Ephesians 5:21—A History of Interpretation

I’m still puzzling through the function of Ephesians 5:21 in its context. My argument was that Ephesians 5:21 was one of several ways that Paul tells us to sow to Spirit, or to be filled by the Spirit. Ephesians 5:22ff., in my view, then work out what it looks like to submit ourselves to other Christians without obliterating any concept of authority structures in our society.

One really fun and helpful resource for Bible study is called the “Exegetical Summaries of the New Testament.” There is one for each book of the NT and they walk you through the different debates and positions regarding the interpretation of almost every clause in the New Testament. For this particular clause, the summary gives us three options.Exegetical Summary of Ephesians

QUESTION—What is meant by ὑποτασσόμενοι ἀλλήλοις ‘being subject to one another’?

1. This clause focuses on an attitude of reciprocal or mutual subjection to one another [AB, Can, CBC, DNTT, Ho, IB, ISBE2, LJ, Lns, MNTC, NCBC, NIC, NTC, Si, St, TD, TH, TNTC, WBC, WeBC (probably)]. This is an attitude of meekness, gentleness, and humility toward one another [St]. There must be within the Christian community a willingness to serve, learn from, and be corrected by any other believer, regardless of age, sex, class, or any other division [TNTC]. Paul is talking about reciprocal subjection within the fellowship of the church [AB, Ho, Lns, NCBC, NIC, NTC], even though, in the following verses, submission is only applied to three of the six groups mentioned, namely wives, children, and slaves [AB, Lns, NCBC, NTC]. This subordination consists of a willingness to respect and honor the needs of others [CBC, ISBE2, NCBC, NIC, TD], even taking precedence over one’s own needs [ISBE2, NCBC, TD].

2. This clause focuses not so much on a reciprocal subjection of Christian to Christian, but on voluntary subjection to the various areas of constituted authority in life [Alf (probably), Ba, EBC, ECWB, EGT, El, Rob]. In the Divine ordering of human life one person is to be subject to another, but this must not be pressed into meaning that even the highest is, in some sense, subject to those beneath him. The husband, in the following verses, is not told to be subject to his wife, nor parents to their children [Rob]. Rather husbands, parents, and masters are told to use their authority in a proper manner, with no abuse of their power [Ba].

3. This clause covers both reciprocal subjection of Christian to Christian as well as to all constituted authority [Cal, Ea]. Where love reigns, believers will mutually minister to each other. Even the authority of kings and governors is held for the service of the community. It is highly proper that all should be exhorted to be subject to each other in their turn [Cal].

So, a quick look at the exegetical summary suggests that my position is the most common (the abbreviations in brackets represent different people who hold the positions). However, there is one big problem. The exegetical summary series is pretty dated. most of the commentaries they survey were written before the 1950’s. In other words, just because my view used to be popular, doesn’t mean it still is.

In fact, my view has taken a serious hit in popularity. Today, many of my favorite commentators are tending toward the second option. In other words, more and more people are suggesting that “submit to one another” doesn’t address how every believer is to relate to every other believer, but only how we are to relate to the people who are in positions of authority over us.

My question is, “why the change?” Of course, any answer to this question is only speculative, but I have been speculating. Wayne Grudem, I think, provides a helpful case study. Grudem has written an article titled, “The myth of mutual submission as an interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 (chapter 7 of BFMW).” In that essay he discusses the rise of feminism, and particularly a part of feminism called egalitarianism. Grudem argues that egalitarians have interpreted Ephesians 5:21 to rule out any possibility of male authority in the home or society. Grudem explains,

And so egalitarians began to claim that Ephesians 5:22 did not really teach any unique authority for the husband in a marriage, because Ephesians 5:21 nullified that idea. Any submission in marriage has to be mutual, and thus male headship in marriage evaporates.

Thus, Grudem recognizes that the previously common interpretation has been used, or rather misused, by egalitarians to explain away what follows in Ephesians 5:22ff.

It is my suspicion that the rising popularity of this second interpretive option of 5:21 is due in large part to an effort to disarm the egalitarian position. Don’t get me wrong, I am not claiming that people are intentionally misrepresenting their views to win a debate, only that our involvement in contemporary debates can sometimes shape the way we read historic texts. As much as possible, we should try to avoid this temptation.

One way to help us avoid interpreting texts solely through our contemporary lens is to read older works. It is a good thing for Christians to dust off their commentaries written by the old dead guys. Reading John Calvin, Martin Luther, Matthew Henry, Charles Hodge, and the like not only give us a glimpse of how this text was applied in other eras, but helps rise the text out of any given cultural milieu and thus reveal a less historically biased approach to the text.

To wrap this up,  I admit my position on this verse has lost some popularity, but for what its worth I still think it is the most common even if the margin has narrowed. At least that is what Clinton Arnold claims in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament. And I bring him up so I can close this post with his take on Eph. 5:21

Thus, Paul can say, “be filled with the Spirit … by submitting to one another.” Mutual submission is not just the result of Spirit-filling; it is prerequisite to the reception of grace from the Spirit-endowed members of the body. Thus, it is easy to see from Paul’s perspective that attitudes and behavior reflecting arrogance, harshness, impatience, and intolerance will not only adversely impact the unity of the community, but will also keep believers from effectively ministering to one another. The work of the Spirit is thus effectively hindered.

