“Masters Obey Your Slaves?” Craig Keener’s Bizarre Interpretation of Ephesians 6:5-9

1. Craig Keener - Masters Obey Your Slaves

I recently came across an article written by Craig Keener that has to do with the implications that Ephesians 5:21 has for Paul’s instructions to slaves and slave owners in Ephesians 6:5-9 (http://www.craigkeener.com/mutual-submission-ephesians-521/). In Ephesians 6:5, the Apostle Paul tells slaves to obey their masters according to the flesh (i.e. their earthly masters) with fear and trembling and with sincerity of heart. As one could imagine, this would have been a passage that slave owners in the New World would have used quite frequently on their own slaves, invoking the authority of God’s Word to produce obedience in their slaves.

In the introduction to his article, Keener notes that this is precisely the kind of scenario that one reads about quite frequently in slave narratives.  In response to this particular use of this text, Keener says: “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!”[1] Keener is aware that this would have sounded strange on the ears of many of Paul’s hearers, but notes that this is precisely the point: “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.”[2]

After reading Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 6:9, I have to admit that it sounds very strange on my ears as well. And there is a very simple reason for that – it’s because Keener’s interpretation goes against the entire thrust of this passage and against the overall context in which this passage is found. It is an example of allowing modern-day values and modern-day concerns to skew the plain sense meaning of the passage when read both in its historical and literary contexts. But, of course, this isn’t something that I can simply assume or assert – the case needs to be argued from the passage itself.

But before we can get into why Keener’s interpretation of this passage isn’t really plausible, we need to ask what arguments led Keener to come to this conclusion. Based on what we can see in this article, there are two main reasons why Keener came to this conclusion:

(a) The first reason has to do with Keener’s understanding of Ephesians 5:21, which says, “[Watch carefully how you live your life]…submitting to one another in the fear of Christ.”[3] According to Keener, this means that each of the parties listed in Ephesians 5:22-6:9 (i.e. husbands and wives, children and parents, and slaves and slave owners) are being told that they need to submit to each other in each of these relationships. In other words, wives are supposed to submit to their husbands but husbands, by the same token, are also supposed to submit to their wives. In the same way, slaves are supposed to submit to their masters but masters are also supposed to submit to their slaves.

(b) The second reason has to do with the wording of the instructions that are given to Christian slave owners in Ephesians 6:9, which says, “And masters, do the same things to them” (Καὶ οἱ κύριοι, τὰ αὐτὰ ποιεῖτε πρὸς αὐτούς). Accodring to Keener’s understanding of this passage, “the same things” refers to the command in 6:5 for slaves to obey their earthly masters: just as slaves are supposed to obey and submit to their earthly masters, earthly masters are supposed to obey and submit to their slaves.”

So what should we say about Keener’s interpretation of this passage?

There are at least two main problems with Keener’s interpretation of this passage:

(a) First, Keener’s interpretation of this passage is based, at least in part, on a very poor interpretation of Ephesians 5:21. Like we saw earlier, on Keener’s reading of this passage, Paul is telling the various groups listed in Ephesians 5:22-6:9 to submit to each other in their respective relationships, with each party submitting to the other party. While this certainly would be a plausible interpretation if we only had verse 21, everything that Paul has to say in Ephesians 5:22-6:9 argues against this understanding of this passage.

A much better understanding of Ephesians 5:21 is that Paul wanted believers to submit to other members of the church who had rightful authority over them.[4] “Submitting to one another in the fear of Christ,” doesn’t mean that each of the parties listed in Ephesians 5:22-6:9 should submit to the corresponding party listed in the passage; it means that believers should submit to the corresponding party that is in authority over them.

How do we know that this is the case? Let’s start off with the least controversial reason. In Ephesians 6:1-4, which Keener only mentions at the very end of his article, it says that children are supposed to obey their parents. Paul even quotes one of the Ten Commandments to prove this point. But Paul never says that parents are supposed to obey or even submit to their children. This would be absurd! Even Keener, at the end of his article, says, “Also, there is much less mutual submission in the instruction to fathers: children do need guidance.”[5] This is an incredible understatement, which shows the weakness of his interpretation of Ephesians 5:21. Parents are not supposed to submit to their children. Parents are not supposed to obey their children. What does it say instead? It says that fathers shouldn’t make their kids angry or resentful but should raise them in the teaching and instruction of the Lord. Children are supposed to obey their parents; but fathers need to make sure that they don’t abuse the authority that God has given them over their children. What is Paul doing in this passage?  He is indicating which party should submit to the other and then gives instruction to the party in authority to make sure that that authority is not abused and that it is exercised in a Christ-like way.  This is the pattern that we will see in each of the other pairs of relationships as well.

