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The ideas contained within Paul's Letter to the Ephesians greatly influenced the growth and vision of the Church. Its teachings include: God's eternal plan of salvation, the Church's role of witness in the world, the roles of individuals within the Church and the ethical challenges faced by the followers of God.


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The Letter to the Ephesians

by Ronald D. Witherup, S.S.

If the saying “big things come in little packages” has any validity whatsoever, it certainly applies to this New Testament letter. Its influence on the life of the Church has far exceeded its petite size. Moreover, for such a little letter, its ideas are grandiose, more cosmic in dimension than almost any other of Paul’s New Testament letters. In particular, Ephesians contains a sweeping vision of the nature of the Church.

Ephesians in Context

As with any biblical document, it is good to place Ephesians in its appropriate context. It is one of thirteen letters in the New Testament attributed to Paul. Many scholars believe that Ephesians is an example of a pseudonymous letter, written in Paul’s name by a later author, such as a secretary or a disciple. This may be so, but it does not negate a certain consistency with Pauline themes. For our purposes, we will continue to refer to the author as “Paul.”

Interpreters regularly label Ephesians a “captivity epistle” or “prison letter” because Paul writes to his community while imprisoned (3:1; 4:1). Exactly where or when is difficult to determine, since Paul was in prison on various occasions and in several locations throughout his career. What is of more interest about this context is that the reflections from prison do not reveal a depressed or anxious emotional state.

On the contrary, Ephesians evokes an attitude of confidence and hope that might surprise someone who expects a downcast mood. Paul is convinced that what God has done in Jesus Christ is a fulfillment of a glorious heavenly plan, namely, to form a sacramental people united in community and built upon love, honor and respect. From our modern perspective the letter reaches out to us from the centuries and asks: How do we as “Church” fulfill this vision?

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Getting the ‘Big Picture’

Although Ephesians is filled with many teachings and themes that can be developed in their own right, it presents a “big picture” we cannot overlook. To state it succinctly: In Jesus Christ God’s eternal plan of universal salvation has come to fruition, and the Church is the body of Christ that mirrors this holy plan.

This is like a skeleton that gives shape to a body, but we need to put some flesh on it. Several aspects of Ephesians provide the “flesh” of this vision. The first is the nature of the “plan” itself. The letter insists that already “before the foundation of the world” God had a plan (Greek mysterion, “mystery,” which the Latin Vulgate edition translates with the word sacramentum, “sacrament”) to form us into a people called to be “holy and without blemish” (1:4). The Church, then, was not an accident that evolved by happenstance after the resurrection of Jesus. God intended to form a people from the beginning.

Paul then goes a step further. Part of this eternal plan was always to include the Gentiles as “coheirs” with the Jews to the salvation promised by God (3:3-6). This is part of the great mystery made known to Paul by “revelation” (3:3, 9). As he tells the Gentiles themselves, “Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ” (2:13); “You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God” (2:19).

Perhaps centuries later we can overlook the dramatic impact that such a grandiose vision could have on an exclusive kind of society. As the “chosen people,” the Jews had become accustomed to privilege. We might say that they developed an attitude of entitlement. God had chosen them from among all other nations, out of love, to be very special (Dt 7:6-8). They were to be the “holy” people, the ones whose very image should reflect the holiness of God. They were the children of the covenant adopted into God’s family by a bond of love that was never to be broken. Now, Paul asserts in this little letter that this same spirit of adoption applies to non-Jews as well! All can become adopted children of God. God’s grace has accomplished it in Jesus Christ (1:5-6).

In short, Ephesians stretches the boundaries of salvation. God’s eternal plan of salvation is big enough for all.

The Nature of the Church

If this is so, just what role does the Church play in this sweeping plan, according to Ephesians? Many readers may be familiar with the difference between a “high” and “low” Christology. These notions describe opposite tendencies in the writings of the New Testament to emphasize either the divine (“high”) or human (“low”) aspects of Jesus of Nazareth. Analogously, the New Testament exhibits similar polarizing tendencies with regard to the nature of the Church. Ephesians is a prime example of a “high” ecclesiology. That is, it contains an exalted view of the Church as a holy people, chosen and destined by God for glory. Following are some characteristics of this stance.

One characteristic is the regular use of the expression “the saints” (or “holy ones”) to describe the members of the Church (1:1, 15, 18; 2:19; 3:8, etc.). This designation, which is found in many of Paul’s letters, emphasizes the exalted calling of those who belong to the Church. They are to be holy ones—a people blessed and set apart for service. The term also emphasizes the moral purity to which they are called. As a community of faithful ones, the saints are to reflect here on earth the values that emanate from heaven. Their lives are to embody the pure call from God to be holy and blameless.

A second characteristic is that the Church rests upon a firm foundation, namely, upon the prophets and the apostles (2:20; 3:5). They provide continuity with ancient tradition. Furthermore, this revelation of God’s mystery—focused on the incoming of the Gentiles—makes the Church itself a vehicle for instruction, even to the heavens: “so that through the Church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might be made known now to the principalities and authorities in the heavenly places” (3:10). The Church, in essence, becomes a teacher of heavenly mysteries.

Yet a third characteristic is the image of the Church as “the body of Christ” (1:23; 3:6; 4:12; 5:30). Actually, Ephesians develops this image from Paul’s Corinthian correspondence (1 Cor 12:27). In First Corinthians the emphasis is on the Church as “one body,” made up of distinct members. The equality and unity of the body are most apparent. But Ephesians carries the image further. It emphasizes that just as a body has a head, which functions to direct the body, so does the Church have Christ as its head (5:23). He is the “capstone” (2:20): “In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord…” (2:21).

