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Immorality Is Selfish Individualism

Julia Margaret Cameron, The Angel in the House, 1873 (rights: Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

The lesson draws on the first 20 verses of Ephesians 5 to tell the members of the Jesus movement how to act. In summary, believers in the resurrected Christ should abandon their egocentric lifestyles and turn their attention to “walking in the light of God.” In practical terms, this new enlightened journey is guided by imitating the divine action in human history as revealed in Jesus: to love all of creation without regard to self-interest. 

Unfortunately, the Adult Bible Study Guide models a very narrow focus on what this love means. The first four days of the Bible lessons mention sex. It’s called “debauched sex” on Sabbath, and then on Sunday immorality becomes synonymous with “filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting.” The next two days continue this theme. The Ephesians who are children of the light are not to be “sexually immoral, or impure, or covetous.” Tuesday’s study makes the dichotomy very simple. The author of Ephesians “repeatedly offers two exhortations, alternating between them: (1) live a God-honoring lifestyle as ‘children of light’ and (2) don’t live a sexually immoral, God-opposing lifestyle, exhibiting the ‘unfruitful works of darkness.’”

At first glance this all sounds like basic, good advice. But, paying attention to its use of “sex” not only reveals an unhealthy sexual ethic but also shows a serious lack of positive and practical ethical direction. There is no good sex defined here; sexual behavior is only mentioned in negative terms. The use of “light” as a metaphor for goodness exacerbates the problem. It’s easy to see how some early Christians slipped into Gnostic beliefs around the flawed and evil nature of physical existence itself. At a more popular level, the mortification of the flesh, practiced throughout the centuries, became a physically abusive tool for some to work their way to spiritual enlightenment. Although the Victorian era contained various approaches to the earthly and the heavenly, an ideal woman was often described as an angel, which elevated her right out of physical reality. In his 1854 work “Angel in the House,” Coventry Patmore burns away the flesh to reveal an ideal ethereal glow in the Epilogue of his 189-page poem on marital love. 

Ah, dearest Wife, a fresh-lit fire
  Sends forth to heaven great shows of fume,
And watchers, far away, admire;
  But when the flames their power assume,
The more they burn the less they show,
  The clouds no longer smirch the sky,
And then the flames intensest glow
  When far-off watchers think they die.

Ephesians 5:1–20 has pretty similar logic: to follow God is to choose the light which is mostly undefined beyond the virtues that come from self-sacrificing agape. On the other (left) hand (of God), a lifestyle of darkness reveals itself in the opposite, actions driven by selfishness and the physical—coded as “coarse” and “impure.” 

This week’s study stops a single verse away from one of the most marital abuse-justifying sentences in the Bible. “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord” (Eph. 5:22). I’ve heard so many bad sermons on it that it’s hard to see the text without all the smug patriarchal overtones. The need to devote a lot of the lesson to de-arming its mix of gender, power, and religion is clear. That will be the focus starting next Sunday. But it is helpful to recognize its language about submission is set in this larger context about communal living and unselfishness. 

Despite the binary, the 20 verses for this week have a good, simple message: immoral sex, like dishonest talk or corrupt politics, is really just using other people for one’s own selfish gain. Enlightened relationships, conversations, all human acts must be motivated by agape, that deep loving-kindness. This enlightened walk reveals the reality of God in our life. The Message expresses this essential understand in its paraphrase of Ephesians 5:5, “You can be sure that using people or religion or things just for what you can get out of them—the usual variations on idolatry—will get you nowhere, and certainly nowhere near the kingdom of Christ, the kingdom of God.” To be immoral is to do normal things with selfish motives. 

This shows up again in the final few verses for this week. 

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.

Again, the singular selfishness principle applies. The word for “dissipation” also gets translated as “wasteful” or “debauchery,” and it connotes an over-expenditure for a selfish end. The Ephesians are not told not to drink, only not to excessively drink in order to achieve an ecstatic spiritual state. Instead, the rhythm and melody of music, shared in communal song, will connect them to the Spirit. 

Does this biblical check on selfish motivations apply to Christianity as well? Is there a self-centeredness in the way that language emphasizing my relationship with Christ or talking about Jesus dying for my sins can reflect ego needs? The language itself can communicate something ultimately meaningful, but Ephesians reminds us that the children of the light consider not merely what they should do, but why. 

The first century Jesus movement emphasized the communal and eschewed the singular. In a sense, to be an unbeliever then meant to walk through life alone, in darkness, away from the family of God. In their 2012 book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, Evangelical scholars E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien provide a history of how various North American movements distorted the role of the individual in Christianity. One example is the Great Awakening, which inserted new ideas around personal freedom and expression into the church. “If we are not careful, our individualistic assumptions about church can lead us to think of the church as something like a health club.” If I don’t like something, I join a different gym. They add, “This is not biblical Christianity. Scripture is clear that when we become Christians, we become—permanently and spiritually—a part of the church” (107). This is a challenging concept in these dark times. But the principle stands there to interrogate our motivations. What is possible if we believe we are bound together—beyond our individual ideas—by the same agape Spirit that inspired the kinship-creating work of Jesus?


Alexander Carpenter is the executive editor of Spectrum

Title image: Julia Margaret Cameron, The Angel in the House, 1873 (rights: Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

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