Theology and Ethics in Ephesians

T. B. Maston  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 6 - Fall 1963

The superlatives of the English language have been applied to Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians. Mackay considers it “the greatest and maturest of all his writings[1]John A. Mackay, God’s Order: The Ephesian Letter and the Present Time (New York: The Macmillan Co. 1953), p. ix. …and for our time, the most relevant of his works.”[2]Ibid., p. x. Lidgett contends that it is “the final statement of Pauline theology” and the most comprehensive statement in the New Testament “of the meaning of the Christian religion, blending as nowhere else its evangelical, spiritual, moral and universal elements.”[3]J. Scott Lidgett, God in Christ Jesus: A Study of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (London: Charles H. Kelly, 1915), p. 2. Carver believes that Ephesians is “the supreme monograph of all time”[4]William Own Carter, The Glory of God in the Christian Calling: A Study of the Ephesian Epistle (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1949), p. 5. and “the most comprehensive, the most complete, the most incisive and creative of all the New Testament writings.”[5]Ibid., p. 14.


It’s Two Divisions

One of the reasons for the influence of Ephesians is its rather remarkable balancing of theology and ethics. In this epistle, as is true of several of Paul’s other epistles, there is a fairly well defined doctrinal or theological portion of the epistle followed by a practical or applied section. Paul usually makes the transition from the more theological to the more practical by the use of the word “therefore.” This is a favorite word that he frequently uses to bridge two ideas or to relate one idea to another. The major transition in Ephesians is at the beginning of chapter four. In words strikingly similar to Romans 12:1 he says: “I therefore…beg you (“beseech you,” AV: “entreat you,” NEB) to live a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”[6]All scriptural quotations, unless otherwise indicated, will be from the Revised Standard Version. The “therefore” bridges or ties together the doctrinal section of the epistle and the practical or the applied. The first chapters “lead us to the secrets and resources of the Christian life, and the last to its exercise in the Church and in the world.”[7]Handley C. G. Moule, Ephesian Studies: Lessons in Faith and Walk (New York: Revell, n.d.), p. 147.

The preceding does not mean that theology is not practical; neither does it mean that there is no theology in chapters four through six. While the division is clearly evident, it is primarily a matter of emphasis. It at least represents a transition in Paul’s “center of gravity.”[8]Carver, p. 21. While theology is not left behind, the last three chapters are reserved, in the main, for exhortation and challenge. It should never be forgotten, however, that in Paul, in the biblical revelation in general, and in Christian experience there is no divorcement of theology and ethics. These are merely two sides of one coin or the “two sides of one picture,” and the two sides represent “the total Christian approach to life.”[9]Ray Summers, Ephesians: Pattern for Christian Living (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1960), p. vi. “Christian faith and Christian morals are inseparable,”[10]R. W. Dale, The Epistle to the Ephesians (10th ed., London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1897), p. 341. and “the most wonderful mysteries of the Christian revelation have a direct relation to conduct.”[11]Ibid., p. 341. Theology and ethics, as Carver suggests, “cannot be put asunder without serious results for genuine religion.” He adds that “if doctrine is not practical—and practiced—it is unreal, delusive, and useless. If experience and conduct are not integral with truth, they are lacking in meaning and reality.”[12]Carver, p. 20. Theology and ethics can be separated only for emphasis and study.

It should not be forgotten that Paul’s basic ethic, in contrast to his applied ethic, is found primarily in the so-called theological sections of some of his major epistles, including Ephesians. This can be plainly seen in the study of “Faith and Works” and “Unity in Christ,” two major divisions of this article.

Paul was always concerned with the ethical and was never more so “than when he was most profoundly metaphysical.”[13]Ibid., p. 83. For Paul, “an effective religion must be thoroughly and passionately ethical, and it can be so only if based on sound and secure convictions as to God-theology; and on a realistic understanding of man-anthropology.”[14]Ibid., p. 10.


