Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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The so-called household codes in Ephesians chapters 5–6 and Colossians chapters 3–4 are often used to support the idea of “gender roles.” These gender roles usually boil down to “the submission of all women to male-only authority.” But these codes were not primarily about gender roles or even gender. They were about power.

Household codes by pagan authors, such as Aristotle and Xenophon, were written in order to uphold the rights of the powerful and to keep the less powerful in their place. The power differential between husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves was thought to be necessary for social stability. The purpose of Paul’s codes in the New Testament, however, was somewhat different.

One of the aims of the Ephesians and Colossians household codes was to mitigate and minimise any harsh treatment by the people with greater power in Greco-Roman households—husbands, parents, and male and female slave owners—towards people with less power.

Despite this aim, the New Testament codes stopped short of calling for a social revolution. Christian teaching that blatantly undermined or openly subverted the social structures of the day could have been disastrous for the new Jesus movement. The Romans were suspicious of new groups, movements, and religions that threatened social stability. They did not tolerate what they saw as subversive teachers or disruptive groups.[1]

Wives, Children, and Slaves

Unlike the household codes by pagan writers, in his codes, Paul first addressed the people with less power: the wives, children (including grown children), and slaves.[2] And he framed the submission of wives and the obedience of children and slaves in Christian terms. For example, “Christ,” or the “Lord,” is referenced in Ephesians 5:22–24 cf. 5:21; 6:1–2, 5–8; and in Colossians 3:18, 20, 22–24.[3] I believe Paul framed the codes as service to the Lord Jesus to make the household hierarchies bearable for Jesus-followers, among whom there should be, ideally, no hierarchies or castes. We are all siblings, brothers and sisters (cf. Phlm. 1:16).

Despite their lower position in the Roman world, these “weaker” people still had a degree of agency. Society afforded them less power, but Paul knew they had power over their consciences, their motives, and their devotion to the Lord Jesus. In fact, he gave the weakest group, the slaves, more instructions than either the wives or the children, especially in the household code in Colossians. Was Paul especially concerned with instructing the slaves or with encouraging them?

Husbands, Parents, and Slave Masters

After addressing the people with less power, Paul addressed the people with more: husbands, parents, and male and female slave masters. The senior male of a family, the paterfamilias, and slave masters could have considerable power over those below them in the highly stratified Roman world. (Note that a husband who was not the senior male in an extended household had less power than the paterfamilias but more power than his own wife.)[4]

In some verses, Paul also framed the behaviour of husbands and slave masters in Christian terms, and he warned the husbands and masters, as well as the fathers, not to be harsh with their wives, children, and slaves.[5] Paul wanted the more powerful people to treat their weaker counterparts well, and he said nothing to them about leading or exercising authority.

Paul’s instruction to Christian husbands in Colossians 3 was simply, “Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them” (Col. 3:19). His directive, “love your wives,” is elaborated on in Ephesians 5:25, 28–31, 33, and would have sounded extraordinary to most first-century couples. The self-sacrificing, yielding, and unifying love that Paul describes in Ephesians chapter 5 was not an expectation in typical first-century marriages. Far from it.

What may also have sounded extraordinary was Paul’s statement, “Masters, grant to your slaves what is “right, just” (dikaios) and “fair, equal” (isotēs), knowing that you too have a Master in heaven” (Col. 4:1; cf. Eph. 6:7–9). Paul wanted male and female masters to treat their slaves with justice and equity (cf. Phlm. 1:16).

The Ethics of Hierarchies in the Home

Paul did not comment on the ethics, the right or wrong, of the hierarchies in average Greco-Roman households, except in the case of children obeying their parents, their fathers and mothers. In Ephesians 6:1, Paul adds an affirming phrase: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is ‘right, just’ (dikaios)”(Eph. 6:1). In Colossians 3:20 he adds, “… for this pleases the Lord.” Furthermore, it is only in the case of children obeying their parents that Paul draws on Old Testament scripture for support (Eph. 6:2–3).[6]

There is no verse in the Old Testament where God (or Moses) commands the submission of wives to their husbands, or the obedience of slaves to their masters, as a general principle. And Paul nowhere stated that wifely submission or slavery is right or just, or that it pleases the Lord.[7]

The purpose of the household codes in Ephesians 5–6 and Colossians 3–4 was not to endorse or reinforce the power structures of Greco-Roman households. As mentioned, one purpose was to lessen the potential for abuse that often came with unequal power in ancient households. So Paul gave directions about love and equity because you do not abuse or mistreat the person you love, and you do not abuse or mistreat the person you treat with equity.

Furthermore, the household code in Ephesians follows on from teaching on Spirit-led living, which includes mutual participation in worship and mutual submission in relationships (Eph. 5:18–21; cf. Col. 3:16–17). Spirit-led people love generously and mutually submit to others; they are not mean or unkind to others.


The New Testament household codes were not primarily about gender or gender roles. After all, what part did gender play in the socially-sanctioned power of a female master over her male and female slaves? And what part does gender play in the obedience of a son or daughter towards their mother? The codes were about power and were a concession to the prevailing culture.

And let’s be clear: in regards to marriage, the most intimate of relationships, the directive for wives to be submissive to their own husbands did not, and does not, refer to male-female relations more broadly. Furthermore, one-sided submission from wives, which was the cultural norm in pagan Greco-Roman society, has little bearing in many marriages today where unequal power has been replaced with mutual submission and reciprocal love and respect. Paul would be pleased.


[1] Paul’s frequent beatings and imprisonments are testimony to Rome’s intolerance of people who taught new and potentially disruptive ideas. But Paul did not want to cause social disturbances unnecessarily. He did not want antisocial behaviour to give the church or the word of God a bad name (e.g., Tit. 2:5; 8, 9–10).

[2] Even today, grown children are expected to honour and obey their parents in some societies (cf. Mark 7:10).

[3] Note that nowhere in the New Testament in the original language, Koine Greek, are wives directly instructed to “obey” (hupakouō) their husbands. That is, there is no verse, correctly translated, that says something like, “Wives obey your husbands.”
In 1 Peter 3:5–6, Sarah’s obedience to Abraham and the way she addresses him are used as examples of wifely submission in the face of frightening situations: “You have become [Sarah’s] children when you do what is good and do not fear any intimidation” (1 Peter 3:6 CSB). The background to 1 Peter is Christians being slandered and persecuted by unbelievers, and this includes the wives in 1 Peter 3:1–6 who are married to men who have yet to be won for Christ. (We need to understand this context which is different from the context of Paul’s household codes.) Still, we know that Sarah did not always obey Abraham, and that Abraham obeyed Sarah on occasion. (More on this here.) Furthermore, when speaking to husbands, Peter begins with “in the same way” (1 Pet. 3:7) What precisely are husbands to do in the same way as their wives? I discuss this here.

[4] And also note that it was not unusual for a woman, usually a widow or divorcee, to be the leader, or materfamilias, of a household (e.g., Lydia in Acts 16:14ff). The household codes do not cover every kind of first-century household. Furthermore, the power of the paterfamilias was declining in the first century CE.