Although the English term “submit” is viewed in a pejorative way today and is often seen as a sign of weakness or as something one should resist at all costs, it should not be seen in such negative terms here. In general, the verb (ὑποτάσσω) is widely used for the proper social ordering of people, as, for example, warriors giving their allegiance to their commander (e.g., 1 Chr 29:24). Similarly, people living in a certain political jurisdiction are obliged to respect the authority of (ὑποτάσσεσθαι) their local governor. This carries with it the responsibility to live in an orderly manner and not to be seditious or rebellious (Josephus, Ant. 17.314).

As within the social, political, and military spheres that have a leadership structure, Paul will elaborate on his expectation that “submission” should characterize the response of the wife to the husband in the divinely ordered marriage roles (Eph 5:22–33). His appeal here, however, takes an unexpected twist. He calls for all believers to submit “to one another” (ἀλλήλοις), not just to those in leadership roles. By expressing himself this way, Paul subverts the normal usage of the term to convey the idea that all believers should defer to one another in the life of the Christian community.

This is the same countercultural attitude that Jesus commended to his disciples when they sought positions of preeminence in the coming kingdom. Jesus condemned the mind-set of the Gentile leaders who sought to “lord it over” (κατακυριεύω) people and taught that members of his new community need to become servants of one another, following his own example (Mark 10:42–45). Paul’s desire for these believers is similar to what he longs for in the Philippian community, that they “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” that they humbly consider one another in the community as more important than themselves, and that they look not only to their own interests, but also to the interests of others (Phil 2:3–4; see also Rom 12:10).


Submit… A debate over Eph. 5:21 and following.

I am in the middle of a bit of a friendly debate with a good friend of mine. To the best of my understanding, there is no significant theological difference, but there is a bit of a difference concerning the best way to interpret the command to submit in Eph. 5:21ff (ff is shorthand for “and following”). I’ll try to briefly give the two positions, and explain why I think I’m right.

The Context

Let me start with where the passage starts, and where we both agree. Paul is arguing, as he does in many of his letters, that the gospel has implications in our lives. In the first three chapters he explains the gospel with considerable clarity. Starting in chapter 4 Paul begins to urge us to live in a manner consistent with that gospel.

Part of living in a manner consistent with the gospel is being filled with the Spirit. This, I believe, is another way to talk about the same principle he discussed in Gal. 5 where he used the language “sew to the Spirit.” The basic premise is this, God saves us so that we are free from the penalty of our sin, but that we progressively experience this freedom as we cultivate our awareness and responsiveness to Him.

This is exactly what Paul commands in Ephesians 5:18. Stop getting drunk with wine, this only leads to debauchery. Getting drunk is the kind of behavior that sows to the flesh and prevents you from experiencing the full freedom of your salvation. Instead of getting drunk, you should be getting full of the Spirit. In other words, don’t do the things that prevent you from experiencing the joys and freedoms of knowing God, instead do things that help you experience those joys and freedoms.

So what can we do to sow to the Spirit? What kinds of behavior help us experience those joys and freedoms? Paul immediately gives us three things to do in order to be filled with the Spirit: (1) address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, (2) give thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, (3) submitt to one another out of reverence for Christ. When we make these kind of practices and behaviors a habit in our life we sow to the Spirit and put ourselves in a position to more fully experience his joy and freedom in our life.

The Debate

So far, I think my friend and I agree. Where we differ is the relationship of what comes next to what we have just discussed. Paul follows this section with what is sometimes referred to as the household code. It discusses the relationship between a husband and wife, a child and parent, and finally a slave and a master. My friend argues that rightly participating in these relationships are the 4th, 5th, and 6th way we sow to the Spirit and enjoy freedoms of new life in Christ.

I don’t entirely disagree, but I think that misses, or at least greatly underemphasizes, an important connection between these household codes and the 3rd point. In fact, I believe that these household codes are given as practical examples of what it means to do what is commanded in verse 21. The relationships described in verses 22ff are examples of submitting to one another. So in this context, 5:22ff are not new or different ways to be filled with the Spirit, but specific examples of one particular way to be filled with the Spirit; namely submitting to one another.

So why would Paul need to give these codes in connection to verse 21? The reason is because the word submit, in its normal usage, evokes ideas of obedience. This is fine in certain relationships, but in other relationships the concept of submitting would seem out of place. It is easy for someone to understand how a child should submit to their parents, but is there any meaningful way that a parent can submit to their child?

If the answer is no, then we should interpret verse 21’s charge to submit to one another in a somewhat limited sense. We would assume Paul certainly doesn’t mean that I submit to everyone in the church, but only those in authority over me. However, I think Paul gives these household codes to show us that there is a meaningful way that every Christian is able to submit to every other Christian they are in relationship to. This isn’t merely a command for people under authority, it is a command for people in authority too.

So, if I am correct, what would submission look like when applied to both sides of an authority based relationship. For those under authority, it looks much like we expect: respect and obedience. The distinction between spirit filled submission and an every day garden variety of submission found in the world is the spirit in which one obeys. Wives submit, but not as if they are merely submitting to their husbands, but as if they are obeying the Lord. Children get a similar command with regard to obedience. Slaves, perhaps, get the most expansive explanation of the distinction between Christian submission and worldly submission to those in power. The Christian’s submission is different not primarily in form, but in spirit because it is characterized by joy and sincerity.

