Aristotle vs. Jesus: What Makes the New Testament Household Codes Different


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
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This is the third post in a weeklong series entitled  “Submit One To Another: Christ and the Household Codes,” which will focus on those frequently-cited passages of Scripture that instruct wives to submit to their husbands, slaves to obey their masters, children to obey their parents, and Christians to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21-6:9, Colossians 3:12-4:6; 1 Peter 2:11-3:22). You are welcome to join in the conversation via the comment section or by contributing to the synchroblog. Use #onetoanother on Twitter. 

Check out the previous posts: "4 Interpretive Pitfalls Around the New Testament Household Codes" and "The Letter to Nympha’s Church."

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Let’s imagine I’m standing before a group of my fellow Americans reading from my iPad. (Yes, let’s definitely imagine I have an iPad.) 

“We the people of the United States,” I begin, “in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America…” 

By this point my audience would be nodding along, the words of the U.S. Constitution familiar from when they memorized them in sixth grade. 

“All legislative powers herin granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States,” I continue, “which shall consist of a Senate of Idiots and a House of Fools.” 

Now it becomes clear that this is no mere recitation of the Constitution. It’s a social commentary (if something of a simplistic one). I’m putting a new spin on a familiar passage in order to make a point. Anyone who would leave the gathering convinced this was simply a celebration of the Constitution will have missed the point. 

It’s an imperfect example, of course, but something quite similar happens when Christians read Peter and Paul’s* household codes from their Bibles, unaware that the apostles were riffing off of common sentiments from the Greco-Roman world in order to make a point. 

Before we proceed, you might want to reread the texts in question in their entirety: 

Ephesians 5:21-6:9

Colossians 3:12-4:6

1 Peter 2:11-3:22

As I mentioned on Monday, the Christians in the churches at Ephesus, Colossea, and Asia Minor who first heard these letters read aloud would instantly recognize Peter and Paul’s version of the household codes as a sort of radical Christian remix of familiar Greco-Roman philosophy regarding household structure. Central to the prevailing philosophy of the day was the idea that a free man ruled over his household as a sovereign, exercising unilateral authority over his subordinate wives, children, and slaves. Preserving this household structure was thought to be critical to preserving society as a whole. Many Roman officials believed the household codes to be such an important part of Pax Romana that they passed laws ensuring its protection. In fact, Christians were finding themselves at odds with some of these laws—particularly those governing widows—which is probably why Peter and Paul address them. 

'atlguitfiddle_159331659_-John-3,16-greek-Bible.' photo (c) 2006, ideacreamanuela2 - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Contrary to popular belief, Peter and Paul were not creating new systems to impose on Christian households, but rather commenting on systems that had already been in place for many years. Wives were already expected to obey their husbands and slaves were already expected to obey their masters. They weren’t introducing a new order to the household; they were commenting on an order that already existed, largely unchallenged. 

Aristotle 

Perhaps the most familiar the ancient household codes came from the philosopher Aristotle. In his Politics, Aristotle writes: 

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 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. For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the older and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature…
The freeman rules over the salve after another manner from that in which the male rules over the female, or the man over the child; although the parts of the soul are present in all of them, they are present in different degrees. For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature. So it must necessarily be with the moral virtues also; all may be supposed to partake of them, but only in such manner and degree as is required by each for the fulfillment of his duty. 

These sentiments were echoed by other Greek philosophers, and also by Jewish philosophers like Philo, who wrote: 

Wives must be in servitude to their husbands, a servitude not imposed by violent ill-treatment but promoting obedience in all things. Parents must have power over their children. . . . The same holds for any other persons over whom [the man] has authority. 

And Josephus who said: 

“The woman, says the Law, is in all things inferior to the man. Let her accordingly be submissive, not for her humiliation, but that she may be directed; for the authority has been given by God to the man.” 

The consensus in these ancient writings is that a man is justified in ruling over his household because his wives, slaves, and children are by nature his inferiors. The purpose of the codes was to reinforce the goodness and importance of this hierarchal familial structure which held together the very fabric of society. 

The Apostles and the Early Church 

So when Peter and Paul wrote their versions of the household codes, what was their purpose? 

Some say they were simply trying to show how Christianity was compatible with Greco-Roman culture and Roman law. This certainly makes sense, given the precarious position of the early church in the Roman Empire and the priority of welcoming all, including Hellenized gentiles, into the family of God.  