The second least controversial reason (believe it or not!) for why Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 is simply mistaken is because in Ephesians 6:5-9, Paul tells slaves to obey their earthly masters, as one would expect in that historical context, but he never tells Christian slave owners to obey their slaves. He never tells Christian slave owners to submit to their slaves. What does he tell slave owners to do? He tells them to stop threatening their slaves because their Master in heaven, both the slave’s and theirs, doesn’t play favourites, which is likely a veiled threat of God’s judgment if they treat their slaves too harshly. What is Paul doing in this passage? Just like in the instructions he gave to children and parents, he is indicating which party should submit to the other and then gives instructions to the party in authority to make sure that that authority is not abused.

But what about Paul’s words at the beginning of verse 9 (“And masters, do the same things to them”)? As we saw earlier, Keener understands this as a command for masters to submit to their slaves. But this is hardly plausible given the pattern that we saw in Ephesians 6:1-4, the inherent nature of the master-slave relationship, and the instructions that actually come after these words in the second part of verse 9. In the second part of verse 9, Paul simply tells Christian slave owners to stop threatening their slaves. He doesn’t tell them to submit to them or to obey them, which would make no sense in this context. So what does “the same things” refer to? Based on the clear connections between the second part of verse 9 and the instructions given to the slaves earlier, “the same things” clearly refers to seeing Christ as your master (vv. 6-7, 9), doing the will of God from your heart (v. 6), and serving with the knowledge that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good they have done, whether slave or free (v. 8). It clearly does not refer to masters obeying their slaves.  (This point actually answers the main issue being dealt with in this post but, for now, it is simply evidence that Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 is mistaken.)

The third, and most controversial reason, for why Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 is implausible is because in Ephesians 5:22-33, wives are told to submit to their husbands but husbands are never told to submit to their wives. Keener acknowledges this point but dismisses it: “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).”[6] But Keener’s objection, however, fails to take into account the context of Ephesians 5:22-33. While it is true that all Christians are supposed to love each other (Eph. 5:2), Keener completely misses the function of 5:25 in this context. As we saw in the other two examples, Paul starts off by listing the party that needs to submit to the other party. Next, he gives instructions to the party in authority to make sure that that authority isn’t abused and that they exercise it in a Christ-like manner. The instructions in this section aren’t simply interchangeable: they follow a very specific pattern and the differences in the instructions can’t be simply swept aside.  The reason why husbands are not told to submit to their wives is because, according to what Paul has to say in this passage (whether we agree with it or not), God has given husbands a position of authority over their wives.  They are told to love their wives to makes sure that they don’t abuse that authority and to makes sure that they exercise it in a Christ-like way.  (Keep in mind that we are not dealing with how to apply this passage today – we are simply dealing with what Pau is saying in this particular historical context.)

So it is clear that Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 is simply mistaken, which means that his understanding of Ephesians 6:9 is also mistaken: Ephesians 5:21 does not mean that slave owners should submit to their slaves.

(b) The second major problem with Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 6:5-9 is that it seems to have been influenced by the need to harmonize Ephesians 6:5-9 (and 5:22-33!) with modern-day values and concerns. What are those modern-day values and concerns? There are two of them: our modern-day disapproval and outrage against slavery and our modern-day dislike for hierarchy in marriage. Again, it is interesting that Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 stops short of applying it in any meaningful way to Ephesians 6:1-4. This likely has to do with the fact that there is little modern-day disapproval of parents having authority over their children. But there is a need among many interpreters to make Paul match up with our values and with our concerns when it comes to gender roles and the issue of slavery. There is a need among many interpreters to see Paul as a progressive. Keener even says in this article that Paul was a progressive thinker for his day.

However, from a strictly historical perspective, it is a priori unlikely that Paul was progressive when it came to most social issues.  In other words, our default position should be that Paul was “a man of his times” unless there are very strong reasons to think otherwise.  Ephesians 5:22-33 and 6:5-9 count as evidence to prove this point. Seeing Paul as a progressive when there is every reason to think that he wasn’t seems to me to be the result of an overly theological/normative interpretation of Paul rather than the result of a historical/descriptive interpretation of Paul. Before we deal with what implications these passages might have for our view of husband-wife relationships today or even of master-slave relationships in New World slavery, we need to figure out what Paul meant in his own historical context and then move on from there.

