Mutual Submission—Ephesians 5:21

Sometimes Paul gets a bad rap. The Slave Narratives are replete with sentiments from former slaves who loved Jesus but hated Paul, because slaveholders regularly quoted Ephesians 6:5: “Slaves, obey your masters.” What the slaveholders didn’t bother to quote was the context, which goes on to say, “masters, do the same things to them” (6:9). That is, if slaves have to obey their masters, masters also must obey their slaves!

Did anyone in the first century take Paul literally on that point? Probably not. But that doesn’t change that what he actually said expressed one of the most radically antislavery sentiments of his day. He wasn’t talking about violently overthrowing the institution; even the failed slave revolts of his era had never attempted that. But he was talking ethics, and ethics that went beyond mere theory. Some early Stoic philosophers had advocated human equality, but Stoics had backed off from this and those who could afford it had slaves. Paul certainly agreed with Stoics in principle: he affirmed that slaves and slaveholders share the same master in heaven (Eph 6:9). But his instruction, “Do the same things to them,” goes beyond theory to practice.

This isn’t an accident, a slip of Paul’s tongue or his scribe’s pen. Paul frames his entire section of household codes with mutual submission. What are household codes, you ask? In his work on governance, the Greek thinker Aristotle had a large section on family roles. In it, Aristotle instructed the male head of the household how to rule his wife, children, and slaves. Subsequent thinkers adopted the same schema, often in the same sequence. Because Rome was suspicious that minority religious groups undermined these traditional values, such groups often labored to reaffirm their belief in such values.

Paul presents a series of household codes in the same sequence as Aristotle: the relation of the male head of the household (as it was assumed in his day) to wives, children, and slaves. Paul may be thinking like the member of a minority religious group—after all, he is writing from Roman custody, and probably in Rome (Eph 3:1; 4:1; 6:20).

Yet Paul changes the standard formula. Instead of addressing just slaveholding men, he also addresses the wives, children and slaves, who probably comprised a larger bulk of the church. (In Paul’s urban congregations, the slaves would have been household slaves, who had more freedom and frequently opportunities for manumission than other slaves. Nevertheless, they were still slaves.) Moreover, he never instructs the male householder to rule; instead, he is to love his wife, serving her by offering his life for her (5:25), to avoid provoking his children (6:4), and to treat slaves as fellow servants of God (6:9).

Most importantly, Paul frames his entire set of instructions (5:21—6:9) by enjoining mutual submission: submitting to one another (5:21) and doing the same things to them (6:9). This sets submission in a new context: the example and teaching of our Lord, who invited us all to serve one another (Mark 10:42-45; cf. John 13:14-17, 34-35; Gal 5:13-14).

Some men today like to quote Eph 5:22 (“Wives, submit to your husbands”) out of context, much the way slaveholders quoted Eph 6:5. But in Greek, there is no verb in 5:22; it simply says, “Wives, to your husbands.” Of course, it is not saying, “Wives, just do to your husbands whatever you want.” Greek grammar presumes that we will carry over the verb from the preceding verse, and that verb is “submit.” But because the verb is carried over from 5:21, it cannot mean something different than it meant in 5:21. The wife’s submission is merely an example of mutual submission; so is the husband sacrificing his life for his wife.

Some object, “But submission is explicit only for the wife!” Ah, but the command to love is explicit only for the husband (5:25). Yet we understand that all Christians should love another (5:2), and that all Christians should submit to one another (5:21). Although Paul is not trying to cover every circumstance, he offers us a general principle for how we should live: looking out for one another’s interests, listening to one another, loving others more than ourselves.

A few others taught mutual submission; like Paul, they were among the most progressive thinkers in antiquity. Yet applying Paul’s teaching on mutual submission literally would have been unheard of. Just because it was rarely attempted, however, does not make it any less significant. Even today, husbands and wives and people in other kinds of relationships often seek our own interests more than those of others (cf. Phil 2:4, 21). What would happen if we took Paul at his word? (I’m not referring to abusive relationships here. Also, there is much less mutual submission in the instruction to fathers: children do need guidance.) What would happen if we actually begin to put mutual submission into practice? Let’s try it and find out.

Craig S. Keener, Professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, is author of 20 books, including Paul, Women & Wives; The IVP Bible Background Commentary; and, most recently, with his wife, Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against all Odds.

Jacob’s breeding techniques—Genesis 30:38-42

Magic versus blessing

(Continuing the regular Tuesday Bible study series on Genesis … The home page sidebar allows you to explore any of the past studies on Genesis or other topics or biblical books.)