These examples of submission are certainly unique, but they don’t significantly stretch the way we typically understand the concept of submission. They they don’t help us think through how those who are in authority might submit. But, if I am understanding Eph. 4:21 correctly, submitting to one another is a two-way street. It is not simply that those under authority submit to those in authority, the command is that we submit to one another.

So how does one in authority submit to the person he leads? He submits in the same way Christ submitted himself to the church. He loves and sacrificially gives himself for the person he leads. Husbands are clearly the chief picture here as marriage is specially designed to display this relationship, but the general principle, it appears, applies more broadly. We submit to those whom we lead by denying ourselves for their good. I submit to those I lead by mimicking Christ and considering their needs to be more important than my own.

In this sense, submission obviously means something other than obedience. Christ doesn’t obey the church. Nevertheless, I think there is a meaningful way of talking about Jesus submitting himself to the church. We mean something along the lines of Philippians 2 where we are called to consider the interests and needs of others as more important than our own. We are called to a form of self denial where my needs and desires are submitted to those of the people I am called to lead.

To be clear, I think Eph. 5:21ff teaches that all of us should mutually submit to each other in the sense that we consider others as more important than ourselves. This does not obliterate the existence of authority structures. Eph. 5:22ff explicitly point out that authority structures such as husband/wife, parent/child, and slave/master can exist in a real and functional way without rendering mutual submission impossible. Mutual submission doesn’t mean that obliterate the concept of authority in our relationships (I understand that some people have argued this, but that is not what I mean by mutual submission).

What’s at Stake

So why does this debate even matter? I don’t want to overstate the importance of this debate. I don’t think the gospel or any serious point of theology is hanging in the balance. We are wrestling over each others souls here. Nevertheless, we both feel that the debate matters, though perhaps for different reasons.

My friend is concerned that, at worst, my interpretation functionally abolishes any form of authority. He argues that if, for instance, parents are told to submit to their children then they are left without the right or responsibility to tell their children what to do. Or at least, if they do tell their children what to do, they need to allow their children to tell them what to do sometimes as well.

My response to this objection is that this is only possible if we ignore Paul’s whole point (to which he agrees, though as already covered he disagrees about what that point is). Paul’s point, as I understand it, is that there is a requirement to submit to each other in a way that takes serious and does not destroy authority relationships. I think Paul is using these relationships to teach husbands, parents, and bosses that we can exercise authority in a way that simultaneously submits ourselves to someone else.

My friend’s other concern is that my interpretation stretches word meaning beyond any reasonable bounds. He argues that submit means and can only mean to obey. Once we change the meaning of submit to something more like “sacrificially deny yourself for the benefit of another,” we so change the word so drastically that it looses any communicative power.

My response to that is that words almost never have a single meaning, instead they have what we call a semantic range. That is, a word’s meaning is best determined by how it functions in that particular context and not how it was used in a previous context. To demonstrate the concept of semantic range, I think we can actually use the word submit. When we talk about a wrestler who submits to his opponent, we don’t mean the same thing as when we say a child submits their parent. One refers to tapping out because of the pain. The other refers to our concept of obedience. Of course, there is a degree of semantic overlap there, but now we are back to the exact argument I am trying to make. Submission can have a broad sense that applies to every person in an authority relationship, and a more narrow sense that applies more narrowly to the one who is under authority. Words actually are pliable tools and they always have been.

But what if I am right and my friend is wrong? What is lost by him if he doesn’t come on board? Again, nothing quite as major a one’s salvation. This isn’t a heresy issue. Nevertheless, I think my friend’s interpretation of this passage runs the risk of missing two significant implications of the text.

First, by describing Christ’s love as a submissive love, I think we actually get a more full understanding of what Biblical love is. Biblical love is sacrificial love. It is love that submits myself for the good of another. We live in a culture that defines love primarily in terms of feelings. Christ’s love however isn’t described primarily as enjoying His church, but by enduring suffering for the benefit of His church. Removing the concept of submission from the definition of love risks a shallow understanding of what true love is.

I would assume that my friend would respond that there are plenty of passages that teach that love sacrifices for its object. Romans 5:8, for instance, explains that God demonstrates His love in this, that while we were sinners Christ died for us. So, even if his interpretation minimized this component of love in this particular passage, it in no way denies it as a general principle.

The other thing that I think is at risk in my friends interpretation of this passage is that it misses what I believe is a fairly simple and universal argument. It is clear that the first to ways to be filled with the Spirit are applicable universally. All Christians of all times and in all places are able to sing to one another and to give thanks with each other. I think continuing the triad with another universal command to submit to one another both makes sense and provides a valuable consistency to the argument of the passage.

Concluding Thoughts

That is the debate in a nutshell. Granted, not much hangs on who wins this one. I’m not convinced either of us will convince the other, nor that it is of any great importance that we do so. So why bother? Let me list three reasons why I think this is worth our time.

