Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Female Masters, Male Slaves, Household Codes, Ephesians 5, submission

Womanhood and Manhood

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

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

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

Note that in Paul’s instructions to husbands, he does not tell them to have authority or to lead their wives. Rather, he tells husbands to love their wives (Eph. 5:25ff; Col. 3:19).

Childhood and Parenthood

Children are addressed in the household codes and are told to obey their parents, both their father and mother (Eph. 6:1-3; Col. 3:20; cf. Mark 7:10). In the first-century Greco-Roman world, all children—including, or especially, adult children—were expected to obey their parents. In some cultures today, we still see that adult children are expected to be obedient to their parents.

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

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

Slavery and Female Masters

Slaves made up another sector of the kind of first-century household speak about in Ephesians 5-6 and Colossians 3. It has been estimated that about a third of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves.

Christian slaves are addressed in the New Testament household codes, where they are told to obey their masters, even their unsaved masters (Eph. 6:5-8; Col. 3:22ff; Tit. 2:9-10; 1 Pet. 2:18ff). Thankfully, this is a principle that churches no longer insist on, especially as slavery has been outlawed in many nations. In Western society today, we try to rescue and free slaves, rather than insist they obey their masters.

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Footnotes

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

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

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Image

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


Related Articles

The NT Household Codes are about Power, not Gender
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Mutual Submission in Early Christian Writings
“Equality” in Paul’s Letters
Paul on Gender Roles in Ministry and Marriage
Wealthy Women in the First-Century Roman World and in the Church

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

25 thoughts on “Wives, mothers and female masters in the NT household codes

  1. Joseph and Potiphar’s wife is another example.

    Hard to imagine Maggie Thatcher wasting her talents by refusing to lead her country out of disaster…or her country allowing her to have done so. The whole nation recognized her value as a leader and the natural authority that she held was obvious…Piper is wasting our time with his determination to keep women down…he really shows he has a bone to pick with women and we simply must not give in…he is just plain wrong.

    1. I was thinking about Joseph too, but technically he was sold to Potiphar, so Potiphar was his master. But Joseph was obliged to obey Potiphar’s wife too (Gen. 37:36; 39:1).

      It is probable that women such as Lydia, Phoebe, Nympha, and Chloe had males slaves working for them.

  2. I had to smile at the title of this post. “Women masters.” I just came home from a place where I was talking about the problems in translation where we need to find the right word for the audience. I guess the word “mistress” just would not work in this title at all!! Means something very different to us than it did to our great-grandparents and beyond.

    1. It’s a real problem. When we say “lady” we usually don’t think it’s the feminine of “lord”, and when we say “mistress” we usually don’t think it’s the feminine of “master”.

      “Lady” and “mistress” often don’t convey the literal meaning anymore.

  3. Marg have you caught up with the teaching of submission in the afterlife. Here is a link to the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood’s website:

    1. I’ve just had a quick look. This statement caught my eye: “Most of us, after all, are quite comfortable with our gender . . .” This sentiment seems to be different from some other statements on their website which claim that there is widespread confusion and ambivalence about gender and about supposed gender roles.

      Also, the author’s idea that egalitarians believe in “functional equivalence” is confusing and incorrect.

      1. Marg it is a concern when you think that the Presbyterian Church of Victoria have very close ties to this group and the PCV Women’s Ministry sing their praises.

        1. I understand that some can interpret the Bible with the best of intentions and arrive at a patriarchal or hierarchical model for marriage, etc. But I believe that many of those on the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood write some pretty illogical stuff that just cannot be supported by scripture, even when interpreted with a masculinist bias.

          I don’t understand why Bible-believing churches can’t see through their guff.

          1. Marg, that answer is easy! Who was it that has messed up human relations from the very beginning! I believe that Satan got so mad when God looked at the man and the woman and said “This is very good,” that Satan has determined to do everything he can to ruin male/female relationships. Getting men to believe that they can prevent women from leadership in the church must have delighted the Enemy.

            Appearing again as an angel of light, in the form of many good teachers, Satan has managed to cloud the vision of so many on this subject. I believe it takes some real discernment to figure this one out, and most Christians pay no attention to the gift of discernment. They either deny it, don’t understand it, or get too focused on more fun and showy gifts. I’ve known for a very long time that it is one of my gifts, but my observations and warnings are dismissed quickly, I am defined as being a “murmurer,” and most fun of all, told that since I am a woman, I have no right to comment.

