now in a position to question social and cultural modes of identification.” Finally, what this will or hopefully will lead to is a more “unified” or perhaps a more peaceful collaboration among various groups, in this case being the household individuals of the likes of husbands, wives, or even children.
    I know the summary makes a mockery of the three well written blog posts by the over simplification of what you were trying to say, however, I hope it captures the main focus of the message. Nevertheless, the most disturbing fact of the matter is the process in making this point. The problem with it all, is that in order to come to the conclusion that you and the other authors like Yonder make is not possible without having to cut and paste a lot of verses that are at least within the same chapter but are not speaking on the same matter. The biggest issue is that you are taking verses like “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (2.6). and smashing them into our said verse about, to steal a phrase from you, household codes. This is such a dangerous practice and takes contextualization, which is so important, and is alike to pounding a square block into a circle sized hole. I guess what I am saying is that you have taken a completely unrelated verse and come up with a narrative that fits your argument and put an author’s stamp of approval behind it.
    When you examine the original verse on husband and wife roles and as I alluded to earlier, the most important message being made here is that when it comes to husband and wife relationship and ultimately marriage, what our hope should be and our end goal is to model it after Christ and Jesus and his relationship with us as Christians and the church. So, just like the verse points out wives should submit themselves to husbands as the church has submitted to Christ. Husbands should respect their wives just like Christ has respected and shown us love. Furthermore, Christ exemplified many traits that showed submissiveness that husbands should replicate like meekness, tenderness, and service. At this point, once you understand the verse then you go about finding other verses that support the main message of the verse. In this case, “Husbands, likewise, dwell with [your wives] with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7) serves as a good example of proper contextualization.
    To summarize my point, is to point to the overall danger in this attempt you have made is rather then read the verse plainly or without presuppositions, and with proper contextualization you and many others come to verses in the Bible and then come to a conclusion that is way outside the realm of what the verse is actually saying. After the conclusion is made you then go about and attempt to garner support for this conclusion no matter how unbelievable it is. It is a slippery slope that will lead to all sorts of false messages.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’m thrilled to see someone actually reading my paper closely enough to summarize it as accurately as you have.

      I’ll say five things addressing your claim that my reading the household codes in light of the first half of Ephesians’ discussion of the mystery is a dangerous “smashing” together of two unrelated verses.

      First, there are some important footnotes in the original paper that help make the connection between these seemingly unrelated verses more pronounced (Only because you have taken the time to give the paper a close reading, I’d encourage you to download the full version with footnotes). The first recalls that, in Galatians 3.28 (a book Paul wrote), the identities Jew/Gentile are addressed together with wife/husband, slave/master, and therefore Paul’s treatment of Jew/Gentile relations in Ephesians’ two, serves as the first of the potentially four household codes in Ephesians. Therefore, there is precedence in Paul’s work to relate what he says about Jew/Gentiles to the relationship between husbands/wives.

      Second, Paul makes a literary connection to the first half of Ephesians in his instructions to wives/husbands writing that the union between husband and wife “is a profound mystery–but I am talking about Christ and the church” (5.31-32). Admittedly, this reference to mystery is ambiguous because of its association to Paul’s allusion to Genesis. However, here I think your comment brings out something important to which my paper hasn’t given enough credence. Mainly that the relationship between husband and wife is to reflect Christ’s relationship with the Church. In the first half of Ephesians, as you point out, Paul says that Christ raises humanity (or the church) up with him into the heavens. Therefore, if the husband/wife relation is to reflect Christ/the church, the role of the husband is to raise up the wife with him into the “heavens,” as head of the household, or co-author of their relationship and its identity. In this sense the two become one, as the Genesis allusion suggests.

      Third, there are a number of English translation issues in the household code itself, which obscured the point I make in the last paragraph. I didn’t include this discussion in my paper as I didn’t have enough time to sort out theses issues (Although I only touched on this issue in the footnotes, when/if I pursue publications I hope to fully flesh out this translate issue).

      Fourth, as I mentioned in the paper, the simple fact that these verses exist in a single letter, written for the same purpose, addressing the same audience, implies some sort of relatedness between portions of the letter. One can’t say the same about the verse you picked from 1 Peter. Putting verses together, like one from 1 Peter and another from Ephesians ignores the immediate literary and social contexts for both. This is far more “dangerous” and requires far more skill than trying to understand how passages from the same letter hold together. For example, think about making connections and comparisons between Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia. Although these comparisons might reveal meaning, it would be more helpful to try and understand the some of the things in The Return of the King in light of The Fellowship of the Ring.