  1. It’s the Bible. 2 Tim. 3:16 promises that this passage is profitable (or useful) for teaching rebuke, correction, and training in righteousness. Wrestling with God’s word brings a reward. Of course, this reward is available only if we wrestle with the text and submit to it. But those things come in that order. There is no meaningful way to submit to a text if I am unwilling to read it and wrestle with its meaning.
  2. Further, God’s word is only profitable to the degree that we rightly interpret it. Sloppy interpretation doesn’t produce profitable results, it produces cults and false doctrine. Granted, I don’t think either position is teetering on the edge of heresy, but passages like this are where we learn the skills to responsibly interpret the Bible. Michael Jordan didn’t wake up one morning dunking a basketball. He practiced. This is my practice. You may want to practice in a different way, but you ought to practice.
  3. This particular text is one that not many people in our culture like because not many people in our culture like authority. This compels me to interpret this passage all the more carefully. Knowing that this text will be difficult for many people makes me want to be all the more careful when I study it.

Hermeneutics and the Gospel

If you follow the Complementarian and Egalitarian debate you may have come across an article written by Derek Flood. He makes the claim that this issue is much deeper than gender roles – it goes all the way to how we read our Bibles. I couldn’t agree with that more, and I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to explore the different kinds of Bible reading that lie at the heart of this debate.

The Background

The article, “Gender Equality: Why the Gospel Coalition Misses the Gospel,” was written by Flood as a critique of The Gospel Coalition’s (TGC) focus on a doctrine called complementarianism (if you need a refresher on that term you can go to one of these posts: A Mean Marriage, or Criticizing Complementarianism). The point of his article is that the men leading TGC read the Bible wrongly and it has actually caused them to miss the gospel altogether.

But Flood’s not the only one suggesting that reading the Bible wrongly can distort or destroy the gospel. In the same video that Flood is criticizing,  Tim Keller (joined by Don Carson and John Piper) explained that though egalitarianism doesn’t directly affect the gospel, it “indirectly affects the way we understand Scripture and thus the way we understand the gospel.”

So how do the groups read the Bible and what does Bible reading have to do with the gospel? Though I ultimately disagree with Flood’s conclusions, perhaps it is easiest to start the conversation by looking at his argument.

The Testing Grounds: The Issue of Slavery
Derek Flood leads his critique of TGC with an example of why he believes the TGC guys are bad Bible readers.

The problem with this is that if folks at TGC really want to read their Bibles in that way, then they would need to support the institution of slavery, because in the same way that the New Testament affirms traditional gender roles that were a part of the dominate culture of the time, it likewise affirms the assumption of the institution of slavery. So if you want to make a biblical argument for traditional gender roles, you also need to be pro-slavery. Otherwise, as Keller puts it, you are being “loose” with the text.

Instead of addressing whether Flood’s criticism is valid, I want to look at what he teaches us about how we should read the Bible. Perhaps the most important lesson is that everyone agrees about at least one thing – you need to read the Bible consistently. 

The TGC Hermeneutic
Flood deserves credit, it seems that he does understand how the TGC guys read the Bible. They claim that the Bible is God’s word and it is free from errors. The TGC guys believe that everything it says is trustworthy and right and it is the reader’s responsibility to obey its message in every way.

This way of reading really does present a challenge for the TGC guys. When they come to passages like the one’s Flood is referencing (Ephesians 6:5-8 for example), they either have to show that the passage is not an endorsement for slavery or they have to endorse slavery in the same way the passage does. The culture’s view of slavery must remain completely irrelevant to their Bible reading. The TGC method of Bible reading can only seek to understand what God was saying in his word and then follow it without question. To do any less is to be inconsistent and being consistent is the cardinal rule.

Is There Another Way?
Of course, Flood suggests that there is a better way to read the Bible. He explains,

As you might have guessed, I think this way of reading the Bible is completely wrong. In fact, I would argue that this way of reading the Bible misses the entire point of the New Testament. Jesus is anything but the defender of traditional values. He is someone who continually turned traditional values on its head, and was so subversive to authoritarian religion that it got him killed. People who argue otherwise clearly are not paying attention to the narrative of the Gospels. Why was Jesus opposed to these traditional values? Because they hurt people, and ignored those who are oppressed and marginalized.

While Flood doesn’t label how he reads the Bible, his language seems to reflect two of the most common models of Bible reading among the egalitarian movement: ideological hermeneutics and trajectory hermeneutics. Though there are differences between the systems, both methods suggest that the Bible does indeed affirm slavery (or hierarchalism when refering to the gender roles debate), yet suggests that the reader need not follow that teaching to remain consistent. While I suspect that Flood would identify more closely with the later option, I will review both systems just to be on the safe side.

Ideological Hermeneutics
The key to reading the Bible “ideologically” is something called “pre-understanding.” The idea is that as a member of an oppressed group (Latin-American, black, feminine, homosexual, etc.), you can read the Bible as a sort of commentary on liberation from your own form of oppression. Yet, people who espouse this reading style recognize that not every passage is equally liberating, so their goal is to identify the liberating texts and remove or ignore the “texts of terror.”

Robin Perry offers an example of how feminist theologians sometimes use this method of Bible reading:

They will identify liberating strands within the Bible (e.g. freedom for the slaves, all humanity in God’s image) that feed into their liberating theology. At the same time “toxic texts” (racist, sexist, homophobic ones, etc.) will be identified and stripped of their authority. For instance:

  1. The teaching that all humans are equally in God’s image (Gen. 1:26) is a liberating text that undermines any theology or practice denying the full humanity and equality of women.
  2. Paul’s teaching that man is the image and glory of God while woman is the glory of man (1 Cor. 11:7) is patriarchal and must be rejected.
  3. Traditional Christian teachings of the equality of men and women are patriarchal and oppressive because “equal but different” in practice means “not equal.”
    (quoted from “Ideological Criticism” in The Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible)

In this way, the feminist reading of the Bible avoids charges of inconsistency. They do not have to be consistent with the original intentions of the author, they simply need to be consistent with their own pre-understanding to determine which passages are useful and which are harmful.

