Submission in Context: Christ and the Greco-Roman Household Codes

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
'Statues 3' photo (c) 2008, Jason Ralston - license:

This is the third post in our series, One In Christ: A Week of Mutuality, dedicated to discussing an egalitarian view of gender—including relevant biblical texts and practical applications.  The goal is to show how scripture, tradition, reason, and experience all support a posture of equality toward women, one that favors mutuality rather than hierarchy, in the home, Church, and society. Morning posts will generally focus on biblical texts. Afternoon posts will generally focus on practical application. (Check out the first post,Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?,  and the second post, 4 Common Misconceptions About Egalitarianism)


"Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ."
—Ephesians 5:21

When I started pitching my book proposal for A Year of Biblical Womanhood to publishers, I originally titled the book “A Year of Living Submissively.” My agent and I quickly learned that this title was not doing us any favors, that the word “submission” had a special way of triggering rather heated responses in publishing house board rooms across the country. We promptly changed the title to something a little less polarizing...(though with the popularity of the "50 Shades of Grey" series, I'm wondering if we might want to go back.)  

I used to hate talking about submission too. I hated how that word was used—along with proof texts from Ephesians 5,  Colossians 3, and 1 Peter 3—to put Christian women “in their place,” as subordinates to their husbands.  But that was  before I studied the context of the epistles to the early Church, before I learned about the Greco-Roman Household Codes and Peter and Paul’s radical Christian remix that often passes unnoticed by modern readers. 

Household Codes: The Anchor of the Greco-Roman World 

Growing up evangelical, I learned to do inductive Bible study before I learned to balance an equation. And one of the most useful tips for inductive Bible reading goes something like this: When you bump into the word therefore while reading the Bible, it is wise to ask yourself, “What is the ‘therefore’ there for?” This usually sends you turning back a few pages to get the full context of the passage and a better sense of what the author is trying to say. The same applies to other conjunctive adverbs, such as “however,” “likewise,” “also,” “finally,” and “for example.” 

So, several years ago, as I was looking at one of the three Bible verses that instruct wives to submit to their husbands—the one from 1 Peter that says, “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands” (3:1)—my inductive Bible study skills kicked in, and I dutifully looked back a few verses to see what Peter meant by “in the same way.” 

To my surprise, the preceding paragraph had nothing to do with the relationship between men and women, but was instead about the relationship between masters and slaves! 

“Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters,” Peter wrote, “not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh . . . Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands” (1 Peter 2:18; 3:1, emphasis mine). 

A little more research revealed that all three of the passages that instruct wives to submit to their husbands are either preceded or followed by instructions for slaves to submit to their masters. Right after the apostle Paul encouraged Ephesian wives to submit to their husbands as they would to Christ, and Ephesian husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church, he instructed Ephesian slaves to “obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ” (Ephesians 6:5). The pattern repeats itself again in his letter to the Colossians, where Paul wrote: 

Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged. Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. . . . Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven. (3:18–22; 4:1)

 The implications of this pattern are astounding. For if Christians are to use these passages to argue that a hierarchal relationship between man and woman is divinely instituted and inherently holy, then, for consistency’s sake, they must also argue the same for the relationship between master and slave. 

I kept digging, and as it turns out, Peter and Paul were putting a Christian spin on what their readers would have immediately recognized as the popular Greco-Roman “household codes.” 

As far back as the fourth century BC, philosophers considered the household to be a microcosm, designed to reflect the hierarchal structure of the society, the gods, and ultimately the universe. Aristotle wrote that “the smallest and primary parts of the household are master and slave, husband and wife, father and children.” First-century philosophers Philo and Josephus included the household codes in their writings as well, arguing that a man’s authority over his household was critical to the success of a society. Many Roman officials believed the household codes to be such an important part of Pax Romana that they passed laws ensuring its protection. 

Biblical passages about wives submitting to their husbands are not, as many Christians assume, rooted in a culture epitomized by June Cleaver’s kitchen, but in a culture epitomized by the Greco-Roman household codes, which gave men unilateral authority over their wives, slaves, and adult children. As Sharyn Dowd has observed, the apostles “advocated this system not because God had revealed it as the divine will for Christian homes, but because it was the only stable and respectable system anyone knew about. It was the best the culture had to offer.” (Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, Women's Bible Commentary: Expanded Edition - Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press -  1998, p. 463)

And with Roman officials looking for every excuse to imprison Christians, to challenge the codes would bring even more unwanted scrutiny to the early Church.