            Yes, I believe that Satan is 100% behind this. It ruins what God said was very good, makes the Church look foolish, robs the Church of some of its best resources and slows down the spread of the Gospel. What more could he want??

    2. I only read as much as I could stomach, which wasn’t much! Did Piper write this? They didn’t give any one person credit – or is it blame??!!

      A couple things went thru my head. 1. Isn’t almost much of anything said about what Heaven will be like pure subjectivity? 2. What did we expect? Since comps don’t believe that God created male and female as equals, why should they believe it about the afterlife?

      Then the ones that scare me: 3. Has the writer of that been reading too much Joseph Smith? It is getting too close to Mormon teaching about marriage to me. 4. This is the big one: WHAT DOES THIS SAY ABOUT SUBJECTION IN THE TRINITY?

      Jesus, save us.

      1. Hi Cassandra, hierarchical complementarians argue that they do believe that God created men and women as equal. Nevertheless they also believe that God has ordained that men have authority over women. Go figure.

        Your point 4 is indeed a shocker. The Bible nowhere asserts or implies that that the Trinity is some kind of model for marriage, or vice versa. I’ve written about this here.

        1. Don’t mean to stir up a hornets’ nest, but it was dealing with the idea of eternal submission of women and the eternal submission of the Son that made me realize that people really get whacked about the topic! I know what you mean about there not being a connection, but people sure do read that back into it. Dr. B has always had concerns about this.

          People get that whole head/body, Jesus/Church and male/female imagery so entangled that they can’t make good sense of it at all, esp the lay comps that I always seem to contend with. They start out with a couple bad interpretations and then create worse doctrine from it.

          Anything that subordinates Jesus eternally makes my alarms go off, and the eternal submission of women is often a warning.

          1. The way they use language and pat sayings makes it hard to have a sensible conversation with someone indoctrinated with a hierarchical complementaian ideology too.

  4. Oh wow this is such a great point, one I have never heard in all of my egalitarian reading over the years. Brilliant!

    Let me add that another inconsistency, even among more egalitarian evangelicals I know, is not realizing how our almost exclusive father nomenclature for God and our masculinization view of the Trinity also reflects the “paterfamilias” Greco-Roman norms which shaped the creeds and theological constructs that most of us take for granted. If we as egalitarians continue to depict God predominantly in masculine pronouns and names is it any wonder that authority is still seen as a masculine quality?

    1. I must admit that anything other than the masculine words for God don’t sit well on my ears. It doesn’t bother me in that I am familiar enough to know that words being feminine or masculine don’t have a darn thing to do with the thing for the most part. Ask a Roman sailor if he is feminine as the word navita is!

      I think it is important to not fall into the same trap that the ones who wants to turn God into a man. We can’t turn “Him” into a woman. I like to really stress to people that God is spirit and has no body, so how could “he” be male or female, or male and female. I think working with Mormons has sharpened me on that!

      1. interesting… all this work to create a more gender balanced world where men and women share in honor and authority (aka dominion) as image-bearers of God yet you are not open to seeing how the language we have inherited from patriarchal theologies #1 does damage to and limits the beautiful holistic mysterious Creator that we see manifesting in so many images and names in the Hebrew Scripture, many of which actually have a beautiful gender balance to them. and #2 how this almost exclusive patriarchal nomenclature that we use for God continues to reinforce on a subconscious attitude of male=authority. There are beautiful and very Biblical ways to vary the imagery and names we use for YHVH in a way that might trigger some yellow or red flags at first but actually might be expansive of people’s image of God. The easiest way to begin is to start by varying your speech to not use so many male pronouns. When this is done well, people don’t even know it at first. for example “You” can be used in worship songs instead of “He” and it is actually almost more worshipful because you are singing directly to God not referring to God in the third person. Very humbly, I do believe that this resistance so many evangelical egalitarians have to gender neutral language reveals how deeply rooted patriarchy is and how we ourselves want so much to belong to the evangelical club that we cannot go into this very sacred place within our hearts and minds where we image and name our Creator. For me personally in this stage of my life and spiritual journey, the masclinlized nomenclature for God feels so jarring and like an idol that people can’t see. With faith and deep trust, we can allow ourselves to let go of the comfortable patriarchal sacred cows that we have all inherited yet which do not do justice to our Creator or to ourselves as female human beings. Thanks for listening and for all you all do to create a more gender-balanced world. This domain of how we imagine and depict God is the invisible dimension of all of this work so many are doing because it shapes our psyches and subconscious ways of relating as male and female in the world.