The obvious problem with reading the Bible this way is that it strips the Bible of its authority. On the other hand, if you think of authority as oppressive, that’s the whole point.

Trajectory Hermeneutics
A heavy handed emphasis on Jesus’ rejection of tradition and the suggestion that this is what led to His crucifixion (as opposed to the claim that He is God), are signs that Flood may be coming from an ideological approach. However, the surprising charge that his opponents haven’t paid attention to the narrative of the Bible suggests that he may be endorsing a trajectory hermeneutic (I say surprising because Don Carson is in the video he critiques and has written detailed, scholarly commentaries on both Matthew and John). The two views have their similarities, but there are some important distinctions.

Reading the Bible according to its trajectory is a sort of middle way between the TGC method and the ideological approach. It avoids the problematic pick-and-choose methodology without forcing the reader to accept anything that seems barbaric to modern sensibilities. One of the leading proponents for this way of reading the Bible is William Webb, but he uses the term Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutics.” In an explanation of the slavery issue he says,

When the Bible’s slavery texts are read against their contexts, redemptive movement becomes increasingly clear. These biblical modifications to the existing social norms brought greater protection and dignity for the slave. This improvement in the conditions of slaves relative to the original culture was clearly redemptive action on the part of Scripture. Admittedly, it was not redemptive in any absolute sense. Scripture only moved the cultural “scrimmage markers” so far. Yet that movement was sufficient to signal a clear direction in terms of further improvements for later generations.
(quoted from “Slavery” in The Dictionary for the Theological Interpretation of the Bible)

In other words, Webb is suggesting that the general direction of the Bible is to make things better. However, the Bible only gets the ball rolling. Jesus and His followers challenged the status quo, and made improvements – but only incremental improvements. It is the reader’s responsibility to do even better than Jesus and His followers.

This seems to be how Flood avoids the problem of contradiction. He makes it very clear by stating:

Once we catch the subversive spirit of what Jesus and the rest of the New Testament is doing here, we can then see the direction that the New Testament is moving in, and recognize that this is a trajectory that eventually lead to the abolition of slavery, and likewise towards valuing men and women equally.

He doesn’t have to demonstrate that that Bible was right, only that it was on the right track. Sure, Jesus and his followers may have endorsed slavery or gender roles back in the day, but given enough time they surely would have progressed beyond those primitive ideas.

Bible Reading and the Gospel
It is not hard to understand why Derek Flood would suggest that the TGC method of Bible reading can distort the gospel. For Flood, the gospel is a message of hope to the oppressed that comes through subverting any authority that could enable oppression. As long as the Bible speaks positively of authority, not to mention that it is itself an authority, final freedom from oppression seems impossible. And thus, the gospel is destroyed.

The TGC understanding of the gospel really is radically different from Flood’s. Rather than a subversive spirit, the TGC gospel is calling for a spirit of submission. The gospel according to a TGC hermeneutic comes by faith – a faith that is characterized by complete and total submission to the authority of God.

As I read the narrative of Scripture, as Flood suggests we should do, I am convinced that the true mark of a believer is not subversion, but submission to the word of God. Perhaps no greater example is given than Abraham, whose act of submission is repeatedly acknowledged as the mark of his faith. Consider Hebrews 11:17-19:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

I cannot imagine how hard it was for Abraham to trust God when faced with a command to kill his own son. If ever there was a time that an ideological hermeneutic would have been nice, it was then. I am sure Abraham was tempted to say, “sorry God, that sounds like a ‘text of terror.'” Or perhaps a trajectory hermeneutic would have been sufficient. He could have simply said, “God, one day you will realize a better way.” But neither of those responses seem congruent with the type of faith that the gospel requires. Instead, Abraham choose unmitigated surrender, and it was this faith that was credited to him as righteousness.

If submission truly is a mark of the gospel, TGC is correct in asserting that the predominant methods of egalitarian Bible reading can distort or destroy the gospel. If the words of God are subject to our dismissal or to our improvement then we cannot, in any true sense, be submissive to them. The gospel requires a word from God that is higher, better, and more authoritative than the people whom the word seeks to save.

The Oppressive and Liberating Structure of Deuteronomy

Not long ago Kanon and I went jogging on a Greenway near our house. A few hundred feet into our journey we passed a sign listing the “Greenway Rules.” To my great amusement, rule #1 was “obey all posted rules.” It reminds me of this clip from the Andy Griffith Show.

The same rule, that is to obey all the rules, applies to the Ten Commandments. Speaking of the Ten Commandments, James explains, “for whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10). Similarly, Jesus claims, “therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19). When it comes to the Ten Commandments, it’s an all or none proposition. You have to keep them all, perfectly.

There was one man who thought he did this. Matthew 19:16-30 tells the story of a rich man who comes to Jesus to ask what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus explains that he must keep all the commandments. Wanting a little more clarity, the rich man asks Jesus to explain, so Jesus lists a few; “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19:18-19). The rich man’s response is stunning. He looks right and Jesus and says “All of these I have kept” (Matthew 19:20).

