|Ephesians 5:21-23. Husbands and wives.
Paul has been outlining the new standards which God expects of his new society, the church, especially in terms of its unity and purity. These two qualities are indispensable to a life which is both worthy of the calling and fitting to the status of the people of God. He moves on now to the new relationships in which God’s new people inevitably find themselves, and in so doing he concentrates in the rest of his letter on two further dimensions of Christian living.
The first concerns the practical, down-to-earth relationships of the home. For the divine family ceases to be a credible concept if it not itself subdivided into human families which display God’s love. What is the point of peace in the church if there is no peace in the home? The second dimension concerns the enemy we face and therefore the equipment we need in our unremitting spiritual warfare.
These two responsibilities (home and work on the one hand, and spiritual combat on the other) are quite different from each other. Husband and wife, parents and children, masters and servants are visible, tangible human beings, while the ‘principalities and powers’ arrayed against us are invisible, intangible demonic beings. Nevertheless, if our Christian faith is to be of any practical value, it must be able to cope with both situations. It must teach us how to behave Christianly at home and at work, and it must enable us to fight against evil in such a way that we stand and do not fall. Thus harmony in the home and stability in the fight are the two final topics which the apostle handles.
Husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants were to be found in the earliest Christian congregations. Moreover, these three pairs of relationship are basic to all human experience. Markus Barth expresses this well by suggesting that in the first we see the human person as ‘a *sexual* being (before Dr Freud or Dr Kinsey had put their fingers on the fact)’, in the second as ‘a *temporal* being (tied to a generation to which he belongs)’ and in the third as ‘a *material* being and part of an economic structure’, Paul thus anticipating Marx. ‘So this is man: a sexual, temporal and material being who, without exception, is enmeshed and, as it seems, hopelessly trapped in the structures of these three dimensions.
Detailed, practical instruction on Christian family life and on Christian responsibility in what nowadays we call ‘employment’ seems to have been given by the apostles from the beginning. Examples occur in the letters of both Paul and Peter (e.g. Eph. 5:22-6:9; Col.3:18-4:1; Tit.2:1-10 and 1 Pet.2:18-3:7). There is an urgent need in our day for similar plain moral education. Too much so-called ‘holiness teaching’ emphasizes a personal relationship to Jesus Christ without any attempt to indicate its consequences in terms of relationships with the people we live and work with. In contrast to such holiness-in-a-vacuum, which magnifies experiences and minimizes ethics, the apostles spelled out Christian duty in the concrete situations of everyday life and work.
Luther in his *Catechism* seems to have been the first person to refer to these lists as *Haustafeln*, meaning literally ‘house tables’ but often translated ‘tables of the household duties’. In recent years scholars have compared them with similar precepts both in the Jewish *halakah* (their corpus of the law and tradition) and in Gentile literature, especial of the Stoics. That Jews, Stoics and Christians should all have been concerned about moral behaviour in the home should not surprise us. But the similarity between their *Haustafeln* has sometimes been exaggerated. If the apostles of Jesus were conscious of taking over any material from Jewish or Gentile sources, they thoroughly Christianised what they borrowed. There is no better example of this than Paul’s address to husbands and wives in Ephesians, which is based upon a developed doctrine of Christ and his church.