Is All Sin Really Equal in God’s Sight?

Are All Sins Equal in God's Sight

One of the most common misconceptions that evangelicals have about what the Bible teaches about sin is that all sin is equal in God’s sight. So you will often hear evangelicals say that there is no such thing as a “big sin” or a “small sin” because, in the end, sin is sin and all sin is equal in God’s sight.

Now where does this idea come from?  This idea comes from, what I believe, is a serious misunderstanding of James 2:10-11:

James 2:10-11 – For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.” (NIV)

In this post we’re going be asking the question, “Is all sin really equal in the sight of God?”  We’ll answer this question by looking, firstly, at evidence that we find in the Bible that some sins are worse than others and , second, at why James 2:10-11 doesn’t teach that all sin is equal in God’s sight.

1. Some Sins are More Serious Than Others

So let’s start off by taking a look at some biblical evidence for why some sin is actually worse than others:

a) First, we can see that some sins actually are worse than others because in the Old Testament there were different degrees of punishment for different types of sin.

Let’s take a look at what the penalty for stealing was in the Covenant Law Code found in the book of Exodus:

Exodus 22:1 – If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep. (NIV)

In this case, the penalty for stealing livestock was that the thief would have to pay the owner four to five times the amount that was stolen.  In other words, the thief would have to a pay punitive/restorative fine to the owner.

Now compare that penalty to the penalty for murder:[1]

Exodus 21:12 – Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death. (NIV)

When you take a look at these two examples, it is clear that in God’s eyes murder is much more serious than theft: the penalty for theft was simply a restorative/punitive fine while the penalty for murder was death. The fact that there were different degrees of penalties for different types of sin shows that not all sin is equal in God’s sight.

b) Second, the fact that some sins are treated with a greater degree of horror in the Bible than other sins shows that sins are not actually equal in God’s sight.

Let me give two quick examples – and we’ll begin with the less controversial one first. The first example comes from 1 Corinthians 5:1-2:

1 Corinthians 5:1-2 – It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? (NIV)

So in this passage, the Apostle Paul is talking about a person in the church in Corinth who was having an ongoing sexual relationship with his own stepmother, which, according to biblical law, is incest (Lev. 18:8). Paul is shocked that this kind of sin is happening in the church because this is a type of sin that was not even committed among the pagans (lit. Gentiles = non-Jewish, non-Christian).  Paul tells them that, rather than rejoicing with him, they should have kicked him out of the church and treated him like an unbeliever until he repented of that sin and gave up that relationship.

But when you read this passage you can tell that Paul is horrified by this particular sin.  This clearly means that for Paul, sin wasn’t all equal in God’s eyes.  And, if we believe in the inspiration of scripture, this also means that God doesn’t see all sin as being equal in his sight.

The second example comes from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 – this is the controversial one. It is clear that the city of Sodom and the other cities on the plain were guilty of committing all sorts of different sin. This sin was so bad that God told Abraham that he would go down (i.e. send two angels) to see if things were really as bad as he had been told. Did God not know how bad these people really were? Did he really have to send down two angels to find out if they were really as bad as he had heard? Clearly God was condescending to Abraham’s (and our) level to show that when he judges that is based on a thorough investigation of the facts and that any judgment that he gives is perfectly fair.

But even though Sodom and the cities on the plain were guilty of all sorts of different sin, “Exhibit A” in the case that God made against them was their treatment of the angels who came to visit. The men of the city welcomed the angels by telling their host to bring “the men” out so that they could rape them. Clearly rape is wrong. In the culture that produced Genesis 19, same-sex rape was even worse.  That point can be debated in a different post.

What was the result? Sodom and the rest of the cities on the plain were destroyed by burning sulfur that came down from heaven. But the question needs to be asked: Did God do this to every city that had sinful people in it? If the men of Sodom were simply guilty of gossip, would he have sent down burning sulfur from heaven to rain down on them and destroy them? The answer is clearly “no” – otherwise God would have had to destroy every city that was in existence back then.