Faith and Works

One evidence, as suggested previously, of the interrelatedness of theology and ethics in the Ephesian letter is seen in the close relation of faith and works. This relationship is implied throughout the epistle. For example, Paul says that he heard of the faith of the Ephesians “in the Lord Jesus” and their “love toward all the saints” (1:15). In the wonderfully rich passage which closes the more theological portion of the epistle, and in a sense is the climax of the entire epistle, Paul reveals that he prays for the Ephesians that “through faith Christ” might dwell in their hearts “in love.” He further prays that they may grasp “with all God’s people, what is the breadth and length and heighth and depth of the love of Christ, and to know it, though it is beyond knowledge” (3:17-19). It is the love of Christ that is the secret to the Christian’s love for the saints as well as the secret to whatever good deeds or good works he may produce.

The close relationship of faith and works is spelled out most specifically in the first few verses of chapter two. The Ephesians are reminded that they, along with others who were once dead in tresspasses and sins, have been made alive through their union with Christ. They have been raised “up with him” (a theme he discusses more fully in Colossians 3), and made to sit “in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (2:5-6). Paul sums up the matter by saying, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast” (2:8-9). This is an enlargement of his parenthetical statement in verse 5, and is what Bruce calls “one of the great evangelical summaries of the New Testament.”[15]F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Ephesians: A Verse by Verse Exposition (Westwood, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1961), p. 51. He makes it plain that salvation is by grace with faith as the channel for the operation of that grace. It “is not an achievement but a gift.”[16]S. D. F. Salmond, The Epistle to the Ephesians (“The Expositor’s Greek Testament,” New York: Doran, n.d.), III, 289.

The faith that saves, however, goes deeper and is more significant than many Christians seem to realize. We have been brought into union with the crucified and resurrected Christ. We are God’s workmanship or “masterpiece,” created in or through union with Christ Jesus. We are in Christ, he is in us. He is the vine, we are the branches, “though as yet the leaf has hardly escaped from its sheaf and the flower is only timidly opening itself to the sun and the air.”[17]Dale, p. 198. How grateful we ought to be, however, for the unlimited potential in the experience. All that limits us in our growth in and our service for him is our responsiveness to the Spirit’s leadership in our lives. Through this experience which is by grace through faith, there comes into our lives a depth of perception and a breadth of perspective that we had not known before.

One thing that we perceive is that the experience, at least in one sense, is not an end within itself. There is a purpose that goes beyond the immediate experience. This purpose is clearly revealed in the latter part of verse 10. We are created in Christ Jesus for or “with a view to good works,”[18]Salmond, p. 290. or “to devote ourselves to the good deeds for which God has designed us” (NEB). Good works or a life of goodness was the design or purpose of God even while we were yet in bur trespasses and sins. The salvation that we have through faith makes it possible for us to fulfill God’s design or purpose for our lives. This purpose of God is so central in the experience that it really becomes the proof of the experience. In other words, we prove that we have been saved through faith by the quality of life we live.

One commentator states the matter as follows: “No one more wholeheartedly than Paul repudiated good works as a ground of salvation” and yet “no one more wholeheartedly insisted on good works as the fruit of salvation.”[19]Bruce, p. 52. Another author has referred to the relation of faith and works as “the Pauline paradox,” but he also says that it is “an inevitable law of love.”[20]William Barclay, Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians (“The Daily Study Bible,” Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1958), p. 123. The grace of God which is an expression of his love for us has put us in debt to him for the remainder of our lives. We try, as best we can, to prove our gratitude to him by bearing fruit or producing good works for him.


Unity in Christ

Reconciliation or unity, which is achieved through and in Christ, is another central emphasis in the epistle. Before we discuss the subject in a more specific way, let us look briefly at those two little but tremendously significant words: “in Christ.” If these words are not “the central category of Paul’s thinking”[21]Mackay, p. 97. or his “favorite expression”[22]Ibid., p. 99. they are certainly one of the basic concepts of his thought. The words are found rather frequently in Ephesians and the concept permeates the entire epistle. Markus Barth expresses the pervasiveness of the concept as follows: “God’s eternal will, God’s work, and the daily life of the Ephesians are held together by a oneness, unity, and bond which bears but one name: Christ.”[23]Markus Barth, The Broken Wall: A Study of the Epistle to the Ephesians (Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1959), p. 220.

