Over the past two months, we’ve been working our way through the letter to the Ephesians. Today we come to the one of the most difficult, misinterpreted, and abused passages in all of the New Testament: the Household Code of Ephesians 5.21-6.9, which includes the infamous instructions for wives to submit to their husbands and for slaves to serve their masters with all their heart. To make matters even trickier, Paul grounds these instructions within the Christ-and-his-body metaphor that he’s developed throughout the letter, giving them a theological weight that is difficult to shake off. It’s hard for us in the twenty-first century to look at the Household Code and not see Paul as reinforcing unjust systems that perpetuate violence and abuse. But is this fair? And, how ought we to apply these ancient household codes today? Because this text has been so important, and because it has born such bad fruit in the world, it’s important to spend some significant time with it.
Today, I’ll look at the household code as a whole and offer a general assessment of what Paul is — and is not — doing with it. We’ll see that, while Paul is far from a political or social revolutionary, he is a spiritual revolutionary. He has big ideas that involve a radical reconception of human relationships. But when it comes to applying these theological big ideas, he stops short of allowing them to disrupt the external forms of social structures. I don’t think this is a matter of Paul having bad or unjust theology, but see the tensions between theology and real-world application as inherent to the now-but-not-yet ‘inaugurated eschatology’ within which Paul lived — and within which we live to this day: There will always be problems when we try to figure out how to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God while living within the kingdoms of ‘this world’.
First, let’s look at this long text. It’s customary for commentaries to break it down into separate sections, but I think it’s helpful to treat it as a whole:
(5.18b, 21) Be filled with the Holy Spirit … submitting to one another in the fear of Christ: (22) Wives, to your own husbands, as to the Lord, (23) since the husband is the head of the wife, just as Christ is the head of the Church — he being the saviour of his body. (24) So, as the Church submits itself to Christ, so wives are to do so to their husbands in everything.
(25) Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over on its behalf, (26) so that he might make it holy, purifying it with the washing of water in the word, (27) that he might present the Church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or anything else of the kind, but holy and spotless. (28) In this way must husbands also love their wives, as their own bodies: He who loves his wife loves himself, (29) for no one has ever hated his own flesh, but nurtures it and looks after it, just as Christ does the Church, (30) for we are parts of his body. (31) “For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother, and will joint together with his wife, the the two will become one flesh.” (32) This mystery is great — but I am speaking about Christ and the Church. (33) But each and every one of you will love his own wife in this manner, so that the wife might fear her husband.
(6.1) Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is just; (2) ”Honour your father and mother,” which is the first commandment attached to a promise: (3) “that it might go well with you and that you will have a long life upon the Earth.” (4) Parents, don’t provoke your children to anger, but nurture them, in rearing and instruction of the Lord.
(5) Slaves, obey your human masters with fear and trembling with singleness of heart, as you do Christ, (6) not just for the sake of appearances or people-pleasing, but as slaves of Christ performing God’s will — from the soul, (7) serving with goodwill, as to the Lord and not people, (8) knowing that whatever good one does will be paid back by the Lord, whether slave or free.(9) And masters, do the same for them, letting go of threats, knowing that their Lord and yours is in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.
So, in this section, we have Paul, under the broad heading of “submitting to one another in the fear of Christ,” providing specific sets of instructions to different groups within the household: first to wives and husbands, then to children and parents (or perhaps just fathers), and then to enslaved people and their masters. Paul tries (whether he succeeds or not is another question) to balance the need for radical change and the need for the maintenance of order, a balance which hits at the different sides of each relationship differently. There is a heavy burden to everyone, but it is not the same burden: the less powerful person in each pair bears the dangers of the status quo, the more powerful bears the weight and responsibility of change.
Today’s study will focus on the following questions:
- Before we look at Paul’s specific instructions to these groups, what has he already said to everyone in the Church?
- How does this household code fit in with others from the Ancient Mediterranean world?
- What would have been the impacts of this code on first-century households?
The Church in Ephesians
Paul grounds his household code here not in social norms (as he does in Titus and 1 Timothy), but in his understanding of the relationship between Christ and the Church. This means it has a theological justification that has traditionally given it a greater weight than it might have otherwise had. For example, it essentially equates wives’ submission to their husbands with their submission to God! But, this is far from all that Paul has to say about Christ and the Church in Ephesians. So let’s remind ourselves of this bigger picture. God says of everyone in the Church that:
- God has ‘blessed’, ‘chosen’, ‘adopted’, ‘redeemed,’ ‘forgiven,’ and ‘lavished grace upon’ the faithful, who are the Church, in Christ (1.3-8)
- God has placed all spiritual powers that threaten the Church ‘under Christ’s feet’ (1.20-22)
- Christ is the head of the Church, which is his body (1.22-23)
- God has raised and glorified the faithful with Christ (2.4-6)
- The Church is the community in which ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ are reconciled in Christ (2.11-16)
- God has given power to the faithful in the Church, which manifests God’s glory as Christ does (3.18-21)
- God calls everyone in the Church to grow up into the fullness of Christ (4.13-16)
- Each person in the Church has a role to play in its health and wellbeing (4.16)
- God renews the minds of the faithful, enabling them to see the world clearly (4.23)
- The faithful are exhorted to imitate God’s love as manifested in Christ’s life and death (5.1-2), to live as ‘children of the light’ (5.8), and to be filled with the Spirit (2.18), which involves submitting to one another (5.21).