      Finally, as I attempted to argue throughout my paper, a primary theme or question Paul addresses in Ephesians could be stated something like, “how do we negotiate our unique identities among difference?” I believe both the household code and the mystery are saying something about this theme and therefore, are not totally unrelated.

      For all these reasons I think it’s fair to say that the two sections of Ephesians in question can inform one another. Perhaps you’re still not convinced?

      As an aside, the issue of reading prejudice into a text is something I am extremely sensitive to. However, we cannot read anything without a prejudice. Rather than attempting to attain an objective perspective, we must endeavour to recognize how our prejudice enables our reading. It both reveals and conceals the meaning of the text.

      Also, wretched, if you live close enough, like in Hamilton or the Niagara region, we’d love to have you at Conversations in Hamilton. You’d make an excellent additional voice in the group and the issues you raise are the issues we spend most of our time discussing.

  3. First off I would like to say that I would love to attend your group, as I love discussing these matters but I don’t live in the area.

    I really appreciate that you posted your full paper, I read through it and it is much clearer to me the connections you have made between the verses. In fact, and I don’t think this normally happens; you managed to get me to step back and examine a few things I never considered before. An example being, in your full paper when you mention
    “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.”

    You question the historical reason or really the overall reason why Paul even bothers to mention the fact about husbands and wives submitting to each other and Jew and Gentile finding peace. You also note that with the rise of Christianity that certain lower groups that were formally disenfranchised were becoming more empowered to rise up the food chain if you will because authority was unified with people below them. I would have to research that matter a little more, but I appreciated that argument.

    In your response to my original posting, you were concerned that when it comes to contextualization and reading Bible verses in context, that my connection between the Ephesians verse “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” Ephesians 5.23-24 and the verse I quoted from Peter was more dangerous. Let’s see if I can’t clarify what I was trying to say. Sorry, if I am repeating myself as well.

    What I was alluding to was when a reader comes across a particularly challenging verse like this verse in Ephesians; the first step is that you read the verses immediately preceding that verse and the verses after. Often times this helps provide a clearer picture of what the writer was trying to say. Actually, I just heard a speaker the other day say that the best way to truly understand a verse or even a whole book in the Bible is to read that book every day for a month. However, that is beside the point. The second step to take if the verse in question is still unclear is to and what I was trying to point out in my original post, look in other places in the Bible to see if there are verses that support your position, or in your words “prejudice.” So, I was taking that verse from Peter and saying here is another verse that supports my “prejudice” that I mentioned in the previous post. Now I understand, that perhaps you still don’t believe this practice to be an acceptable method, however, what I am trying to avoid is a common pitfall. I’ll gives you an illustration to support my argument and the pitfall to avoid, in Matthew 6:33 ESV it states “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.“ A reader can read this and say well here we go, here is a verse that promises me that I will finally get that new Ford focus I always wanted and make me filthy rich as long as I am seeking God first in all things. However, if that reader was smart he would take the steps I outlined above and see that the Bible says other things on this matter like Matthew 6:19-21 ESV “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Or Matthew 6:24 ESV “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.“ Finally, 1 Timothy 6:10 “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” Then the logical conclusion would be you were wrong and God will not bless you with a new Ford Focus and boatloads of money because you are seeking after him or because you’re a devout Christian.

    Hopefully, that makes it a bit clearer in what I was trying to say previously. Perhaps, you still do not agree with this method?

    • I’m glad you found the footnotes helpful.

      I think your method is a good general rule and I appreciate the fact that you emphasize starting with the immediate context of the verse, ie. the book it’s found in (I might add that an understanding of the Greek helps). I would absolutely agree with the speaker you heard, it’s best to read a verse in light of the entire book it’s found in. This is what I attempt to show in regards to the household code in Ephesians.

      As I wrote in my last comment, I think it’s important to be careful how we make connections between verses found in different books. Obviously before we can make any connects we need to read both verses carefully in their immediate context.

      Thanks again for the stimulating comments.

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