So was Paul telling masters that they should obey or submit to their slaves? Certainly not! This interpretation of Ephesians 6:9 makes no sense in the context of Ephesians 6:5-9 or in the context of Ephesians 5:22-6:9. It also makes no sense Paul’s particular historical/cultural context.  How do we deal with the issue of Paul and slavery? Well…that’s something that we might have to deal with in another post. But, regardless of how strong our opinions might be on slavery or hierarchy in marriage, we can’t deal with these issues by making Paul say something other than what he is actually saying.

Mark Steven Francois, Ph.D. Graduand, The University of St. Michael’s College

[1] http://www.craigkeener.com/mutual-submission-ephesians-521/

[2] Ibid.

[3] The verb “to submit” in 5:21 is a participle that modifies the verb “to live your life” (περιπατεῖτε) in 5:15. Ephesians 5:21 is giving one specific example of what it means to watch carefully how you live your life. Given the relationship of the verb “to submit” in this passage to the verb “to live your life” in 5:15, translations like the NIV are completely justified in translating it as a command in English.

[4] Note that in this passage, Paul’s wording assumes that the slave owners are also Christians.

[5] http://www.craigkeener.com/mutual-submission-ephesians-521/.

[6] http://www.craigkeener.com/mutual-submission-ephesians-521/.

What Does It Mean To Be Reformed?

reformed

A couple of days ago I listened to a very interesting episode of Mortification of Spin, a podcast for the Alliance of Confessional Evangelicals, about the tenth anniversary of the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement or, at least, the article that gave the name to that movement.

One of the most interesting parts of the discussion was whether or not the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement is really “Reformed” and the clear answer that they gave to that question was, as one “Reformed” theologian would put it, “Nein!”

Well, the issue of what actually makes a person “Reformed” is a pretty familiar topic but I thought that I would add my two cents.  But, instead of dealing with the criteria that they offered in the podcast, I thought it would be interesting to look at three fairly well-established ways that the term “Reformed” has been used (realizing that there are others, of course!) to show that the issue of who is and who is not Reformed is a little bit more complicated than most people think.

1. A Church Body That Holds to the Three Forms of Unity

So here’s the first definition for what it means to be Reformed: a Reformed Church is a church body holds to the Three Forms of Unity. Just in case you aren’t familiar with the Three Forms of Unity, the Three Forms of Unity are the doctrinal statements that are traditionally held by churches in the Dutch Reformed tradition: the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. In Canada and the United States, if a church is named _________ Reformed Church, you can usually assume that it is a historically Dutch church that holds (or, at least, historically held) to the Three Forms of Unity.

So in this sense, it would be strange for a Baptist or some other type of generic evangelical to refer to themselves as Reformed since I personally don’t know of any Baptist churches that use the Three Forms of Unity or even a modification of the Three Forms of Unity as their official doctrinal statement. And if they were to call themselves “_________ Reformed Church” and put that on their sign, I think that most people would end up being pretty confused.[1]

But, in this sense, it could also be said that Presbyterians aren’t really Reformed either because they hold to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms rather than the Three Forms of Unity. In a Canadian or American context, if a Presbyterian Church put “__________ Reformed Church” on their church sign it would be just as confusing as a Baptist Church doing the same thing.  Of course, one could argue that the Westminster Standards have essentially the same doctrine as the Three Forms of Unity (which isn’t quite the case).  But, still, if a church was called “___________ Reformed Church,” most people would be surprised if they found out it was a Presbyterian Church.  What about the term “Reformed Presbyterian”?   Well, that just sounds really strange in my ear.

It should be kept in mind, though, that this first understanding of “Reformed” makes most sense in a Canadian or American context because of their very large number of Dutch immigrants that came to both countries. There are other Reformed Churches in Europe who use the term “Reformed” in their names but have historically only held to the Heidelberg Catechism and/or the Second Helvetic Confession.  But we can leave them out for the moment since those churches don’t have as strong of a presence in the United States of Canada (assuming that most people who read this are from those contexts).