Adding to this list, the description of Christ and the Church in the Household Code says that:
- The Church is the body of Christ, and his ‘flesh and bones’ (5.23, 30, cf. 1.22-23)
- The Church is loved by Christ (5.24, cf. 5.29)
- Christ gave himself for the Church, which is ‘sanctified’ and ‘cleansed’ through baptism into Christ, and is therefore ‘honoured,’ ‘holy’, and ‘spotless (5.25-27)
This is quite the picture! One important consideration that is often absent from discussions of the household code — and especially how Paul utilizes the Christ-and-his-body metaphor within it — is that in the broader picture, all of the Church, male and female alike, is called to grow up into everything that Christ is. Yes, there is a hierarchy here, but it is not a hierarchy of power or domination: Christ’s whole goal and purpose is for us to grow into everything that he was and is, irrespective of our gender, age, ethnicity, class or citizenship status. We are all called to be ‘christs’ to one another; we are all also called to ‘submit’ to one another, as the Church submits to Christ. In a sense, then, even if we follow Paul’s instructions about husbands and wives to the letter, every single one of us ends up playing both the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ roles in our relationships! To put this into more contemporary psychological language, we might say that Christlikeness involves integrating both masculine and feminine archetypes so that we might become whole and healthy.
This is once again lofty theology, but the question remains of how it is to be applied in the nitty-gritty of human life and relationships. The interpretation that I’ll be following is that Paul does not attack the basic structures of the household, but he does radically change how power is to be manifested within them. So let’s now look at household codes in general and what was expected of people in the six groups Paul addresses.
Household codes in the New Testament occupy a bit of a grey area in terms of their connection to existing forms within Greco-Roman philosophy and literature.* The ancients certainly had a lot to say about all of the relationships within the household, and this material tended to be stereotypical and boilerplate, yet we can find no exact complement to what we have in the New Testament (here, in Colossians, 1 Peter, and Titus 2.1-10, and to a lesser degree, 1 Timothy 6.12 (which only addresses slaves)). The closest analogy — indeed the only place where the six groups Paul addresses are discussed in this fashion — comes from Aristotle (Politics 1.1235b.1-14). Generally speaking, Greco-Roman codes only addressed free men and only discussed the appropriate behaviours for wives, children, and slaves within his household. Essentially, we have a household lord (kyrios, ‘lord’, ‘master’, ‘head of house’) or paterfamilias (’father, ‘head of household’) in the Roman tradition, who had power over and was responsible for the behaviours of those under him. Feminist scholars (most notably Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza) have dubbed this system of power based on the domination by masters ‘kyriarchy’. And it’s an apt term. Against this backdrop, Paul’s habit of addressing each group in the household, recognizing even the least powerful as “independent moral agents” (Arnold), stands out as a unique and important characteristic of Christian teaching. More surprising yet, Paul lists responsibilities and a code of conduct for the kyriarchs (husbands, fathers, and slaveholders) and not just those in their power. This would have been shocking to anyone familiar with the operation of Greco-Roman households; the head of the household was generally understood to function as a little emperor over his own domain, free to do whatever he pleased. But that is not what we have here.
Let’s turn to the code itself to see how this plays out.
Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands. This would have not been a new teaching, but a reinforcement of the status quo for most (thought not all) of the original audience. Both Plutarch (from a Gentile perspective) and Philo (from a Jewish perspective), who were both near contemporaries of Paul, had similar things to say: “Women are to be praised if they subordinate themselves to their husbands” (Plutarch, Praecepta Conjugalia 33; cf. Philo, Hypothetica 7.3). What is new is the theological justification: as Christ is the head of the Church, so is the husband the head of his wife. We can look at this in two ways: either this provides a theological scaffolding that strengthens the existing hierarchy, or, it could allow wives a theological lens through which they were able to reframe their experience of a socially mandated role. Both of these have been true throughout history — often at the same time. But, there is no way to know which, if either, Paul intended. (Paul himself did such a theological framing for his own unhappy circumstances in chapter 3, so it isn’t out of the question that this might have been his primary aim here.)