And yet it’s hard to see how Peter and Pauls’ remix of the household codes, when compared to the most popular of the day, could be read as anything but profoundly subversive, given the high value they place on wives, slaves, and children, and the way they hold ruling men accountable to a heavenly Master and a heavenly Father. 

And that’s because the apostles added a new ingredient to the household codes that changed their entire flavor….

Jesus 

The reality with which the early churches at Ephesus, Colossea, and Asia Minor were confronted is the same that confronts us today: 

Jesus changes everything. 

In his ministry, Jesus started not with the wealthy, the politically-connected, or the religious elite, but with the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the uneducated, slaves, women, and ethnic and religious minorities. He broke down social barriers, touching those who had been declared “untouchable,” teaching women as their rabbi, and eating and drinking with “sinners.” He preferred humility to hierarchy, washing his disciples’ feet and appearing after his resurrection to a group of women would not have been considered reliable witnesses at the time.

When his disciples argued amongst themselves about who would be greatest in the kingdom, Jesus told them that “anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). In speaking to them about authority he said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25–28). 

'Washing of Feet' photo (c) 2013, paukrus - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

The early church believed Jesus and followed his example, so much so that even the Roman authorities noted (often with derision) in their letters and journals that the church was made up primarily of women, slaves, and poor, uneducated laborers. 

With Jesus, the social order had changed. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, "So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). 

Paul is not simply talking about equal access to salvation here; he is talking about the creation of a new family where the social and religious lines that once separated men from women, slaves from the free, Jews and Gentiles vanish in the Household of God. 

Growing this new family was so central to the faith of the early Christians it no doubt raised questions about how to operate in a world where hierarchal boundaries were such a big part of the culture’s sociopolitical dynamic.

So when Peter and Paul introduce Jesus to the household, everything changes. Rather than placing the male head-of-house at the sovereign center, Peter and Paul place Jesus Christ at the center. And with Jesus Christ at the center, all the old boundaries break down and the hierarchies begin to blur. 

The Remix 

So what happens to the household codes when they get remixed with Jesus? 

Where typical Greco-Roman household codes required little or nothing of the head of household regarding fair treatment of subordinates, Peter and Paul encouraged men to be kind to their slaves, to be gentle with their children, and, shockingly, to love their wives as much as they love themselves! Unlike Aristotle, Philo, or Josephus, the apostles did not declare the natural superiority of the male head-of-house as the justification for his rule. Instead, they consistently appeal to the shared lordship of Jesus Christ, reminding the male head-of-house that he too has a Master in heaven. 

Those hierarchal lines begin to blur...

Furthermore, the Christian versions of the household codes are the only ones that speak directly to the less powerful members of the household—the slaves, wives, and children—probably because the church at the time consisted of just such powerless people. To dignify their positions, Peter linked the sufferings of slaves to the suffering of Christ and likened the obedience of women to the obedience of Sarah (1 Peter 2:18–25; 3:1–6). Paul encourages slaves and women to submit  to the head of the household as “unto the Lord,” making Christ the final authority to whom they are accountable, not the man or the State. 

Where the typical Greco-Roman household code elevates the superiority of the free man’s very nature, the Jesus remix dignifies those the culture deemed inferior, comparing them to the Church, and to Jesus Christ himself. 

The lines blur even more. 

When put into practice, these Christianized household codes would break down, rather than reinforce, the hierarchal boundaries between husband and wife, master and slave, adult parent and adult child. If wives submit to their husbands as the Church submits to Christ (Ephesians 5:24),  and if husbands love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25), and if both husbands and wives, slaves and masters  submit one to another (Ephesians 5:21)—who’s really “in charge” here? 

No one

Such relationships could only be characterized by humility and respect, with all parties imitating Christ, who time and again voluntarily placed himself in a position of submission.  

'Holding hands' photo (c) 2008, Valerie Everett - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

It is no accident that Peter introduced his version of the household codes with a riddle—“Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves” (1 Peter 2:16)—or that Paul began his with the general admonition that Christians are to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21; emphasis added). It is hard for us to recognize it now, but Peter and Paul were introducing the first Christian family to an entirely new community, a community that transcends the rigid hierarchy of human institutions, a community in which submission is mutual and all are free. 

