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Missional Hermeneutic: Ephesians 5:3-14?

[Part two of a two part series. Maybe I’ll add more later. For now it’s two parts.]

A missional reading makes a big difference in how one might read the latter part of 5:3-14. Paul has turned his attention from reminding the community of its identity in the first three chapters to the way in which this identity extends into intra-communal (4:1-5:2) relations that maintain the mysterious unity. 5:3 moves from the sorts of things that directly affect community and unity (e.g., anger, falsehood, bitterness, slander, etc.) to the sorts of things in which one might participate in the wider society (sexual immorality, obscenity, coarse joking, greediness, etc.). It is true one could argue that all of these actions are ones a community member could exhibit in wider society, but the language of “one another” in 4:29-32 and the example of self-sacrifice in 5:1-2 seem to indicate a focus on the internal relations of the Ephesian Christian community and the way they learned Christ (4:20). 5:3ff. speaks more to other persons (cf. “such a person is an idolator” in 5:5) or the actions of “them” (cf. 5:7). Just as Paul wanted the Ephesians to make every effort to keep the unity, he also wants them to show a good public face. Sexual immorality and greediness are not what their Gentile non-Christian neighbors ought to see from them. In fact, in reminding them that they were once a part of this darkness (5:10), Paul tells the Ephesians they ought to expose these impure, unfruitful acts (5:11).

Now, here’s the question, “Is Paul exhorting the Ephesians to expose ‘the fruitless deeds of darkness’ among the community or within society?” More broadly, is this a maintenance or a missional issue? The answer to these questions bear on how vv. 13-14 are read.

And all of the things being exposed are being made known by the light, for each thing being made known is light. Therefore it says,
“Get up, sleeper,
and rise up from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

If the whole section of 8-14 is an exhortation toward action in wider society, namely that the Ephesian Christians as “children of light” (8) should not only avoid participating in fruitless works but should expose these works done presumably by the “sons of disobedience” (6), then vv. 13-14 is Paul’s way of rehearsing the movement from darkness to light and the role of the Christian community in that. That is, part of “walking as children of light”, bearing the “fruit of light”, and learning “what is pleasing to the Lord” should be exposing “the unfruitful works of darkness”. Things will be made known by the light and indeed Christ will shine on darkness. The responsibility of turning darkness into light is not the Ephesians’. Their responsibility, so it seems, is to expose dark deeds so that Christ may transform the doers of these deeds.

There is certainly an element of warning to the Ephesians (7), but I am not convinced that caution and maintenance is all that is being communicated here. It feels a bit innocuous for this pericope to be just a call to avoid dark deeds and expose those deeds within the community. This is especially true for me in light of two things:
1) The sons of disobedience seem to be in view as Paul refers to dark deeds. Their deeds, not the deeds of community members, are the ones the children of light ought to avoid and even expose.
2) The audience has just been reminded of their own transformation from dark to light and their status as children of light (8). It seems likely that Paul is pointing to their role in transforming others in the same way.

Thus, I note a handful of conclusions:
1) Ephesians 5:3-14 (esp. 11-14) is directed outward (missional?).
2) Exposing dark, unfruitful deeds is a part of being children of light. This comes about in the course of “walking” (8) and “learning” (10).
3) The children of light are not responsible for the transformation of dark to light. Things are made known “by the light” (13), which we can conclude is Christ (14).
4) Walking, learning, avoiding, exposing and all other activities of this “new person” (2:15), this “dwelling place for God” (2:22), have as their purpose to “make known the manifold wisdom of God” (3:10).

I could be wrong. Any thoughts?

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2 Comments»

  Tyler Watson wrote @

I think you’re on to something here. I appreciate juxtaposing maintenance and missional approaches, but I think we need to be careful. A thing I love about missional ecclesiology or hermeneutics (like you’ve laid out here) is that if we truly engage in these activities, then the concerns we have for maintenance will not only be taken care of, but also “maintenance” of the Church will be placed in its correct setting. Spiritual formation still occurs, children are still raised, families still receive help, the dead are still memorialized and buried, people still convert, expressive worship still takes place, prophetic preaching still happens, sins are still confessed and pardon announced, the sacraments are still observed and administered, etc. But within the missional framework these activities are never an end to themselves, or just for the sake of congregations.

By the way, The Gospel and Our Culture Network (GOCN) has some articles on missional hermeneutics. I haven’t read them yet, but I thought you might like them. They can be found here and here. (Registration is likely required.) A while back, GOCN also created some questions for a missional Bible study. I’m curious about what you think of them.

A. CONTEXT: How does this text read us and our world?
B. GOSPEL: How does this text evangelize us with good news?
C. CHANGE: How does this text convert us in personal and corporate life?
D. MISSION: How does this text send us and equip our witness?
E. FUTURE: How does this text orient us to the coming reign of God?

[…] are some interesting ideas that have been put forward on Ephesians, and others that stand very well in the tradition of […]


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