Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

gender roles male authority Ephesians 5 Colossians 3

Introduction

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, as we are all 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,” elaborated on in Ephesians 5:25, 28-31, 33, 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. 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 the unequal power in ancient households. So Paul taught 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).

Conclusion

The New Testament household codes were not 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.


Footnotes

[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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Related Articles

Wives, mothers and female masters in the NT household codes
Ephesians 5:22-33 in a Nutshell
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)

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

22 thoughts on “The household codes are about power, not gender

  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.

    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.
    Marg

  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:
      https://margmowczko.com/wifely-submission-and-holy-kisses/

      All my posts on 1 Peter 3 are here:
      https://margmowczko.com/tag/1-peter-3/

  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.

  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.

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