Was Paul faithlessly capitulating to the social norms of his day?
Was Paul really a supporter of subjugating women in the home?
Was Peter again reverting to his old ways when he offers commands to wives?
Were these stalwarts of the faith hopelessly captive to their culture?
This is often how we react when it comes to reading the so-called “Household Codes” (Haustafeln) in the New Testament (Col. 3:18-4:1; Eph. 5:22-6:9; 1 Pet. 3:1-7)
Text, Terrain, Trajectory
But whenever we read Scripture, especially thorny passages like those above we have to read the text within its terrain and look for its trajectory. In other words, the biblical text is always written within a certain cultural terrain, and if offers a specific theological trajectory.
When we look at the household codes in Paul and Peter keeping in mind the text, terrain, and trajectory we notice something important: they bring down the Gospel hammer on those in power.
In Eph 5:22-6:9 (which is mirrored in Col. 3:18-4:1) we see what would be typical commands to women (submit) , children (obey), and slaves (obey). In Paul’s immediate culture (Jewish) and his extended context (Roman) this is so utter predictable that many feel that he has lost the gospel, the kingdom, the way of Christ.The same is true for Peter in 1 Pet. 3:1-7.
In Jewish and Roman culture it is utterly expected that women, children, and slaves would be subordinate. So what gives? Has the cultural terrain corrupted the biblical text? Why aren’t they preaching freedom for the oppressed and powerless the way Jesus did?
Well hold on. What trajectory do these texts offer. Does these text completely track with the surrounding terrain, or do they veer off.
Well, what do Paul and Peter have to say to those in power? (Hint: this is where the gospel hammer comes down).
- While women are called to submit, men are called to love like Jesus (to die for her) (Eph. 5: 25). The standard is much stricter for the men. Peter even adds that if husbands don’t use their power for the benefit of the “weaker vessel” then their prayers will be hinders (1 Pet. 3:7). In other words, husband will lose their connection with God based on how they love their wives.
- While children are called to obey their fathers, father’s are called to “not to provoke their children”. What? In Paul and Peter’s cultural framework (their terrain) fathers had complete rule over their kids so much that they were almost non-person to the society at large. Father’s in Rome could kill their own sons without punishment if they wanted. But here Paul urges gentleness with them.
- While slaves of course were called to obey, masters were called to be just and fair because both the master and the slave had a “Master in heaven” (Col. 4:1) who bears no partiality (Eph. 6:9). Paul is effecting a radical leveling between slave and master, a leveling that comes with a threat against the masters (just like had been done with husbands).
Certainly we might hope for more from Paul and Peter, that they would have directly attacked all inequality head on, but perhaps that says more about us than them.
Rather than labeling them as cultural sell-outs, might we, when we look at the theological trajectory they set within their cultural terrain, think they were being savvy and shrewd knowing that in order to change institutional inequality that those in power much be directly challenged to change their ways, conforming them to Christ.
When we look at the text within its terrain and following its trajectory, we find that these passages are proclaim a rather “un-household code” to follow and asks us to examine the relationships of power in our lives and whether those threats might be falling on us.
These and other topics will be discussed at the up-coming Ecclesia National Gathering on “Bring the Word to Life” with William Webb, Scot McKnight, Al Tizon, Mandy Smith, and David Fitch. Register Now.