EDITOR’S NOTE: To read the counterpoint to this article, click here.
The past several decades have seen explosive debates within Western Christianity over the appropriate roles of men and women. These debates often have centered on whether women may preach, be ordained, etc. But another key dimension of the debates focuses on the relationship between husbands and wives.
For much of church history, the majority view was wives are subordinate to their husbands. Husbands are the leaders within the home. Husbands and wives are spiritual equals, but have distinct, complementary roles. Some call this view “complementarianism.”
A growing number of Christians, however, are rejecting complementarianism in favor of a more egalitarian perspective in which both authority and submission in marriage are mutual, not unilateral and patriarchal. This has prompted significant debate, much of which centers upon a handful of texts in the New Testament often called “the household codes.”
The complementarian interpretation
There are three New Testament passages dealing directly with the question of “wifely submission.” They are Ephesians 5:21-6:9, Colossians 3:18-4:1, and 1 Peter 2:18-3:7. Each text says something similar.
“Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church. … But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything” (Ephesians 5:22-24 NASB). “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord” (Colossians 3:18). “In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands” (1 Peter 3:1a).
For many Christians, these verses are straightforward and clearly settle the matter. Husbands are in charge, and wives are subordinate. This does not mean wives are worth less than their husbands; husbands and wives are “spiritual equals.” They simply have different roles, and the husband’s role is leader and authority figure over his wife.
Per this view, to favor an egalitarian structure for marriage is therefore to disobey God’s word and subvert God’s divinely instituted order for the family. And to subvert the family is to risk undermining society and introducing disorder, sin, etc.
Ancient households vs. the modern family
However, it is important that we read and understand biblical passages considering their ancient cultural contexts.
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Modern Western complementarians apply the household codes “literally” to the nuclear family. The nuclear family consists of a father, a mother and a handful of children living together under one roof. For complementarians, this provides the context for “literal” application of the relevant biblical passages.
There’s one problem: The nuclear family did not exist in the ancient world, and it certainly is not what the biblical authors had in mind when they were writing these texts.
The ancient household, which is the actual “family structure” lurking in the background of these texts, was quite different. The Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible summarizes, “The household was more extensive than in modern times and included not only immediate family but a wide spectrum of kinship groupings and retainers” (613).
Moreover, the male head of the household, called the paterfamilias in Roman culture, exercised near-absolute control and legal ownership over his wife, children, slaves and other members of the household.
Complementarians insist the most faithful application of these texts is literal, but I am not sure they are entirely consistent in this regard. A truly literal application of the New Testament household codes would require embracing a profoundly different family structure than the nuclear family.
Most controversially, a literal application of the household codes would require or at least permit slavery (Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22-4:1; 1 Peter 3:18).
Denny Burk, a professor at Boyce College and the current president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, is a leading complementarian voice in American evangelicalism. He insists, quite forcefully, that the subordination of wives to husbands is the only faithful application of the household codes. Yet, he also has argued Christians should not endorse or condone slavery.
He and others like him invoke the New Testament’s cultural background, other biblical texts and broad principles synthesized from various passages to argue biblical texts about slavery should not be used to uphold slavery today.
But what about when egalitarians like me use similar arguments to advance our perspective? According to Burk: “There are a number of hermeneutical and theological moves made by egalitarians that seem to create a slippery slope toward liberalism … [W]here egalitarian modes of argument are embraced, subsequent generations are at risk for even greater error.”
I do not think this is consistent or fair. However, I should note that not all complementarians would go so far as to accuse egalitarians of flirting with theological liberalism.
Reading the household codes today
Do we simply relegate the household codes to an outdated patriarchal past, or do they still hold value for us as Christian readers today? The household codes presuppose a patriarchal and slave-owning family structure, but I do not believe they make this structure universally binding.
Other household codes in New Testament times didn’t give instructions directly to wives, children, slaves, etc. They gave men instructions on how best to rule over those in their households.
But New Testament household codes give instructions directly to “subordinates,” thereby recognizing their God-given humanity, agency and dignity. The New Testament also offers protections for “subordinates.” This was unprecedented and countercultural at the time.
Carolyn Osiek writes: “Moreover, the passage in Ephesians begins with a general exhortation to submission for everyone (Ephesians 5:21), that is, not to insist on one’s own prerogatives over against the rights of others.” This principle of mutual submission provides the framework for understanding the household codes.
The New Testament subverts societal norms in ways that point toward dignity, mutuality and equality. Faithful application of the household codes should emphasize not the letter of the text, but the spirit of the text. We must not concretize ancient cultural norms but must consistently re-engage the biblical text in prayerful and thoughtful ways in our ever-changing world.
Joshua Sharp is a writer and Bible teacher living in Waco. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Truett Theological Seminary. The views expressed are those solely of the author.