Universal Call for Self-Denial
A few days ago I saw an unspeakably horrible video on Facebook. Small, defenseless children stripped naked, bodies shaking, laboring to breathe from oxygen masks they could barely hold to their faces after having been attacked with chlorine gas. They’re Syrian, you see. Their country is at war, their city and their lives have been torn apart, and millions of people around the world watch—or sometimes we don’t because we have the privilege to not have to. Not knowing what else to do at the moment with the tears and rage I could not hold back, I shared the video, saying, “Somehow this needs to change. I don't have the answers, but I know by God's grace we can find a solution.” My earlier Facebook post about pumpkin pie filling not really being made out of pumpkin got more comments. Pumpkin pie, is, after all, much more manageable. And palatable.
In the past weeks, I’ve heard a candidate for the highest office in our government repeatedly speak words of utter disrespect and objectification, not only regarding his opponent—which, lamentable as it might be, we’ve come to accept and expect from our politicians—but of an entire half of humanity. And it’s excused as “locker room talk” with a “boys will be boys” attitude that demeans all of humanity. Meanwhile, rape culture claims even more victims and lust addiction spreads through our society like the untreated illness it is. And I don’t know how best to call us as God’s people to more Christ-likeness, for my own reaction is not so Christ-like itself.
Over the course of the past few months, I have seen report after report after report after report after… well, you get the idea… telling and showing video of black men and women being treated violently, inhumanely, and with uncalled-for deadly force. A dividing wall between cultures and worlds and worldviews stands so high that it seems insurmountable. So we shout our slogans, entrench ourselves in our familiar ideologies, and defend whatever positions of power we might hold. Or, maybe worse, we non-minorities turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the whole ordeal because it’s “their” problem, not “ours.” What privilege we have to be able to even think that, however wrong we might be!
This is our world, church. These aren’t far off problems, either geographically or temporally. This is this year, this week. Here and now. And as I said in my Facebook post, I don’t have the answers these situations demand. I’m not going to pretend that I do. It will take more (in degree and quantity) invested, creative, and impassioned minds and hearts than my own to solve these dilemmas. But I do believe that as Christians God has called us to do something. And I’d like to propose a beginning place: Eph 5:21-6:9.
Those of you who are familiar with Ephesians might be scratching your heads right now. Eph 5:21-6:9? Really? The household code? Isn’t that so first-century? Well, yes. And no. It’s not the particulars of the household code that I’m concerned with, revelatory and instructive as they are. It’s the foundation of it.
The author of Ephesians starts this section of his letter with one especially significant exhortation: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). And he goes on to give the instructions that we often pay more attention to than this principle that guides them. He talks to wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters. Some of what he says we’d easily agree with. Other things we might find harder to swallow. But regardless of our reactions to the specifics, it’s the guidance of the overall principle that we so desperately need to hear. Because Ephesians isn’t just meant for those specific relationships. It’s meant for the household of God, of which we are a part. And even if the other people in a given situation aren’t, that doesn’t change what God has called us to.
And as revolutionary as mutual submission itself would be were we to practice it, the call of Ephesians actually goes a step further than egalitarian deference. Mark Allan Powell puts it this way: “the main point is that the impact of Christ’s universal call to self-denial is proportionately related to status and power.”  What a statement! In other words, when Ephesians takes the social norms of power and status and places them within the context of mutual submission, it upends cultural expectations not just by making all people equal in submission but by specifically placing a larger burden of submission and self-emptying on those who have more power. This is significant enough that I’m going to say it a third time. If you are a follower of Jesus and you have more power, the call of God on your life will intrinsically be more demanding because you have more self-emptying to do. That’s the household code.
We see this theme elsewhere in Scripture, to be sure. Think, for example, of Corinthians and Romans, where the “stronger” believers are asked to deny themselves for the sake of the “weaker” believers, regardless of the power and status and rightness that they might have. And Jesus himself is, of course, our greatest example, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil 2:6-7).
This same mindset is supposed to be ours. At the risk of paraphrasing Spider Man here, with greater knowledge, power, status, and insight comes greater self-emptying. So I ask you, what power have God, the accidents of birth, and the experiences of this lifetime given you? Don’t deny that you have power. That is a lie. The very fact that you are reading this—and that I am writing it—means that we have power of some sort. And we may not all be equal in power, but that’s exactly the point. Remember, “Christ’s universal call to self-denial is proportionately related to status and power.”
So church, in these days of suffering children, objectified women, and oppressed peoples, let’s examine ourselves closely. Honestly. Let’s see the power and status we have. And then in proportion to that immense power we have, let’s get on with the business of submitting everything to the call of Christ to become the lowly slaves of others. That is where the solution to our problems, whatever they are, must begin.
 Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 337.