A while ago I wrote a post which touches on the wonderful ‘Armour of God’ section in chapter 6, thinking about how that passage can help us to pray more deeply. If you’re interested, you can read that one here.
There are a few themes in this passage worth thinking about, starting with the idea of what it means to ‘make the most of the time.’ It’s linked to ‘finding out what is pleasing to the Lord’ (5:10) but not to adding ever more activity. It reads as though making the most of the time isn’t about getting more done, even more good drive, so much as it is about doing so we do with the right perspective. We’re to be ‘filled with the Spirit ‘ as we praise and thank God in all that we do.
Of course it may well be that we get more done if we’re conscious of doing it to God’s praise, but that’s a secondary effect of making the most of the time, not the main point.
Perhaps there’s more debate to be had about the ‘household rules’ section on relationships from 5:21-6:9. Paul doesn’t seem keen to challenge anything about the expectation of relationships in society, but to enrich them by setting them in the light of faith in Jesus. So the accepted relation of children and parents is reinforced by reference to the commandment to honour (with a slight balancing shift reminding parents not to provide their children!). Most of us wouldn’t want to see Paul’s words to slaves and masters as a final word on the subject. Rather, we can see that in the society of the day, where Christians aren’t yet in a position to change the whole economic structure, Paul is trying to humanise a fundamentally unjust relationship which was never going to be made right by that new approach.
So where does the passage about marriage fit? The only reason I ask myself this is because many Christians still try to apply its apparent subordination of women to men as a timeless absolute, while not defending slavery which is included in the same text. I don’t think we can say that this is somehow more authoritative and absolute because Paul argues theologically on marriage and not on slavery. If we start down that line then we start dividing up the Bible in the basis of what seems coherent to us, which doesn’t seem right. Either Paul’s writing is inspired of it isn’t.
The only way I can make sense of it is to say that all three sections of the text are similarly related to life in a particular ancient situation, and all must be subject to the same approach to interpretation. That doesn’t mean that we can ignore the bits that are less comfortable. It means that we have to look seriously at what God is saying to us about our relationships in a world where we accept that slavery is fundamentally wrong, that parents should not always be obeyed and that marriages don’t always work with traditional views of gender roles.
So what remains? A call to put the ‘other’ first in all relationships is a good start, refined by the observation that how that works out will vary in different circumstances. Relationships don’t have to be symmetrical to be healthy and loving. But they do always involve a call to love and serve on both sides.