So the fact that some sins are treated with more horror than other sins shows that God does not consider every sin to be on the same level.

c) Third, the fact that the Bible refers to some sin as “great sin” shows that not all sin is equal in God’s eyes.

All we have to do is take a look at the following examples (and many more could be given):

Exodus 32:30 – The next day Moses said to the people, “You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” (NIV)

1 Samuel 2:17 – This sin of the young men was very great in the LORD’s sight, for they were treating the LORD’s offering with contempt. (NIV)

2 Kings 17:21 – When he tore Israel away from the house of David, they made Jeroboam son of Nebat their king. Jeroboam enticed Israel away from following the LORD and caused them to commit a great sin. (NIV)

John 19:11 – Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin. (NIV)

The fact that some sins are referred to as “great” sins clearly shows that not all sin is equal in God’s eyes. In fact, these verses serve as clear evidence that there is a distinction between “big sins” and “small sins,” despite what many evangelicals say.

d) Fourth, the fact that Jesus said that there is one sin that can never be forgiven clearly shows that some sin is more serious than other sin.

Let’s take a look at what Jesus says in Matthew 12:32:

Matthew 12:32 – Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (NIV)

This isn’t the place to discuss what blasphemy of the Holy Spirit means and whether or not that sin can still be committed today. The point is that speaking a word against the Holy Spirit is worse than speaking a word against Jesus (whatever that means) and that speaking a word against the Holy Spirit has to be more serious (in some sense) than other sins since this sin can never be forgiven.  And if this sin is more serious than other sins, then clearly not all sin is equal in God’s eyes.

2. So what do we do with James 2:9-11?  Let’s look at the passage again:

James 2:10-11 – For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.” (NIV)

Is James really saying that all sin is equal in God’s sight? I don’t think he is at all. So what is James saying? James is saying that there are basically two types of people in this world: people who break God’s law and people who keep God’s law. This can be seen by the fact that he uses the term “lawbreaker” in verse 9 and verse 11 (ὑπὸ τοῦ νόμου ὡς παραβάται and παραβάτης νόμου respectively):

James 2:9 – But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. (NIV)

James 2:11 – For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.” (NIV)

James’ point is that if you treat rich people in the church better than poor people (2:1-9), you are guilty of being a lawbreaker. You shouldn’t think that you are good in God’s eyes because you haven’t committed murder or you haven’t committed adultery because there are only two types of people: lawbreakers or lawkeepers.  If you are showing favouritism in the church you are still a lawbreaker because you have broken a portion of God’s law.

When James says that the person who stumbles at one point is guilty of breaking all of it, he is saying that God’s law is a unified whole and that any sin, regardless of how big or small it is, makes a person a lawbreaker. James is clearly not saying that when a person shows favouritism that God will also hold them accountable for murder and adultery as well. He is simply saying that when people show favouritism in the church, they are breaking God’s law and that they should be put in the category of lawbreaker, which means that this is a sin that they need to deal with.

Good Intentions and Bad Intentions

When evangelicals say that all sin is equal in God’s sight, it is usually done with good intentions. Evangelicals want to dispel the myth that only “big sins” will keep people from being able to enter the kingdom of God. In many ways, the idea that only “big sins” will keep a person from being able to enter the kingdom of God is even more serious than thinking that all sins are equal in God’s sight. We have to remember that the standard for entering the kingdom of God is absolute perfection: if you perfectly keep God’s law, you will be allowed to enter God’s kingdom; if you are a lawbreaker, you will be excluded from God’s kingdom. And that means that the only hope for being able to enter God’s kingdom is to be forgiven through Christ and the sacrifice that he made for us on the cross. He is the only way that the stain of our sin can be washed away and that we can be qualified to enter into God’s presence in his kingdom.  So, whether we have “big sin” or “small sin” on our record, we need to be forgiven through Christ, otherwise we won’t have any hope of being able to enter God’s kingdom.

