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.
Societies of the first century were clearly patriarchal. Men were deemed superior to their wives, their children, and their slaves. In fact, over the centuries wives, children, and slaves were all considered the property of the husband, father, and master. That is why in wedding ceremonies today the father “gives” the bride to the groom, a symbolic transfer of property from one male owner to another.
However, in another letter, Paul seems to subvert this orthodox social hierarchy. In Galatians 3:28 we read:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
This seems to indicate a radical equality of persons and relationships in the new Christian fellowships—not a hierarchy at all. All societal distinctions are to be removed in the community of Jesus’ followers.
So why would Paul propose one social behavior in one letter and then counter it in another? Well, the answer is most likely he did not. We are looking at the writings of two or more different writers who all claim to be Paul—some of whom want to subvert his message.
Recent biblical scholars, especially those of the Jesus Seminar, have proposed that some letters attributed to Paul are genuine while others are not. Some letters were fabricated in Paul’s name to create a counter message—a more conservative message—that called the communities of the early church to conform to the expected social norms of their non-Christian neighbors.
The New Testament attributes thirteen letters to Paul. However, we now have considerable consensus in modern scholarship that the three letters of First and Second Timothy and Titus were written in Paul’s name, but long after his death. When looking at the ten remaining letters, Jesus Seminar scholars have concluded that seven of these letters were genuinely from Paul (Romans, First and Second Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, First Thessalonians, and Philemon), while three others were probably not written by him at all (Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians). They label these three different groups of letters as by (1) the authentically radical Paul, (2) the conservative counter-Paul, and (3) the reactionary anti-Paul.
John Dominic Crossan says:
The problem is that those post-Pauline or Pseudo-Pauline letters are primarily counter-Pauline and anti-Pauline. What happens across those three sets of letters is that the radical Paul of the authentic seven letters (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon) is slowly but steadily morphed into the conservative Paul of the probably inauthentic threesome (Ephesians Colossians, 2 Thessalonians) and finally into the reactionary Paul of those certainly inauthentic ones (1-2 Timothy, Titus).
In other words, the letters of the authentic Paul have been de-radicalized, sanitized, and Romanized in the six inauthentic letters. His radical egalitarian views on slavery and patriarchy have been retrofitted into normal Roman cultural expectations.
In one of Paul’s genuine letters, he writes to an acquaintance called Philemon (fill-EE-mun). Paul recounts that he is sending a now-converted slave, Onesimus (Oh-NESS-ih-muhs), back to his owner Philemon with the message that one Christian simply cannot own another Christian. Paul asserts that Christians cannot be equals in the community of Christ while they are simultaneously unequal in their conventional social stations. Paul reminds Philemon “to do your duty,” to free Onesimus, and then Paul says to consider Onesimus:
No longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. (Philemon 1:8, 16)
Now whether Onesimus would be considered an unequal slave if he had not become a Christian is another question. But in this letter, we begin to see the authentic Paul’s mandate for complete equality in the Christian community—no longer slave or free, no longer male or female, no longer Jew or Greek. These distinctions no longer matter.
So, there goes the authenticity of the household codes in Colossians and Ephesians—both letters written in the name of Paul, but not authentic. They may have been included in the New Testament, but Paul did not write them. In addition, the first letter of Peter was written by someone in the early church, but most likely it was not by the illiterate fisherman who followed Jesus.
Wives, you are meant to be your husband’s equal. Husbands, you are meant to be an equal to your wives. Neither of you is to be in charge. Both of you are meant to share leadership. Both of you are to be equal partners. This is the good news of the egalitarian Christian community as proclaimed by Paul. Anything to the contrary is a dishonest misrepresentation of authentic first-century Christianity. Anything to the contrary is a clear contradiction to the liberating gospels of both Paul and Jesus.