What could possibly give a person the confidence to say that they had never broken any of the Ten Commandments? Perhaps, the rich man’s confidence was a result of never understanding the structure of the book of Deuteronomy and just what that implies.

Deuteronomy, which means the second law, provides the second account of the giving of Ten Commandments. In Deuteronomy 5:1-5, we are reminded of the setting in which the commandments were given and then, in Deuteronomy 5:6-21, the Ten commandments are listed out for us again. Mark Rooker summarizes the Ten Commandments like this:

  1. Do not have other gods besides Me
  2. Do not make an idol for yourself…
  3. Do not misuse the name of the Lord your God…
  4. Remember to dedicate the Sabbath day…
  5. Honor your father and mother…
  6. Do not murder
  7. Do not commit adultery
  8. Do not steal
  9. Do not give false testimony against your neighbor
  10. Do not covet…

For most of us, we think of this as the entire Ten Commandments. However, as we keep reading the book of Deuteronomy we realize that these “ten words” are just summaries of a much larger rule. Each of these are packed with meaning that is brought out in the chapters that follow. And if scholars such as John Sailhamer are correct, the Bible only lists a portion of the more full legal code that governed Israel.

For many years people have realized that the rest of Deuteronomy is connected with the Ten Commandments. However, it was in 1979 that Stephen Kaufman’s essay on the structure of Deuteronomy helped scholars take a more disciplined look at how the structure of the book informs our understanding of the individual commandments. Walter Kaiser provides the following chart to explain how the rest of Deuteronomy is connected to the Ten Commandments.

How does this affect the way we interpret the Ten Commandments? Glad you asked. It suggests that keeping any one commandment is a lot harder than we thought. For instance, consider one of the simplest commandments, #9, “Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Seven paragraphs are devoted to showing what that looks like. Kaiser breaks down the seven paragraphs of that section like this:

  1. Do not speak libelously as Miriam did (24:8-9)
  2. Treat debtors justly (24:10-13)
  3. Treat employees fairly (24:11-15)
  4. Hold only the guilty persons responsible for their crimes and not their relatives or family members (24:16)
  5. Dispense justice and charity to the stranger, orphan and widow alike (24:17-22)
  6. Exercise justice in corporal punishment even to criminals (25:1-3)
  7. Treat even animals mercifully (25:4)

If you fail at any of these points, you are breaking the 9th commandment. If you slander someone, you are breaking the 9th commandment. If you fudge in business to get a better deal, you are breaking the 9th commandment. If you hold a grudge against someone even though it isn’t really their fault, you are breaking the 9th commandment. Even if you treat an animal unjustly, you are breaking the 9th commandment. And remember, these are still just broad categories. There are still plenty of other ways you could, and probably have, broken the 9th commandment.

If the rich young man understood the structure of the book of Deuteronomy, it is hard to imagine that he would suggest that he kept the whole law. The law almost seems designed to be broken. You have to be absolutely perfect to keep it. The more we read, the more impossible and oppressive it seems.

Jesus, however, didn’t bother to argue the literary structure of Deuteronomy. Instead he gets right to the heart of the matter. Jesus explains, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:20-21). With this, the rich man understood the point of the law. If he wants to inherit eternal life through what he can do, it will cost more than he is able to pay. The requirements of the law are too much. The Bible explains, “When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Matthew 19:21).

The structure of Deuteronomy is oppressive. The law is too much. There is no way we can keep it all. There is no way we can be perfect. There is nothing we can do to inherit eternal life. Yet, the structure of Deuteronomy is also liberating. For after Moses gives this oppressive law, he concludes the book by showing us what the law is really all about. In the closing chapters of Deuteronomy Moses explains:

For I will proclaim the name of the Lord;
ascribe greatness to our God!
“The Rock, His work is perfect,
for all His ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
just and upright is He. (Deuteronomy 32:3-4)

The law requires perfection, yet only God is perfect. The law teaches Israel, and us, not to trust in our ability to do the law. No matter how hard we try we can’t even keep the 9th commandment, much less all ten of them. Yet God can, and He has. The point of the structure and message of Deuteronomy is to convince us that full and total dependance on the perfection and faithfulness of God is our only hope.

When we place our faith in the work of God, through Christ, the oppression of the law fades away. We no longer feel crushed beneath the weight of the law, but comforted and protected by the only one who is perfect and just in all His ways. This is a great delight to Moses. He sings:

But the Lord‘s portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted heritage.
He found him in a desert land,
and in the howling waste of the wilderness;
He encircled him, he cared for him,
He kept him as the apple of His eye.
Like an eagle that stirs up its nest,
that flutters over its young,
spreading out its wings, catching them,
bearing them on its pinions,
the Lord alone guided him,
no foreign god was with him. (Deuteronomy 32:9-12)

Let us gain a view of the law that is so oppressive that it drives us the only true source of comfort. And then, let us sing with Moses that the Lord alone can liberate us.

Bible Reading for Geniuses

We all do stupid things sometimes. I, for one, left the lights on in the bus not too long ago (luckily my boss caught my mistake before the battery died). Yet, we shouldn’t let these momentary lapses of judgment get us down. The truth is, the fact that you can read this sentence is proof positive that you are a genius. Have you ever considered how complicated reading actually is? If not, allow me to impress you with your own skills.