So most people definitely do have good intentions when they say that all sin is equal in God’s sight. But many people use this idea as an excuse for not addressing certain types of sin or to tell other people not to address certain types of sin: all sin is equal in God’s eyes so we shouldn’t be focusing on these types of sin. Now, if the person who said this were consistent, they would say that the solution would be to focus equally on all sin and show that it is all displeasing to God. More often than not, however, it is used as an excuse to shut down the debate about certain types of sin: all sin is equal in God’s eyes, which for some reason means that all sin is not that big of a deal in God’s eyes and people have freedom to do whatever they want.  So it can be seen that a teaching that is often used with good intentions can also be twisted to be used to downplay the seriousness of sin.

Conclusion

In the end, what matters is not whether our intentions are good or bad: what matters is whether or not what we are saying matches up with what Scripture has to say. In this case the conclusion is clear: it is wrong to say that all sin is equal in God’s eyes. Rape is clearly worse than theft; sexual abuse is clearly worse than speeding on a highway; and murder is clearly worse than telling an inappropriate joke.

Does that mean that these other things don’t matter? Of course they do! As Christians, we should want to be lawkeepers, not lawbreakers, not because keeping God’s laws will earn us a place in his kingdom but because when we became Christians we committed ourselves to obeying and serving Christ –  out of gratefulness for what he has done for us, because our hearts have been changed and we have a different attitude toward sin, and because it is simply the right thing to do.

So let’s make sure that we recognize “big sins” for what they are. Let’s make sure that we deal with them appropriately when they happen in our churches. Let’s make sure that we treat both “big sins” and “small sins” seriously when they happen in our lives and repent of them.  But let’s especially be thankful that Christ came to pay the penalty for all sin, both big and small, so that we could have a place in his kingdom.

Mark Steven Francois

[1] It is important to keep in mind that the definition for murder in biblical law is much broader than the definition for murder in American, Canadian, or British law.  In biblical law, murder takes place when a person intends to seriously harm another person and the harm that they intend results in that person’s death.  For murder to take place in biblical law, it is only necessary to show that the person intended to harm the other person, not that the person intended to kill the other person.  See especially Numbers 35:16-25.

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Quick Correction – A Syriac Grammar by Michael Sokoloff

Syriac Lexicon - Sokoloff

*Note: From time to time on this site I will be posting corrections or helpful additions to reference works that I regularly use.  If you own these works, simply pencil in the addition or correction if you feel that it is helpful.

On page 384 of Michael Sokoloff’s A Syriac Lexicon (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns; Piscataway, New Jersey, 2009), the term ܙܠܵܡܵܐ is defined as the West Syriac vowel e with a note in brackets that the East Syrian version of the vowel is called ܪܒܵܨܵܐ.  The opposite, however, is the case.  The West Syriac vowel e is called ܪܒܵܨܵܐ while the two vowels that correspond to it in East Syriac are called ܙܠܵܡܵܐ.  The ܙܠܵܡܵܐ in East Syriac can be either short or long.  The long and short version of ܙܠܵܡܵܐ are written with separate vowel signs and are considered to be separate vowels.

Mark Steven Francois

Sermon Prep Sheets – Narrative

Sermon Preparation Sheets - Narrative

I have just posted a sermon prep sheet for preparing sermons/studies on biblical narrative (https://markfrancois.wordpress.com/exegesis-study-sheets/).  This is an example of the kind of sermon prep sheet that I use pretty much every week when I’m preparing a message.  These sheets help you to slow down, pay attention to the original meaning of the text, think carefully about how you apply the text, and help you plan out how you are going to present the message.  Eventually I will post sheets for each major genre in the Bible.

The sheets are designed primarily for sermon preparation.  However, they are also very useful for personal Bible Study.  Each sheet has three parts: (1) The original meaning of the text; (2) Applying the text; and (3) Putting the message together.  If you are using these sheets for personal study, simply ignore the “Putting the message together” section and simply print the first two sections.

In the future (if I have time!) I’ll make some videos explaining how to use these sheets and I’ll give some practical tips about how to interpret and apply the Bible in a responsible way.

