YOU’re a minister (77 seconds)

Ephesians 4:11-13

77-second video (or if you’d rather read, the text follows):

In Ephesians 4:11-13, the job of ministers of the Word is to equip the rest of Christ’s body for the work of the ministry. We believers are all Christ’s body, all called to ministry. We each have special gifts and special doors for ministry. It is you whom God positioned strategically to reach your neighborhood, your school, your place of employment, perhaps for local prisons, nursing homes or other venues. You are responsible for those God placed in your path. 95 percent of the work of Christ’s body will never get done if we are depending on just 5 percent of the members to do it. We can’t neglect work or family, but if we have to neglect some pastimes for ministry, we will be trading merely momentary pleasures for making an eternal difference. If you are Jesus’s follower, you are a member of Christ’s body. Ask God where you can make a greater difference around you. God can and will use you.

Racial and ethnic reconciliation

Craig was invited to speak on this at Asbury Seminary Chapel some time ago. This seems a good time (right after Martin Luther King Jr. Day) to post it (29 minutes and 59 seconds) (It’s not my picture on the front but it’s me inside during the sermon).

Scripture challenges racism

Craig was invited to preach and address race issues in a forum with Christena Cleveland of Duke, and also in chapel this past week. This is his 30-minute chapel message, from Ephesians 2:11-22.

(For those who wonder: Yes, I know some people don’t think Paul wrote Ephesians. I think he did. Even if you disagree, you can still get good ideas from the sermon. 🙂 )

Feel alienated from church?

Some people don’t attend church because they were hurt by the church. That’s understandable, especially if you had people there harassing or abusing you and even doing it, tragically, in the Lord’s name. Hey, Jesus had problems with religious folk in his day, too. In a way, you might feel more access to God not being around those who misrepresent him. Yet in Ephesians 5 we see that Jesus loves the church. He laid down his life for the church—for the purpose of making the church spotless and pure. If you love Jesus, you are part of the church. If you and I are talking about him together, in a sense we are doing church. Church is not something you just go to. It’s when you engage with other believers about Jesus. But because we’re members of a larger body, it’s not something we can do on our own. Of course, if you’re on a desert island or you’re somewhere else where there are no fellow followers of Jesus, no one can hold that against you. But it’s important for us to connect with other believers to honor the Lord together, and if there aren’t any, maybe the Lord can use you to help some others become believers. You’ll never find perfect Christians (or perfect people of any sort) to hang out with, but just as God is patient in putting up with us, we have to be patient putting up with others.

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.

The whole armor of God–Ephesians 6

There are various dimensions of what people often call “spiritual warfare,” but one dimension we sometimes miss is the mundane, day-to-day way we treat each other and walk with God … things like truth, justice, faith, sharing our faith, and so forth. That is, some of the very things that Ephesians 6 discusses when it talks about the full armor of God.

I wrote a fuller essay on this subject–longer than the normal blog post here–for a book edited partly by my friend Rob Plummer of Southern Seminary. The essay is available free at the following location (as well as some other references on the internet):
Although I touch on some other elements of spiritual warfare, I emphasize here the practical, day-to-day dimensions involved. Of course, I still have much to learn in practice; but I believe you will find the Bible study helpful.

How do we imitate God?—Ephesians 5:1; 1 Corinthians 11:1; and other passages

What does Eph 5:1 mean when it exhorts us, “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children” (NIV)? Should we try to be omnipresent (everywhere at once), as God is? Should we try to create the universe? The context is very specific how we should imitate God. We should forgive as God in Christ forgave us (4:32) and love one another, just as Christ sacrificially loved us (5:2).

Paul similarly invites his hearers in Corinth to imitate him as he imitates Christ (1 Cor 11:1). Paul offered himself in 1 Cor 9 as an example of giving up his rights; in 10:33, he summarizes, “just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved” (NRSV). This is how Paul followed the example of Christ, and invites others to follow his example.

Other passages also speak of imitating God or Christ, although in different words. For example, 1 Pet 1:14-16 urges us not to act like we did before we followed Christ, but to be holy in our behavior as God is holy. That is, God has set us apart for himself, so we should behave like those who are consecrated for God’s eternal purposes, not living for things that do not really matter. (Peter cites Lev 11:44-45, where God already invited this imitation, in that case by Old Testament food customs separating Israel from surrounding cultures.)

