So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,[a] as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.Ephesians 4:25-5:2
Addressing life in Christian community, the author of Ephesians employs what may be, for some, a surprising imperative: “Be angry” (4:26).
Ephesians cautions its audience, ancient and contemporary, to meditate upon both their words and their anger so that when we speak and act we do so with passion directed solely towards the wrong that needs to be righted and not the people who may stand in our way. In our contemporary context, it may be said that good anger assails the evils of white supremacy while holding compassion enough to correct and forgive our neighbors caught up in its tides. Good anger critiques and seeks to reform the government while being tenderhearted towards those neighbors who may incompletely be seeking the same goals from within. Good anger stands with and for the vulnerable, offering protection against those whose actions would tear them down, while at the same time not tearing those neighbors down in the process. Good anger not only avoids sin, but destroys it.
In the first-century context of Ephesians, the command to be angry is actually one among a series of imperatives in the assigned text of Ephesians 4:25-5:2. These include, in quick succession: “speak the truth” (4:25), “do not sin” (4:26), “do not let the sun go down on your anger” (4:26), “do not make room for the devil” (4:27), “give up stealing” (4:28), “labor [honestly]” (4:28), “let no evil talk come out of your mouths” (4:29), “do not grieve the Holy Spirit” (4:30), “put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander” (4:31), “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another” (4:32), “be imitators of God” (5:1), and “live in love” (5:2). At first glance, it seems apparent that one of these is not like the others. In fact, even translators cannot agree as to whether verse 26 ought to be translated as an independent imperative, as in, “Be angry, but do not sin” (NRSV) or a description of the adjacent imperative, as in, “In your anger, do not sin” (NIV).
To the modern eye, the author seems to recommend those things considered generally good and forbid those things considered generally bad. For example, one is to labor honestly, but to avoid evil talk. For those who have been taught by culture and society that anger is to be avoided or even condemned, anger may appear at first glance to fit on the wrong side of this easy bifurcation between good and bad. In such a dichotomy, a command to be angry does not fit. However, lived ethics are rarely so simple. The truth is that anger, like any other human emotion, is neither good nor bad, it is simply a reality—common to all of humanity. My son has a music teacher who frequently reminds him when he becomes frustrated with his progress that missing a note is neither good nor bad, it’s just information. What we do with that information is what matters.
Whether the text of Ephesians directs its audience to anger (NRSV) or simply acknowledges the common experience of anger (NIV), one thing is clear: anger is not to be condemned. When a person feels anger it is a way of providing information, often necessary information. It’s what we do with that information that matters. At times, anger can be destructive. But just as often, especially in contexts of marginalization and oppression, “anger,” as Black Feminist, Brittney Cooper reminds us, “[can] be a powerful force for good” (4).
Most scholars agree that the location “in Ephesus” was likely a later addendum to the letter we now know as Ephesians. The text itself does not address the same kind of specific, local conflicts that characterize the undisputed letters of Paul. Instead, like the letter to the Colossians, Ephesians presents more generalized teachings that could be applicable to any number of congregations and locations. The long list of imperatives in this passage is an example of such universalizing tendencies. Nevertheless, the letter is not void of all context.
Ephesians was likely circulated in Asia Minor among congregations made up of largely gentile Christians at the turn of the second century CE. This was a time in which second and third generation believers were living into the reality that Christ’s return was not imminent within their lifetime. This meant reconciling differences within the increasingly diverse churches made up of Gentiles and Jews, males and females, enslaved and enslavers, children and adults (see Galatians 3:28, Ephesians 5:21-6:9) as well as differences between these churches and their non-Christian neighbors, many of whom condemned Christian communities as atheistic deserters of both family and state.