[5] Children are told to obey their parents (i.e. their mother and father), but only fathers are cautioned not to provoke and exasperate their children (Eph 6:4; Col. 3:21). Paul may have observed that fathers were more likely to do this than mothers. Fathers are further told that, instead of exasperating their children, they are to “nourish, nurture, rear” (ektrephō) their children “with the Lord’s kind of discipline and guidance” (Eph. 6:4 Complete Jewish Bible). (Ektrephō occurs only in Ephesians 5:29 and 6:4 in the New Testament.) This doesn’t mean that capable, educated mothers should not also rear and train their children, even their grown sons (e.g., Prov. 31:1).

[6] Paul includes “disobedient to parents” in his lists of vices in Romans 1:29–31 and in 2 Timothy 3:1–5. He does not mention or allude to the behaviour of wives or slaves in any of his vice lists.

[7]There must have been an expectation of cooperation and loyalty from wives and from slaves in Old Testament times, but it was not legislated. The Old Testament regulations concerning wives and slaves were addressed to the husbands and slave owners and were mostly designed to minimise injustice. For example, Israelites were required to release their fellow Israelite slaves after six years of service (Exod. 21:1–11). And in Deuteronomy 23:15–16 NIV it says, “If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them.” The Old Testament frequently warns against oppressing the people with less power. Slavery in the Greco-Roman world of New Testament times had its own regulations and customs, and there was much less concern about oppressing the weak and disadvantaged.

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Postscript: February 17, 2023
Letter Guards?

Paul’s household codes make concessions for Greco-Roman culture. However, I’ve heard it suggested  that Paul deliberately included some traditional Greco-Roman ideas to get his letters, which were written in prison, past “letter guards.” I don’t think this was the case. I don’t think Paul worded Ephesians 5-6 or Colossians 3–4 to get his letters past these presumed “letter guards.”

Paul doesn’t pull his punches, for example, in Ephesians 6:12: “our struggle … is against powers and authorities …” Or in other verses that sound potentially anti-imperial (e.g., Eph. 1:21–23; 3:14–15). The “kingdom” message in Colossians could be considered as even more anti-imperial.

The letters to the Ephesians and Colossians may have been written during his Roman imprisonment. And Paul had special privileges during this imprisonment.

“For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28:30–31 NIV).

These privileges were probably secured by some of his powerful friends.

We know that Paul had rich, powerful, and elite friends in Ephesus, Asiarchs (Acts 19:31). And he had relatively rich and powerful friends in Corinth, namely Phoebe (Rom. 16:1–2) and Erastus (Rom. 16:23). (Phoebe and Erastus also connections with Rome.) Paul knew other rich and powerful people too. In Athens, there was Dionysius and also Damaris (Acts 17:34). And in some Macedonian cities there were women from elite families (Acts 17:4, 12 cf. Acts 16:14).

As the scope of his ministry increased in terms of geography and the number of people he reached, Paul won over people from all echelons of society, including, more and more, people from the upper classes. Paul may have had such friends in Rome also, or perhaps he had letters of recommendation from such friends which he showed to officials when he was in Rome. These people seemed to have used their influence, and probably bribery too, to provide relatively comfortable conditions for Paul in Rome. The conditions of his imprisonment in Rome were comfortable enough that his ministry was not impeded too much.

When writing his household codes, Paul was concerned about potentially anti-Roman behaviour in Christian households in Asia Minor. He was aware that informants might give negative reports about the behaviour of Christians that might affect the reputation of the church. But I doubt his main concern was a “letter guard.” I believe Paul said what he wanted to say in his letters to the Ephesians and Colossians.

Nevertheless, writing from prison could be dangerous. Angela Standhartinger has written about this with Paul’s letters to the Philippians and to Philemon in mind, here. Most of Paul’s prison experiences were much worse than his experience in Rome recorded in Acts 28.

Explore more

Wives, mothers, and female masters in the NT household codes
Ephesians 5:22–33 in a Nutshell
All my articles on  Ephesians 5:22–33 are here.
What does submission “in everything” mean?
A Close Look at Colossians 3:18 (Wives)
A Close Look at Colossians 3:19 (Husbands)
A Weaker Vessel and Gender Justice (1 Peter 3:7) 
Submission and Respect from Wives (1 Peter 3:1–6)
Ezer kenegdo does not mean “a helper subordinate to him”
“Equality” in Paul’s Letters
Tertullian on Equality and Mutuality in Marriage
The Early Church and Slavery
Wealthy Women in the First-Century Roman World and in the Church
Extra Honour for Underdogs (1 Cor. 12:12–31)

Further Reading

Household Codes by Carolyn Osiek (Bible Odyssey)

Ephesians 5:22-33 Christian marriage submission

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

46 thoughts on “The Household Codes are Primarily about Power

  1. Excellent post, and easy to follow your reasoning. I have challenged some of my complimentarian friends who believe in marriage hierarchy (husband is the leader) based on Ephesians 5:23-31) that if this were central to marriage and crucial for a Christian marriage, why didn’t Jesus talk about a husband being the leader? Actually, Jesus spoke about giving up authority and becoming a servant, and loving one another. Your explanation of what Paul is conveying – that he was advocating for equality and talking about power – lines up with what Jesus taught.

    Secondly, in your notes section, you mentioned the command to fathers to not be harsh. I find it troubling that many comp marriages I see expect the wife / mother to quit her job, lay down all of her dreams and aspirations, and raise the children. The husband is expected to be the breadwinner and climb the ladder of success. But I point out that there are more verses / commands to fathers, and that raising children was never to be one-sided. And the travesty that women are left with unreached potential because of church expectations.

    1. I’m glad it was easy to follow. 🙂

  2. Phenomenal writing as always Marg! Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Krysta.

  3. Hi Marg. I’ve been struggling recently with the idea of forgiveness.

    People say that you need to forgive because if you don’t, it’s “like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”.

    Which I would agree with… but what if the person isn’t sorry or remorseful, and sees nothing wrong with what they did to a person despite it being wrong?

    My problem with forgiving people who don’t even apologize and ask for forgiveness is… how can you give something to someone (forgiveness), who doesn’t even want it?

    Isn’t forgiving people who aren’t sorry just enabling them to keep abusing you? I refuse to be a doormat.

    Technically, even Jesus doesn’t forgive unless people aren’t repentant. He doesn’t forgive us of our sin of unbelief until we repent of our sin of unbelief. There is a punishment for people who don’t repent of their sin of unbelief- and that’s death/hell/lake of fire/whatever the opposite of heaven is.

    I just think of people who have been especially severely abused, and that’s where it hurts the most. I almost feel like victims of domestic abuse, violence, and anything traumatizing in general really are literally pressured to forgive more than the wrongdoer is pressured to repent!! It’s infuriating!

    So I was just wondering what your thoughts on this were. There are many convincing arguments in this article as well (for me at least) as to why you shouldn’t forgive unless you’re given an apology. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/maria-mayo/five-myths-about-forgiveness-in-the-bible_b_924286.html

    1. opps! in the part where I wrote, “technically, even Jesus doesn’t forgive unless people aren’t repentant”, I meant to but are repentant.