Mark Steven Francois

A Recent Article on Canaanite DNA

Canaanite Article

A recent journal article published in the American Journal of Human Genetics has made headlines in the last couple of days because of the implications that its findings might have for the historical accuracy of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible.[1] The article is basically a report about five genomes that were sequenced from bones that are approximately 3700 years old from the Canaanite city of Sidon in modern-day Lebanon. These genomes were then compared to the genome sequencing of 99 modern-day people from Lebanon. The results, at least for the researchers, were quite surprising: modern-day people from Lebanon are mostly descended from the Canaanite population who inhabited the same area in biblical times.

For anyone who knows the history of this region, these findings should not have been surprising. However, the authors of this article presented their findings as though they should be surprising, at least to those who are familiar with what the Bible has to say about the Canaanites.  Partway through the article, the authors included a very curious statement – at least from the perspective of a biblical scholar – about what the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible has to say about the Canaanites. It says:

Uncertainties also surround the fate of the Canaanites: the Bible reports the destruction of the Canaanite cities and the annihilation of its people; if true, the Canaanites could not have directly contributed genetically to present-day populations.[2]

It was this statement that caught the attention of the media and caused this article to make headlines in the last couple of days. Take, for example, the article by Nicholas St. Fleur in The New York Times. This is how the article opens:

There is a story in the Hebrew Bible that tells of God’s call for the annihilation of the Canaanites, a people who lived in what are now Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the Palestinian territories thousands of years ago. “You shall not leave alive anything that breathes,” God said in the passage. “But you shall utterly destroy them.” But a genetic analysis published on Thursday has found that the ancient population survived that divine call for their extinction, and their descendants live in modern Lebanon.[3]

When I first read this article and glanced at a few other articles that basically said the same thing, I assumed that they misinterpreted something that was said in the original study. But then I read the statement from the original article that was quoted above and saw that there was no mistake: the reason why these articles were framed the way they were (i.e. the Bible is wrong because the Canaanites actually did survive) is because of the line quoted from the article above. So, in one sense, it is hard to blame articles like the one from The New York Times. On the other hand, a little bit of research or a quick phone call to a biblical scholar would have cleared up any confusion that was caused by the original article.

Let’s take a look at that statement again:

Uncertainties also surround the fate of the Canaanites: the Bible reports the destruction of the Canaanite cities and the annihilation of its people; if true, the Canaanites could not have directly contributed genetically to present-day populations.

But does the Bible actually say that the Canaanites were completely annihilated? And would the Bible lead one to believe that the Canaanites would have made no genetic contributions to the present-day population of Lebanon or elsewhere? The answer to these questions is a complete and unequivocal “no”.

There are four main problems with the statement that was made in the article:

(a) First, the Old Testament makes it clear that the people of Israel did not, in fact, destroy all of the cities of the Canaanites or annihilate all of their people. A quick look at Judges 1, for example, shows that the Israelites weren’t able to conquer large chunks of the land of Canaan. Over and over again it says that the people of Israel failed to drive out the inhabitants of the land. And even when they did gain the upper hand in terms of power, they were only able to subject many of the Canaanites to forced labour: but they weren’t able to destroy them and they weren’t able to drive them out of the land. So the article is completely mistaken when it says that, according to the Bible, the cities of the Canaanites were completely destroyed and that the Canaanites themselves were completely annihilated.

(b) Second, the city of Sidon lies outside of the area that was conquered by the people of Israel. A common phrase in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible to describe the entirety of the land of Israel is the phrase, “from Dan to Beersheba”. Geographically, Beersheba lies at the very bottom of the land of Israel (i.e. in the south) while Dan lies at the very top (i.e. in the north). Sidon, however, is located northwest of Dan: it was not part of the land of Israel. So even if the Israelites had annihilated the Canaanites in territories it conquered, the people of Sidon would not have been included in that number.

(c) Third, the Old Testament is quite clear about the fact that the Sidonians continued to live and prosper long after the Israelites settled in the land of Canaan. In fact, according to 1 Kings 5:6, the Sidonians provided the timber for Solomon’s temple and apparently had friendly relations with both David and Solomon. According to Ezra 3:7, the people of Sidon also provided timber for the Second Temple hundreds of years later. So there is no reason from a biblical perspective to think that Canaanites from Sidon could not have contributed genetically to modern-day people from Lebanon.

