The appeal in Ephesians 5:11, “Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them” (NLT), is the source of robust scholarly debate. The interpretive challenge is that the passage’s immediate context is difficult to understand. The text points back to, “Let nobody deceive you with empty words, for because of these things God’s wrath comes on the sons of disobedience. Therefore, do not be partakers with them,” Eph 5:7 (vv. 6–7, NET). So, who were the deceivers named “sons of disobedience?” A further puzzling question is how the audience is supposed to expose those who commit these “unfruitful deeds of darkness” without mentioning them or even talking about them, as verse 12 appears to demand—”For the things they do in secret are shameful even to mention.”
One interpretation emphasizes that the author is instructing Christians to expose other Christians’s sinful behaviors, thus bringing them to repentance. Other scholars emphasize that the subjects of the exposure are non-Christians and argue that the author stresses that the Christian godly demeanour—their “light”—exposes “darkness” and transforms it because people can see evil for what it is and are accordingly drawn to the light of Christ. This post affirms the latter interpretation.
Contextually “sons of disobedience” (Eph 5:6) refers to Gentile pagans who are characteristically and habitually sinful (4:17–20) and thus fitting the definition of “sons of disobedience” and “children of wrath” (2:3, NET), who have no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God (5:5)—non-Christians. Paul’s rhetorical intent is to contrast the Christian community and the world. The overarching objective is to reveal the stark contrast between the deeds of those who “walk” in the darkness and those who “walk” in the light. The text emphasizes that they are two distinct groups of people, each with specific characteristics and values.
How can Christians expose them if it is too shameful to mention the things that ungodly people do? (Eph 5:12) We must let our light shine, meaning we must quietly set an example of righteousness. From time to time, it may be necessary to speak out openly against evil, but Christians must always let the light of Christ shine bright. The fruit of the light that must be evident in the lives of Christians consists of goodness (actively looking after the welfare of others), righteousness (righteous stand with God and morally right behaviour), and truth (living the truth that is in Jesus and living with integrity and sincerity) (v. 9).
A casual reading of the text may appear to leave the impression that it is best not to associate with “sons of disobedience.” However, the text is not demanding disassociation with non-Christians. Instead, it encourages Christians not to participate in their lifestyle but to live in a way that provides evidence that exposes darkness.
The full force of the intention of the exposure (Eph 5:11b) only becomes apparent by the concluding quotation in verse 14, which is a call to conversion and emphasizes the agency of Christ’s light in the process. The quote informs those who have recognized the nature of their deeds and sinful condition that if they are drawn to the light of Christ, by his mercy and grace, they will become light. Consequently, the exposure serves a greater purpose than just revealing the deeds of darkness. The transformative effect of the light may lead to the conviction of sin and repentant faith in Christ Jesus.
Consequently, Paul is encouraging Christians that by the power of the Holy Spirit, we should live by values different from society’s values. Rather than being corrupted by the surrounding “darkness,” Christians are encouraged to exercise their transformative influence on it. If the Church has some missionary role in this passage, it is not solely through the proclamation of the word, but its very existence as the sphere of light. Christians, therefore, have the responsibility to represent the “light of the world” appropriately, (John 8:12) live the message, and demonstrate the transformative power of the gospel, both spiritually and socially, so that the testimony of their walk validates the sincerity of their relationship with God.
Therefore, this text provides an often neglected and underestimated appeal for non-verbal gospel communication. Paul encourages Christians to promote moral excellence, representative of their new identity in Christ and displaying the gospel’s transforming power by their godly behavior in a missionary role which does not necessarily involve proclamation.
Saint Francis of Assisi’s quote is a most appropriate conclusion, “Preach the Gospel and if you must, use words.”
Short Bio: After serving as the General Manager of Sulzer SA 1989–2007, Jose left the corporate world and dedicated himself to theology, earning his MTh in Biblical Studies. He has served as a lecturer at SATS since 2007, during which time he has also been actively engaged in course development. Jose is married to Isabella; they have an adult daughter, Candice.