What a tragedy that these passages, once meant to challenge hierarchies, have been used throughout history and even today, to reinforce them. 

The Limits of a Metaphor

It is important here to note that Peter and Paul’s use of metaphor (the husband is like Christ; the wife is like the Church; suffering slaves are like the suffering Christ) is not meant to universalize or glorify the hierarchy within the household codes themselves but rather to instruct those within the system to imitate the attitude and posture of Jesus Christ. This tends to get lost in translation when we over-scrutinize and attempt to literally apply these instructions to modern families, assuming that because Paul compares husbands to Christ and wives to the Church then he must be reinforcing some sort of God-ordained hierarchy between the genders there.  But to be consistent in this application, we would have to hold that because Peter compares the suffering of slaves to the suffering of Christ on the cross then slavery should also be preserved to uphold this metaphor.  

This is why I don’t get too caught up in all the debates surrounding the Greek word for “head,” though they are interesting and may prove helpful to some. The word may very well mean something akin to “authority” (which would mean Paul was simply observing a cultural reality at the time), or it may very well mean something akin to “source.” I tend to think debates like these miss the forest for the trees. Given the context, it seems clear that the ultimate purpose of the Christ/Church metaphor is intended to point men and women toward more mutuality, not more hierarchy, particularly when it is already assumed that the male holds all the authority and with these letters is being asked to empty himself of some of it.

To me, we could summarize these metaphors like this: "In the Christian Family, slaves submit to their masters as they would submit to Christ and masters treat their slaves as they would treat a suffering Christ, keeping in mind that ultimately they share a Master in heaven. In the Christian family, wives submit to their husbands as they would submit to Christ and husbands submit to their wives the way Christ submitted to the Church by giving his life for it, keeping in mind that we are all part of one Body. In the Christian family, everyone submits one to another, looking to Christ as the example." The purpose is to point all parties to the example of Jesus and his role as the ultimate Head of Home.  

Kirsten Rosser tackles this well in her post, “Is Marriage Really an Illustration of Christ and the Church?” I highly recommend reading it for more on how we tend to misunderstand the Church/Christ metaphor. 

Us 

So what now? What does this mean for us? 

For centuries, there were Christians who argued that the New Testament household codes provided biblical support for preserving the institution of slavery. Today, there are many Christians who argue that the household codes provide biblical support for preserving patriarchy. 

I hope I have shown that the intent of these passages was not to affirm the Greco-Roman household structure as divinely instituted and inherently holy, but rather to point Christians to the example of Jesus, whose humility and love can be mirrored by his followers in any culture and in any situation. 

The good news is we can ditch Aristotle and keep Jesus.

Most of us no longer live in a cultural context where a male head-of-house rules over his wives, slaves, and grown children with absolute authority. Our culture has changed in that regard, and that’s a good thing.

So the most obvious application is to free modern Christians from this notion that husbands must function as the heads of their homes with their wives as their subordinates. Such a view is based on a reading of the household codes that elevates their cultural context over their gospel message (and sometimes on a misunderstanding of the creation narrative, which I discuss here)

But another point to keep in mind is that, while pater familias may be fading from our lives, we still live in a culture that is obsessed with power and in which many inequitable power structures—both formal and informal, spoken and unspoken—seek to divide us. In this regard, the household codes should remind us that where we may be advantaged with power or privilege, we are called to humble ourselves, to sacrifice, to love, to listen, to surrender our power, and to treat our fellow human beings as our equals—co-heirs and brothers and sisters in the family of God. Where we may be disadvantaged, and without power, we are reminded that we don’t answer to “The Man” anyway; we answer to Christ, who has been both powerful and powerless. Ultimately, we are all called to heed these words, which can apply in any family and in any culture: 

 “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:5–8). 

Have the same mindset of Jesus.  

That's the point of the New Testament household codes.  

It's not about reinforcing power; it's about relinquishing it.  

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* I am aware that Pauline authorship is disputed in some of these texts, but for simplicity, will refer to Paul as the author. (This is a conversation we can have later!)  

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Sources: 

Discovering Biblical Equality: Complemenatrity Without Hierarchy, edited by Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis; Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire by Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat; The Womens’ Bible Commentary, Expanded Edition, edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe 

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