Yesterday I wrote that the complementarian, higher critical, and egalitarian perspectives on the household codes do not quite get it right. It is my position that advocates of these views come to the text with a question: What is the power relationship between men and women in marriage? It is assumed that these codes were written to answer these questions. I do not think that was the case. Before we dive into the relevant passages in the Bible, we must ask why did the authors include these codes in their letters?
There are two terms frequently use as antonyms of each other in discussions about household relationships: Patriarchy and Egalitarianism. This is a false dichotomy. As Scott Bartchy has observed, “patriarchy” comes from the semantic world of kinship relations. “Egalitarian” comes from the semantic world of politics. Patriarchy deals with family relationships. It is possible to imagine patriarchal societies where power and domination are absent from societal relationships. However, in the Greco-Roman world, everything was about status and domination. It was not just about men dominating their wives, children, and slaves. It was also about dominating as many other men as possible. (I will not repeat all that I wrote earlier but you might want to review patronage and status.) While wealth is the marker of success in our day, status (measured by how many people you could dominate) was the measure of success in the Greco-Roman world. Thus, patriarchy was infused with this obsession for status and domination, but so were business, politics, and everything else.
The opposite of patriarchy, as Bartchy notes, is not egalitarian anarchy (or cooperation.) It is non-patriarchy, for which we are lacking an appropriate term. Furthermore, the antithesis of egalitarian is not patriarchy but rather monarchy, oligarchy, or despotism.
It is my position that the institution of patriarchy was not on the agenda of Jesus, Paul, or the other New Testament writers. They were neither advocating for patriarchy’s abolition nor making a defense for its perpetuation, any more than you make or I would make a case for the abolition of gravity or for its perpetuation. Patriarchy, like gravity, was a given. What Jesus and the New Testament authors were attacking was the obsession with status and domination. Their response to this obsession would have dramatic implications for patriarchy but their agenda was not patriarchy as an institution.
Jesus and the New Testament writers were very status conscious but they envisioned an inversion of status. Martin Luther King, Jr., once preached a sermon called “The Drum Major Instinct.” His text was Mark 10:35-45 where James and John asked to be seated on either side of Jesus (i.e., positions of power) when Jesus comes into glory. King points out something about Jesus’ response. Jesus does not rebuke them! He does not dissuade them from seeking high status. “You want to be out front leading the band? Go for it!” says Jesus. Here is how Jesus told them they could achieve their goal:
42 So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." (Mark 10:42-45, NRSV)
The way to the top is by going to the bottom.
As we look at these household codes in context, they are actually quite missional. Keep in mind the state of the Roman Empire in the mid-first century. Pax Romona had been established but there was considerable unease among the ruling classes. The traditional Roman gods were losing adherents and Eastern religions like the Isis cult were popping up everywhere. Some of these religions had notions that leaned toward “unnatural” human equality and away from the status/patronage system so elemental to the Empire. Restrictions had to be placed on the frequency of slave manumission. Women were exercising more freedom. Movements and people that seemed to instigate these disturbing developments were viewed with great suspicion by traditionalists and the powerful.
It is in this context that the Jewish sect of Christianity appeared where people worshiped a shameful character from Palestine who had been crucified by the Empire. Yet these folks refused to worship any of the Roman gods. This sect consisted of men and women, free people and slaves, people of differing status, all worshiping together. Furthermore, these communities had people of different ethnic groups meeting together. It is hard to overstate how bizarre this was for many Romans. It just wasn’t natural. Christians were a threat to the Empire just by being who they were. Many in the Empire were deeply suspicious.
One can see the impact other-centered love would have had on dominating status arrangements. It would mean considerable freedom for those traditionally on the short end of the status stick. The natural inclination would be to live freely as one unconstrained by the dictates of the Greco-Roman world. But think how this would have been interpreted by Greco-Roman society in light of the realities I just described. It would discredit the Church as destructive of society and thwart the mission of giving witness to God’s work in the world. What we see in the household code passages is that freedom is not freedom for autonomy. Rather freedom is for us to be able to fully choose God’s mission of our own volition. If that mission means limiting personal freedom and power for the advancement of the mission of God, then so be it. Freedom is not self-limited for the sake of preserving society nor is it limited as a response to some notion of authority and submission in a divinely ordained hierarchy. It is a missional imperative.
I do not believe the New Testament household codes articulate a culturally transcendent ordering of the family and household. I do not think the household codes are a departure from earlier teaching by later authors. I also reject the idea that the objective of these codes was to equalize the decision-making authority between husbands and wives. Their objective was to exhibit the new creation ethos of the coming kingdom without creating needless obstacles to hearing the good news. These household codes gave instruction about appropriate relational attitudes among members of temporal households who were siblings in the Household of God, responding to God's mission in the world.
We will turn now to the New Testament household codes and look at them with this background.