In Matthew 5:48, Jesus calls us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is. This does not mean that if we miss a point on a test we are disobeying this command. The context is God’s example: he sends the agricultural blessings of sunshine and rain on both those who serve him and those who do not. In the same way, we should love our enemies, thus acting like his children who follow his example (Matt 5:44-45). (This is clear in the same context in Luke, where Jesus is instead quoted as, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful”; Luke 6:36 NASB.)

Something goes even deeper than imitation, however, and enables us to imitate God in these moral ways. If we recognize Jesus as our Lord and Savior, he sends God’s Spirit to live in us (Rom 8:9). The fruit of God’s Spirit in us means that God’s own character, his own heart, is at work inside us. Because of this, we will grow to be more and more like him, because of his own gift of his Spirit to us. (For more detail on this, see the post on this website concerning the fruit of the Spirit:

Slaves and slaveholders—Ephesians 6:5-9

Early U.S. slaveholders did not want slaves to hear the gospel because they feared that the slaves would think themselves equals of the slaveholders; numerous slave revolts pervaded by biblical imagery (such as Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser, and John Brown) show that they were right.

Yet slaveholders eventually found a way to truncate the gospel in a way supportive of their interests. The Slave Narratives reveal that many slaves loved Jesus but hated Paul, because slaveholders had often quoted Ephesians 6:5: “Slaves, obey your mortal masters … as you would Christ.” Yet slaveholders (who also argued that most cultures through history had practiced slavery) ripped this saying of Paul’s out of context. They ignored the cultural background and especially the letter’s literary context.

First, they misunderstood the slavery that Paul addressed here and so created an inappropriate analogy. (For informed readers who might wonder: I agree with Harold Hoehner’s argument for Pauline authorship of Ephesians; those who demur nevertheless agree that the narrated author is Paul.)

Different forms of slavery existed in Paul’s day. Slaves condemned to the mines or to gladiatorial combat rarely lived two years; this was the harshest form of slavery. Another harsh form of slavery was the use of slaves on plantations, although it was more common to use free peasants. These slaves had difficult lives, although their situation was in many respects comparable to that of the peasants who worked the feudal estates in the Roman countryside. Neither had much chance in life of changing their lot; slaves could be beaten, but “free” peasants who gave the landlords too much trouble could be assassinated and replaced. In one report of Pliny the Younger, he treats the slaves better than the peasants. Injustice was pervasive.

But Paul addressed a different kind of slavery: he wrote to urban congregations, hence addressed urban, i.e., household, slaves. Ancient Mediterranean household slavery was unjust, yet it differed from the slavery usually practiced in the Americas, which was more like the plantation slavery mentioned above. The category “slavery” included high-status slaves. Some aristocratic women even married into slavery by marrying high-class slaves, thereby improving their own social status; the most powerful slaves of Caesar wielded more power than free aristocrats. More often, household slaves could save money on the side, sometimes buying their freedom and sometimes even buying other slaves (sometimes even while still slaves themselves).

More importantly, a significant proportion of ancient household slaves became free (though partly so slaveholders would not have to keep supporting them). Slaves of Roman citizens freed after age 30 became Roman citizens themselves, and the former slaveholders were responsible to provide them legal, political and financial help. Hereditary aristocrats complained that some of these freedpersons became the “social climbers” of their era. None of these observations diminish the injustice involved in the ancient institution; among ancient household slaves women, in particular, faced exploitation that was at times comparable to that of women household slaves in the U.S. Before the civil war, some U.S. slaves also achieved freedom and even held slaves, but the proportion was tiny compared to the proportion in the Roman Empire. Without exaggerating differences, it should be noted that the range of experiences in ancient Mediterranean slavery differed from that practiced in the Americas.

American slaveholders’ knowledge of ancient slavery was undoubtedly limited. More inexcusably, however, the slaveholders ignored Ephesians’ own context, which went on to demand that slaveholders treat their slaves in the same way! Paul expected believing slaves to take advantage of freedom when they had that opportunity (1 Cor 7:21-23); he also wanted Philemon to free the recently converted Onesimus to help Paul in ministry. But even in our very passage, Paul says that slaves and slaveholders share the same heavenly Lord (Eph 6:9).

Sometimes we are annoyed that Paul did not attack slavery more directly. But we should not forget that these few sentences were not meant to address the institution of slavery itself. Pastors do not counsel someone struggling in their marriage by discussing weddings or marriage-related laws in society. We do not counsel someone struggling with drugs by discussing the legality of drugs, the international sources of drugs, and so forth; we try to help the person deal with their drug problem. Larger structural issues matter, but they are not the immediate subject of our counseling. In the same way, Paul’s letters to real congregations addressed slaves in the situation they were in. These letters do not reveal Paul’s views on the larger question of slavery. Ephesians may, however, imply his views.