      1. Hi Megan,

        Luke 23:34 seems to indicate that Jesus did forgive people even when they weren’t repentant. However, forgiving people doesn’t necessarily mean putting up with people’s bad behaviour, especially if it is habitual bad behaviour and not a one-off slip. Not holding people accountable for their actions and allowing sin to go unchecked is not loving. It doesn’t help the offender.

        In the Bible, repentance and restoration are called for when someone does wrong.

        Nevertheless, I imagine that when it comes to a specific case of forgiving someone, you need to use your common sense, informed by scripture and the Holy Spirit, as is the case for most directives in the New Testament.

    2. Forgiveness can be a difficult topic. A tip from me is to look to what pastor and author R T Kendall has written about it. It seems that this is a topic that God has specially laid on his heart. Although he has written books about several different topics, somehow he can’t let be saying something about forgiveness in each and every one of them. His most central book is «Total forgiveness». It is a book that I found very helpful.

      Two things we may confuse, are forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiving someone need not always mean that we are reconciled with that person (although it can). Reconciliation is something two-sided. Kendall sees forgiveness as something one-sided. It is primarily to give up bitterness and thoughts about revenge, something the forgiven person may not even need to know about.

      And Kendall also points to several things that forgiveness is not. Forgiveness, he says, is not
      * approval of what they did
      * excusing what they did
      * justifying what they did
      * pardoning what they did
      * denying what they did
      * blindness to what happened
      * forgetting
      * refusing to take the wrong seriously
      * pretending we are not hurt

      Other books by Kendall may also be interesting. He has one about the OT person Joseph («God meant it for good»), who he sees as one who learned to forgive in a wonderful way.

      1. Thanks for your comments on forgiveness.
        Even Christ on the Cross could not condone sin while He extended great forgiveness.
        Otherwise – sin wouldn’t have been so damaging.

        Great post!

    3. Megan,
      I struggle with this concept also. I appreciate the article you posted. As I have incidents in my life where I have not received apology, and in fact am required by the offenders to just accept the circumstances and act in their imposed idea of “Godly” love, the best thing I have found is to continue giving the true love of God and asking for His strength to do so. The definition that Huffpost gave of “to leave something/someone alone really resonates with me. In my opinion, that is what God does when people refuse to repent to Him, and it is best for my sanity to do the same and trust that He will prevail in the end. It is really hard to give up my “right” to receive apologies and recompense, but it us harder still to try to force them. I look to many wise and loving friends for support and counsel, and in no way would I allow any kind of physical harm to myself or others. As for emotional and mental harm, I feel it is best for me to speak truth to every person and situation, including my own negative self talk, and stand on that truth. I try not to get caught in argument, but speak the truth and stop speaking, sometimes having to leave the area to avoid escalating a conflict, and praying that the Holy Spirit will convict (me or them, as needed).

  4. I have no idea where they get that figure from either. It seems absurd to me.

    I hope your discussion goes well.

  5. I’ve heard people say, “idolatry in your life doesn’t necessarily have to mean golden calves. It could be things like money, fame, etc.”

    But is this Biblical? I thought that every time the word “idol” or “idolatry” came up in the Bible, it was specifically talking about statues and graven images.

    So can an idol be both physical and metaphorical?

    1. If my memory isn’t letting me down, you’re right; idolatry in the Bible always involves idols and/or the worship of pagan gods or goddesses. Because idolatry isn’t really a thing for most people in western cultures, the principle has been extended by some Christians to include metaphorical idols. It’s not something that especially concerns me one or the other.

      1. ok thanks!

  6. Hi, I really like the article. I do trip over verses like 1 Peter 3:1, where is it is translated wives obey your husbands. Is that the correct word they have used in translation? I found the greek word on this website https://biblehub.com/greek/5293.htm

    1. Hi Lorelle,

      Hypotassō is the word used in 1 Peter 3:1 for wives. It is the same word used in Ephesians 5:21f, 24 and Colossians 3:18.

      In the New Testament, the word mostly occurs in verses that are not about wives and marriage (e.g., Luke 2:51; Rom. 5:2; 8:20; 10:3; 1 Cor. 14:32; 16:16.) It occurs 38 times in the NT but only 5 times does it refer to wives. All occurrences of hypotassō are here: https://biblehub.com/greek/strongs_5293.htm

      In 1 Peter 3:1, wives are instructed that they be submissive (hypotassō) to their own husbands. There is a different Greek word (hypakouō) that more precisely means “obey.”

      I couldn’t find an English version that translates hypotassō in 1 Peter 3:1 as “wives be obedient to your own husbands.” None of these English translations use the word “obey” for wives, but they do use it for husbands who are not obeying the Word: https://biblehub.com/1_peter/3-1.htm

      I’ve written about 1 Peter 3:1ff here: https://margmowczko.com/1-peter-3_1-6/
      Note footnote 8.

      You may also be interested in this article where I mention all five verses where wives are instructed to be submissive to their own husbands:

      All my posts on 1 Peter 3 are here:

  7. I find the fact that Paul never tells husbands or slave masters to use authority very interesting. If it is important to maintain hierarchy in marriage, it would be odd to not include some word about leading when addressing husbands. But I did have a question about the issue of the ethics of hierarchies in the home. I find it interesting that Paul never says wifely submission is just or pleases God, but I know in Colossians 3:18 he says that wives should submit “as is fitting in the Lord.” Could this mean that wifely submission is just/fitting?

    1. Paul frames every mention of wifely submission in Christian terms. And Paul doesn’t want wives submitting in ways that aren’t appropriate for a Christians. (Unfortunately, he couldn’t say the same thing to slaves who had no legal right to refuse practically any request of their masters.) But Paul does not say submission of wives to husbands and the obedience of slaves to master is, of itself, just or pleasing to God.

      1. That distinction makes sense, thank you. There was something that I read yesterday that I’m a bit confused about, and I would appreciate your thoughts on it. I think I found the LSJ entry on phobeo/fear that is used in Ephesians 5:33, though it could be a different word. When I looked at it, though, all of the definitions were about terror, fleeing, fear, etc. The closest I found to respect was the definition of “to be in awe of, dread,” which still had a sense of fear. I was curious, is the use of “fear” as respect uncommon outside of the Bible? I’m just confused as to why phobeo being used of respect or reverence isn’t in a non-Biblical lexicon.

        1. I apologize for asking another question so soon, but I was doing some reading today and found some arguments and statements that puzzled me. I read in Al Wolters’ 2011 paper on “head” about his idea that the Greek Bible’s use of head as authority is why kephale came to be used of authority in the fourth century AD. I was also reading Chrysostom’s homily on Ephesians 5:22-33, and he used the fact that the husband is the head and that wives are told to fear to say wives should obey, not seek to be equal, not dictate, not contradict, rebel, or have pre-eminence, that husbands should be in authority and wives in subjection, etc. So it does seem as if he understood head as being authority in Ephesians 5:23, showing that, at least in the fourth century, it was understood that way (I’m not sure if Ephesians 5:23 is discussed earlier than that in Greek). So I guess my question is, do you think Wolter’s idea that the use of head in the New Testament is what lead to it being used about authority in pagan literature by the fourth century AD is possible? Also, I know Chrysostom wrote that head in 1 Corinthians 11:3 was not about authority, so why do you think he interpreted it so differently in Ephesians 5:23?

