Making Abuse Impossible
Is it just a ‘lack of accountability’? Perhaps, but there are sadly plenty of examples which demonstrate accountability is necessary but not sufficient to avoid abuse. Drawing the line further back we can identify the sinfulness of men’s hearts and the extent to which the pressures and temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil can cause good people to stumble. But we need to draw the line back further still.
According to Paul’s instructions in Ephesians 4 through 6 abuse should be impossible – if we are living a Spirit-filled life.
The paragraph breaks and headings added to our English translations of the Bible can lead to unfortunate application of the text. This is certainly the case with Ephesians 5:22-6:9, where the instructions given tend either to be abstracted into ‘how-to’s’ for family life, or explained away as culturally limited. But read as a whole we can see how Paul is showing us what Spirit-filled living looks like: a pattern of living in which abusing others should be impossible.
Christians are awake (5:14) so are to live like it, watching their step (5:15). We are to be continually filled with the Spirit (5:18) and the result of that is that we will submit to one another – we will, as Paul instructs at the beginning of this section (4:1-2) be humble, gentle and patient. What that submission looks like in practice needs to be worked out in the relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, and slaves and masters: as it goes in the family so it goes in the church.
This means that, ‘in the same way’ (6:9), masters are to submit to their slaves. As Frank Thielman puts it,
Paul’s advice to believing slave masters subtly undermines the whole system of slaveholding. Slave-owning believers are, in a sense, to submit to their slaves (5:21), serving their slaves in the same way they desire their slaves to serve them. The threat of violence is impossible in such an arrangement, and without the threat of violence, the whole system will theoretically collapse.
It becomes impossible for a Spirit-filled master, who is watching their step, and submitting to their fellow believers, to be abusive towards their slave. To abuse their slave is to deny what they have become in Christ.
As well as explaining why abuse should be impossible in the church this explains why abuse in the church is so abhorrent: it is abhorrent precisely because it should be impossible! Any misuse of power whereby a husband abuses his wife or a father his children or a master his slave – or a ministry leader a member of the congregation – is a denial of what the gospel commands and creates. No matter how gifted the individual may be, the abuse reveals that they are themselves not submitted.
If you are awake, live like it. Watch your step. Be filled with the Spirit. Make abuse impossible.