Aristotle had complained about some thinkers who felt that slavery was “against nature,” and therefore should be abolished. By Paul’s day, some Stoic philosophers still affirmed that slavery was against nature, but they did not try to abolish it.

Yet Paul not only believes here that slavery is against nature; he calls for Christian ethics that ultimately subvert it. After Paul calls slaves to submit to slaveholders, he calls on slaveholders to “do the same things to them” (Eph 6:9). This is how he expects Christian mutual submission (Eph 5:21) between slaves and slaveholders. One wonder what such instructions would ultimately do to slavery, if anyone paid attention to them. Who would invest money to buy a fellow master? Latching on to principles in Paul and other biblical writers, Christian abolitionists, both black and white, later in history forcefully demanded the end of slavery. Some devoted entire manuals to biblical arguments against slavery.

One of my favorite courses to teach, both in the U.S. and in Africa, is biblical interpretation. Context and background are both essential principles, but there is also another one that the slaveholders missed. The fear of God is the true beginning of knowledge (Prov 1:7): if you fear God, you will be afraid to twist Scripture to make it say what you want. The slaveholders valued their economic interest more than they feared the God who was the only true master of all (Eph 6:9). Hearing God’s voice in Scripture rather than our own can sometimes be a matter of life and death; that was the case in the 1800s, and it remains true on many other issues today. Outright slavery continues in today’s world, though virtually all Christians today oppose it. Yet many Christians overlook other issues of injustice that biblical texts could expose. May God open our eyes, and may we fear him enough to seek what is just rather than what is convenient.

This is adapted from an article that Craig wrote for the AME Zion Missionary Seer in 2006. Craig has authored 17 books and is ordained in an African-American denomination.

The down payment—2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:13-14

Did you know that we have already begun to taste the future world? We are visitors in this age; our true home is in the age to come. That does not mean that we should be irrelevant to this age; rather, it means that we should be all the more relevant, but the substance of our relevance is not following the fads, fashions and whims of our culture. Rather, we shed the light of God’s kingdom, with its transforming vision of justice, peace and righteousness, in a world that has forgotten the only true and transcendent source of hope.

Hebrews 6:5 says that those who believe in Christ “have tasted of the powers of the age to come.” Likewise, Paul declares that Christ delivered us from (literally) “this present evil age” (Gal 1:4). He also warns us not to be “conformed to this age, but be transformed by your mind being made new” (Rom 12:2). These writers were simply following what Jesus had already revealed. “If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God,” Jesus announced, “then God’s kingdom has come upon you” (Matt 12:28).

Jesus’s contemporaries were expecting the messianic king and future kingdom to come soon; they were expecting the dead to be raised and that God would pour out his Spirit. But the king, Jesus, who is yet to come, has already come the first time. Although we still await the resurrection of our bodies, Jesus has already been raised from the dead in history. And since the day of Pentecost God has been pouring out the Spirit. In the language of many scholars, the kingdom is “already/not yet”: the consummation remains future, but we are already living with some of the benefits of that future kingdom.

This future reality invades our lives by the Spirit. The Spirit is promised for the future age, but through him we can taste God’s presence and power in our lives in the present. That is why Paul speaks of the Spirit as the “down payment” of our future inheritance (2 Cor 1:22; 5:5; Eph 1:13-14). The Greek word sometimes rendered “down payment” here was used in ancient business documents for the first installment: no mere verbal guarantee, it is the beginning experience of what is promised. By experiencing the Spirit, we are experiencing a foretaste of the glories of the coming world in God’s presence.

That is why Paul wrote, “The things that eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor have occurred to the human heart—(so it is with) the things that God has prepared for those who love him. But God has revealed them to us by the Spirit” (1 Cor 2:9-10). Because the Spirit is intimate with God the Father’s heart, Paul explains, we can know God’s heart for us (2:10-16). Through the Spirit, we have a foretaste of the beautiful intimacy that we will share with God through all the ages of eternity.

We belong to a future age; let us not forget that crucial feature of our identity. The world around ought to be able to look at the church and see a foretaste of what heaven will be like. If they cannot, it is because we are living short of our birthright in Christ. May we dare to believe what God declares about our identity in Christ, as partakers of a new creation that began when Jesus rose from the dead.

Craig is professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary; he is author of The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament.