The “Household Codes” of the New Testament–Ephesians 5:21-6:9; Colossians 3:18-22; 1 Timothy 2:8-15; 1 Timothy 5:1-2; 1 Timothy 6:1-2; Titus 2:1-10; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:18-25 and 1 Peter 3:1-7 are some of the most problematic texts for contemporary readers of the New Testament. These texts have been used to justify the suppression of women, child abuse and slavery. It’s hard to know what to do with them. I believe equality in marriage. I believe the Bible points in the direction of equality when compared to its context even as it contains passages that suggest patriarchy. That said, I would like to point out a few things we should consider about this text before we move past it.
Ephesians 5:21ff May Be a Capitulation to Culture
In their day and age, these texts reinforced existing social structures. Jesus had introduced a model of family built on faith and mutual obedience to God. Matthew 12:46-50 reads: “While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” Early on, the Jesus movement seems to have maintained this more egalitarian and voluntary perspective on family.
Paul reminded the Church in Galatia of their Baptismal reality, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female” (Galatians 3:28). He also wrote about mutuality to the church in Corinth, “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” (1 Corinthians 7:4). Mutuality of this form does not come without problems, but it isn’t the hard-line patriarchy Paul is often saddled with.
As the Christian movement progressed and especially–it seems–as it moved into the Gentile world, it became more and more consistent with Hellenistic notions of marriage and family. These household pairs are also discussed at length in Aristotle’s Politics. His language reflects the extreme patriarchy prevalent during that time. “The relation of male to female is by nature a relation of superior to inferior and ruler to ruled” (1245b12). “The slave is wholly lacking the deliberative element; the female has it but it lacks authority; the child has it but it is incomplete” (1260a11). (found at http://www.iep.utm.edu/aris-pol/#H7) My seminary professor, David Balch, has compared the early church’s teaching about household behavior with contemporary Hellenistic thought and practice about households and has shown that the early church acquiesced to culture. Hellenistic culture was far more patriarchal than Jewish culture (Let Wives Be Submissive). It’s possible that the early church felt pressure to conform in order to keep peace and survive.
The text follows, but significantly augments the household codes of Colossians 3:18-4:1
The pairs–wives/husbands; children/fathers; slaves/masters are taken over from Colossians. However, Ephesians augments with the understanding of faith. While the writer accepts the prevailing attitudes about gender and authority, they apply it to Jesus Christ. “This is a greater mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and Church” (Ephesians 5:32). Similarly, the teaching on children and parents is footnoted with a reference to the Ten Commandments. The instruction to slaves reframes slavery as being “slaves of Christ” (Ephesians 6:6). The challenge for modern interpreters is why neither Paul (see Philemon) nor Paul’s successors regarded slavery as antithetical to the Gospel. However, the effort on the part of the writer of Ephesians to interpret context theologically is instructive even if we do not concur with the outcome of the interpretation.
The instruction about submission involves mutual submission.
In the original Greek, Ephesians 5:21-24 is all one sentence. We shouldn’t be surprised that the English translation breaks it apart into multiple sentences. In Greek, Ephesians contains several very long complete sentence that would be virtually unintelligible if rendered literally in English translation. The separation of vss. 21 from 22ff not only into separate sentences but–in the NRSV–separate paragraphs or worse–in the NIV–separate subject headings, obscures the meaning. The context of Ephesians is one of mutuality first and hierarchy second.