The expression “in Christ” evidently refers to a mystical union with him. To be in Christ is something deeper, broader, and more meaningful than to be in the church, “which is his body.” Through union with Christ the child of God finds sustenance and strength to live the Christian life. Through the consciousness of the presence of the indwelling Christ he is challenged to live a God-centered rather than a self-centered life. In other words, when one is in Christ “a new principle of life has been implanted” within him. His “outlook has been reoriented towards God.”[24]Mackay, p. 99. He sees that his life is increasingly to be con­ formed. to the image of the One who lives in him. He is to learn Christ (4:20). Christ becomes the soil in which he grows, the atmosphere he breathes, the source and goal of his entire existence. He understands more and more clearly that the moral life for the Christian is not something that is superficial or external. It flows from within out. The fruit of the Christian’s life results from his union with Christ. This means, among other things, that the fruit is natural and even inevitable. The more deeply and consistently he lives in Christ, the more abundant will be the fruit he will bear for Christ.

One glorious result of one’s union with Christ is his reconciliation with God and with his fellow man. This reconciliation, which is both vertical and horizontal, is one of the major themes of the letter to the Ephesians. Near the beginning of the epistle Paul says that the purpose of God, “which he set forth in Christ” is “to unite all things in him, things in heaven (vertical) and things on earth (horizontal) ” (1:9-10) . He also reveals that all things are to be put under Christ’s feet and he is to be made “the head over all things” (1:22). “God has constituted Jesus Christ the unifying center of the vast scheme of unity whereby the celestial and terrestrial orders, separated as they now are by the great gulf between the supernatural and the natural, and the greater gulf between the holy and the sinful, shall be joined together in a united Commonwealth.”[25]Ibid., pp. 60-61. The primary gulf that needs to be crossed or barrier that needs to be broken down is between man and God. It is the enmity between God and man, in the final analysis that begets enmity among men. This means, among other things, that there is no sound hope for reconciliation between men unless they are reconciled to God. On the other hand, “men cannot be reconciled to God without being also reconciled to one another.”[26]Carver, pp. 120-21. Both reconciliations, vertical and horizontal, are effected by Christ and are indissolubly united in him. This means, among other things, that one who is wrong in his spirit toward and relationship to people of other races, classes, and cultures cannot be and is not right with God regardless of what he may think or say.

Let us repeat, however, that the horizontal rift between man and man can only be removed in and through Christ. It was Christ and he alone who was able to make Jew and Gentile one. And it should be remembered that “no iron curtain, colour bar, class distinction or national frontier of today is more absolute than the cleavage between the Jew and Gentile was in antiquity.”[27]Bruce, p. 54. However, in Christ this barrier was broken down, “the dividing wall of hostility” (2:14) was eliminated. The “wall” evidently ref erred to a wall in the Temple which separated the court of the Gentiles from the other courts in the temple area. Paul also suggests that Christ abolished the law of commandments and ordinances “that he might create in himself one new man in the place of the two (“one new kind of person”[28]Barclay, p. 136.), so making peace” (2:15). Notice again the source for such peace among men; it is through the reconciliation of both to God “in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end” (2:16). The only real hope for peace among men is through their oneness in Christ, a oneness that, in turn, is made possible only through the cross. Through union with the crucified and resurrected Christ we become members of the same body (2:16, cf., 3:6) and are brought into the household of God, who is the father of all who believe and who is no respecter of persons. “The meaning clearly is that God proposes to relate to Himself in one great family people whom historical hates, cultural differences, and social status, have held apart.”[29]Mackay, p. 61. How relevant for a world torn with racial and class strife! It is Robertson who says, “Race and national distinctions vanish in Christ.”[30]A. T. Robertson, The Epistles of Paul (“Word Pictures in the New Testament,” Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931), IV, 526.