 2. A Church Body That Historically Held to the Three Forms of Unity

This second definition is related to the first one. In this case, “Reformed” can refer to a church body that looks back to the Three Forms of Unity as their traditional doctrinal standard but don’t hold to it in any real sense of the term.

Let me give you one example of a “Reformed” theologian that falls into this category. For those of you who know me, you may or may not know this but I’m Dutch (well, part Frisian and part Dutch) on my mother’s side.  My mom’s maiden name is Kuitert.  Well, we have a very, very, very distant cousin named Harry Kuitert (we have a Kuitert family tree website in Dutch that goes pretty far back: http://www.kuitert.kuitert.info/Tjalling%20kwartierstaat%20met%20frame.htm). Harry Kuitert is considered to be a Reformed theologian. He was a professor of theology at the Free University of Amsterdam until 1989 and was actually the successor of G. C. Berkouwer. However, Harry Kuitert denies the deity of Christ, which means that he obviously doesn’t hold to the Three Forms of Unity anymore.  And I’m sure there are many other areas where he disagrees with the Three Forms of Unity. However, he is still considered by many to be a Reformed theologian because he was part of a church that historically held to the Three Forms of Unity.

Something similar can be said of Karl Barth. Karl Barth came from the Swiss Reformed tradition and is usually referred to as a “Reformed” theologian because of the church that he came from. I have to admit, I was taken aback the first time I heard Karl Barth being referred to as a “Reformed” theologian.  But that’s how people refer to him in academic theology.

3. A Church Body That Holds To a Non-Miraculous View of the Sacraments

This final definition will probably get the most objections from all sorts of different angles (and I’m very well aware of how poorly formulated this definition is) but here it is: a Reformed Church is a church body that holds to a non-miraculous view of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Now I better pause here and define what I mean by “non-miraculous”. By non-miraculous I mean (a) that they don’t believe in the physical body of Christ being present in the Lord’s Supper and (b) that they don’t believe in baptismal regeneration. Again, I’m aware that “non-miraculous” is probably not the best word to use since (a) Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper probably wouldn’t be seen as non-miraculous by its adherents and (b) some historically Reformed beliefs about baptism border on baptismal regeneration for babies who also happen to be elect.

However, from a confessional Lutheran perspective, the term “non-miraculous” fits the bill. In this sense, “Reformed” means to hold to a non-Roman Catholic or non-Lutheran view of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism (restricting ourselves to forms of Christianity that historically have its base in Western Europe). In other words, if you’re not Roman Catholic and you’re not Lutheran, you’re Reformed. The issue here is not which confession of faith you hold to or whether or not you believe in a certain view of predestination/election: the issue is how you view the sacraments.

Now, of course, there would be very few people who call themselves “Reformed” who would define the term “Reformed” in this way, but it makes quite a bit of sense historically.  And even though there are other differences that separate confessional Lutherans from the Reformed (i.e. what is allowable in worship, the form of worship, the relationship between the covenants, church government), historically the most important difference is their views on the sacraments. And I would argue that at least some of these differences stem from differing views of the sacraments, but that is another issue. But the reality is that the sacraments, specifically the Lord’s Supper, were the main point of division between Lutherans and the Reformed during the early years of the Protestant Reformation and, from a confessional Lutheran perspective, still is.

Conclusion

So what does it mean to be Reformed? Well, it depends on who you’re asking and in what context. But I think it’s safe to say that defining “Reformed” as “adhering to the five points of Calvinism,” “believing in a Calvinistic view of election,” or “having a high view of God’s sovereignty” is a relatively new innovation. That’s one reason why Lutherans scratch their heads when people today call Martin Luther a Calvinist or believe that Lutherans today are Calvinists too. I think we can understand what they mean by that– it has to do with a belief in the bondage of the will (i.e. total depravity) and unconditional election – but it still doesn’t make any sense. Perhaps the day will come when the term “Reformed” is universally understood to mean what it means in the term “Young, Restless, and Reformed,” but it is not this day.  So, for at least some in the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement, I would add my “Nein” to the hosts of the Mortification of Spin.

[1] I think the term “Reformed Baptist” is getting close to being established enough for people to understand what that term means. Usually “Reformed Baptist” means “adhering to the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith,” a Baptist confession of faith based on the Westminster Confession of Faith.

