One of the thorny questions that the church has always faced – and individual Christians, as part of the church community – is how followers of Jesus relate to the social order around them. Where do they conform and where do they stick out? Or, to put it another way, what do they challenge?
It is hard for us to get a sense now of just how radical the original church community was. The fact that Paul assumes that Jews and non-Jews, as well as slaves and slave owners, are in the church meeting listening to this being read together would have been almost unheard of in the culture of that time. Such groups simply didn’t mix socially, and certainly not as equals. The Christian community, therefore, was seen as more than just unique, it could even be dangerous. Such mixed communities implicitly challenged and even undermined ‘the way things are’.
Paul often has this question at the back of his mind, including here. He’s spent the letter wonderfully describing our new life in Christ, and emphasising that all can enjoy this life – ‘no Gentile or Jew… slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all’ (v11). So, does that mean that all previous social norms have broken down? Is there no ‘social order’ at all any more?
The Christian community is radical, but not anarchic – and so, just in case this letter is read as a recipe for revolution, Paul emphasises in this next section (which forms today’s passage) that certain patterns of relating still exist for followers of Christ. Although we now treat elements of this passage as controversial, it is fascinating that what would have made it controversial at the time of writing was not what it said, for example, to women or slaves, but rather what it said to husbands, fathers and slave owners.
In the longer version of this teaching in Ephesians 5, and more briefly here, Paul lays expectations of care and servant-heartedness on husbands and fathers that would have been well beyond the norms for men of that time. Gentleness is emphasised – and gentleness is well defined elsewhere as ‘strength under control’. Our mutuality may be expressed in slightly different ways, but the underlying themes of equality before God and mutual loving service of each other, following the pattern of Jesus himself, are at the heart of all our relationships within the Christian community, especially these most foundational relationships here.
Ultimately, this passage makes most sense if we ask the question: how would Jesus be a spouse, or a parent, or a child? How would his model of humble love manifest itself in that relationship? It’s a high bar, certainly – but may God grant us all courage to aim for it, and the anointing grace of his Spirit to (even in a small way) live like it today.