By Shawn Lazar
What is important in living the Christian Life?
What does it mean to follow Jesus—to live the kind of life He wants you to live?
At the very beginning of my Christian life, I was reading very mystical authors like Watchman Nee and Andrew Murray. What they described was so above and beyond me, quite frankly, it made me depressed!
Later on, I began to think the central issues in Christian discipleship were highly intellectual and oriented around the so-called “hard problems” that philosophers and apologists try to answer. I started a PhD in Christian Ethics to pursue that version of the Christian life.
But my approach to Christian living has radically changed since getting married and having three kids. My priorities have changed.
Now I just want my son Zane to flush the toilet!
I want to know how to teach my kids to pray.
I want to know how to “date” my wife while we’re both exhausted (“Darling, the candlelight really brings out the bags under your eyes.”). I want to know how to change diapers by faith apart from works. (“Be thou removed into the diaper pail…”)
Instead of being highly intellectual or overly mystical, my concerns for living the Christian life have become very down-to-earth and practical. I want to know how best to love the people around me.
Is that where you are at in the Christian life? Are you wondering how to love the people around you?
If so, I believe that Eph 5:22–6:9 teaches three essentials in loving your neighbor.
There Are Different Roles in Society
First, notice that Paul describes different roles in society—roles that you may have.
He mentions wives (5:22), husbands (5:25), children (6:1), parents (6:1), servants (6:5), and masters (6:9).
Paul’s list isn’t exhaustive; it’s illustrative. Those are some roles in society. But there are many more. And please note, you can have more than one role to play.
For example, I am a father to three children; a husband; an employee at a ministry; the manager of some employees; a customer to several suppliers; the pastor of a church; an American citizen; an HOA member; a brother; a grandson, and many other things besides.
All these roles are part of my identity. They define who I am.
Over time those roles have changed. I became a father and a husband. I hope to become a grandfather, one day, and who knows what else I may become as I grow older?
The same is true for you. You have different roles. Some are constant. Some have changed. But they all help to define who you are. And, in turn, understanding your roles helps you understand how you should live as a follower of Jesus Christ.
That brings me to the second observation about this passage.
Each Role Has a Corresponding Neighbor
Second, for every role Paul mentions there is a corresponding neighbor.
For example, if you are a wife, who is your neighbor? Your husband.
If you are a husband, who is your neighbor? Your wife.
If you are a parent, who is your neighbor? Your child.
If you are a child, who is your neighbor? Your parents.
If you are a servant, who is your neighbor? Your master.
If you are a master, who is your neighbor? Your servant.
The same is true for all the other roles that you have in life. Every role has a corresponding neighbor.
Who you are, tells you whom to love.
Paul only gives us a few illustrative examples of the roles you might have in life. Let’s go beyond those and think of some others.
For example, let’s say you enjoy spending too much money on coffee and often go to your local Starbucks. Who is your neighbor? The barista.
And if you are a barista, who is your neighbor? Your customers.
If you are a mechanic, who is your neighbor? No, not the car, but the car owner.
If you are a student, who is your neighbor? Your teacher.
If you are a teacher, who is your neighbor? Your students.
Again, who you are, tells you whom to love.
I don’t know why, but I used to think of my neighbor as someone who lived in Africa, or Asia, or someplace very far away. Now I know that my wife and kids are my closest neighbors. Then there are my co-workers and all the other people that I meet while functioning in my different roles in life.
If your roles in life help you to know who your neighbors are, how do you know how to love them?
Different Neighbors are Shown Love in Different Ways
Third, I notice that Paul describes different ways of loving different neighbors. How you love someone depends on who you are to him or her.
So, for example, how is a wife supposed to love her husband? Paul gives us two elements—submission (5:22), and respect (5:33). That’s not an exhaustive list, either. Paul is giving broad principles here. Submission and respect are two ways that a wife can love her husband.
Abby and I have been married for thirteen years. When we got married, we were clear that I was the head of the family. I would make the big decision, and she would make the small decisions. That has worked out very well for us. It’s been thirteen years, and I’m still waiting for a big decision!
