Female Masters and Male Slaves in the New Testament Household Codes

Here’s something that has come up in a couple of conversations lately . . .

Womanhood and Manhood

I know of pastors who not only teach that wives are to be submissive to their own husbands, but also teach that, as a general principle, all women are to be submissive to all men. John Piper is one such person who is outspoken on this issue. He explains in books, articles, and videoed conversations that all men are wired to lead, and that all women are to affirm, support, submit to, and even nurture, the supposed masculine leadership and authority of men. Piper, and others who believe that God has ordained a gender hierarchy in marriage and in the church, defines manhood and womanhood purely in terms of authority and submission.

Instructions for wives to submit to their husbands are mentioned five times in the New Testament. In each of these occasions, the verses are part of the passages that have been labelled “household codes”[1] (Eph. 5:21-3:6; Col. 3:18-4:1), or they are part of passages that have some similarities with household codes (Tit. 2:2-10; 1 Pet. 2:18-3:7).

The more I study the first-century Mediterranean world and the more I study the early church, the more I’m convinced that these household codes (with the possible exception of Ephesians 5:21-33) were a concession to the Greco-Roman culture.

Childhood and Parenthood

Children are mentioned in the household codes, and they are told to obey their parents, both their father and mother (Eph. 6:1-3; Col. 3:20). In the first-century Greco-Roman world, all children—including, or especially, adult children—were expected to obey their parents. In some cultures today, we still see that adult children are expected to be obedient to their parents.

Importantly, there is no gender hierarchy or preference given in Ephesians 6 or Colossians 3 between fathers and mothersPaul expected grown sons to honour and obey their mothers.

While I believe, as a general principle, children should obey their own parents, I have never heard John Piper, or any other pastor teach that all children should obey all parents. Furthermore, I have never heard anyone define “childhood” purely in terms of obedience to parents. So why is womanhood defined in terms of submission to men?

Slavery and Female Masters

Slaves made up another sector of the average first-century Greco-Roman household. It has been estimated that about a third of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves.

Christian slaves are addressed in the New Testament household codes, where they are told to obey their masters, even their unsaved masters (Eph. 6:5-8; Col. 3:22ff; Tit. 2:9-10; 1 Pet. 2:18ff). Thankfully, this is a principle that churches rarely insist on, especially as slavery has been outlawed in many nations. In Western society we try to rescue and free slaves, rather than insist they obey their masters.

But the thing that I have noticed in recent conversations is that when people think of masters, they tend to think of men. Many masters in New Testament times, however, were women; and many women had male slaves. The author of the second century Christian writing The Shepherd of Hermas is just one example of a man who had been sold to a female master (HermVis 1:1).

Male slaves with female masters were included in the New Testament instructions for slaves to obey their masters. And women masters were included in the instructions to masters (Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1). Paul expected male slaves to obey and be submissive to their female masters.

The obedience of slaves was a normal part of first century Greco-Roman society. In this society there was not only a gender hierarchy (women were considered inferior to men), but there was also a hierarchy of slave and free (slaves were considered inferior to freeborn men and freeborn women.)

Conclusion

How do hierarchical complementarians, such as John Piper, reconcile their own notions of manhood and womanhood with Paul’s instructions that children (including adult sons) should obey their parents (including their mothers), and that slaves (including male slaves) should obey their masters (including female masters)? And why do complementarians rely on the household codes, which included concessions to an ancient culture, to support their views on so-called “gender roles”?[2]

Most people now recognise that no group or sector of humanity is inferior to another group. We are all intrinsically equal. This is especially true for Christians who are all one in Christ. As brothers and sisters we are all to mutually support, serve, and submit to one another. There is no place for hierarchies, or one-sided submission and servitude, in the body of Christ. The idea that God has given men authority over women is false and has no valid basis in New Testament teaching.


Endnotes

[1]”Household codes” is the “translation of the German Haustafeln, used by commentators for a literary type developed for ethical instruction in the Hellenistic world, adopted by Jewish Hellenistic synagogues, and thence by the NT (Col. 3: 18–4: 1, but also Eph. 5: 22–6: 9; 1 Tim. 2: 9–15; Titus 2: 2–10; 1 Pet. 2: 13–3: 7). The codes were an attempt by leaders of the Christian community to establish a pattern of family and social life not unlike that of traditional families among Gentile and Jewish contemporaries in the Graeco-Roman world. . . .”
“household codes” in A Dictionary of the Bible. Ed. W. R. F. Browning. Oxford Biblical Studies Online.  http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/article/opr/t94/e912.

[2] Even in the ancient Roman world, the backdrop of the New Testament, it was recognised that only few men had a significant authority over others; it was also recognised that a few women had an authority over others, both men and women. Authority was linked to complex customs and patterns surrounding social status, wealth, and patronage.

Image

Illustration is of Flavia interrogating her slave Malchus, from the book The Young Carthaginian: A Story of the Times of Hannibal by G. A. Henty, published in 1887. Illustrated by C. J. Staniland.


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