Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Submission and the Greco-Roman Household

In a new post today, Rachel Held Evans has done a great job explaining the cultural background to the "submission" passages in the New Testament epistles and then using it to shed light on these texts for contemporary interpreters. (If I can say so, I actually find it corresponds quite well with some of what I said in my post on Titus 2:3-5 yesterday.) Please check out her new post here. Here's an excerpt:

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.

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