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Ephesians Got Slavery and Women Wrong


Ephesians is only six chapters long. The author of the 2023 Third Quarter Adult Sabbath School Guide had 14 weeks to engage the church in a fair study of this book, which includes portions long criticized for promoting regressive ideas. Regrettably, the author’s conclusion that Ephesians “is not focused with issues of local concern” (as though there was a clean delineation between local/global/cosmic issues) seems to have entirely guided their topic selection and treatment. Consequently, too much space was used to shore up our existing set of beliefs instead of addressing the relevant and pressing issues raised by the book.

Contrary to the Study Guide’s assertion, many New Testament epistles—Ephesians included—were in fact written to address “local concerns.” In Ephesians, we glimpse this imperative in the author’s attempt to convince his Christian community that they belonged to the fellowship of Christ. They would not have needed a refresher course if all was well in the local community. In fact, a key takeaway from the book is that when we become Christians, we also become united and should resist being divided into sub-camps.

But unity is not what the people in Ephesians experienced. What they saw instead was a “gospel” of separation, differentiation, and hierarchy. In their church, Jews were separated from Gentiles, as men were from women. Priests (all male) were segregated from other men, just as the high priest was set apart from the other priests. Each of these groups knew their place and dared not go above their station. So, when the writer told them, “You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household,” he was trying to redress a regression to their pre-Christian days and remind them that “In [Christ] the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:19, 2:21 NIV).

Therefore, when the Sabbath School lesson author ignores “local concerns,” we lose the opportunity to consider serious issues in the book. Instead, we leave behind stock answers that contemporary readers should find unsatisfying. In this essay I will point out two such unresolved concerns: slavery and women. Then, I will suggest a path toward making us whole.

First, consider slavery and the opportunity cost of the quarterly’s failure to adequately tackle this “original sin.” We live in an era where politicians ask teachers to avoid this subject in the classroom or, if they teach it at all, “bring out the good parts of slavery.” We are coerced to lower the moral bar and ask a question that a few years ago would have been self-evident: Is anything commendable about slavery? The truth is that there are biblical statements—some in Ephesians—which seem to suggest that slavery could be accommodated. Although civil society has outlawed the practice, we seem to continually soft-pedal slavery’s illegitimacy by tiptoeing around this evil.

For example, in the September 5 lesson, the author attempts to distinguish between “good” and “bad” slavery on the basis of its setting. We are informed that slavery, during the New Testament period, “was not focused on a single ethnic group. Urban, household slaves were sometimes offered opportunities for education and could work as architects, physicians, and philosophers. Freedom sometimes occurred for these household slaves after a limited period of service, though most slaves never gained their freedom.” It’s this type of relativistic thinking that sanitizes slavery’s horror and allows us to defend the injunction, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ” (Ephesians 6:5).

Only a person who has never been a slave or experienced its malevolent effects could so confidently advise those robbed of their identity and selfhood to “obey [their] earthly masters with respect and fear.” Language like this confers legitimacy to slavery and lures us into forgetting that these “benevolent” earthly masters still claimed ownership of other human beings through purchase. No human being should have the right to own another and use them as chattel. This is the discussion we should have had the study guide, using Ephesians’s commentary on slavery as a springboard to caution against our own era’s seedy human trafficking and exploitation. But that didn’t happen.

Ephesians’s writer took his world for granted, of course. Since slavery is now illegal, how do we interpret this advice? If we can no longer buy or sell fellow human beings, why have Christians been hesitant in declaring such biblical statements wrong? Why have we not been forceful in denouncing slavery, both in its past legal form and its contemporary underground reiteration? Our reticence to condemn the practice outright might well be because slavery seems to have biblical backing. And we are uncomfortable denouncing practices in holy writ, however harmful, if a prophet implied that God endorsed it.

Second, the portrayal of women doesn’t fare any better, both in Ephesians and these lessons. The Christian Bible, particularly the Old Testament, showcases a long list of maligned women characters headlined by Eve, Potiphar’s wife, Delilah, Jezebel, Solomon’s 700 royal wives, and his 300 concubines. But we find them scattered in other scriptural religions as well, quietly reminding us of the supposed inimical role women have played in “messing” things up.

It began in Genesis. What if Genesis’s author had switched Adam and Eve’s roles so that Adam, not Eve, was the first to encounter the “snake” and eat the “fruit?” Because Eve was cast as the gullible one, the entrenched sexism of her punishment—"I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you”—has been largely ignored. If Adam had eaten the fruit first, one wonders what his punishment might have been or how posterity would have interpreted his “indiscipline.”

