I recently heard of a wedding ceremony in which the pastor charged the couple with two tasks—for the bride: to be submissive to her husband, and for the groom: to lead as the head of the family. These are not unusual expectations for couples in conservative Evangelical churches. In fact, they have been considered normal marital obligations for men and women for the past two thousand years.

We find biblical texts supporting this hierarchical relationship in early church letters attributed to both the New Testament figures of Paul and Peter.

First, there is this in Paul’s letter to the Colossians (3:18–4:1):

Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.

Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord.

Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord . . .

Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

Second, there is a more elaborate version is found in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (5:21–6:9):

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her . . .  In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right . . .

And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ . . .

And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.

Finally, a third version is represented in the first letter of Peter (2:13–3:7):

For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution . . .

Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.

Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives . . .

Husbands, in the same way, show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honor to the woman as the weaker sex.

In these instructions, the expected ethical behavior is listed in pairs reflecting typical social relationships of the first century, addressing first the person who plays  a subordinate role and then the person of superior standing .  These injunctions maintain the traditional social hierarchy. Those in the inferior position are always urged to be obedient to the one whom society gives the upper hand.

In the nineteenth century, German biblical scholars labeled these parallel moral injunctions as the Haustafeln (household tablets), which are New Testament laws for everyday domestic relations. They were intended to imitate the typical social behaviors of the Roman and Jewish traditions in which the early church developed. Some scholars contend that they reflect similar admonitions by Greek Stoic philosophers who shaped the predominant Roman culture. In the past, many traditional scholars have argued that although these hierarchical relationships seem inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus, they were simply an attempt to accommodate the radical new faith to the cultural norms of the empire of Rome in the first and second centuries, so that Christians could blend in with their neighbors. But the followers of Jesus were never meant to blend in. Rather, they were to present an alternative lifestyle to the world. Continue reading