The question modern readers have to answer is whether the Greco-Roman household codes reflected upon in Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Peter are in and of themselves holy and divinely instituted, or if their appearance in Scripture represents the early church’s attempt to blend Christianity and culture in such a way that it would preserve the dignity of adherents while honoring prevailing social and legal norms of the day. The Christian versions of the household codes were clearly progressive for their time (more on that in a minute), but does that mean they have the last word, that Christians in changing places and times cannot progress further?  

...Don’t forget that these same household codes were used by many Americans during the Civil War era to justify their owning of slaves.

I’ve honestly never encountered a complementarian response to this question that I find satisfactory. This, to me,  is one of the greatest ironies of the complementarian/egalitarian debate.Complementarians often accuse egalitarians of allowing cultural norms to shape their views of gender roles. But in this case, it is the complementarians who have given culture—that of the Greco-Roman familial structure—the final word.  

But what about the fact that Paul compares the submission of the wife to her husband to the relationship between Christ and the Church? 

Household Codes: The Radical Christian Remix 

Here’s where it gets really cool: While following a similar organizational structure, the household codes found in the Bible’s epistles differ significantly from the household codes found in the pagan literature of the day. In a sense, they present us with a sort of Christian remix of Greco-Roman morality that attempts to preserve the apostle Paul’s earlier teaching that “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). 

Where typical Greco-Roman household codes required 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 they love themselves. 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 the head of the household as “unto the Lord,” reminding both slaves and their masters that they share a heavenly Master who shows no partiality in bestowing eternal inheritance (Ephesians 5:22; 6:5). 

“When addressing those without power,” notes Peter H. Davids, the apostle Peter “does not call for revolution, but upholds the values of the culture insofar as they do not conflict with commitment to Christ. He then reframes their behavior by removing it from the realm of necessity and giving it a dignity, either that of identification with Christ or of identification with the ‘holy women’ of Jewish antiquity.” (Peter H. Davids, “A Silent Witness in Marriage” in Discovering Biblical Equality, eds. Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis - Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005- p, 238.) 

I cannot overstate the degree to which this remix—in which masters are reminded that they too have a heavenly master—would have been radical in the ancient world.  And this is important: 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 household codes themselves but rather the *attitudes* of those functioning within the hierarchal systems of the day. Again, we cannot argue that the Greco-Roman hierarchal relationship between husbands and wives is divinely instituted without arguing the same about the Greco-Roman hierarchal relationship between slaves and masters.  (See especially 1 Peter  2:18-23, where Peter provides an extended metaphor comparing slaves to Christ.) 

Furthermore, if you look close enough, you can detect the rumblings of subversion beneath the seemingly acquiescent text. 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 UPDATED NIV)—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. 

Household Codes: In Christ's Crazy, Upside-Down Kingdom 

For Christians, the presence of the Household Codes in Scripture must be considered in light of Jesus, who made a habit of turning hierarchy on its head. 

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). 

This aspect of Jesus’ legacy profoundly affected relationships in the early church, to whom Paul wrote: “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). 

In the biblical narrative, hierarchy enters human relationship as part of the curse, and begins with man’s oppression of women—“your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). But with Christ, hierarchal relationships are exposed for the sham that they are, as the last are made first, the first are made last, the poor are blessed, the meek inherit the earth, and the God of the universe takes the form of a slave. 

What’s great about the Christian remix of the Greco-Roman household codes is that, when put into practice, it blurs the hierarchal lines 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 submit one to another (Ephesians 5:21)—who’s really “in charge” here? 

No one. 

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

Women should not have to pry equality from the grip of Christian men. For those who follow Jesus, authority should be surrendered—and shared— willingly, with the humility and love of Jesus...or else we miss the once radical teaching that slaves and masters, parents and children, husbands and wives, rich and poor, healthy and sick, should “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” 

(Additional Resources: Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy,  edited by  Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis; Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire by Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmat; Women's Bible Commentary: Expanded Edition by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe; The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder.  And as part of our Week of Mutuality, Harriet Congdon wrote a really great post on “The Dance of Mutuality  in Ephesians 5.”)  


What do you think? Were Peter and Paul arguing for the inherent, universal holiness of the Greco-Roman Household Codes or for Christlike attitudes within existing societal norms? How have you seen these passages translated and applied in Christian settings? How have they been translated and applied in your life and marriage? 


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