Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
The Letter to the Ephesians
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 Pauls New
Testament letters. In particular, Ephesians contains a sweeping vision of the nature of
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 Pauls 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
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 Gods 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
Gods 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. Gods grace has accomplished it in Jesus Christ (1:5-6).
In short, Ephesians stretches the boundaries of salvation. Gods 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 Pauls letters, emphasizes the exalted calling
of those who belong to the Church. They are to be holy onesa 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 Gods mysteryfocused on the incoming
of the Gentilesmakes 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 Pauls
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
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 womens
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
Christs 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 Gods 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 Gods
Word. Armed with such power, Ephesians expresses confidence that evil does not stand a
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 Gods reign. But we must remain, as Church, ever
vigilant in our attempts to live out this exalted calling.
Next : Fundamentalism (By Eugene LaVerdiere, S.S.S.)
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