Paul and His Subversive Passage on the Family
In the first half of the Book of Ephesians, the apostle Paul lays out the Christian’s new identity in Christ. In the second half, he provides the “so what,” or the ramifications. As he outlines what Spirit-filled living looks like (Eph. 5:18ff), he envisions a community in which people show Christ’s love by serving one another. And one of the places where such service happens is in the household—where in his day he would have found spouses, kids, and slaves under one roof.
People living in the first century under Roman rule would have been familiar with instructions for respectable families known as “household codes.” These codes outlined the ideal for life in the household, and such instructions were always addressed only to the husband. Consider this sample of household-code instruction from Aristotle (384–322 B.C.):
Of household management we have seen that there are three parts—one is the rule of a master over slaves . . . another of a father, and the third of a husband. A husband and father, we saw, rules over wife and children, both free, but the rule differs, the rule over his children being a royal, over his wife a constitutional rule. . . . The rule of a father over his children is royal, for he rules by virtue both of love and of the respect due to age, exercising a kind of royal power (Aristotle, Politics, Book 1, XII).
The codes’ influence was so great that emperors passed laws establishing them as the rule of the land. People who followed them were perceived as upholding civic values. Before Paul’s time, Hellenistic synagogues had even borrowed the codes’ outline as a testimony to the outside world. And the apostle Peter, Paul’s contemporary, did so as well. In their view, the Christians’ familial life was to match if not exceed the best of Greco-Roman ideals. (For examples of household codes showing up in the NT, see Paul's usage in Eph. 5:22—6:9; Col. 3:18—4:1; 1 Tim. 2:9–15; Titus 2: 2–10; and Peter's 1 Pet. 2: 13–3: 7).
The adaptations require careful observation, however. In the common understanding, a free man reigned unilaterally as king in his home, served by his wife, children, and slaves. But in Paul’s subtly subversive remix, the male householder served to the point of laying down his life. Paul’s genius is in providing countercultural advice in a way that upholds cultural ideals, making it difficult for critics to accuse Christians of being a threat to society—while still urging Christians to model the life of their Lord.
Looking closely, we see that one of Paul’s innovations is to elevate the vulnerable by speaking directly to the less powerful family members; he addresses instruction specifically to wives, children, and even slaves, none of whom are ever addressed in secular household codes. He even speaks to them first in each pairing (wife/husband; children/father; slave/master).
And whereas people like Aristotle expected husbands to rule, Paul tells husbands to serve to the point of sacrifice, even to the point of a violent death. A man was considered manly in Paul’s day if he did not have to experience anyone touching his body without consent. Slaves, gladiators, soldiers, and non-citizens had no such rights. So imagine the surprise to readers when Paul suggested that husbands should offer up their bodies—citing Jesus as the ultimate example. Paul was basically telling these men to sacrifice their man-card if necessary in order to love well. He even threw in some woman's-work laundry terms about husbands washing spots and wrinkles.
In borrowing the structure, Paul is not saying slavery is okay. Or that Aristotle got it right. He is simply following the expected literary structure while radically, subversively modifying it to stress the God-pleasing ideals of humility and service as evidence of Spirit-filled living. In borrowing but repurposing, Paul creates a Christian innovation. He appears to be upholding society’s structures, yet his major adaptations infuse the codes with absolutely upside-down gospel values that actually contradict the codes.
When we try to inject power back into the structure, we exchange Paul's emphasis for that of Aristotle. Why would we do that!?
When we accuse Paul of being against women, we totally miss what he has done here with the codes.
Do you need to push back against cultural expectations, including cultural gender norms for the sake of the gospel? We serve a Lord who girded himself with a towel and laid down his life—who learned obedience unto death, even death on a cross. Who needs your humble service, your willing sacrifice, today?
Excerpted/adapted from Earl Grey with Ephesians.
:::looking for jaw drop emoji:::
Bless you, Sandi. An understanding of the culture’s norms at the time of writing makes such a HUGE difference!
I am with Sue. When we approach life and relationships from our cultural biases rather than from Christ's perspective and for His sake, sacrifice and service trumps rights and privilege. Thank you for the history lesson. Well done!