What is absolutely not the status quo is the instructions to husbands. Not only does Paul actually make demands upon heads of households here, but they are three times as long as (nine whole verses!), and given a far more extensive theological justification than, the instructions for wives. As Klyne Snodgrass points out, if one party in a relationship is told to ‘submit’ to the other, you’d expect the other party to be told to ‘rule’ or ‘govern’. But this is not what we find here. Husbands are told to love their wives “just as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over on its behalf.” This is a tall order — to live and love as Christ did is the ultimate call of every Christian, and here Paul makes it the basis of a husband’s legal and moral authority. In place of the general free rein husbands were understood to have in Greco-Roman society, here they are placed under very tight reins indeed. There is no room for domination or self-interest whatsoever in Paul’s instructions. While to our ears, the command to ‘love’ sounds weak in comparison to the command to ‘submit’, when love is “spelled out concretely in terms of self-surrender, sacrifice, and holy design” (Martin), we have to leave our sentimental connotations aside and appreciate the true nature of the demands being placed upon husbands in this text.
While the instructions for children, parents, enslaved persons, and slaveholders are shorter (these four groups are given the same amount of space altogether as Paul gave to husbands alone!), the same pattern emerges. The group without power or authority is given a theological justification/framing for their life within the status quo, while the group with power is told to radically reassess their exercise of their legal authority. Almost by definition, children and slaves had no rights in the ancient world, and were completely at the mercy of those with authority over them. Among the Jewish community, Philo wrote that “Parents… are to their children what God is to the world” (Special Legislation 2.225); and Josephus, “Honour to parents the Law ranks second only to honour to God” (Against Apion 2.206). The Deuterocanonical book known as Ben Sirach (traditionally called ‘Ecclesiasticus’), provides these instructions to fathers: “A father who loves his son will whip him and beat him often …. A father should not pamper his son, play with him, or share in his laughter” (30.1, 7-10). The situation in Gentile cultures was similar. As Snodgrass summarizes it:
The power of fathers was almost unlimited in the Greco-Roman world. They determined whether a newborn baby had the right to live or die, and many baby girls in particular were abandoned to die. Fathers could and did sell their children, especially girls, into slavery. They could punish them as harshly as they wished, work them hard, or even put them to death. Public opinion served as restraints and real family love was common, but the abuses are chronicled.
So, Paul’s suggestion that parents — and especially fathers — have a duty toward the feelings of their children is pretty shocking in this context.
The same dynamic plays out for slaves and masters. Slaves are told, essentially, to double down on their servitude, acting like their service to their masters is equivalent to service to God, in the belief that whatever good we do will be repaid. But, in a shocking turn of phrase, masters are told to “do the same for them,” in light of their shared heavenly master who shows no partiality and will judge them alike. The very idea of slavery is shocking to our sensibilities (though, the numbers on human trafficking suggest there are perhaps more slaves in the world than ever, even if slavery is illegal). It’s safe to say that a huge majority of Christians, even those who agree on little else, would wish the New Testament’s teaching against it was stronger. But slavery was not only the norm in the first century Mediterranean world, but also the basis on which everything run. The idea of abolition would seem to an average person in the Roman Empire like the way de-electrification would seem to us. Even as so many of us today recognize that our energy demands are unsustainable, destructive, and immoral, we simply cannot conceive of how life would work differently. This is not to defend the ancient world, and ancient Christianity, on this front, but to provide context for what seems to us to be a surprising and disappointing acceptance of slavery. But what Paul does do is insist that slaveholders recognize that any distinction between them and the enslaved people in their household is temporary and functional, not essential or in any way meaningful before God. As problematic as the book of Philemon — in which Paul sends an escaped slave named Onesimus back to his master — may be, Paul goes so far there as to tell Philemon to receive Onesimus back “as a brother,” and to welcome him as he’d receive Paul himself (Philemon 16-17). In a world where enslaved persons were often treated as ‘things’, Paul wants them treated ‘as brothers’; that is far from nothing.
Summary and Assessment
So then, the household code in Ephesians tries to strike an awkward balance between not upsetting the cultural order, while still revolutionizing the relationships within it. Paul does not want to ‘smash the kyriarchy’, to co-opt one of our own contemporary expressions. But he does want to transform it to the extent that it is de-fanged and declawed, and rendered unrecognizable. We might bristle at the idea of a wife being commanded to submit to her husband, but that command takes on a very different tone if that husband truly loves her as Christ loves the Church, that is: self-sacrificially living for her physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing and doing all in his power to help her to grow into her fullest potential as one who bears the image and likeness of God. And the same goes for the other relationships the code covers. There is no doubt that Paul attempts to resolve the theological tension between the ‘now’ of life in the world and the ‘not yet’ of the fullest expression of the Kingdom of God by keeping the externals of ‘this world’s’ power structures ‘as is’, but reinterpreting how they work internally through the Kingdom’s understanding of power as humble service, made perfect in weakness.
All this is well and good. And many commentaries are happy to end here, feeling they’ve absolved the text of the criticisms and controversies surrounding it. But we cannot deny that this text has historically been interpreted and applied in ways that have perpetuated injustice and, let’s be completely honest here, spilled a lot of blood and cost thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of lives over the centuries. And so, I don’t want to let the text ‘off the hook’. In the next post, I want to give ear to those who have challenged the household codes as being too great a concession to ‘this’ world.