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Ephesians 6: "Be strong in the Lord"

On Sunday we finished our study of Ephesians with chapter six, which picks up where chater five left off. There we heard that wives must submit to their husbands and husbands must love their wives, and here we are given similar dynamics between children and fathers, and between slaves and masters. I want to say pretty much the same as I did last week, when I argued that while the relationships described are unbalanced and unhealthy, they were actually moving towards a greater mutuality and equality than had been the case, and they were meant to keep moving towards that mutuality and equality. These verses should be read as pointers not patterns for our relationships.

Just as the passage about wives and husbands must not be used to justify controlling or abusive behaviour in marriages, so also the passage about children and fathers must not be used to justify heavy handed discipline within families, and the passage about slaves and masters must not be used to justify slavery of any kind. That may sound obvious, but that is exactly how this passage has been used, and so it merits saying.

So what should we do with this passage? The way Jesus treated those who society had put at the bottom of the pile was supposed to change everything, but the reality is that it couldn’t change it overnight. If every Christian master released their slaves, where would they go? To new masters? To destitution? The whole system needed to be changed, and that was going to take time. But during that time, the very least those Christian masters could do was to act well towards every member of their households. This passage, like the one we looked at last week, is meant to set us on a new path.

The problem is that the church failed to see where this passage was headed. For too long it looked at these verses and thought they were enough. As long as masters treated their slaves well, they didn’t need to do any more. And that is taking a generous view, as too often it ignored the command to masters altogether. Now perhaps we need to read this in the light of other passages in the letters of the New Testament, which speak of the time being short. Perhaps those who first read this letter thought there was no time to change society, and genuinely believed this was all they could do. Perhaps that is why this passage doesn’t also include a rallying cry to dismantle the whole framework of slavery. But surely it should have occurred to the church much sooner than it did that however short the time might be, it was long enough that they could not continue to keep or leave anyone in slavery.

That the church not only allowed slavery to continue but then became utterly complicit in maintaining and justifying the transatlantic slave trade is one of its greatest sins. And it was the misuse of passages like this that allowed that sin to happen. It is very easy for us to see what we want to see, and too many people saw in the instruction to slaves an endorsement of slavery, and failed to understand that the instructions to masters could not allow it to continue. Once we recognise that there is no favouritism with God, how can we possibly perpetuate favouritism with people - in any form, let alone to the extent of enslaving and abusing others? This passage demands that there must be an equality and a mutuality to all of our relationships. And even if we can’t change everything all at once, recognising that will get us moving in the right direction.

I’ve hit a lot of the same points as last week, but I wanted to spend more time with these household code passages, because they really emphasise the importance of reading the Bible well, not just taking each word as it comes, but looking at where those words have come from and where they are headed. Read out of context, these passages have led to centuries of oppression and abuse. Read sensitively, they can lead us to a new dawn of liberation.

We move now to the armour of God passage. I suspect this is familiar to many of us, but familiar passages may still hold new lessons. I always read verse twelve as meaning that our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against rulers and authorities WHO ARE spiritual forces, but looking at this passage again this week, I think I may have misread it. Now I think it is saying that we fight against rulers authorities AND ALSO spiritual forces. Elsewhere in the New Testament, the phrase “rulers and authorities” is used as synonymous with “spiritual forces”, which is where my confusion came in, but here they seem to sit alongside one another rather than overlapping, which suggests that the rulers and authorities the writer has in mind here are earthly ones.

It may seem strange to say that we do not fight against flesh and blood but against rulers and authorities, if those rulers and authorities are themselves flesh and blood, but this perhaps links to what I’ve said before about being angry at systems and not at people. Perhaps an example may help. Our benefits system is broken, and people are suffering greatly because of it. Getting angry at Amber Rudd probably won’t get me very far, because then it gets personal and unkind, and we need more compassion not less. Getting angry at the Department for Work and Pensions may get me further, because then it is easier to focus on the structures that are failing, and to offer something more constructive. That doesn’t mean we can’t criticise individuals - it would be disingenuous to pretend that the Department for Work and Pensions is an autonomous being, with no actual people responsible for its actions - but it does mean we should treat them well, seeking to avoid any tendency to be combative in our interactions.