When we write, we choose letters that represent certain sounds. These sounds are described by linguists as phonemes. If we organize those phonemes correctly, we get a morpheme – the smallest unit of meaning. Consider the following two words as an example: dog and hog. Dog and hog are both morphemes because they represent units of meaning that cannot be broken down any further. The words are differentiated by the phonemes “d” and “h.” The two phoneme’s don’t carry any meaning on their own, but when added to “og,” they create words that we can understand. The amazing thing is that we are so smart that you don’t even have to stop to consider what phonemes are being combined – we immediately recognize the morpheme.

More than that, we are so smart that you can handle multiple morphemes at a time. For instance, I could add a prefix such as “un” and a suffix such as “ly” to a morpheme, and you know what it means. When I say “undogly” you don’t stop to consider how all three morphemes work, and, unless you have a mean streak, you aren’t even troubled by the fact that “undogly” is not a “real word.” You simply recognize that these three morphemes create a new word with a new meaning – and you know what that meaning is.

This process, where we analyze the phonemes and morphemes, brings us to what is known as the “lexical meaning” of a word. Most of the time you can do this without any help. If you find a word particularly tricky, you have the skills to open a dictionary and figure out the word’s meaning. When you stop to think about it, you are a bit of an expert with lexical meaning. My guess, is that you were able to handle the 398 words you have read so far without even breaking a sweat.

But what happens when we put words together? What happens when we create a sentence? When we read a sentence we move from lexical meaning to structural meaning. We aren’t just concerned with what the words mean, but what they mean when they are together. This is a big deal and it takes a considerable amount of expertise. Consider for instance the following words: genius, I, read, a, can, I because, am. We know the lexical meaning of each of these words. Yet, because they lack structure, they are nothing more than words. Yet, with a little bit of structure, a whole new level of meaning emerges: “I am a genius because I can read.” Now we are not only analyzing the lexical meaning of the words, but we are analyzing the structural meaning as well. And again, we did this without even breaking a sweat.

The entire process was summed up by a graphic in Dr. Blacks, “Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek.” I have borrowed it, and slightly altered it.

This picture shows the basic process we go through every time we read anything – including the Bible. The only step that isn’t included is simply an extension of syntax where we ask how sentences are related to each other in a paragraph, and how paragraphs are related to each other in a book. While the words describing the process may sound daunting, we go through this processes automatically every time we read. If this seems like work for a genius to you, don’t worry, you are one!

To become a better Bible reader we need to do two things. First, we simply need to read the Bible. We have the tools we need. We know how to find the lexical meaning of words and we know how to determine their structural meaning. We really are experts experts at reading, we simply need to apply our expertise to the Bible.

Second, we need to slow down. Great Bible readers not only read the Bible, they study it. They take the time to dwell on the things that they do naturally. They look up words that the think they know the meaning of to help them explore its nuances. They dwell on sentences that seem fairly clear so they can understand it with more precision and more clarity. Great Bible readers take the skills they have already mastered and apply them regularly and thoughtfully to reading the Bible.

If you find this interesting, you should get a copy of Dr. David Alan Black’s, “Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek“. Most of this post comes from what I learned reading that book.

Advice to a Student: How to become a better Bible reader

My first semester of teaching hermeneutics is almost over, I have three papers left to grade. However I was pleasantly interrupted by an email from one student. He asked for advice regarding how to continue to develop his skills as a Bible reader. His attempts to find the “Main Idea of the Text” were often close, but not quite where he wanted them. He was hoping I could point him to some class, or book, or something that could help him to continue to develop.

Emails like that make me so excited. I love to see guys long to read the Bible better. I love that he is taking his education seriously. I love that he is willing to put in the work it takes to understand God’s Word better and to communicate it more clearly. Emails like that make teaching an exciting profession.

I responded to this student like any good preacher would, with three points. I will include them below. I would love to hear if you have any other advice.

  • It is important to remember that reading this way takes practice. Most of us were not trained to look for the author’s main point when we read the Bible. Many preachers seem to work from model of reading the text that we would not accept. Rather than first asking, “what is this text saying,” many pastors start with “what does my congregation need to hear?” Then they pick and choose what parts of the text to emphasize based on what they think will most powerfully or effectively address their audience.

    What we are asking you to do this semester is vastly different and can seem foreign to many students. However, if you are convinced, as I am, that meaning should come from the author, then you will have to retrain yourself to read with the author’s main point in front of your mind at all times. Just like any training that is worth doing, it will take time and practice. So, be patient and keep pressing toward a better way.

  • Another important thing to do is to practice your own writing skills. Do as much writing as you can. Try to keep your arguments succinct. As you become a more proficient writer you will begin to find it easier to get in the mind of the Biblical writers. It’s true that they use genres that will be different from your own. However, as you write you will begin to identify with the struggle over what sentence should go where, and how to order your paragraphs. These types of questions are common to almost all writers.

    Also, you can begin to read books on writing style and sentence construction. I am personally hoping to begin reading Stanley Fish’s book, How to Write a Sentence, in order to continue to train myself in this area. Howard Hendricks suggested a similar strategy, recommending Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book.

  • Regarding classes to take, you should be aware that there is no single class you can take that will make you a good Bible reader or help you correctly find the main idea every time. However, you will find certain classes more helpful than others. Bible reading is, at its heart, simply reading. Therefore you are well served by taking as many English and literature classes as possible. Pay special attention to teachers who discuss issues like grammar and genre as these issues translate exceptionally well to Bible reading. College students at Southeastern should take classes with Dr. Michael Travers whenever possible. He is well known for his work in various genres, especially poetry. If you get to take his class, beg him to teach you how author’s use their genre to communicate their points, not only to our minds but to our hearts.