Jacob’s breeding techniques (30:38-42) seem strange to modern readers. Is it really true that if you mate animals in front of striped rods, they will bear striped offspring? People in antiquity sometimes thought that females conceive according to what they see when they mate. But whereas Jacob’s expectations for stronger animals producing stronger offspring fits genetics, breeding in front of striped rods does not really produce striped offspring.

Whether or not Jacob wrongly thinks that the technique could have worked otherwise, however, he recognizes that God is the one who made it work in this case (31:9-12). Jacob claims that God has given Laban’s flocks to him (31:9), and his wives agree (31:16).

In his book Bruchko, Bruce Olson recounts Motilone Indians praying and using antibiotics to cure snakebites. Antiobiotics don’t cure snakebites, but the Indians got better. If it wasn’t the antibiotics, we might consider (as Olson undoubtedly implies) that it was the prayer! Sometimes people look to secondary sources that might not be curative, e.g., a fake faith healer’s handkerchief (which might even make you sick, depending on what the healer has done with it), and yet God acts on their behalf because they also look to him. In Jacob’s case, God was blessing the line of Abraham and Isaac. Jacob had promised to serve God if God would just feed him, clothe him, and return him safely to his father’s house (28:20-21). God generously blessed him with far more than Jacob himself had envisioned.

Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against all Odds

By (and about) Craig Keener and Médine Moussounga Keener

Impossible Love (our newest book) is about God’s heart, but it’s also a true story of war, refugees, romance, adventure—and it’s the easiest of my books to read! Many who’ve read it have testified how deeply it’s touched them (e.g., J. P. Moreland, Rolland and Heidi Baker, J. Warner Wallace, Timothy Tennent, Frank Viola, George Wood).

11. After wedding-C and M-B&WThe book is our story, including Médine’s experience as a war refugee during the war in Congo

“This book is powerful and unlike any other you’ve read.”—Nabeel Qureshi, best-selling author

“a story that will grip and strengthen every hungry heart”—Rolland and Heidi Baker, Iris Ministries

“a testimony to the power, faithfulness and glory of the living God”—Dr. R. T. Kendall

“an epic story … I received a fresh revelation of the Heavenly Father’s patient long-suffering love. Everybody should read this and pass it on”—John Dawson, President Emeritus, Youth With A Mission

“What happens when the world’s greatest New Testament scholar pens his incredible story with his wife in riveting prose”—Frank Viola, best-selling author

“… a narrative filled with danger, courageous seeking of and standing for God in the midst of great … hardship”—JP Moreland, Biola University

“an open and welcoming window into God’s grace that leaves the reader cheering”—George O. Wood, General Superintendent, Assemblies of God

“changed my perspective on the power of God in the lives of His people”—Mary DeMuth, author of Worth Living

“What an incredible story! This amazing book by Craig and Medine Keener is a real page-turner”—Dr. Michael L. Brown, host of the nationally syndicated daily radio show The Line of Fire

“biographical testimony at its best because it is not merely a story of two people, but the story of God’s prevailing work in our lives”—Timothy C. Tennent, President, Asbury Theological Seminary

“one of those rarest of books which inspired me to pray to want to know and love God better”—Rich Nathan, author and senior pastor, Vineyard Columbus

“Be ready to experience a real life story more incredible than any work of fiction; you’ll be inspired and encouraged”—J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Detective

“It has it all; conflict of civil war, danger, love, friendship, faith, miracles, deliverance supernaturally, and the presentation of the faithfulness of God”—Randy Clark, Overseer of Global Awakening

God’s Presence

Christians don’t have to strive for God’s presence any more than we have to strive to be God’s children or one another’s brothers or sisters. The Spirit already lives in us if we trust in Christ (e.g., John 14:23; Romans 8:9; Galatians 4:6).

Yet some live their lives completely unconscious of God’s presence except as a doctrine. They need to live their lives in light of that doctrine.

Being aware of God’s presence doesn’t make something untrue come true. But it does make all the difference in our lives. (Somewhat analogously, there is a difference between affirming that my wife is a nice person and me spending time with her enjoying her niceness.)

The Spirit makes us aware of God’s presence, reminding us that He is with us. The Spirit energizes a faith that goes beyond mere affirmation to active embrace of the reality of God’s presence. If you long for that, you need only begin to ask. 1od has promised never to turn away one who seeks for the Spirit (Luke 11:13).

