The Household Codes of Ephesians 5.21-6.9 under the Microscope

The last post in this series on Ephesians looked at the controversial Household Code in 5.21-6.9. We saw there that, while Paul was unquestionably a spiritual revolutionary, he was very cautious — we might say conservative — in how he applied that spirit to the social structures of the first century Mediterranean world. He attempted to resolve the ‘now-but-not-yet’ tension inherent in Christianity by upholding ‘this world’s’ power structures, while completely redefining how power worked within them. The ‘kyriarchical’ system of wives submitting to husbands, children being obedient to parents, and enslaved persons serving slaveholders is maintained on the outside, but also radically altered from within by requiring husbands to give themselves self-sacrificially for the wellbeing and growth of their wives, requiring parents to concern themselves with the feelings of their children, and insisting that slaveholders treat those in their power as beloved siblings rather than resources to use as they see fit.

Taking an ‘objective,’ ‘theologically distanced’ point of view, we might say that this strikes a good balance of stability and change, and removes the possibility of abuse and violence from these relationships, while preventing the budding Christian movement from being seen as a threat to social order. But, as they say, neutrality is taking sides with the powerful. Insisting on only seeing the positive consequences of the Household Codes is idealistic, and naively forgets that human power structures are resilient and resistant to change. While Paul places the burden on the powerful to change their behaviours, it is still the powerless who bear the burden if change doesn’t happen and the powers-that-be are not held accountable by the community. And if they are obedient to the letter of the text, those who are socially disempowered also have no recourse to remove themselves from such dangerous circumstances. There is no doubt that these verses have been used to perpetuate unjust and abusive situations, both throughout history, and to this day. This is a text with blood on its hands.

Today I’d like to provide some space to this problem. It is far from a secondary or unimportant concern and we would do well to spend more time ensuring our Scriptures are not used to prop up oppressive systems and less time defending them from the charge that they do.

For better or for worse, here and elsewhere, the New Testament threw its lot in with existing social structures, not because those structures are in any way holy or representative of the values of the Kingdom of God, but because Christians were living in a world where they were powerless to change how things worked. Let us remember that Jesus, Peter, and Paul were all from a despised religious and ethnic minority based in a backwater province of a violent empire. It makes sense that their focus was not on changing what was far beyond their scope of control, but rather on what they and their followers could control: how they related to those systems of power in their hearts, minds, and souls.

In the case of the Ephesians Household Code, those on the bottom of the power ladder were encouraged to sit tight and provided with ways of understanding and re-framing their conditions in life in a way that turned them into modes of worship and religious service to God. Before we rush in and criticize Paul too much for this (though I think there is certainly room for criticism, knowing what we know now), let’s remember that he wrote these words from prison and had similarly re-framed his own condition through the eyes of faith in chapter 3. But even if he was trying to provide the faithful with a way of understanding their existence on the bottom rungs of the social ladder that empowered them by framing it within a theological vision, rather than trying to provide theological justification for essentially unjust systems, it remains that in doing this, he also provided those on the top of the power structures with a weapon to be used against the powerless to keep them obedient and submissive.

While Paul told those without power or legal autonomy to stay the course, we also have to acknowledge that he sought to dramatically improve their lives, safety, and security, by changing how the powerful understood, exercised, and related to their power: through the lens of Christ’s humble, self-giving, and other-empowering love. So we can’t say that Paul doesn’t care about those on the bottom of the world’s power structures. If we apply his thought to our cultural conversations today, we might even applaud him for making the powerful ‘do the work’, rather than putting the onus on those already marginalized to do the heavy lifting of reconciliation. This is right; this is appropriate. Just as it’s not up to Black folk to ‘fix’ anti-Black racism, it can’t be up to legally disempowered wives and enslaved people to ‘fix’ their oppression. But, and this is where we must not like the text off the hook too easily, Paul’s instructions still leave those with power with all the power, and those already endangered by the power dynamics with all the danger. And even where the text is itself ‘innocent’, its reckless handling of language (’submit’ being contrasted with ‘love’ rather than the mutual submission called for in the introductory verse), and analogies (wives’ submission and even fear, and slaves’ obedience being understood “as to the Lord”) has opened the door to bad interpretations and even worse applications.

I don’t want to go too deeply into the negative consequences this text has had. If you’re interested, I’d suggest Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s commentary, which frames the whole book through this passage and also includes short essays from contributors around the world outlining the ways the Household Code continues to bear bad fruit for women in their contexts.* Klyne Snodgrass’s commentary also does an admirable job in discussing how the text has been used to perpetuate violence against women and children.

What I’d like to focus on instead is how this problem is consistent with a general one-sidedness in traditional Christian thought, including the New Testament. I’ve touched on this a bit before in this series with how Paul handles the incorporation of Gentiles into the Jewish community of faith. There I noted how Paul’s focus on bringing the religiously marginalized group into what he understood to be the religiously privileged group ignored the reality that the religiously marginalized group were culturally, economically, politically, and demographically dominant and would by force of sheer numbers if not intention erase the Church’s naturally Jewish identity. Paul was theologically right, but there were unintended consequences due to the one-sidedness of his argument.

Where Christianity’s one-sidedness has come up the most, however, is in discussions about our culture’s problems with repentance and forgiveness, and therefore with reconciliation as a whole. The historical focus within Christianity has been on reconciliation with God through the forgiveness of sins; we are likewise called to forgive those who sin against us, just as God has forgiven us. This is a powerful and beautiful teaching, but in its focus on bringing the ‘sinner’ back into the fold, it ignores the real and lasting damage some of those sins can have on the ‘sinned against’, and in fact places the onus of reconciliation on them — to forgive the sinner — more than on the sinner to demonstrate the genuineness of their repentance.

In all of these situations it is not that the theology is necessarily wrong, but that it assumes that the powerful/sinners are going to live out their faith commitments with honesty and integrity even when it might cost them. And, sadly, we have two thousand years of evidence that this is not always — or perhaps even often — the case. Our theology of grace and forgiveness is not wrong, but we need to be absolutely certain that we are applying both halves of the repentance and forgiveness equation equitably. We know forgiveness is psychologically, spiritually, and at times even financially costly for victims, so we need to ensure that repentance is not cheap: not simply ‘I’m sorry’, but a genuine commitment to changed behaviour.

I think something similar is going on here. While we may rightly criticize the Ephesians Household Code, on Christian grounds, for accepting rather than challenging the social structures of the Roman world, they do correctly place the responsibility for change on those with the power to enact it, and demand the powerful reinterpret the nature of power through the lens of the humble, self-offering love of Jesus. This is good, and the code should be commended for this. But, it is also one-sided, especially if there is no mechanism through which the powerful are held accountable for living up their end of the bargain. The very nature of the power structures involved means that those without power have little recourse when things go wrong. We owe it, to our siblings in Christ who are negatively impacted by these dynamics, and to the very spirit of the household code itself, to ensure that our application of texts like Ephesians 5.21-6.9 rightly undermines systems of domination instead of propping them up. This is our duty and responsibility as Christians called to imitate God’s justice, love, and faithfulness.

And, for those of us in the democratic West, it is the absolute least we can do. For we are in a very different place from Paul and Jesus and the first Christians. We do have the agency and authority to help change unjust systems and structures and replace them with structures that better reflect the Kingdom of God. We can’t be naive about this either, but we need to have the theological, social, and political vision to try and imagine better, more faithful ways of being in community together that build up the body in all of its parts.

In the next post, before we move on to the final section of Ephesians, I’d like to argue why the structures Paul addresses in the Household Code are not reflective of God’s Kingdom and make a biblical case for Christian egalitarianism.

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