This is the second 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.
“Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea."
– Colossians 4:15-16
The sun has set over a chilly Laodicea, but Nympha’s home is warm with lamplight and hums with the welcoming sound of stifled laughter whispered conversation. As soon as Drucilla and I slip through the door together, we can sense that something is stirring. There is news.
My mother-in-law asks her friends, all of them also widows, what has happened.
Tychicus had arrived from Colossae, they say, with a letter from Paul.*
I am happy because this means I will get to listen to Nympha read. It mesmerizes me every time—the way she enunciates every syllable carefully, gently, sometimes pausing to explain the meaning of the more difficult words or ideas or to laugh forgivingly when one of the children decides to throw a tantrum. We are mostly women, widows, slaves, and poor laborers, unable to read the letters from the apostles on our own, though among us are a few wealthy tradesman, the owners of sprawling households. It is strange to see us all sitting together at the sacred meal—master breaking bread with his slave, a Jew sharing a joke with a former pagan priest, a husband pouring wine for his wife, a zealot debating politics with a tax collector—but this is what makes us different; it’s what makes us Christians.
Nympha and her husband are wealthy traders, both of them followers of Jesus, but he travels so much she usually manages our ekklesia—our gathering—on her own. We are known to Paul as the church that meets in Nympha’s home.
Maybe I am a little jealous of Nympha. My husband is a laborer and poor and I think he resents the fact that a girl who came with such a small dowry would give him so much trouble over religion. He has been harsh with Drucilla too recently, for the government has made it illegal for widows to remain unmarried, but she insists on serving alongside the other widows in the church. There are murmurs that this practice of caring for widows as a community is yet another part of our way of life that bothers the government officials. To them, tampering with the household order is akin to tampering with the created universe and yet another example of Christians challenging the authority of the Empire. You don’t have to be the most educated person in Laodicea to know that the Greek philosophers were rather insistent upon the importance of maintaining a household in which the man exercises unilateral authority over his wives, children, and slaves.
And yet we have been taught that among us, there should be neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, for we are all one in Christ. And so the most common debate in Nympha’s house is about whether we can accommodate laws like these without compromising our identity. Many Christians have gone to jail, and some have even been killed. The question is: Do we risk our necks over differences with the government regarding household structure? Or do we let things like that go? No one can seem to agree. Perhaps tonight’s letter will help.
It is a beautiful letter, and tears run down my face as Paul, through Nympha, speaks of our reputation among the churches. Nympha smiles as her voice carries the words: “We have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people.”
As she continues to read, we hear about Paul’s incarceration and persecution, about how Jesus is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation,” about watching out for all those false teachings that circulated through the trade routes, about how we ought to stop judging each other over differences of opinion regarding religious festivals and food (I blush a little at this point and resolved to make peace with some rather opinionated friends before the next sacred meal), about how we should clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, and love, about how we must forgive one another, about how the things that once separated Jew from Greek and slave from free are broken down at the foot of the cross, about how we should sing more hymns. Drucilla smiles wide at that last one.
But then I find myself catching my breath as Nympha reads—out loud!—that we need not fear the government because Jesus has “disarmed the powers and authorities” and “made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
A nervous murmur fills the room. What if someone overheard? That quote could certainly be taken out of context by a passing Roman soldier!
I catch Tychicus glance out the window.
But then my surprise gives way to revelation. I’ve never thought about it that way: Christ’s death at the hands of the government represented a sort of subversive triumph over it. His obedience in humbling himself, in loving his enemies, caring for the poor, welcoming the marginalized, and turning away from violence made a mockery of this opulent, bloodthirsty, and oppressive Empire. He refused to play by their rules and yet he broke none of their laws. He did not fight them; he disarmed them.
I wonder if that’s what we’re supposed to do too.
Then I hear Nympha say, “Wives submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting to the Lord.”
Immediately I recognize this as something of a recitation of the Household Codes that more educated women like Nympha probably had memorized. Someone named Aristotle had composed the most famous of these, basing them on what he believed was the inherent inferiority of women, children, and slaves.
But in Paul’s letter, Christ serves as the ultimate authority, not the government. Hmmm…
Then Nympha’s voice grows quieter and I see one of her eyebrows rise.
“Husbands, love your wives…”
She trails off and we sit in stunned silence. This is new. I’ve only heard of very wealthy couples who married because they were in love. Most, like my husband and I, are joined together in a business transaction. (I was twelve-years-old at the time. ) No one expects husbands to love their wives.
“Children obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.”
Again, this is somewhat familiar.
“Fathers, do not embitter your children…”
(I have a feeling Aristotle didn’t give instructions like these to fathers.)
Then things get really strange.
“Slaves obey your earthly masters,” Nympha continues, a little hesitantly. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”
“Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.”
I feel sorry for the few wealthy men among us because suddenly, every eye is on them. Is Paul suggesting that both slaves and owners share a Master? Is he directly challenging Aristotle by suggesting that the two are equals?
It takes Nympha a moment to recover, but she reads on, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt…”
At the meal, everyone’s talking about the letter, but I am lost in thought. Maybe I was on to something: Maybe, like Jesus, we can refuse to play by Rome’s rules without breaking any of Rome’s laws. Maybe we remain faithful to Jesus, not by overturning the household codes, but by transcending them, living in a way that highlights the foolishness of the hierarchies they contain.
Christ is the Head of this Home—the Church—so here, we submit to one another out of reverence for him.
Later, Nympha will read other letters, letters that speak of husbands loving their wives as much as Christ loved the church, willing to give their lives for them, and of Christians “submitting to one another” and living as “slaves to one another”! No Greek or Jewish philosopher or Roman legislator had spoken to women, children, and slaves directly like this. None had given us this much agency, this much dignity. The point, Nympha says with a wry smile, is to imitate Jesus, not Rome.
The night after the first letter, Drucilla and I creep quietly through the streets together, arm in arm on our way home, I wonder aloud if there will come a day when there will be no more household codes, if Drucilla and I will be treated with as much dignity as my husband and if slaves will no longer have earthly masters.
“Well, Aelia” Druscilla whispers back, her breath against the cool air. “Hasn’t God promised to make all things new?”
Then I have a dangerous thought:
“Maybe this is how it starts.”
Tomorrow we’ll look more closely at how Peter and Paul’s household codes differ from those of Aristotle and other philosophers and what that means for us today.
* 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!)
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