Isaac and the Philistines—Genesis 26

Living at peace with our neighbors

As a minority in a larger society, how should we as committed believers relate to those around us? Much of the Bible addresses such situations, whether the lives of the patriarchs, Israel in exile, or the New Testament. (The remnant of God-fearing believers in times that Israel as a whole was straying from God is probably somewhat less relevant for this question today because Israel had a distinctive covenant with God.) Isaac had to live at peace with his neighbors, sometimes even when his neighbors were ambivalent about living at peace with him.

God did work with the patriarchs in different ways at different times; we can learn much from our role models, but we must listen to God afresh in our own time. One may compare and contrast how he worked through Joseph and through Moses (see The differences also extend to how different patriarchs were received in Egypt in different generations. Abram went to Egypt during a famine (Gen 12:10); Isaac is told not to go during a famine (26:1-2); later God sends Joseph ahead and during a famine tells Jacob not to be afraid to go to Egypt (46:3). Jacob knew the stories of Abram and Isaac (who else would have passed on these stories?), perhaps all the more reason that he needed a divine encouragement that it was currently safe for his household to travel there.

Although some places and times are better than others, nowhere in this world is perfect or completely “safe” apart from God’s protection. Indeed, when Abraham goes to Egypt, Sarah faces severe threats to her sexual security there (12:14-15). In Egypt, Joseph faces threats to his sexual security (Potiphar’s wife held less direct physical power to enforce her harassment, but because Joseph was a slave she exercised plenty of coercive power in other respects). Yet when Isaac stays in Canaan, Rebekah also faces potential threats to her sexual security there (26:7, 10).

Isaac had clear reason for concern because local residents had asked about his wife (26:7). The complaint of the local ruler Abimelech, that one of the people might have lain with Isaac’s wife (26:10), implies that they would not have slept with a married woman. Yet it also takes for granted a low level of morality otherwise. (Given usual ancient custom, one would not expect Isaac to appreciate them sleeping unmarried even with a sister in his care.) One might compare, later in Genesis, Prince Shechem, who is the most honored member of his royal family (34:19)—yet raped Jacob’s daughter (34:2).

God directly intervenes in this case, again protecting a matriarch and the promised line. At other times, however, God allows Isaac and his people to experience conflict and difficulty—and then blesses them in spite of it.

When others want Isaac’s wells, Isaac does not fight them; he learned this good model of peace from Abraham his father, who would not contend with Lot when Lot’s shepherds (like these from Gerar in 26:20) fought with Abram’s (Gen 13:7-9). This model seems prudent particularly when dealing with those stronger than oneself (cf. 34:30)! (By contrast, the title “well of contention” in 26:20 may challenge the later Israelites, who contended with the Lord himself at Massah and Meribah—Exod 17:7.) Isaac offers a biblical model of avoiding unnecessary conflicts with our neighbors. Local residents outnumbered Isaac’s tribe, but, even among peers, wise people choose their battles.

God does not stop Isaac’s enemies from causing trouble for him, but God keeps prospering Isaac with success in the land until (26:26-31) even his enemies take note. And in 26:32-33 God blesses Isaac’s tribe even further with another well of water. Isaac was blessable, both for his own sake and for the sake of God’s promise to his father. God continues to bless Abraham beyond Abraham’s time (26:5-6, 24), and this was something Isaac may have counted on. A blessing, from a man of God who is blessed, makes something happen (27:37).

Following Abram’s model of peace was a good idea. Elsewhere also Isaac follows Abraham’s model; like Abram, he builds an altar and calls on the Lord’s name after the Lord appears to him and promises the land (12:8; 26:25). Models can of course be positive, negative, or sometimes ambiguous—as signs of God’s blessings on their forebears, the patriarchal stories are important for Israel whether or not the patriarchs always did the right thing. It was undoubtedly a bad idea for Isaac to follow Abraham’s example (from before Isaac’s birth) in calling his wife his “sister” (12:13, 19; 20:2; 26:7, 9). Genesis provides mixed signals for Jacob’s deceit in Gen 27, which was an important ancestral story about Israel’s origins.

But the accounts tend to be more positive than negative, especially with regard to Abraham (and later Joseph). There are circumstances where the righteous should not give way before the wicked (Prov 25:26), but we should choose our battles. Keeping peace with our neighbors, insofar as we can do so, is a good practice (Matt 5:9; Rom 12:18; James 3:17-18).