In Joseph’s story, the protagonist’s moral standing had to be developed. But was it necessary to make a woman the foil? The Quran, retelling the same story of Potiphar’s wife, at least humanized her by giving her a name—Zuleika. Even when biblical narrators detailed the habitual profligacy of men like Samson, Solomon, and Ahab, the men were never made to answer for their actions. Instead, the writers pointed fingers at the women, blaming them for “turning” their men away from God. Thus, though the verdict against Ahab seemed incontrovertible—“There was none who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord like Ahab”—Jezebel’s malevolent shadow was still used as backup, evidenced by the superfluous comment, “who Jezebel, his wife incited” (1 Kings 21:25).

Of course there are positive stories about women in the Bible as well. The unnamed Samaritan woman who met Jesus at Jacob’s well comes to mind. She was the first person to understand who Jesus really was, and the first true evangelist to tell his story: “Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?” (John 4:29). Then there were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, women who financially supported Jesus’ ministry out of their own resources and enabled him to “afford” a full-time evangelistic agenda. Scripture shows that women—Joanna, Salome and the four Marys (Magdalene, Jesus’ mother, James/Joseph’s mother, Clopas’ wife)—were the first to see the resurrected Jesus. It’s almost a mystery why these women are not as celebrated in Christianity as some of their male counterparts are.

We lazily consume the storylines, largely put forth by men, that sideline women or depict them as societal “others” whose impertinence cost men paradise. And these images are passed down by way of our sacred texts, as though directly from the hands of God. This is how we’ve created false limits for women and cloaked our treatment of them as “God’s choice.” Consequently, we’ve imposed a burden of moral deficiency that every woman has inherited. So, when the writers of Ephesians, 1 Peter, or Timothy tell us what a woman should or shouldn’t do, say or shouldn’t say, we have been conditioned to give those statements credence. Try transposing the two verbs “submit” and “love” to make Ephesians read, “men should submit to their wives” and “women should love their husbands.” Then see how quickly protests arise from the male corner.

As a church, we have put a ceiling on the aspirations of women and have often enforced this through inaction and neglect. The idea that there is a hierarchy of beings that places men, by birthright, at the top, is so primitive it should be an embarrassment to defend. But some powerful men in the church have dedicated their entire ministry to this framework. They point to apparent biblical support as defense. No matter what way we massage it, this is misogyny at work. It’s a convenient excuse for men to control women, and it sadly finds safe harbor in Adventism.

The moral of this recitation is that we become what we behold and are changed by it. When we uncritically accept what those with vested interests dish out to us, we become accomplices in propagating their agenda. Misogyny, like xenophobia and racism, is learned. What I find disappointing and distressing about my church is our seemingly collective acceptance of a status quo. Our reluctance to engage these issues forthright, notably through the Sabbath School platform, has kept the doors open to entitlement and hierarchy. 

What then might be the solution? We can only make progress by jettisoning a hermeneutic that promotes theological constancy, instead embracing one that adapts to research and careful thinking. Belief should be based on reasonable propositions and not staked on theological positions just because they are steeped in our traditions. Some have suggested we should—like Jefferson—slice out the portions of our Bibles that are uninformed, regressive, or hurtful. But that would not extract us from our self-dug pit. People tend to place faith in simple solutions when faced with complex problems. And when it comes to the Bible, there is no shortage of simple solutions chasing after difficult issues.

Instead of scissoring our way to a better Bible, we should cultivate a mindset that allows us the freedom to recognize the bad parts of scripture for what they are: expressions by people no better or worse than we would be if we attempted to navigate their world with their tools. What now projects as bad advice should be viewed in the light of cultural allowances that have outlived their usefulness. There is nothing sacred about wrong information. Exposed to better knowledge and experiences, later generations will likely toss out some of our ideas as lacking intellectual and moral weight. We should not feel threatened by that possibility. It’s how progress is affirmed.

The Bible’s value should be measured by its generational influence, with each age rediscovering who Jesus is. The goal is to aim higher and connect with a deeper morality than what was handed down to us. For our generation, it could be argued that the most impactful issue in Ephesians—one that begs us to take action—is the treatment of women and slaves. Should women, even in the twenty-first century, “submit,” “serve,” or “put their husbands first” in exchange for being loved? And should human beings, whose personhood has been taken from them, be subjected to the double indignity of being asked to show gratitude to the people who enslaved them? Whoever wrote these passages—and it doesn’t really matter if it wasn't Paul—spoke out of privilege and the past. Given the times and how far we’ve come, I think we should begin to say no in earnest to these “submission” passages in scripture. Because that is what Jesus would expect from us.


Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. 

Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found by clicking here.

Title image: Wikimedia Commons

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