          1. Context always determines the meaning and nuances of a word in any text. The context of Ephesians 5:23 and 1 Corinthians 11:3 are different, but the meaning of kephalē as preeminence, or a higher status of honour, is in both.

            No, I don’t think New Testament use of kephalē influenced secular Greek literature in the fourth century.

      2. Is not ‘as is fitting in the Lord’ (18) simply another way of expressing the same sentiment as in 20 ‘for this pleases the Lord?’ The operative word in both terms is ‘the Lord,’ so both are in direct reference to him and his authority that has been established earlier in the letter. The Ephesian parallel likens the wife’s submission to that of the church to Christ. It should go without saying that something that is ‘fitting’ in the Lord is both just and pleasing to Him.

        1. Hi James, thanks for your question.

          The phrase “in/to the Lord” (ἐν Κυρίῳ) occurs in both Colossians 3:18 and 20. However, unlike verse 20, there is no statement or explanation in verse 18 that says of wifely submission, “for this is pleasing to the Lord” (τοῦτο γὰρ εὐάρεστόν ἐστιν ἐν Κυρίῳ).

          Rather, Colossians 3:18 is about how the wives in Colossae should be submissive, and Paul puts a limit on it. Wives are to submit to their husbands “as” (ὡς) “is appropriate, proper, befitting” (ἀνῆκεν), for those who are “in the Lord” (ἐν Κυρίῳ).

          ὡς is an adverb; it modifies the verb and often has a sense of comparison. This adverb also occurs in Ephesians 5:22 and 24 where it describes how wives are to submit to their husbands: “as to the Lord (ὡς τῷ Κυρίῳ), and “as the church submits herself to Christ” (ὡς ἡ ἐκκλησία ὑποτάσσεται τῷ Χριστῷ).

          ἀνῆκεν occurs three times in the New Testament, and only in Paul’s letters where he encourages wholesome, proper behaviour. See Ephesians 5:4 and Philemon 1:8. With these three texts in mind, “Fittingness is thus apparently determined not merely by social convention … but by proper reflection of Christian community standards.” E. Elizabeth Johnson, “Colossians” in Women’s Bible Commentary, Third Edition, Carol Newsom, Sharon Ringe, with Jacqueline Lapsley (eds) (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 586.

          The whole letter to the Colossians “is interested in how Christians lived their lives in the Lord because how they did that basically determined how they related to outsiders, and how they related to outsiders determined both their safety in pagan society and how Christianity would be viewed and would expand in that society.”
          B. Bowman Thurston, All the Fullness of God: The Christ of Colossians (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017), 124. (Italics original)

          Paul wanted the wives in Colossae to submit to their own husbands in appropriate ways, not in unwholesome or unsafe ways.


          Jesus being referred to as “Lord” occurs numerous times in the New Testament. Certainly, Jesus is our authority, but he is much more than that. Jesus is also our role model, our redeemer, our guide, our support, and our friend in every aspect of life. Everything we do as those who have been baptised and clothed in him is “in the Lord.”

          Paul often uses ἐν Κυρίῳ for people, activities, and ministries which are “in the Lord.” (See Rom. 16:2, 8, 11, 12, 13, 22; 1 Cor. 4:17; 7:22, 32; 9:1-2; 16:19; Gal. 5:10; Eph. 4:1, 7: 5:8; 6:9; Php. 2:29; Col. 4:7, 17; 1 Thess. 5:12; Phil. 1.20, etc).

          Paul typically, but not always, uses the phrases “in the Lord,” and also “in Christ,” about our state of being and belonging. We are “in the Lord.” More on this here: https://margmowczko.com/being-in-christ/

          Here’s another verse where Paul uses the phrase “in the Lord” (ἐν Κυρίῳ).
          In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, and man is not independent of woman.

          ἐν Κυρίῳ is very much a Pauline expression. He uses it 46 times. See here. Revelation 14:13 is the only non-Pauline verse in the New Testament to use the phrase.


          It is a sad state of affairs that some Christians seem insistent that someone in authority must be a part of Christian relationships, including Christian marriage. Jesus warned against this dynamic. We are, after all, brothers and sisters in Christ.

          As for Ephesians 5, we need to read the whole chapter. Paul tells wives to submit themselves to their own husbands as to the Lord and as the church submits to Christ. But what Paul says to husbands does not support an idea of male authority (and neither do the verses in Ephesians 5 that precede verse 22). Rather, there is a levelling between wife and husband. I write about this passage here:

          Also, the only thing Paul says to husbands in Colossians 3:18 is “Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.” That’s it. There’s no mention of husbands having authority here.

          Importantly, neither Jesus, Paul, Peter, or any New Testament person, ever tell husbands to lead or to have unilateral authority over their wives. Not once. Similarly, slave masters are never told they must be the masters, leaders, or authorities of their slaves.

          And the few verses that mention wifely submission do not override or have more weight than the numerous “one another” verses about Christian relationships. Here’s a small sample: Romans 12:10, 16; 13:8; 14:19; 15:14; 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; Gal. 5:13; 6:2; Eph. 4:1-2; Eph. 5:19-21; Col 3:12-17.

          Note that Paul’s words to wives and husbands in Colossians (and in Ephesians 5)are prefaced by instructions for mutuality.

          Col 3:12-17: Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive. Above all, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. And let the peace of Christ, to which you were also called in one body, rule your hearts. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

        2. Hi James, I’ve expanded on my previous comment and turned it into a blog post: https://margmowczko.com/colossians-3-18/

          Also, like meekness, humility, and kindness, being submissive is a Christian virtue for all. Furthermore, we need to ensure that our behaviour in our culture, and the way we relate and care for each other in our homes, does not cause outsiders to disparage Christianity.

          The following quotations refer to Paul’s apologetic and evangelistic reasons for the household codes in Colossians.

          Michael Bird says this in reference to the “household code” in Colossians 3-4 and elsewhere in the NT:

          “It must be recognised that Christian authors appropriated these well-known household codes probably for apologetic reasons and as a means of ensuring the commendable conduct of Christian homes before outsiders (see Col 4:5; 1 Thess 4:12). The Christian household codes concern how the lordship of Jesus Christ over a Christian community is to be lived out before the pagan world around them. While these codes are undoubtedly patriarchal, they express that patriarchy in light of mutual obligations of love and honour and clearly censures abuses of authority. They were a necessary way of stabilizing a para- or post- Jewish group that was regarded as religiously sectarian, politically subversive, and socially offensive to cultural elites and civic powers.”
          Bird, Colossians, Philemon (New Covenant Commentary Series; Eugene, OR: Cascade Books 2009), 144.

