As the chaotic forces of violence seem to have a stranglehold on current events, it is truly "good news" to read Ephesians as a call to active peacemaking and servanthood. Thomas Yoder Neufeld, in the latest addition to the Believers Church Bible Commentary series, provides a passionate exegesis of Ephesians that sensitively balances the need for scholastic rigor and lay person accessability. Furthermore, Yoder Neufeld uses voices from a wide spectrum of biblical and theological thought to provide a distinct "Believers Church" interpretation. Several key Believers Church distinctives explicitly provide direction for the commentary. They include: the Bible is a call to peace and servanthood, the Christian life is fully realized within voluntary community, and heaven is to be lived on earth (an ethic of "already but not yet"). While these hermeneutics drive the bulk of his interpretation, he is quick to warn the reader that "the core commitment of the Believers Church tradition to listening to the Bible as the word of God must take precedence over maintaining its traditional interpretations" (29). Yoder Neufeld may trouble readers who are uncomfortable with forms of ecumenicism and/or calls for active social engagement, however he provides a sturdy and much needed Anabaptist interpretation.
This commentary follows the same format as others in the series. Yoder Neufeld begins with a helpful introduction that describes his assumptions, intentions and methodology in writing the book. He also provides several observations that address issues of authorship, date of writing and historical context--the most lengthy being a discussion concerning the possibilities of Pauline authorship. A systematic discussion of Ephesians follows the introduction and it divides the letter into twelve distinct sections. Each section is categorically discussed in the following order: 1) Preview; 2) Outline; 3) Explanatory Notes; 4) The Text in Biblical Context; and 5) The Text in the Life of the Church. While at times the discussion may get dense for readers without formal training in biblical studies, Yoder Neufeld effectively communicates through a helpful mixture of academic discussion, references to visual art, music, and nonacademic literature. For example, in emphasizing the worshipful nature of Ephesians, he tactfully includes references from present day worship resources like the Hymnal: A Worship Book to show contemporary relevance. Especially helpful in each section is the discussion of a given theme by focusing on how it relates to the rest of the Bible, and how we can apply it in the life of the Church. The book ends with outlines of the letter, topical essays, illustrations, maps, and a bibliography that supplement the systematic verse-by-verse commentary.
With deep conviction that worship and work cannot be dissected, Yoder Neufeld expertly tackles the text and provides theologically palatable and convincing commentary for even the most difficult and perplexing passages. His discussions of three difficult texts are especially helpful. First, commentators face a difficult challenge in interpreting Ephesians 2:15a. What does it mean that Christ has "abolished (katargeo)" the "law of commandments"? Unfortunately, many times this verse has been used to support hostility toward Jewish tradition and has promoted an intense "law vs. grace" debate. Yoder Neufeld points out that instead of referring to the law as a whole, this passage refers to "the law of commandments in dogmas" (116), which in turn points to a more limited meaning. He provides several "overlapping" possibilities of interpretation-- "Abolishing the law as means of: a) separation; b) condemnation; and c) an effect of eschatology" (116-119). The author concludes that while these possibilities critique certain applications (the dogmas) of the law, none are explicitly hostile to Jewish tradition itself, let alone the law.
Second, the so called "Household Code" has long spurred contentious debate in the Church's struggle for faithful gender relationship in home and society. Yoder Neufeld provides a compelling commentary by not glossing over patriarchal contextual realities, while also exegeting a radical call to submission. He frames his discussion within the observation that, "this text is hardly adequate by itself to provide a vision for the place and role of wives in a marriage relationship" (285). In essence, he asserts that the letter was written as an appeal to those who were socially dominant in the Ephesian context--an appeal to pattern their behavior after the example of Christ's servant leadership. Relevant to modern readers in more equal relationships, the call to imitate Christ is for "anyone who exercises responsibility, freedom and authority in a relationship--husband and wife, father and mother" (286). Imitation of Christ mimics a cosmic Lord whose headship comes to "fullest expression in the liberation of the other, in the empowerment of the other, and in loving and self-denying servanthood for the sake of the other" (287). Yoder Neufeld concludes that the Household Code is primarily directed to already-dominant partners and carries more a "germ" of social change and less a legitimation for prevailing social structures. The discussion ends with poignant questions directed to those in power and a hymn that profoundly prays for humility.
Third, Ephesians 6:10-20 provides a climactic call to cosmic arms that often has nonviolent Anabaptists squirming uncomfortably. This passage, with its imagery of war and battle, finds Yoder Neufeld in his academic powerhouse (his doctoral dissertation focused on biblical warrior images). In a time when military violence is a reality, Yoder Neufeld provides a convincing argument that the text is a metaphoric summons for using the armor of God to wage peace. Opting to reject the traditional individualistic application of the metaphor, he interprets the summons to battle as directed to the Church as a whole--"to the body of Christ acting as a unified divine force" (292). Yoder Neufeld argues that the author continues the overall theme of power and empowerment with allusions to traditional "divine warrior" theology found in Isaiah, Wisdom of Solomon, and 1 Thessalonians. In this tradition only God, the divine warrior, has the power to judge and defeat the "powers that be." The community is to "be still" and "know" that God will intervene. In Ephesians, Paul transforms the traditional image by declaring that the divine warrior has already defeated the powers (through Christ). At the same time he calls the community of believers to become engaged in the struggle by putting on the armor (power) of God. It is a call not to withdraw from social interaction, but rather it encourages the Church to engage any and all powers that "resist the reconciliation of all people and all things to God" (315). The text summons Christians to wage peace in the "here" and "now." The Church joins the battle, and this paradox fits neatly into traditional Anabaptist "already but not yet" theology." The Church is to wage the battle that God has already won!
For most of the book, Yoder Neufeld explains and illustrates his translations and interpretations in clear and accessible ways. However, on occasion he leaves the reader wondering how he arrived at a given conclusion. For example, his discussion of 2:14-15 (111-113) suddenly veers into redaction criticism of an early hymn without fully explaining his methodology and the background and basis of his assumptions. While the study of editorial methods and sources is a valid discipline, the author should not assume that a lay reader (or even trained readers) will grasp the complexities of such methodologies without more explanation.
The message of worship and work in the context of Christ's peace is "good news" for all people. Yoder Neufeld's commentary will find a prominent place on my personal bookshelf, and as a pastor I will recommend that it be placed in our church library.
Willmar T. Harder
Hoffnungsau Mennonite Church, Inman KS