The crowning achievement of this “high ecclesiology” in Ephesians is closely related to the prior image of the body. It is the notion of the Church as the spotless bride of Christ (5:26-27). Paul uses the captivating image of marriage as a symbol of the relationship between Christ and the Church (5:23-32). Christ is the bridegroom, the Church is the bride. Masculine and feminine roles are distinguished and intertwined in a rich tapestry. The image is not entirely unique, however. It harks back to the Old Testament image of marriage as symbolic of the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. Some of the prophets made good use of this comparison, such as Hosea (see Hos 2:16-22). Since the Church is a new holy people, Paul uses this analogy to great effect. He refers to Christ as a husband and the Church as a virgin bride, unstained and ready to be espoused in fidelity (5:27).

There is, of course, a slight hitch with this exalted image. Modern ears have trouble hearing Paul speak of this comparison in a way that seems to stereotype masculine and feminine roles. The notorious line “wives be subject to your husbands” (5:22) is too often ripped out of its larger context and heard as a rule to limit women’s roles or to have men dominate them as property. This is far from the intent of the passage. Husbands are challenged to “love their wives as their very selves” (5:28). The marital relationship, is meant to point to the deeper mystery, how Christ loves the Church and will always be faithful to her. The point is to enhance the Church as the object of Christ’s love through the idealized image of marriage between a man and a woman.

Individually these four emphases amply demonstrate the exalted language of Ephesians. Taken collectively, they provide an unparalleled view of the Church as a pristine institution, molded by God’s own grace and called to live as a collective witness to that grace in the world.

Unity and Diversity

This “high” view of the Church does not mean that the letter glosses over other realities. In fact, one element that the letter acknowledges forthrightly is that the Church is not a naïve collective but a sensitive unit of diverse individuals called to a deeper union in Christ. This is apparent in two ways.

The first is the acknowledgement that within the Church there are distinct ministries. Individuals have different roles to play. Although all are to build up the body of Christ, all are not called to do so in the same way. Thus there are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, and others who fulfill various needs for the community of faith (4:11-12). In addition, Ephesians notes that the incorporation of the Gentiles into this new entity necessarily brings changes. Gentiles differed from the Jews and did not share in the original call by God to form a people. But now, in Jesus Christ, all that has changed. They are “coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus in the gospel” (3:6). This rich diversity does not detract from the Church but enhances it.

A second point hinges on distinct roles played in “the household of God” (2:19). As with any household, members have unique roles to play and duties to perform in accord with their call. Ephesians lays out a set of ethical instructions to masters, slaves, husbands, wives, and children that distinguish these roles quite clearly. Some of the concepts might now be seen, centuries later, as quaint vestiges of a bygone era. It took the Church hundreds of years, for example, to learn that slavery, which was an accepted cultural “given” in the first century, is morally wrong. No human being should be a slave to others.

What Ephesians is really saying is that any good household consists of people who know their respective roles and play them for the good of the whole. If the Church is truly to be a “sacred temple of the Lord” and a “dwelling place of God” (2:22), then each member must keep the goal of the larger entity in view. This interplay of unity and diversity reaches a high pitch in the series of seven (the perfect biblical number) unities to which all are called: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (4:4-6)!

The Cosmic Struggle of Good and Evil

As exalted as the view of the Church in Ephesians is, the letter strikes a realistic tone as well. This is apparent in several sections that address ethical challenges. In addition to the section on the duties of each householder discussed above, there is a large section devoted to avoidance of common sins and the promotion of good, sound values (4:25-32). The list is impressive: avoid lying; “do not let the sun set on your anger”; do not steal; use no foul language; remove all bitterness, fury and anger, shouting and all malice; do honest work; be kind and compassionate to one another; forgive as God has forgiven you. Some of these express the values of the Ten Commandments and the teaching of Jesus; others are good common sense. In both cases, the implication is that the community needs to be reminded of such values and put them into practice. Doubtless, community members failed periodically in the endeavor to live like saints. They were, after all, human beings. The struggle between good and evil continues even in the Church. As the body of Christ, it is also composed of human beings who come equipped with both the highest and lowest of aspirations. Ephesians invites all the members of the Church to incarnate the good values while holding in check our basest desires.

Near the end of the letter, Ephesians uses a military image to invite the community to live up to the high calling of being Church. We are to be equipped spiritually to do battle with evil (6:10-17). Just as soldiers go off to war armed with the weapons that will help defeat their enemies, so the “holy ones” of the Church are exhorted to “put on the armor of God” (6:11, 13): the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s Word. Armed with such power, Ephesians expresses confidence that evil does not stand a chance.

At one and the same time, then, Ephesians lifts our vision to the heavens but keeps our feet firmly planted on the earth. Yes, we are the holy ones, the elect of God, called to bring all to God’s reign. But we must remain, as “Church,” ever vigilant in our attempts to live out this exalted calling.

Ronald D. Witherup is a pries of the Society of St. Sulpice (S.S.) Formerly Academic Dean and Professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park, California, he is currently provincial of the U.S. Province of the Sulpicians in Baltimore. His books inlcude The Bible Companion: A Handbook for Beginners (Crossroad, 1998), Bible Fundamentalism: What Every Catholic Should Know (Liturgical Press, 2001), and 101 Questions & Answers on Paul (Paulist Press, 2003).

Next : Fundamentalism (By Eugene LaVerdiere, S.S.S.)

Praying With Scriptures
Read Ephesians 3:14-21, Paul's powerful prayer for his congregation. As you pray this prayer, recal the names of your family, friends and acquaintances whom you would like to commend to God for blessing.
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