And how does Paul think a husband should love his wife? As husbands, our model should be to love our wives as Christ loved the Church (5:25). He gave Himself for her. To use a different model, Paul says that husbands should love their wives as they love their own bodies (5:28). He should nourish and cherish her just as he nourishes and cherishes his own body. (My doctor says I’m an over-achiever in nourishing my own body.)
Do you see that while the underlying motivation is the same—i.e., love—the way that love is expressed is very different depending on the neighbor? With husbands, the emphasis is on authority. With wives, it’s on caring. Those are just some principles.
Love is not generic. There is no one-size-fits-all way of loving someone.
Love is specific.
It deals with real people, as they are, and who they are, regarding what they really need.
Who you are tells you whom to love. And who you are tells you how to love.
Now, how does a child love his parents? Look at 6:1—by honoring and obeying them. As a father, I can give my hearty “Amen!” to that. We have the Ten Commandments by our kitchen table. I tell my kids all the time that what God expects of them, and what I expect, is obedience and honor. At this point in their life, that really is the most important thing.
And how does a father love his children? What does Paul say? He loves them by not provoking them to wrath (6:4a).
I can relate to this.
Children are called to obey, but parents are called to be reasonable in what we ask of them. Don’t put a heavy load on their shoulders to irritate them. Sometimes I wonder how often I do this. I try to push my kids to accomplish more. Sometimes I forget how young they are. I might ask them to do something they really aren’t ready to do, and then I get unjustly irritated, and it leads to conflict. That is provoking my kids to wrath.
Fathers are also called to love their children by training them in the things of the Lord (6:4b). You love your children by raising them well in a godly environment, with a Biblical mind so they can grow to be mature believers. That is what love looks like in the parent/child relationship.
Paul goes on to treat the subject of servants and masters (6:5-9). How does a servant love his master? By obeying him willingly. In the ancient world, “servanthood” was probably not your first career choice. It was something thrust upon you, against your will. Paul is saying if you want to love your master, be willing.
And how does a master love his servant? In a world where slaves could be treated as property, don’t threaten them. A master should not threaten them or treat them with partiality.
Those are specific examples. What is the lesson Paul is driving at here?
You do not love your neighbors in the same way. Each neighbor is different. Each neighbor requires a different kind of love. The love you show to your child is extremely different from the love you show to your boss. The love you show to your wife is very different from the love you show to your mechanic (although I’m sure your mechanic wants to feel cherished every once in a while, too!).
All love is a type of service to your neighbor. But not every kind of service is the same. The parent might have authority over the child, and the child might be called to obey, but the reverse is not true. But because this is a relationship of love, they are actually serving each other. The father is serving the child by raising him, just as much as the child is serving the father by obeying him.
Wife and husband, even though their roles are different, even though the manner in which they love is different, are still mutually serving one another.
Use Your Imagination to Apply These Principles
Unlike the people of the OT, we don’t have hundreds of specific laws, and case laws, to apply to our lives.
What we have are principles.
You need to use Christian sense, judgment, and imagination to apply those principles to your life even if it is not directly addressed by Scripture.
So, for example, if you are ordering at a restaurant, who is your neighbor?
And how do you love your waitress neighbor?
By giving a healthy tip. Did you ever think that loving your neighbor means giving a good tip?
Here’s another example. Growing up in Canada, we lived on a street of townhomes. There was one two-car driveway between each home. After a good snow, and after people came out to shovel their driveways, you could tell which families on the street got along and which ones didn’t! Shoveling your neighbor’s driveway can be an act of love. So can paying your neighbor’s kid to do it.
Grace Frees You to Simply Love Your Neighbor
Knowing that salvation is a free gift, given by grace through faith apart from works (Eph 2:8-9), should free you up to love your neighbor without the baggage of thinking you are earning your salvation. Free Grace should motivate you to love and help your neighbors for their own sake, in ways that really make a difference in their lives. While you should be a great receiver when it comes to eternal life, you should be a great achiever when it comes to loving your neighbor. And if you’re ever in a quandary about how to proceed, just remember, who you are tells you whom to love.