    In my own experience, my Greek classes contributed to my understanding of Bible reading more than any others. The first two semesters are hard work, and the main payoff is really just a little bit of grammar. However, if you are willing to push through, the 3rd, and especially the 4th semester are much more helpful. Plus, once you finish the third semester you are qualified to begin taking book studies in the original language. I don’t mean to suggest that “practical” classes, or even theology classes, can’t be helpful, however, I decided, when I started seminary, to spend almost all of my electives in Greek. I have never regretted that decision. Learning to read the Bible well was worth all the work.

    Perhaps no single class was more influencial that Dr. David Black’s 4th semester Greek class. The opportunity to work through the entire book of Philippians with Dr. Black was an invaluable experience. Additionally, that semester he introduced me to a book that profoundly influenced the way I read the Bible. Dr. Black’s, Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek, provides a clear guide for analyzing the authors words, sentences, and style in order to locate the main idea. Even if you haven’t had a single Greek class, it would be worth buying, however it will obviously be much easier for students who have taken some Greek. Regardless, you should not miss out on his chapters on syntax, semantics, and discourse analysis.

If you have any other advice, I’d love to hear it!

The Bible, Devotionals, and the Road to Hell

Are you familiar with the phrase, “doing devotions?” If you want to sound cool you can try the more casual term, “devos.” To be honest, I don’t hear the phrase as much anymore, perhaps you had to go to church in the 80’s and 90’s to learn the cool lingo.  Nonetheless, devotions have been around for a long time now, and they are still a popular concept in the Christian world.

If you hear someone talking about devotions they are typically talking about a time that they set aside every day to read their Bibles and pray. In high school we were encouraged to dedicate 5 to 10 minutes every morning to these tasks, and because 5 or 10 minutes of Bible reading felt like an eternity at the time, we were given little guides to help us through the process. We read little booklets by “Youthwalk” or “Our Daily Bread,” but always knew that the real devotion pros read things like “My Utmost for His Highest” by Oswald Chambers.

Most devotionals follow the same basic structure. They provide a verse for the day followed by a short thought on that verse meant to encourage or inspire the reader. With a little bit of discipline, you can begin each day with a Bible verse and mini-sermon. The results, at least they hope, is that you find yourself inspired and encouraged by the Bible on a more regular basis.

Certainly the intentions behind devotionals are good, but as you know, “the road to hell was paved with good intentions.” I often wonder if the devotions mentality is one of the reasons so many Christians know so little about the Bible. We have been tricked into thinking that the Bible is a devotional, and because of that, we don’t know how to read it.

Consider again how a devotional works. For instance, if you were working through the “Our Daily Bread” devotional, on Sunday you would have read 2 Timothy 3:14-17, Monday you would have looked at 1 Thessalonians 5:12-18, yesterday was Proverbs 4:1-7, and today you would find yourself in Joel 2:18-27. Each morning you would look for an inspiring nugget for the day, and the next day you would go mining for a new nugget. There is no effort given to understand how one day leads to the next or to understand how today’s passage fits into the larger context of the book or the rest of the Bible.

This type of study trains our minds to scour the Bible for the inspiring one liners that can get us through the day. We begin to read the Bible like a twitter feed. We wade through all the boring parts in search of the jewel that we can “retweet.” The problem is that the Bible is not a twitter feed. It’s not a collection of one liners and helpful, though unrelated, stories. Instead it is a single book, made up of sixty six books, with a cohesive message.

Reading the Bible like a devotional deters us from ever asking what the author is saying. Reading the Bible like a devotional, for instance, never presents us with the need to ask why Paul would spend three chapters in Romans on sin before ever bringing up justification in Romans 3:21-25. Reading the Bible as a devotional means that we never have to ask what the main point is, as long as we find a point that “speaks to us.”

Let us return to the saying, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Should we really expect devotionals to be the cobblestones of the road to hell? Perhaps that is a little strong, but consider again John 5:37-47:

And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life… Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”

In this passage, Jesus condemns the Jewish rulers of His day. The problem is not that they failed to read the Bible, but that they read it wrongly. They had their favorite passages and their favorite laws, but they never understood the main point of the Scriptures. They never realized that the entire Old Testament was about Jesus. And, because they read their Bibles wrongly, Jesus said they stand accused. It isn’t Jesus who accuses them, it is the very Bible that so diligently read every morning.

I am worried that typical devotionals put us at risk of the same problem. We read our five minutes every morning and never walk away with an understanding the main idea of the text. We spend an entire year of daily reading and are never able to articulate how Jesus is the hero of all the Bible. Typically speaking, devotionals rarely offer any advantage over the way the Jewish leaders read the Bible in Jesus’ day.

I am not suggesting that there is never a time and place for a devotional. However, I am afraid that we have let devotionals hijack our brains and our hearts. The Bible is a book that requires serious study. We have become content with spit-baths with a single verse every morning before we run out of the door. We must also strive for times that we can soak in His Word. We can no longer be content with a quick word of encouragement, we must press ourselves more deeply into His word in search of how Christ is revealed in Scripture.