We may avoid being combative in our interactions with individuals, but there is still a sense that we are to be combative in our interactions with the rulers and authorities and spiritual forces, and that is where the armour of God comes in. This passage can feel really empowering and inspiring, or it can feel distinctly uncomfortable, depending on how you feel about the martial imagery. Possibly in an attempt to ease some of that potential discomfort, I was always told that the emphasis was on standing strong rather than being the aggressor, and that the armour is really about defence. Of the six items listed, only the sword is used for attack, and the word stand is used four times in the space of four verses, so there is certainly something in that idea, but it seems at odds with the claim that we are engaged in a fight against rulers and authorities and spiritual forces, and so I want to push a bit harder at it.

In Matthew 5:39, Jesus declares “do not resist an evildoer”, and the word ‘resist’ literally translates from the Greek as ‘stand against’. That means we have one verse telling us not to stand against evil, and another verse telling us to do just that. I think it is the words of Christ that must take precedence, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we keep Matthew 5:39 and throw out Ephesians 6, it instead means that we need our understanding of Matthew 5:39 to shape our understanding of Ephesians 6.

The Greek word we translate as resist has a sense of violently resisting, and so the pacifist theologian Walter Wink argues that Jesus was not telling his disciples to roll over and let evil have its way, but rather not to resist evil with violence. Not to fight evil on its own terms but to change the terms of combat. Wink therefore talks about Jesus’ way of creative nonviolent resistance. Matthew 5 goes on to give the examples of turning the other cheek and going the extra mile, and Wink explains how these were creative and nonviolent forms of resistance, taking the initiative and asserting the humanity and dignity of the oppressed, thus shaming the oppressor by revealing the injustice in the system. Wink also talks about creative nonviolent resistance as that which causes the oppressor to see the oppressed in a new light, meets force with ridicule or humour, and breaks the cycle of humiliation and oppression. If that is what resistance should look like, then we can take that understanding back to the armour of God and see that they are actually excellent tools to help us do that.

The breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation protect us by assuring us of our standing before God, and it is knowing that we are loved and accepted and valued by him that gives us the confidence to take the initiative and assert our own humanity and dignity before others, so shaming the oppressor and causing them to see us in a new light. The shield of faith is another form of protection, but this one relies on others - it is surely the battle gear of the Roman centurion that is the background to this image, and in Roman battle formation, your shield protected the next man in line - and this reminds us that we are not in this fight alone.

The belt of truth opens our eyes to the reality of the world as it is and the world as it should be, so that we can reveal the injustices in the system; while the readiness of the gospel with which our feet are fitted compels us act whenever and wherever we see that injustice. And the sword of the Spirit means that at all times we carry with us the presence of God, inspiring us with wisdom and creativity, so that we can respond to force with alternatives such as humour rather than more aggression, and so break rather than repeat the cycles of humiliation and oppression.

So by putting Matthew 5:39 and Ephesians 6 together, we can see that there is the potential for something quite subversive here. What looks like an appropriation of military language and technique offers something radically different, a creative and nonviolent form of resistance that could turn the world upside down, although I suspect we would discover that it feels rather more like the right way up.

We’re drawing to an end now, but let’s take a moment to imagine fitting ourselves with that armour, putting on the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation, which tell us that we are loved and accepted and valued by God; taking up the shield of faith, which reminds us that our faith should protect others too; fastening the belt of truth and the shoes of the gospel, which reveal injustice and lead us to move against it; and drawing the sword of the Spirit, which equips us at all time with the presence of God. And let us sit with that image for a moment, and consider how we might use these things to resist evil with creativity and without violence.

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