(d) Fourth, as anyone familiar with ancient Near Eastern history should know, the Phoenicians, who were famous among other things for their maritime empire and the invention of the alphabet, were, in fact, Canaanites from the region around Sidon. In fact, the Carthaginians/Punics from the Punic Wars with Rome were descended from the Phoenicians. Punic is simply a dialect of Phoenician/Canaanite. The name Hannibal, which is quite familiar to anyone who knows Roman history, is actually a Canaanite name meaning “Baal is gracious”. The reason why this is important to know is because in Mark 7:24-30, Jesus is confronted by a Syrophoenician woman from the region of Tyre (in Matthew 15:22 she is simply called a Canaanite!). The NRSV is right in translating Mark 7:26 this way: “Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.” So the New Testament itself makes it clear that the people who were living in what is now modern-day Lebanon were descendants of the Canaanites/Phoenicians.

So this article is simply mistaken when it says that, according to the biblical account, the Canaanites were completely wiped out and that, from a biblical perspective, they could not have made a genetic contribution to modern-day people from Lebanon. Instead of making the Bible look silly, the authors of this article and every other article that was based on it only succeeded in making themselves look silly. A little bit of research, on the part of the authors of the original article or on the part of the authors who based their work on this article would have gone a long way.[4]

(Postscript #1 – I forget where I saw this but I’m pretty sure that I saw one comment somewhere that said something like, “I guess the people of Sodom did survive!” I wasn’t totally sure where they got this from until I realized that they probably mistook Sidon for Sodom. Place palm on face and shake head….)

(Postscript #2 – The value of these findings, at least from my perspective, is to dispel the popular belief that everyone in the Middle East who speaks Arabic is ethnically Arab.  While this is something that should have been known without the findings of this article, the findings of this article certainly help to dispel this myth.  If I were writing an online article for a newspaper or magazine based on the findings of this study, this is the part that I would have focused on.  I definitely would have made the connection with the biblical Canaanites, but not to show that there was something wrong with the biblical accounts.)

Mark Steven Francois

[1] Haber et al., “Continuity and Admixture in the Last Five Millennia of Levantine History from Ancient Canaanite and Present-Day Lebanese Genome Sequences,” The Journal of Human Genetics (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ajhg.2017.06.013.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Nicholas St. Fleur, “Fate of Ancient Canaanites Seen in DNA Analysis: They Survived,” The New York Times (July 27, 2017): https://nyti.ms/2tNIYNy.

[4] It should be noted that the article by Kristin Romey on the website for National Geographic (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/07/canaanite-bible-ancient-dna-lebanon-genetics-archaeology.html) did not fall into the same mistake as the original article and the articles that were based on it (“Biblical accounts generally portray Canaanites as the arch-enemies of early Israelites, who eventually conquered Canaanite territory and either exterminated or subjugated its people.”). Romey’s article is certainly less sensational but it is more accurate.

 

Classical Syriac Grammar – Chapter 1 (Estrangela)

Classical Syriac Grammar

In my free time (as a hobby) I am writing a free online grammar for Classical Syriac, which will eventually appear in all three Syriac scripts.  I have just posted chapter 1 of the grammar in the Estrangela script (https://markfrancois.wordpress.com/syriac-grammar/).  Three of the practice sheets for this chapter have already been posted – the rest will appear as soon as they are ready.  As always, feel free to download and print as many copies as you would like.  However, please do not alter any of the material, post it to another website, or publish it in any other form.  Thanks!

 

Syriac Alphabet (Estrangela) Tracing Sheets

Syriac Grammar - Aphabet Tracing Sheets - Estrangela

I have just uploaded tracing sheets for the Syriac alphabet (Estrangela) for chapter 1 of the online grammar I am writing and plan to post on this website as the work progresses.  You can find the tracing sheets here under chapter 1: https://markfrancois.wordpress.com/syriac-grammar/.  Feel free to use them but don’t alter them or republish them in any other format, including other websites.  Enjoy!

 

“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/.