          Bonnie Bowman Thurston makes these comments about Colossians chapter 3:

          “The author wants the Christians in Colossae to be exemplary in every way, in their personal behavior and in the structure of their families, first, so that Christianity won’t be criticized by non-Christians, and second, so that non-Christians will see the order, peace, and beauty of Christian lives and want to join their fellowship. He is both trying to protect the Colossian Christians from persecution and further evangelize Colossae.
          How we conduct our private lives is our most potent evangelistic outreach. … The Colossians letter is interested in how Christians lived their lives in the Lord because how they did that basically determined how they related to outsiders, and how they related to outsiders determined both their safety in pagan society and how Christianity would be viewed and would expand in that society.”
          Bowman Thurston, All the Fullness of God: The Christ of Colossians (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017), 123, 124. (Italics original)

  8. That’s helpful, thank you. I hope I’m not bothering you, but I did have one more thing I wanted to ask and check my thoughts on. I found that reverence/respect wasn’t mentioned in LSJ under phobēo the verb, but reverence or awe of a ruler or God was mentioned under the noun phobos. (I know that phobos is used some in the NT for reverence without a ruler like in 1 Peter 3:15.) I also read in Chrysostom’s homily about reverencing the head, and that the fear in Ephesians 5:33 should be “the not contradicting [opposing?], the not rebelling, and the not being fond of the preeminence,” which all sound fine to me, and sounds somewhat like humble cooperation. So from what I’ve gathered, phobēo wasn’t used of respect much outside of Christian/Jewish literature, and it can have a sense of humility and not being against someone in some contexts. Is that correct, or have I missed something?

    1. Hi Taylor,

      The primary sense behind the phob– words is “fear.” However, the context of Ephesians 5:22-33 and of 1 Peter 3:1-7 means that fear can’t really be the sense in these verses. What is there to be afraid of when your husband is loving and serving you as Christ loves and serves the church. And in 1 Peter 3:6, the Christian wives of unsaved husbands, who may have had cause to be afraid, are told “Do not be frightened by any fear.”

      Lexicons are useful, and surveying the use of particular words in other passages is very useful, but the context is always key in understanding particular passages. Paul and Peter were not telling wives to be afraid of their husbands. I really can’t say more than what I’ve already written here and in previous comments.

  9. I’m curious about your passing mention that children mentioned here would be grown children. This has me wondering about the requirements for elders that their children be submissive, would this also mean grown children and how would we apply that today?

    1. Hi Sara, all the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9 reflect broader values of Greco-Roman society. Paul wanted overseers in Ephesus and elders in Crete to be socially respectable people and above reproach. (See especially 1 Timothy 3:7.) Socially respectable (non-controversial) leaders were important for fledgeling congregations situated in cities that could be hostile towards Christianity.

      We need to take into account the values of our own societies when working out the qualifications for overseers and elders today.

      In case you’re interested, I have more on the qualifications for overseers here: https://margmowczko.com/category/1-timothy-3/

  10. Marg,

    Thanks for writing on this topic. You’ve looked thoroughly at words and nuances and I think that is always helpful. In particular, surfacing the power dynamics underlying the household codes of antiquity has helped me gain clarity about what these passages are for.

    I do want to question an important assertion you make though, if I am understanding you right. Are you saying that the Biblical household codes are in large part motivated by a desire to mitigate or minimize the harshness associated with abuse of power? I agree that the pagan household codes were essentially about power. That would make sense. If you don’t have the assurance that the God who powerfully holds authority over all things is watching over you in love then the only rational thing to do is to grab onto power where you can (and why not codify it for society if you have the power to do so!).

    But when we get to the Biblical household codes, I think there is something far more radical going on than a mitigation of abuse of power and that seeing them through the lens of power can be a distraction. Am I reading you correctly?

    1. Hi Justin, I imagine that people hold on to power for all kinds of reasons. I don’t make any assumptions or any comments in the article about why people hold on to power. I also don’t hypothesise about codifying the exercise of power. (Exercising power over people seems to be the antithesis of what Jesus taught.) These seem to be your concerns, not mine. So perhaps you have not understood what I’ve written.

      There are several passages in the New Testament that are regarded as household codes. The ones in Ephesians 5-6 and Colossians 3-4 are more general. Others are given with specific issues in mind.

      Apart from Paul’s words to husbands and (male and female) masters in Ephesians 5-6, I don’t see anything particularly radical in the codes. Overall, I see them as good advice given the situation of the first-century Christians who were living in a world that was suspicious of their faith.

      I agree with Lynn Cohick who writes,

      … the major goal of the New Testament household codes is to explain how Christ followers could reshape their actions and thoughts toward godly living, given the cultural realities they faced in pagan cities. These realities included patriarchy, slavery, paganism and a heightened imperial propaganda. Paul pushes against these manifestations of domination and idolatry, and shows special concern for the subordinate member of the pairs: wife, child, and slave.
      Lynn H. Cohick, “Loving and Submitting to One another in Marriage” in Discovering Biblical Equality, Ronald W. Pierce, Cynthia Long Westfall, Christa L. McKirland (eds) (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021), 183- 204, 192.

      1. Marg,

        I didn’t mean to suggest that you are interested in codifying power (neither am I) or in the reasons why people would. I was thinking about several statements from your article “these (pagan) codes were not primarily about gender roles or even gender. They were about power.”


        “The purpose of Paul’s codes in the New Testament, however, was somewhat different. One of the aims of the Ephesians and Colossians household codes was to mitigate and minimise any harsh treatment by the people with greater power in Greco-Roman households—husbands, parents, and male and female slave owners—towards people with less power.”

        And I was wondering if you thought that “to mitigate and minimize any harsh treatment by the people with greater power” was the underlying motivation in God giving these codes to his people, or if there is something larger at play.

        It sounds like you are saying the bigger motivation was to advocate for patterns of relationship that would be both winsome and relatively more godly in the pagan environment that the early church occupied.

        I’m not trying to be nitpicky, I just think there is a lot at stake in identifying the underlying motivation of Paul’s words here, as there has been significant debate over what people today are supposed to take from these instructions.

        Let me be more direct about what I think is radical here. I think that what Paul is saying here is not “here’s some good advice given your situation.” He is saying “fear the Lord.”

        That’s radical in two ways–

        1. The “household codes” in God’s house might look similar on the surface to some of the pagan household codes but peel back the top layer and they are a radical departure from them. Pagan codes were designed to solidify power structures among people. God’s household codes introduce a totally different actor into the relationship–Jesus–and instruct us to make him our reference point when we consider how authority and submission should play out in our lives. Jesus himself, not our society’s stability or conceptions of proper relationship, is the determining factor in who submits in what relationship and why.

        2. The Fear of the Lord seems to hold so much weight with Paul and his thinking that it demands that people treat one another in ways that are not merely counter-cultural, but in some cases counter-intuitive.

        Paul definitely wants Christian communities to reflect an orderliness that is winsome to the outside world, and upsetting power dynamics too much in Christian homes could threaten that witness, but what is prescribed by Paul isn’t merely a better balance of power, it is a totally new orientation to our relationships. An orientation marked by love, yes, but motivated by fear of the Lord.

        Paul could not have been too concerned about Christians messing up their witness by departing from pagan norms in the arena of power and authority. He seems to be concerned to change the way we think about authority altogether, with the fear of the Lord directing us either to submit to the earthly authorities in our lives (when they are legitimate) or to oppose them for the sake of being faithful to Jesus . And that seems to be in line with how we see Jesus and his followers interacting with authority everywhere else in the New Testament.