        1. Please don’t misunderstand me. (I think I misunderstood you, sorry.) I do see the damage, immense damage, caused by masculine words that reinforce a subconscious attitude of male authority. Did you read any of the articles I linked to? I’ll link them again: here and especially here.

          Only an hour or two ago, I commented on someone’s facebook wall that the language of an “inspirational” quotation used masculine language unnecessarily, and I gave a more accurate translation of 1 Timothy 2:5 (which was part of the quotation): “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and humanity, the human being Christ Jesus.”

          All I was trying to say is that the masculine language of Bibles is due to the limitations of the original language, and a few other factors, and I can personally see past it, because it is not excessive, especially in the Greek. I have a very hard time seeing past it, in fact it makes me cringe every time, when masculine language is used excessively and unnecessarily in English translations.

          1. oh wow i just quickly perused those. love all that time and attention to highlight the feminine imagery of God in the bible. so beautiful. i guess i still just find this very sad that people like you who are doing this great work and know the damage that has been done both to the character of God (or our understanding of it!) and to the status and dignity of women cannot find the stomach to try a little harder to vary our language and pronouns.

            (“I always use masculine pronouns when referring to God, and I don’t plan on changing this custom. I have chosen to be content with the limitations of language on this issue.”) i am not meaning to be argumentative or attacking but I just think we all have to realize when we ourselves are becoming complicit in the problems that we are trying to ameliorate. you yourself might not have trouble overcoming the masculine bias of our churchy language but what about our daughters sitting in the pews (and our sons) who almost continuously hear people praying “Father God” “Dear Father” over and over again (this is what my church is like). Our children represent a new start to image God in a more gender-balanced way? language matters because it shapes our spiritual templates. and also be aware that there are people like me in the pews who are trying to hold onto christianity but at times wonder if right in its DNA it is so hopelessly patriarchal that maybe it is better to just find a path that is not so laden with dogma and traditions that are so hopelessly tied to a social order from the past that plain and simple is not congruent with contemporary values of a society based on a level playing field. i guess i just feel the inconsistence of egalitarians who are working so hard but are not willing to feel a little discomfort in editing our language to honor the fullness of our Creator. Here is an example i share of a beautiful way to hold the traditional trinitarian formula while also expanding beyond it. it is supposedly based on julian of norwich’s prayers and is being used in some churches as part of shifting to a language which is more honoring of the female half of the human family and the female side of the Godhead:

            “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God, Mother of us all”

            I heard this in a prayer at a lunch with many evangelicals in attendance and it was prayed by a male minister and guess what? no one complained. it was done so beautifully and from the heart and I think opened people’s hearts just a crack. where there is resistance sometimes this represents an opening to a deeper way of seeing the world and God.

          2. I hear what your saying, Emily. And I’ll think about it.

            I guess when I pray “Father God . . .” or hear these words, I don’t equate it with maleness, but I can understand that some, perhaps many, might.

    2. I also, don’t have a problem with masculine language used for God, keeping in mind the limitations of Hebrew, Greek, and English. I’ve written about masculine language and God here and here.

      Cassandra, Isn’t navita grammatically masculine?

  5. Part of the issue for me is that we need to keep God as a Person. When we use a neutral pronoun, we have a hard time relating to “it” as a person. Even with our pets, we need to know if it is a boy or a girl, and sometimes we even get a little miffed if someone gets it wrong. Considering that with most of our pets being neutered and not having any concept of “gender roles” or sexual issues, it makes me laugh when I hear myself doing that! And it is funny, that when I hear someone talking about a new baby and saying “It’s a girl,” it strikes me how odd that sounds. “It” has always been a girl!

    I am not telling anyone that they have to see things as I do. I do have a lot of trouble with the Father imagery of God, as my dad was a very poor representation of the Heavenly Father. I have also had male pronouns used against me. I do understand. I am just uncomfortable with substituting one error for another. I wish we could all learn to see God as “He” is. A Person with no gender. In our society, someone who claims to be genderless is usually written off as a freak, but it is God’s nature. I want to see “Him” as “He” is. I have no trouble with the clumsiness of human language, which is based on our understand of there only being pink people and blue people.

    I really feel like I want people to not get too hung up on things that only blur the image of God. I think we need to regain some of the feeling of God being “Wholly Other.” Even His very person is something else altogether. We all reflect His image – and what a huge God He is if we all do that! I am comfortable with the male pronouns, as I know He is not male or female. I don’t even like the idea that women reflect His feminine side while men reflect the masculine. That is again trying to force our notions on a God who is just too big!

