Better Relationships 
Paul now gives some instructions for improving a number of key relationships. These are often referred to as the ‘household codes.’ Paul addresses husbands and wives (Eph.5:21-33), parents and children (Eph.6:1-4), and finally masters and slaves (Eph.6:5-9). Just prior to this Paul noted that God calls us to live life carefully, knowing his will and making the most of every opportunity. We are not to get drunk with wine but we are to be continually filled with the Spirit. Paul describes the results of the Spirit-filled life as people whose lives are marked by singing, thankfulness, and mutual submission (Eph.5:15-20). Positioning ourselves to be continually filled with the Spirit is crucial to building the kind of loving relationships that God desires for us. Without the Spirit’s power and enablement we can easily degenerate into our old habits and patterns of relating from a self-centred perspective.

Mutual Submission 
Paul begins this section on relationships with a call for all believers to submit to one another (Eph.5:21). We are all called to self-giving love and humility modelled by Jesus himself. We are to consider others better than ourselves and to look to other people’s interests, seeking to serve them in any way we can (Gal.5:13. Phil.2:3-4. Rom.12:10). All believers are to place themselves under others in the spirit of humility. Unfortunately, for many the very word ‘submit’ implies a passive and weak approach to life. However, neither Jesus nor Paul was a weak person but they did choose to treat other people with respect and love. The call to mutual submission is the context for all that Paul says about marriage, parenting, and relationships between masters and slaves.

Marriage in the First Century 
The society that Paul lived in was completely patriarchal (dominated by men). It was a terrible time for women as they were viewed as being inferior to men and were given relatively little freedom. They received minimal education, could not be witnesses in a court of law, had less economic independence, could not adopt children or make a contract, and typically were kept from public life. When girls married (usually between age twelve and sixteen), they were expected to take the religion of their husbands. They were either under their father’s, their husband’s, or some other male relative’s authority all their lives. Within marriage, Roman law gave husbands complete authority over their wives, who were in many ways seen as the husband’s possession.

Into this environment, where the devaluation of women was the cultural norm, the Christian faith brought amazingly good news for women through the gospel of the kingdom. Jesus allowed women to be his disciples, they were the first witnesses of his resurrection and were sent to proclaim to the men that he had risen, they received the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, they were given spiritual gifts to serve the church, and they ministered and led within the church community (1) . In fact, Paul boldly declared that, because of Christ, gender distinctions, though still existing, were no longer grounds for prejudice or discrimination within the community of faith (Gal.3:28).

Can you imagine the potential uproar that this new freedom for women may have caused within society at that time? Paul’s concern was always for the credibility and the advancement of the gospel (see Titus 2:5). Interestingly, he didn’t attack or seek to overthrow the structures of how society worked in his time. For instance, he didn’t seek to abolish slavery, overthrow dictatorial Roman government, or overturn a patriarchal approach to relationships. His focus was primarily on how Christians should live out their faith with the context in which they found themselves (see Eph.6:5-9, Rom.13:1-7 and Eph.5:21-33). However, he did give his greatest challenges to the ones with the most power in that culture – husbands, parents, and masters. He pushed them towards love, kindness and consideration because of the grace that is in Christ Jesus.

Because Paul wrote at a time when wives were expected to submit to their husbands (in the same way that slaves were expected to obey their masters), he affirmed that arrangement (Eph.5:22-24, 33) but balanced it with a reminder to husbands that they were to always act in love, which would have directly affected the way that they expressed their authority (Eph.5:25-33). He also redefined the man’s leadership as being that of a servant who acts with self-giving love like Christ. Interestingly, Paul’s directions to the wives to submit and to the husbands to love are instructions given to all Christians as to how they should act towards each other.

Marriage Today 
The Bible is the inspired word of God and it was given to guide us in our lives today. Our first task is ‘exegesis’, which is where we ask what God’s Word meant back then in the culture and time in which it was given. There are considerable cultural gaps between us and world of the Bible that need to be bridged. Our next task is ‘hermeneutics’ which is where we ask what God’s Word means today in our time and culture, which is very different to the context in which it was first given. Unless this is done properly, we can misuse the Scriptures by ignoring matters of cultural context (e.g. forcing women to wear hats in church based on 1 Cor.11).

Today we no longer have household codes, we do not have slaves, and we would not group wives, children and slaves together as philosophers did in the ancient world. Unfortunately, we still live in a culture that is still somewhat patriarchal, even in the church world, where suppression and even abuse of women frequently occurs. Like Jesus, the Christian church needs to champion the value and dignity of women everywhere. There is no doubt that the trajectory of the Scriptures is toward women finding full freedom in Christ as equal heirs of the grace of life with men. Just as we applaud the abolition of slavery, so we should seek justice for women.

So what does this mean for marriage? It is important for us to realise that no Scriptural text represents all that is to be said on any given topic, including marriage. There is an important principle of ‘first mention’ that needs to be considered. Jesus regularly talked about the way things were ‘in the beginning’ as God initially intended (e.g. Matt.19:4, 8). A full study of God’s intention for marriage from the beginning shows that God desired marriage to be an equal and mutual partnership between the husband and the wife (Gen.2:18). Men and women were both created in the image of God and they were both given a dominion mandate and a reproduction mandate (Gen.1:26-28). God’s original intention was that men and women work together in harmony in a partnership of interdependency, taking their rightful place as joint-heirs and co-rulers of creation. Before sin entered there was no hierarchy, no domination and no control in human relationships, including marriage. These damaging relating patterns entered as a result of the fall (see Gen.3:16). Christ comes to redeem us from the curse of sin and to return us to God’s intentions at the beginning.

I believe that a healthy marriage involves a husband and a wife who see each other as equal partners, enjoying life together, making decisions together, and empowering each other to serve based on their unique gifts and abilities. There is mutual love and respect. Marriages of mutual empowerment do not come naturally or automatically because the human tendency is to dominate or manipulate in order to get your own way. Working out an equal partnership takes time, effort and energy. However, the very process of working it through creates character and personal growth. Most importantly, it can be a powerful witness to the watching world.

Sample Discussion Questions 

  1. What does ‘submission’ mean to you? 
  2. What was your parent’s marriage like? What ‘roles’ did your dad or mum each play and what were the expectations like? 
  3. How has that influenced your view of marriage? 
  4. What are some of the implications that the doctrine of the Trinity (one God existing in three persons - equal partners, unity in diversity, etc) has for marriage and human relationships? 
  5. From your perspective, what are some practical tips for a good marriage? 
  6. For those who are parents, what are some keys to modeling a healthy view of marriage to our children? 
  7. Marriage is not a requirement. Jesus and Paul were not married. While encouraging marriage as a good thing (in a culture where its value is diminishing), how can we also improve the way we value and affirm those who are single within the church? 

(1) It should be noted that any restrictions placed on women ministering in the early church were temporary and they were given within dysfunctional church communities. In healthy environments, ministry was based on gifting and godliness, not gender.
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