While it is possible to tolerate a fair amount of difference and even discomfort for a short period, moving beyond toleration and learning to live with and among people who may look, act, or believe differently from you for the long term is a distinctly different enterprise. It is this sort of discomfort that the letter of Ephesians addresses. On the one hand, this letter, particularly the latter half, seems to be designed to help Christian communities “fit in” with their non-Christian neighbors. This is, as Robert E. Goss notes in his commentary on “Ephesians,” a distinct shift from the counter cultural and more egalitarian notions associated with the Jesus movement and early Pauline communities (647). On the other hand, like the earlier Pauline letters on which it is based, Ephesians also addresses conflict within the closed communities of its Christian audience. Reference to the earlier body analogy (Ephesians 4:4-6) makes it clear that it is those close to one another within these closed religious communities that are primarily intended by the term “neighbors” in verse 25.
In contrast to the latter household codes that address life both within and outside of Christian community for the sake of public perception, this pericope seems primarily directed at reconciling difference within the Christian community for its own sake. To put it differently, Ephesians 4:25-5:2 addresses the local politics of the church. This is significant because, while there is much today to be resisted and/or reframed in the accommodationist passages of Ephesians, the need to navigate life within local communities of difference remains highly relevant.
Churches in the United States today are finding themselves increasingly divided over political and ethical stances on such things as varied as racism, patriotism, and health consciousness in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Churches in Asia Minor of antiquity faced different points of concern, but were no less divided.
One possible example of such division emerges in Ephesians 4:28 in which believers are commanded to work honestly rather than steal in order to achieve a common value: “to have something to share with the needy.” Although many question the historical veracity or at lead widespread application of communities of common good (Acts 2:44), a mandate to provide for those in need, especially within the Christian community, is evident across both early Christian and Jewish texts. Such Christian communities, in particular, likely included a cross section of individuals and households across various levels of income and citizenship, leading to gaps in economic status. Within this context, it is possible to imagine that those who perceived themselves as working consistently for their wealth may have held resentments against those who either chose not to or were unable to work in such a regular capacity, if at all. Moreover, those who were unable to work, or who may have objected to the corruption of the economic system as it existed, may have had their own critiques of those who participated in these systems. An expectation of shared wealth or mutual support within the religious community might thus have resulted in a level of animosity or distrust between these various contingencies, which, in general terms, Ephesians 4:28 seems to anticipate and address.
Similarly, believers today may find themselves sharing a common value, for example, the dignity of all human life, but divided as to how one lives into this value. Such conflict often produces anger. Ephesians 4:25-5:2 recognizes such anger as an assumed and even necessary part of living in community. As such, this text seems largely directed at attempting to help Christians respond in what the author views as an appropriate way to their anger. Anger (from the Greek root orgē) appears here three times: “be angry” (4:26), “do not let the sun go down on your anger” (4:26), and “put away from you all . . . anger” (4:31). The first occurrence is actually a quotation from Psalm 4:4, the LXX translation of which reads identically to the first half of Ephesians 4:26. In both instances, the concern is not about avoiding anger, but about the potential for one to sin, or more literally, “miss the mark” with their anger. In other words, the imperative is to harness anger for good. Cooper calls this “eloquent rage” (4).
Psychologist Bernard Golden describes a similar phenomenon of harnessed anger “healthy anger.” The Psalmist continues, “Be angry and do not sin. Meditate within your heart and on your bed, and be still” (Psalm 4:4, NKJV). Golden explains, “‘healthy anger’ demands reflection, the capacity to pause and assess whether the threat we feel is real and imminent, to determine the urgency of the situation, and to respond appropriately and constructively.”
It is in defining “appropriate” and “constructive” responses to anger that marginalized communities have levied the greatest critiques against the author of Ephesians and its later imperatives to obedience and submission within oppressive patriarchal structures. In the name of the very same love and emulation of God towards which Ephesians commands us, such abuses are rejected. The basic idea that living in community requires productive harnessing of anger, or, to borrow Cooper’s terminology, “eloquent rage” remains informative.
Addressing a community divided amongst itself, the author of Ephesians asserts that it is necessary not simply to “love” in a kumbaya kind of fashion that contemporary Christians too often embrace without living into, but to be able to both love and be angry. Even God’s self is not devoid of anger. Indeed, Scripture often refers to the use of God’s anger towards an assumed good. To love in the example of God requires the ability to harness and employ good anger.