Posted in Mutuality

Mutual Marriage: Paul the subversive (Ephesians 5-6)

photo credit: Saint Paul via photopin (license)

photo credit: Saint Paul via photopin (license)

There are so many ways in which our modern society blinds us to what is really going on in scripture. Our culture is so very different from the culture in which the biblical authors wrote. Too often we project modern ideas onto biblical topics and end up drawing improper conclusions. The apostle Paul, for instance, is too often labeled as a sexist and a misogynist because people misunderstand not just what he wrote, but why he wrote it. When understood in the context of his culture and audience, Paul was extremely progressive.

Now we should begin by examining everything in its fewest possible elements; and the first and fewest possible parts of a family are master and slave, husband and wife, father and children. We have therefore to consider what each of these three relations is and ought to be…

The city of Ephesus was one of the largest and most influential cities in the Roman empire. The code of conduct within proper households was first defined by Aristotle and then refined for centuries until it became the basis of Greco-Roman family life. Those household codes defined a strict hierarchy between husband and wife, master and slave, and father and children. This was the universal definition of how a household should be structured in the Roman empire. Comparing Paul’s discussion in Ephesians 5-6 to Aristotle’s philosophy, it becomes clear that Paul is providing a Christian perspective on these standard household codes.

Paul’s definition of these roles, however, is strikingly different from the Roman definition or even from the Jewish traditions of his day. Roman household codes generally made no demands on the husband/master to be kind to their subordinates, let alone loving. In contrast, household members were more property than person. Yet Paul instructs husbands to sacrificially love their wives, to not exasperate their children, and to treat their slaves well. This was radical and without precedent. He dramatically softened the hierarchical relationships that his readers understood to be normal. Paul’s words did not enshrine the rights and authority of men. Quite the contrary, his words gave dignity and hope to those without power and greatly constrained the use of power by those who had it, namely husbands/masters.

The early church likely would have encountered considerably more resistance within the Roman empire had Paul tried to overturn basic building blocks of Roman society like hierarchy and slavery. In Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus records incidents where cults or religious groups who were perceived to be corrupting Roman women were brutally crushed. Paul was perfectly willing to be confrontational when the Gospel was at stake, but also seemed perfectly willing to restrain himself from confrontation when the Gospel was not at stake. (Note his restraint in Acts 16, and the result when his restraint found its limit.) Here in the letter to the Ephesians, Paul seems to choose the latter and encourages Christians to make the best of the societal systems in which they live.

Paul calls on wives to “submit” to their husbands (many of whom were quite possibly not yet believers) and for slaves to “obey” their masters so that Christians would have a good reputation within their society. Paul wants believers to be well thought of by unbelievers, as he expresses in Colossians 4, so that the Gospel will be well heard. In fact, the entire discussion in Ephesians 5 is prefaced with a warning about living wisely so as to make the most of their opportunities. So here Paul calls on wives and slaves to conform to societal norms while calling on husbands/masters not to conform to societal norms. Rather than calling for a revolution by those without power, Paul encourages transformation by those with power.

This desire for transformation is seen most clearly in Paul’s approach to slavery. Instead of trying to immediately overturn the institution of slavery, Paul sought to gently move society toward God’s higher standard through the influence of the church. Paul’s letter to Philemon shows this intention most clearly. We have seen that transformation continue throughout history when it comes to the topic of slavery. Why have we not seen that same degree of transformation in the relationship between husbands and wives in the church? If Paul’s command for wives to “submit” was intended to give the church a good reputation within Roman society, how should we structure our marriages to achieve that same goal today?

What do you think? Do you see wisdom in Paul’s careful handling of the Greco-Roman household codes?

Further study:
Junia is Not Alone by Scot McKnight
Paul, Women and Wives, Craig Keener

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About Bob Mitton

Bob Mitton is an application development manager and teaching pastor at Central Church (Madison Heights, Michigan). He is co-founder of Permanent Passionate Partnership.