    And Marg. I got to thinking about navita later, and you are write! But it sure does sound feminine! One of those fun words. I think Agricola and poeta are the same. Been a long time since I had Latin – Caesar taught the class!!

  6. I largely agree with this, but one reason I think comps tend to come back to Ephesians 5 as the strongest support is because there, unlike with the slaves/master & parent/child relationships, man/wife headship/submission is seemingly grounded in a deep and specifically Christian tenant: Jesus’ headship in and sacrifice for the church. They believe headship and submission stands on different ground. While slave/master relations can reasonably be said to be a concession to culture (a way to live Christian in even the most pagan institution), marriage is instituted by God and there in Eph. 5 we see an apparently clear design for Christian marriage. I don’t agree with where they go after that, but I’d love to hear your response. Thanks.

    1. Hi Daniel,

      The word “headship” is problematic. It’s not a word Paul uses, and it’s not a word the Greco-Romans used in regards to marriage. The Greco-Romans used words that clearly referred to authority and power when writing about the relationship of husbands towards their wives. (More on this here.) I know of no ancient Greek writer who call a husband the “head” of his wife apart from Paul.

      Here are some thoughts:

      In Ephesians 5, immediately after telling everyone (husbands and wives included) to be mutually submissive, Paul tells wives to be submissive to their husbands. But then he goes on to tell husbands what to do. Rather than reinforcing the traditional power of husbands, he tells husbands to give themselves up for their wives, to love their wives, to nurture their wives.

      Paul doesn’t confirm society’s understanding of the perks of being a man. He wants husbands to surrender these perks. Importantly, Paul never says, “Lead your wives.”

      Paul does refer to husbands as the “head” of their wives, with wives being the body. This is a metaphor of unity. Unity is a theme of Ephesians 5:21-33.

      It’s easy to see how people might think that “head” means the boss, especially as Jesus is also called the “head,” but Paul talks about sacrificial love, not leadership in Ephesians 5 (cf. Eph. 5:1-2) And, as you know, the Greek word for “head” had a different range of meanings to the English word for “head.”

      In the first century world there was usually (but not always*) an imbalance of power between husband and wife, parents and children, masters and slaves. But in the case of marriage, Paul tries to minimise this imbalance.

      *A wife who was from a family of a higher class than her husband did not have less power than her husband. It is entirely plausible that Priscilla was of a higher class than Aquila, and that is why her name is usually listed before her husband’s. She may have been freeborn, while Aquila may have been a slave at some point and then freed.

      Tertullian, who espoused traditional regulations in marriage, did not expect higher-born Christian women to be subordinate or submissive to lower-born husbands. More on this here.

      At the other end of the social scale, a slave woman who live in a de facto marriage with another slave (they couldn’t be legally married), was expected to obey her master and even have sex with him/her (or others) if asked by her master. Her master’s wishes could override her ability to submit (or be allied) to her husband.

      The household codes do not cover every scenario regarding husbands and wives in ancient society, and Ephesians 5 does not reinforce, but lessens, the power of a husband. However, there may be a sense of prominence in the word “head.”

      I’ve heard people say that marriage has been instituted by God so we need to look at the verses about marriage more “carefully” than verses about slavery or verses about submitting to governing authorities. But it’s fair to say that being a parent has been instituted by God (Gen 1:28a), and I know no Christian pastor in western society who insists grown children obey their parents. In the Bible there is no gender hierarchy between fathers and mothers. (More on this here.)

      Kindness and commonsense cannot be underestimated when interpreting and applying the Ephesians 5:21-33.

  7. On children obeying parents, I think there is some relevant info as I understand things today:

    1) The paterfamilias in Greco-Roman culture was the leader of the extended family in a way that is most closely like a mafia Godfather. He made final decisions without possibility of appeal for the extended family. However, this did not apply to Jewish culture, although elders were respected.

    2) In Eph 5, Paul is discussing a household’s members, this implies either a young dependent child or
    an older child living in the household.

    3) The head(s) of a household would expect obedience from any others residing in that household, this included adult children if they lived there.

    My conclusion is that I do not think Paul expected adult children to obey their parents in the way he expected young children to do so.

    Thoughts? Am I perhaps missing something?

    1. I’m not sure that Paul is concerned with the behaviour of very young children in Ephesians 5.

      There was not a real notion of “teenagers” in the ancient world, and boys and girls as young as 12 or 13 were often expected to behave as adults. I believe Paul is thinking of adult children, but some of these would have been as young as 12 or 13. I can’t prove my idea, however.

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