        Jesus certainly wasn’t afraid to upset those in power for the sake of being faithful to the truth. Paul and the other apostles likewise didn’t shy away from offending, even directly confronting, the power structures of their day when the gospel was at stake. I’m thinking about all the times recorded in Acts when Paul looks at King Agrippa and tells him he ought to be a Christian or Peter says “we must obey God rather than men” or really any time someone is persecuted for preaching the gospel, and then keeps on preaching (which happens frequently!). Paul even unapologetically confronts the power structure within the early Christian church for the sake of the truth when he tells Peter (to his face!) that he is in the wrong in Galatia. My point is, a reading of Scripture, particularly of Paul, that explains his motivation for writing by saying he wanted to adjust the status quo to a more preferable, balanced state of affairs is missing something. In this case, what I think your critique is missing is the positive motivation for these codes.

        Paul is borrowing a pagan FORM in writing household codes, but he isn’t just improving on what was there, he is giving a characteristically different message to Christian families, slaves and masters. The reason why he does what no other ancient code would (in addressing the one with less power first and commanding the one with more power to be good to those over whom they have authority) is not because better use of authority is an end in itself. The end, and the beginning of Paul’s thought, is the fear of the Lord. And displaying this fear in our common, ordinary relationships is what will make the Christian community winsome–not because it agrees with the society’s expectations, but because it displays the wisdom of God.

        Let me share some of the Biblical basis I have for saying that the underlying motivation for Paul is the fear of the Lord.

        Take a look at how the household codes in Ephesians 5 begin. v.21 “submitting to one another in the FEAR of the Lord”… Then fear shows up again in v.33 (often translated “respect” to accurately convey the distinction btwn fearing God and respecting a husband, but from the same greek word for fear, φοβεομαι). Children are instructed to obey parents because this is explicitly commanded by God (and obedience is what you do when you fear someone), and then slaves are told to obey their masters with “FEAR and trembling.”

        In every instance, when Paul is addressing the party in the relationship with less power, he appeals to the authority of their counterpart as he instructs them. Pagan codes did the same thing. But the radical thing that makes the Christian household codes different from other ones prevalent at the time is that Paul directs us to see the authority behind the human authority. Rather than saying “give what is due to this person with authority in the relationship BECAUSE OF THEIR INHERENT DIGNITY AND AUTHORITY” Paul says “give this person what is due in their relationship BECAUSE BEHIND THIS RELATIONSHIP IS THE APPOINTMENT OF THE GOD WHOM YOU MUST FEAR.”

        Fearing the Lord is not thinking of him as someone who is scary, but it is recognizing his awesome position and power, and then ordering our lives in response.

        So when we “fear” human authority, we aren’t really standing in awe of people, rather we are just recognizing that God holds all authority and because we stand in awe of him, we recognize that God has put some earthly authorities (authority “according to the flesh” 6:5) into our lives.

        That’s what the exhortation to slaves is clearly saying:

        ‘Slaves, submit to your masters, not because their eye is on you, but because God’s eyes are. And apparently, he was pleased to appoint this person as an authority in your life, so when you serve your master “according to the flesh (Eph 6:5)”, you are actually serving the Lord, not people (v.7).’

        ‘Children, obey parents “in the Lord”…because it wasn’t just their decision to have a child that has put you into this relationship, but rather because God appoints that people exist in families where parents are honored, which is why God made this his first commandment (Eph 6:2).’

        And in both cases, the one submitting is given a reward BY GOD. Why would God reward you for obeying an earthly master, for submitting in an earthly relationship? Because although we submit to people, when we do it in the FEAR of the LORD, we are ultimately submitting not just to the earthly authority, but to the Lord. And this honors God. And shows a watching world that we treasure pleasing God more than getting our way.

        And of course the same exact logic is at play in the relationship Paul that Paul begins his exhortation with, that of wives and husbands:

        ‘Wives, submit to your husbands, because God has made them head, even as he made Christ head of the church.”

        He is saying ‘As surely as the church ought to submit to Christ, wives ought to submit to their husband. This is God’s appointment.’ Paul is not asking wives to submit to their husbands because that is what society expects of them. How cruel that would be of God to let societal expectations determine the rules for his household! If his way is best, then asking his children to live not by his ways, but by those of society’s changing moral compass, is the opposite of love.

        But the beauty of Paul’s logic is that in God’s kingdom the relationships of authority and submission you are a part of call forth more from you, yet exert less control over you. For me to show the world that Jesus is Lord, it becomes more important for me to do right by those who hold authority, and at the same time the particular earthly authority over me is less influential in determining my happiness.

        That’s because these relationships of authority are designed by God, not as the ultimate thing, but as the stage where you express the fear of the Lord to the world. The human with authority over you isn’t your ultimate master, God is. And because he is, you are required to live in a way that is fitting, and yes, pleasing, to God, whether you are in an institution that he has especially designed to display the beauty of headship and submission, like marriage (5:21-32, esp v.31-32), or in an institution that is broken from the start, like slavery. In both cases, the logic is consistent–Fear the Lord and treat the person in this relationship with you not as you prefer or in a way that will best meet your goals, but as someone who is absolutely committed to obeying God (even if that means losing yourself in the process). And that’s what we see with marriage. The wife loses herself by laying down her claim to authority over her life that she would otherwise have as an image bearer made with all the same dignity as her husband. And Husbands lose themselves as they choose to use their authority (i.e. ability to “author”) to love thier wives–nourish and cherish them. Giving himself up to work for her good.

        With the FEAR of the Lord as the anchor motivation for how we think about authority and submission, the requirements and the benefits for both the party with power and the party without power, are the same. We live not unto ourselves, but unto the Lord. And yes, that does mean that wives submit to their husbands (not to all men as you pointed out), but not because that is what society expects, but because God has said ‘As Christ is head of the church, so the husband is head of his wife.’ By God’s design, submission to authority is redemptive when it is undertaken not merely out of obligation or fear of man, but out of recognition that Jesus is Lord. That is what the Fear of the Lord is–recognition that he is behind every relationship and every opportunity for action I have in my life, and acting in accord with his Word.

        1. Justin, your comment is almost 2000 words, 1941 to be exact. By comparison, my entire article, including footnotes, etc, is 1721 words. Usual commenting etiquette allows for comments of around 200 words, but I think 500 words is fine when the remarks are on topic. Also, I reply to hundreds of people every week, you’re the sixth person I’m replying to this morning and I still have several more replies to make before lunch. I simply don’t have time to offer thought-out responses when comments contain multiple ideas. So I’ll just make a few remarks.

          There’s a lot in your comment that I disagree with, overall and specifically. For example, Paul sometimes asks Christians to adhere to broader social virtues so that the fledgling Christian movement would not suffer in its hostile environment. He sometimes says so explicitly, as in Titus 2:5 (cf. 1 Tim 5:14). This isn’t cruel. (In his first letter, Peter more emphatically urges the Christians who were being slandered not to make waves but to adhere to Greco-Roman customs and acquiesce to non-Christians who had power over them.)

          What is of particular concern is your “translation” of Ephesians 5:23 which is incorrect in a couple of significant ways: ‘Wives, submit to your husbands, because God has made them head, even as he made Christ head of the church.” This is not what Paul said. If this is the basis for your understanding of Christian marriage, then there’s really no point in me saying anything.

