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Husband-gods not wanted, not needed

Ephesians 5:22, “Wives [submit] to your husbands as to the Lord,” has long been the go-to soundbite for those who preach the subordination of women in Christian marriage. Egalitarians have put considerable time and effort into arguing that this verse doesn’t really teach marital hierarchy, and while my brothers and sisters in Christ make a lot of excellent points,[1] on the whole, I tend to disagree. I think Paul does endorse a hierarchy here, albeit a soft and self-sacrificing one, not the self-serving and hypocritical John Piper man-god nonsense so many “recovering biblical genderhood” Christians endorse and promote. I also think it is very clear that the household code promoted by Paul in Ephesians 5:21 – 6:9 (and repeated in truncated form in Colossians 3:18-25) would be a disaster if applied to our day and age.

Anybody who knows basic Roman history will recognize that, throughout Ephesians 5:21 – 6:9, Paul is alluding to the Roman concept of the paterfamilias, wherein the [male] “master of the household” had “power . . . within the family [that] was almost absolute, unlimited by the state or any other organization outside of the familia unless [the paterfamilias] was demonstrably insane or mentally incompetent.” The paterfamilias was “the legal owner of all family property,” the only one who could “loan, mortgage, or sell [property] or engage in contracts,” and “the source of law within the family . . . his orders . . . recognized by the state as having the force of law.” More direly for the other members of the household, the paterfamilias was the sole “judge of the household, and his rulings normally could not be set aside by any external authority, even though he might kill, mutilate, expel, or give into bondage his sons or housemates, and though he might break or dispose of the household property.” As for women, they were “always subject to the power of some adult male.” [2] 

The Romans were wary of religions that promoted anarchy and challenged widely-held cultural mores like the paterfamilias code. A Christianity that disregarded the paterfamilias code entirely would have been viewed as even more suspect than it already was. What Paul does with the the paterfamilias code is affirm it and then soften it and (to some extent) subvert it with his call to loving self-sacrifice on the part of the paterfamilias. While the paterfamilias code was never meant to make a man into a despot and a tyrant, there was little redress available when a man abused his family, and love for the members of one’s household was an option, not an order. Self-sacrifice was unheard of. Why would the most important person in the household ever lay down his life for the less important people, like the wife? Indeed, one of the great mysteries of Christianity is that its God and king died to save the lowliest of people, not the other way around. For Paul to embrace and baptize the paterfamilias code in a Christian light was an act of Christian accommodation to a hard-hearted culture whose ways were not God’s ways, similar to Moses’ accommodation for divorce (Matthew 19:8).

At the end of the day, I think Paul is affirming at least some kind of hierarchy in the home. As I said earlier though: it’s apparent from even a cursory reading of the entire passage that to uphold Paul’s Christian paterfamilias code as applicable to all households across all times and situations would be (and has been) disastrous. Deep down, those who are most fond of citing Ephesians 5:22 actually know this. That’s why they never cite the end of the very same household code, which goes like this:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him. (Ephesians 6:5-9, NIV)

“Hey wait a second, if you get an Ephesians 5 wife, why can’t I have an Ephesians 6 slave?”

Derpy_hooves_shrug_gifSlavery is one of the few human rights issues that has undergone a remarkable metamorphosis from near-universal toleration and acceptance to widespread censure and condemnation. The intellectuals of our day and age have little need to make a case for the evils of slavery; it is simply a given, on the same level of reproach as the evils of the Holocaust or the evils of child labor. However, it was only a century and a half ago that slavery was alive and thriving in our nation, and the remarkable thing about that is that the men and women who practiced it were anything but evil. A good deal of them were devout, believing Christians who proudly touted passages such as Ephesians 6:5-9 in their apologetics for continuing the practice of slavery. [3]

Most pro-male-headship Christians are loathe to come out as pro-slavery, so they reach for other excuses for why Ephesians 5:22 is binding and eternal but Ephesians 6:5 can be safely disregarded. Some say Ephesians 6:5 is still in effect, but it applies to the employer-employee relationship rather than the master-slave relationship. As someone gearing up for a career in human resources, I find that argument patently absurd. Certain types of employees may at times feel like slaves, but they have a good deal of legal protections and redresses against their employers that have been almost entirely unavailable to slaves versus masters in almost any system of slavery in human history. For example, your employer can’t order you disclose the contents of your personal diary—even if you keep it in your work locker—or retaliate against you for refusing such an order, and s/he would be vulnerable to a lawsuit from you if s/he tried to do that. Furthermore, every state in the United States (except for Montana) [4]  practices what’s known as “at-will” employment. You’re free to walk away at any time. That’s hardly ever been true of slavery, and was certainly not true of slavery as practiced by the Romans. In any case, today’s employee-employer relationships are less about master-slaves and more about a symbiotic relationship between legal equals. Each party is getting something from the other, and believe it or not, while employees may feel disposable, employers are usually loathe to get rid of employees because hiring and training new employees is really expensive. While there is hierarchy, there is freedom to exit the relationship, there is no expectation of blind obedience in all things, and there are many options for legal redress when employers abuse their employees.

Even if we allow for Ephesians 6:5-9 to be transferred to other types of relationships, the fact remains that slavery is still practiced illegally in many countries today. Should the Christians in the 8% of Mauritania that lives as slaves obey their masters? What about a woman who has been sold into an illegal sex slave ring in Europe? Should she obey her masters and not seek her freedom?

Some might reply that European sex slavery bears little in common with slavery as practiced by the Romans, so of course Eph. 6:5 does not apply equally to both situations, and they would be right. But in making such an argument to discard application of Eph. 6:5, they supply the very same hermeneutic that egalitarians use to discard application of Eph. 5:22 to modern-day marriages (!). Marriage today bears little in common with the Roman paterfamilias system. Women are legal equals to men who can own and sell property, draw up contracts, execute mortgages, or dispose of household belongings. Divorce can be initiated relatively simply and freely, and a woman does not require a man to be legally responsible for her at all times. If a man abuses a woman and violates his marriage covenants, she can walk away.

Roman culture made men gods in their own homes, so Paul took this and ordered men to be not like the tyrannical and despotic gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon, but like the self-sacrificing and loving God of Christianity, men who should give of themselves for their wives like Christ gave of himself for the church. Recognizing that a woman’s husband had almost complete legal power over her, he called women to submission to their husbands in deference to the wider Roman code. In our day and age, men are not gods in their own homes, and they never will be (yes, I realize that’s a huge disappointment to some, but it’s Gospel truth!). Men do not need to be bound in love nor women bound in respect and submission. Rather, if either party is unloving or disrespectful, the other party may, by law, walk away. As such, love, respect, and submission should be mutually and voluntarily practiced by both parties.

When God created male and female, they were equally commanded to have dominion over everything around them, and God called this “good” (Gen. 1:27-29). Let marriage in the Christian household be as God created it from the beginning.

[1] See, for examples, Glenn Miller, “Does God Command Wives to Obey Husbands?,” and the CBE Statement on Men, Women and Biblical Equality.

[2] Allen M. Ward, Fritz M. Heichelheim, Cedric A. Yeo, A History of the Roman People: Third Edition (Upper Saddle River, N. J.: Prentice Hall, 1999), 37.

[3] I am engaging in a bit of self-plagiarism here. See my review of The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview by the Genoveses.

[4] Montana’s laws in this regard are complicated, but it’s hardly comparable to slavery even there. Employers and employees just need more reasons to break an employment contract.

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