Summers suggests that “the different propositions presented and discussed by Paul in this epistle follow one after the other as natural corollaries. The one God has provided one way of redemption; it is for all men without regard to race; it must follow that it makes all men one in Christ.”[31]Summers, p. 45. Such a oneness in Christ is the great need of the world. The real problem in our world “is to constitute a spiritual unity in which men, being united in their loyalty to God, shall be loyally devoted to one another.”[32]Mackay, p. 63. This means not a superficial unity but a real community and “the community which God wills is a fellowship of love, constituted not by an evolution in history, but by the intervention of God in history.”[33]Ibid.


Christian Maturity

Paul was abidingly concerned about the maturity of his converts and his churches. He discusses this matter in a particularly specific way in chapter four which is, incidentally, the first major passage we have ref erred to from the so-called practical or applied portion of the epistle.

The author reveals that Christ’s gifts were that some should be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. He also reveals the purpose or purposes of their special gifts. The overall purpose is “to equip God’s people in his service” (4:12, NEB). What a difference a comma may make! For example, the Authorized Version, the American Standard Version, and the Revised Standard Version, retain the comma after “saints” which would mean that the purpose of the work of the specially gif ted ones was threefold—to equip the saints or God’s people, to carry on the work of the ministry, and to build up the body of Christ. This separates the “clergy” from the “laity” in a way which is out of harmony with the New Testament emphasis. In contrast, the New English Bible, Phillips, Weymouth, Williams and others, omit the comma after the word “saints.” This would make it mean that the inclusive purpose of the work of the specially gifted ones was to equip the “saints,” the rank and file of church members, so the latter, along with those who had been called to perform special functions, would be able to carry on the work of the ministry and thus build up the body of Christ. What a tremendous contribution would be made to the maturity of the churches and their members if the preceding idea were understood and taken seriously by both “ministers” and “laymen.”

Paul then spells out more specifically what is the work of the ministry which is the responsibility of all of God’s children. The major purpose is the building up of the body of Christ “until we all (those who are called to perform special functions along with all the saints) attain the unity of the faith and the know­ ledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (“to a mature manhood and to a perfect measure of Christ’s moral stature,” Williams)” (4:13). Here is the measure of Christian maturity. How tall are we when we stand up beside Christ, when our maturity “is measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ” (NEB). The high demand of our maturity is inherent in the experience when we came into union with Christ. Paul says that we are “to grow up m every way unto him” or “into perfect union with him” (Williams) (v. 15).

We are no longer to be children “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness and deceitful wiles” (v. 14). Bruce suggests that “with maturity comes a stability born of spiritual experience.”[34]Ibid., p. 88. This maturity of the child of God is not attained in isolation. He cannot be “a man in Christ” and an absolute individualist. He must recognize his relation and indebtedness to the Christian community. His maturity will be achieved, to a considerable degree, within and through his fellowship in the community of the redeemed. The community and the individual are closely interrelated. One purpose of the Christian community is the maturing of the individual. “The aim of the Church is nothing less than to produce men and women who have in them the reflection of Jesus Christ Himself.”[35]Barclay, p. 177. In turn, the community as a historical community m contrast to a transcendental community, an idea also prevalent in Paul’s epistles, can mature and achieve its purposes in the world only through the increasing maturity of the individuals who are members of the body. “The whole frame grows through the due activity of each part and builds itself up in love” (v. 16, NEB). The growth for the whole and for the component parts is “into him who is the head, into Christ.” Here 1s the real secret to the growth and maturity of the child of God and also of the Christian community or the church of Christ. The limb or the branch does not draw its sustenance from other limbs or branches. It along with them has a direct contact with the Head of the body. This is the secret to the vitality of the Christian’s life and of the Christian church.


Domestic Relations

In Ephesians, as in Colossians, Paul discusses domestic relations near the close of the epistle. The following sentence serves as a transition and as a basis for what is to follow: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). This is a general admonition. Christians are free men in Christ, but they are to surrender voluntarily their freedom for the sake of Christ and his cause. They are free from all men but are to become the slaves of all. This which is a basic principle of our Christian faith is applied in a special way in Ephesians five and six to domestic relations. Whatever subjection is involved, however, is to be colored, determined, and motivated by “reverence for Christ.” Mackay calls this “reverence for Christ” an ethical principle and “the norm or standard of Christian social behavior.”[36]Ibid., p. 188.