          Where we seem to agree is that submission is a good thing, and that en phobō Christou is an important element in why or how we are to submit to fellow believers:

          ~ “submitting to one another in the fear of Christ” (Eph. 5:21 CSB).
          ~ “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21 ESV).
          ~ “and submit to each other out of respect for Christ” (Eph. 5:21 CEB).

          However, our primary motivation in human relationships must always be love. Jesus told his disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35; cf. Rom. 12:10; 13:8; 1 Cor. 13:13; 16:14; Eph. 5:1-2, 25; Col. 3:14, 19, etc). And Paul uses the word “love” six times when addressing husbands in Ephesians 5:25ff. He never tells husbands to lead or have unilateral authority over their wives in any of his letters.

          Paul is more interested in believers loving God and loving one another than in believers fearing God. Paul mentions fearing God, or fearing the Lord or Christ, only in Romans 11:20-21, 2 Corinthians 5:11, 7:1, Colossians 3:22, Ephesians 5:21, tangentially in Ephesians 6:5, implicitly in Philippians 2:21, and also in a quotation from Psalm 36:1 in Romans 3:18. (It’s possible I’ve missed a reference.)

          And while fearing God is undeniably important, Paul provides balance for us who are being led by the Holy Spirit: “For all those led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear. Instead, you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’” (Romans 8:14-15).

          The idiomatic expression “fear and trembling” occurs four times in the New Testament, each time in one of Paul’s letters (1 Cor. 2:3; 2 Cor. 7:15; Eph. 6:5; Phil. 2:12). I’ve written about this expression in Philippians 2:12 here: https://margmowczko.com/fear-and-trembling/

          If you’re interested, I’ve written more about phobētai in Ephesians 5:33 here: https://margmowczko.com/fear-or-respect-in-christian-marriage-ephesians-533/

        2. Also, this quotation from Michael Bird is worth repeating.

          “It must be recognised that Christian authors appropriated these well-known household codes probably for apologetic reasons and as a means of ensuring the commendable conduct of Christian homes before outsiders (see Col 4:5; 1 Thess 4:12). The Christian household codes concern how the lordship of Jesus Christ over a Christian community is to be lived out before the pagan world around them. While these codes are undoubtedly patriarchal, they express that patriarchy in light of mutual obligations of love and honour and clearly censures abuses of authority. They were a necessary way of stabilizing a para- or post- Jewish group that was regarded as religiously sectarian, politically subversive, and socially offensive to cultural elites and civic powers.”
          Bird, Colossians, Philemon (New Covenant Commentary Series; Eugene, OR: Cascade Books 2009), 144.

  11. Marg,

    That’s fair, my comment was too long, I will keep it shorter.

    I think where I disagree with you most fundamentally is that I don’t think the things God decrees compete with one another. For them to do so would reveal a weakness or even inconsistency in God.

    So I don’t think fearing the Lord and love for God or others are somehow balancing each other or could be in opposition to one another. Fear of the Lord is what informs us so that we truly love one another. Interestingly, the command to be submitting to one another “in the fear of the Lord” comes right on the heels of Paul’s command in Ephesians to be “filled with the Spirit.” So I can’t agree with you that Romans 8 is telling us that the Spirit of God in us frees us from fear…of the Lord. I think the Spirit frees us from slavery to sin and the fear of death that accompanies it. But fearing the Lord, recognizing who is he and responding appropriately, is what allows us to love others.

    In the same vein, I don’t agree that God prescribes winsome socially acceptable behavior codes for his people for the sake of witness, while himself not being pleased by the behavior he outlines. So when Paul gives Titus and Timothy directions which will win respect from outsiders, he is not saying they should do that even though the directions themselves are unrepresentative of the heart of the God they are witnessing to.

    My final thought is that these are household codes for God’s house. God ordering his house according to society’s values is what is cruel. As his people we are supposed to be lights in society. This is also explicitly stated right before the household codes begin (Eph 5:8,11–“You are light in the Lord, walk as children of light…Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, rather expose them.”)

    The command for wives to submit to their husbands either belongs to the darkness of the world the church inhabited, or it is one way that the church is supposed to manifest the light of Christ. But if it was the light of Christ then, it isn’t darkness in our generation. I might advise a female Christian missionary in a Muslim country to dress according to the standards of the society where she serves and to pick her moments of publicly speaking carefully so as not to offend the Muslim men of that country. But it would be a different thing altogether for me to tell my daughter that in my house she has to hide herself and she doesn’t have the right to speak. God’s rules for his house, which is what we have in Eph 5-6, might reflect a way to winsomely engage the culture, but they can’t be merely that. They are codes for the household of God, so shouldn’t they reflect what he values?

    1. Justin, you seem to be seeing several things as either-or issues. This is problematic.

      I didn’t say fear or love. I said both. But you seem to be emphasising fear over love, even though love is actually mentioned several times in the wives-husbands part of the Ephesians household code and fear is not mentioned, unless you count Ephesians 5:21.

      Fear is not mentioned at all in the wives-husbands part of the Colossians household code or in the Titus 2 household code. Your emphasis on fear is unwarranted. If you want to emphasise fear, at least link it to mutual submission as Paul did.


      You’ve made this statement, “Fear of the Lord is what informs us so that we truly love one another.” I’m not sure I want to be loved by someone who is only or primarily guided by the “fear of the Lord.” I’m all for reverencing God (we need more of this), but having someone love men because of actual fear sounds severe and stifling, and not especially kind.

      I want to be loved by people who are also guided by the Holy Spirit and who generously possesses the fruit of the Spirit which includes love and joy. And note that actual fear is not a fruit of the Spirit.


      Since an actual fear of the Lord can be associated with punishment, then love is indeed a balance. See 1 John 4:18. I am a redeemed child of God, so there is no reason for me to fear God in this regard. Rather, I reverence God as the supreme holy and awesomely exalted being. And let’s not forget that “God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). Faithful and loving-kindness is one of his defining features in both Testaments of the Bible.


      And this dichotomy doesn’t make sense: “The command for wives to submit to their husbands either belongs to the darkness of the world the church inhabited, or it is one way that the church is supposed to manifest the light of Christ.”
      There are numerous pagan texts that tell wives they need to submit to their husbands. It doesn’t have to be either-or. Wifely submission can be a Greco-Roman (pagan) virtue and a Christian virtue.

      What was not a pagan virtue was mutual submission, and it is this submission, one to another, that Paul explicitly links with the fear of Christ: “submitting one to another in the fear (or, reverence) of Christ” (Eph. 5:21). Mutual submission is the ideal. And Paul’s instructions to husbands in Ephesians 5:25-33 supports this further. I’ve written about Paul’s words to husbands here: https://margmowczko.com/pauls-main-point-in-eph-5_22-33/


      Also, the idea that God is inconsistent or weak if there are supposedly competing decrees is another unhelpful dichotomy. There’s a lot more I could say here, but I’ll move on and say that, as people living varied and complex lives in different cultural settings, not every instruction in the Bible fits perfectly with every real-life scenario. This is just the way it is.