If you believe in free will, you might not believe the Bible…

free-will-1

The Conversation

One of the biggest issues that people have to face when they get into discussions about predestination and election is what does the Bible have to say about free will.[1] As soon as the topic of predestination comes up, someone almost immediately asks the question: “What about free will?”

And at that point things go in a very predictable way. The person who believes in a Calvinist or Lutheran view of predestination, which says that the ultimate reason why a person is saved and will persevere to the end is because God chose them to be saved before the foundation of the world, will say, “Well, the Bible is pretty clear that we as human beings don’t have free will.” And the person they’re speaking with says, “That’s absolutely ridiculous! Of course we have free will!”

In my experience, when most people end up in conversations like this, neither side really understands what the term “free will” when it comes to this topic. And I have to admit that I’ve been pretty bad in explaining what the term free will means in this context. Part of the reason, of course, has to do with the way that free will is often explained: most explanations that I’ve heard are either way too complicated or they’re just plain confusing. But the main reason is that the term “free will” is used in a very specialized way when it comes to the topic of predestination – you can’t just look up the word in a dictionary and expect to find what it means in this context.

What Does Free Will Mean?

So what does the term “free will” actually mean in this context? Well, here is a very simple explanation:

The issue of freewill has to do with whether or not a person can come to saving faith in Christ on their own apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. If you say that a person can come to saving faith in Christ apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, you believe in free will; if you say that a person can’t come to saving faith in Christ apart from the Holy Spirit, you don’t believe in free will.

And that’s all that’s meant by the term “free will” when it comes to salvation: the issue is whether or not the Holy Spirit is necessary to bring someone to saving faith in Christ.

Biblical Passages

When the issue is understood in that way, it’s pretty clear that the Bible says that we as human beings don’t have free will, at least not in this very specific sense – we need the Holy Spirit to work on our hearts before we can come to saving faith in Christ. Let me give you a couple of examples:

(a) John 6:44 – No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him and I will raise him up at the last day.  (NIV)

In this case we can assume that the Father draws people through the Holy Spirit. Either way, a person isn’t coming to saving faith in Christ on their own.

(b) Romans 8:7 – The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. (NIV)

This is talking about a person who isn’t saved, a person who doesn’t have the Holy Spirit, a person who is still ruled by the sinful nature. That’s the contrast that’s being made in this passage. Unless the Holy Spirit does something to change this, the person won’t submit their lives to God.

(c) 1 Corinthians 2:14 – The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. (NIV)

In this case “the man without the Spirit” is the person whose heart hasn’t been opened up by the Holy Spirit. To them the message of the cross is foolishness – unless the Holy Spirit does something to change that.

And we could go on to other passages as well.

But these passages make it clear that we as human beings are spiritually dead, that we have hard hearts, and that we are in rebellion against God. When left to ourselves we won’t accept the message of the gospel and we can’t accept the message of the gospel – unless the Holy Spirit does something to change our hearts.

This is something that every Christian should believe regardless of what they believe about predestination or election – if you don’t believe this, you don’t believe what the Bible has to say about human beings. This is something that Calvinists, confessional Lutherans, and Arminians all believe. Arminians are often accused of believing in free will. But real Arminians who know their theology actually agree with Calvinists and confessional Lutherans on this issue: real Arminians don’t believe in free will either. Roger Olson, for example, prefers to use the term “freed will,” which is a much better way of describing the Arminian position on this issue.[2]

The Real Areas of Disagreement

So what are the real areas of disagreement when it comes to the issue of free will? Let me suggest two areas:

(1) How far does the Holy Spirit open up a person’s heart? Does he only open up a person’s heart part of the way so they can make a free choice one way or the other or does he open up a person’s heart all of the way and guarantee that they will come to saving faith in Christ?

(2) And the second issue is this: Does the Holy Spirit do this for only some people or for everyone who hears the message of the gospel? How this question is answered will depend on how the first question is answered.

Conclusion

So does the Bible teach free will? No – the Holy Spirit has to work on a person’s heart and draw them to Christ, otherwise they won’t come to saving faith in Christ. If more people understood what the term free will really means in discussions like this, we might save a lot of time arguing about something we should all actually agree with and be able to deal with the real differences when it comes to these issues.

[1] Rom. 8:29-30; 9:1-29; 11:1-6; 1 Cor. 1:26-31; Eph. 1:4-12; 1 Thess. 1:4-5.

[2] See Roger Olson’s excellent presentation on the broader issue here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0RWF_XByMM