Each of the domestic relations-husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants-is to be maintained “in the Lord.” Paul is here addressing the Christian community. He is not considering the divided home where the husband or wife is not a Christian. He touches on this matter in 1 Corinthians 7. In Ephesians he is discussing a family where the members are “in Christ.” The latter is plainly true of the husband and wife and seems to be implied in the other relationships. The basic principles, however, would be the same for non-Christian as for Christian homes. The Christian ideal serves as a norm for non-Christian as well as Christian relationships.

Let us briefly notice in a more specific way what Paul said concerning the relations within the family circle. The wife is to be subject to her husband “as to the Lord.” Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church, and he loved the church enough to give his life for her. Children are to obey their parents “in the Lord,” a phrase that is subject to varied interpretations. Fathers are to bring up their children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Slaves are to be obedient to their earthly masters “as to Christ,” rendering their service “as to the Lord.” They are always to recognize that they are “servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart,” remembering that they will be rewarded by their Lord. Masters should remember that they and their slaves have the same “Master . . . in heaven, and there is no partiality with him.” And let us remember that all of these relationships are to be maintained “out of reverence for Christ.” What a difference it would make in the home, in the community, and in human relations in general if men and women were motivated by love and reverence for Christ.


Recurring Exhortations

There are a number of exhortations in addition to those that have already been mentioned. As one would expect, most of these are in the latter half of the hortatory section of the epistle. These emphasize again the close relation of theology and ethics.

Paul opens the applied or hortatory portion of the letter by saying, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg (“entreat,” NEB) you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” They had been called into fellowship or union with Christ. They were admonished to lead a life worthy of that relationship. There are both negative and positive aspects of such a worthy life. Here, as elsewhere, Paul gives a balanced perspective with a closing emphasis on positive Christian living. He sums up the whole matter by saying, “Put off your old nature . . . and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:22-24). He spells out, to some degree, both the negative and positive aspects of the Christian life,[37]See Colossians 3:5-14 for a parallel or similar emphasis. closing with the positive statement: “Be kind to one another, tender­ hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (4:32). The last phrase expresses both example and motive. It seems logical to follow that statement with the exhortation: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children” (5:1). Here is the overall goal of the Christian life: Christians are to be like their heavenly Father.

There are three exhortations in which Paul uses the word “walk,” which is a favorite expression of his.[38]For additional references in Ephesians see 2:2, 10; 4:1, 17. He admonishes the Ephesians to “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us” (5:2), to “walk as children of light . . . and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord” (5:8, 10), and to “walk . . .as wise” men (5:15), which means that they will “understand what the will of the Lord is” (5:17). If they walk as wise men they will not get drunk with wine but they will “be filled with the spirit” (5:18). To walk in love, in light, and in wisdom is to walk in the way of the Lord, to walk in obedience to and in fellowship with him. It is John who says that God is light (1 John 1:5) and God is love (1 John 4:8, 16); and it was the Psalmist who said, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps. 111:10).

The closing hortatory paragraph (6:10-20) also reveals the interpenetration of theology and ethics. The Ephesians are admonished to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (v. 10). They are “to put on the .whole armor of God” (v. 11) which includes defensive and offensive implements or weapons. These are all related to the Lord, they are part of the armor of the Lord. They are to gird their “loins with truth” (v. 14), to “put on the breastplate of righteousness” (v. 14), to cover their feet “with the equipment of the gospel of peace (v. 15). They are to take “the shield of faith,” “the helmet of salvation, (v. 17), and the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (v. 17). The two closing exhortations which belong together are: “Pray at all times in the Spirit and keep alert with all perseverance” (v. 18).

Carver sums up the multiple contributions of Ephesians as follows:

The philosophy of religion finds here its ultimate principles. Christian theology has no fundamental teaching that is omitted here, and the teachings are here held in balance such as is possible only when integrated in an architectonic concept which combines all elements in a natural relationship. Christian ethics find here their source and sanction, their aim and end, their persuasion and their power.[39]Carver, p. 14.


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