      We need to look for principles and apply them appropriately to our own settings and situation. Most of our households today are nothing like the households Paul refers to in Ephesians 5-6, and most understand that patriarchy and slavery are part of fallen society.


      Compromises don’t have to be a bad thing. Paul often adapted for the sake of the gospel and Christian witness:

      “For since I am free from all I can make myself a slave to all, in order to gain even more people. To the Jews I became like a Jew to gain the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) to gain those under the law. To those free from the law I became like one free from the law (though I am not free from God’s law but under the law of Christ) to gain those free from the law. To the weak I became weak in order to gain the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I may save some. I do all these things because of the gospel, so that I can be a participant in it.” 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

      Paul even asks Christians to modify their behaviour and give up their freedoms for fellow Christians who are weaker in their faith:

      “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.” 1 Corinthians 8:9-13

      Paul understood that oftentimes in our Christian walk there will be “frictional losses” between the ideal and the practical in regards to maintaining a good witness to broader (non-Christian) society and good relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Compromises aren’t always bad.

      Being a good Christian, including being a good Christian husband or wife, is not that hard to understand or complicated. It starts with treating each other with kindness and consideration. Nothing in the household codes overrides the basic instructions for Christian living including Jesus’s instruction for love and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”


      I’m sorry, Justin. But your overemphasis on fear and your stark either-or understanding of certain situations is not how I understand the gospel of Jesus or how I understand what Paul wanted for the New Covenant community of God’s people who are powerfully led by the Holy Spirit. And it seems we have very different views of God and his kingdom.

      Following Jesus and being led by the Spirit, that is, being a Christian, is wonderful and liberating! The kingdom of God is “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). We can reverence God and and live obediently and justly and also enjoy him and the company of his people, the church. Actual fear, rather than reverance with large measures of love and joy and wonder, doesn’t shine a light that I believe accurately conveys the amazing gospel.

      Jesus doesn’t use a big stick when he invites us to follow him. He welcomes us as fellow heirs, as fellow siblings, and even as friends.

      Also, you do realise that I have no problem with wifely submission, don’t you? Christian submission is good.

      Since we don’t even agree on what God wants of our relationship with him, there’s no point in discussing what he wants of our relationships with fellow believers. I’m genuinely saddened that actual fear is your primary motivation. Joy is mine.

      Being joyful in our faith is mentioned much, much more than fearing God in the New Testament. So much more! But you need to do what is in accordance with your faith, and I will with mine. There’s room for difference approaches to God and different expressions of our faith as long as Jesus, as Lord and Saviour, is our way in. Romans chapter 14 has some relevance on this. Here’s a link.

      Goodbye, Justin. I wish you well. I wish you joy.

  12. Marg,
    Your first point in the previous comments was clear and and to the point the very first time.
    Thank you

  13. Marg,

    I just re-read the above article. I would like to offer an idea that I have in order to read what you think. It seems to me that the most counter-cultural verse in the entire household code is 6:10. After telling slaves to obey, incredibly, Paul tells the masters to treat their slaves in the same way. By definition, this idea defies the meaning of the word slave. Following your idea that there are cultural norms on display, and applying the way Paul talks about slaves and masters to husbands and wives, and to parents and children, I ask, isn’t the husband’s domination fairly universal? How about parents and children? Wouldn’t it be fair to say that children are supposed to obey, is another universal idea? But “masters and slaves” gives away the fact that Paul is turning the entire code on its head. In each case, the culturally powerful are asked to serve the person who traditionally sits in an inferior position.

    This leads me to wonder, since there no hierarchy is described in Eden before sin enters the discussion if what Paul is describing here is a return to Garden-style relationships. Redemption in action requires returning to our condition prior to the rebellion in the Garden. We sing redeemed how I love to proclaim it, but how does that redemption play out in real time? Redeemed masters treat their slaves the way the masters want to be treated. Redeemed parents do not exasperate, but train and instruct their children. Redeemed husbands love their wives (I might add here, not their concubines). Notice the repetition of one form or another of περιπατ* 4:1, 18, 5:1,2; 5:15, each describing how to live a redeemed life: walk in love, walk as children of light, wise not foolish, filled with the Spirit. All of which leads to 5:21, mutual submission. Since the article is 4 years old, I may be running over the same old ground. If so, I apologize.

    1. Hello Paul, the words “masters, do the same things towards them (slaves)” in Ephesians 6:10 and “masters, give to your slaves what is just and equal/ equitable” in Colossians 4:1 are astonishing considering how long many Christians have done the very opposite. However, even when masters and slaves were friends, and this sometimes happened in the Roman world, a slave still had the status of a slave with limited rights and freedom, not just within the household, but in broader society also. This is why slavery is abhorrent and ultimately against the ideal of Galatians 3:26-29.

      Husbandly domination has been universal and the obedience of children was a universal expectation. Likewise, slaves and even employees were expected to obey their masters and employers–not that being a slave and an employer is comparable!! I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make with these observations.

      The fact that Paul addressses each group of usual, larger first-century households seems to indicate that Paul is acknowledging and not demolishing or dismantling the household structure. However, as I say in the article,

      “… one purpose was to lessen the potential for abuse that often came with unequal power in ancient households. So Paul gave directions about love and equity because you do not abuse or mistreat the person you love, and you do not abuse or mistreat the person you treat with equity.
      Furthermore, the household code in Ephesians follows on from teaching on Spirit-led living, which includes mutual participation in worship and mutual submission in relationships (Eph. 5:18–21; cf. Col. 3:16–17). Spirit-led people love generously and mutually submit to others; they are not mean or unkind to others.”

      If we understand the housheold code in Ephesians 5-6 differently, it’s not different by much.

  14. […] The Household Codes are Primarily about Power […]

  15. […] [3] Our ethnicity or race, our level of social freedom, and our gender, etc, doesn’t change when we become Christians, but these things should not be a cause for discrimination within the church. The apostles do give instructions to slaves to be obedient to their own masters and wives to be submissive to their own husbands, but often the reason given for these instructions is to aid evangelism by not giving the church a bad name in a society where slaves and women were seen as lesser people than non-slaves and men (e.g., Titus 2:9-10; 1 Tim. 5:14; 1 Peter 3:1; 1 Cor. 11:10). [I have more on submission in marriage, here. More on 1 Cor. 11:10 here. More on the New Testament household codes, here.] […]

  16. […] The NT Household Codes are primarily about Power, not Gender […]

  17. […] In the Greco-Roman world, husbands (and parents and male and female slave owners who are addressed in Ephesians 6) had more power than wives (and children and slaves) but Paul did not want the more powerful people to exploit, abuse, or harass those with less power. (More about power in the household codes here.) […]

  18. […] The Household Codes are about Power, not Gender […]

  19. […] The Household Codes are Primarily about Power, not Gender […]

  20. […] The Household Codes are about Power, not Gender […]

  21. […] Furthermore, I believe the children Paul was addressing were grown children (not young children) who were required to obey both goneis (“parents”) (Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:20) and required to honour their father and mother (Eph. 6:2-3). Even pagan writers urged adult men to obey and honour both parents. This is still required in some cultures today. More on this here. […]

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