Menu iconFilter Results
Topic: Uncategorized

Christian Tradition: Husbands and Wives

November 5, 2007

This is chapter 12 in Man and Woman in Christ. It is for personal use only and should not be distributed.

AT THE END of I Timothy, Timothy is exhorted to "guard what has been entrusted to you," or perhaps, "guard what has been deposited with you." This exhortation calls to mind the image of one person depositing a large sum of money or some other valuable item with another for safekeeping. The scriptural writers and the Christian writers who followed them saw the Christian truths and way of life as a great treasure, one that had been entrusted to their care and that was to be handed over intact to the next generation. As was remarked earlier (see Chapter Seven), the modern mind tends to view "tradition" very differently—as something left-over, unexamined, something which probably needs to be updated or discarded. It is "just tradition." By contrast, the first Christians viewed tradition as the careful handing on of their greatest treasure-the life in Christ and the teachings which made that life possible. They could not be truly faithful to Christ unless they could hand on well what had been handed on to them. They could not really be faithful to Christ unless they could maintain and uphold that with which they had been charged (see I Tm 1:18; 6:14; 2 Tm 2:2; 4:1-5).

There was a time in Christian history when people would have been directed to Christian tradition, especially to the Fathers, if they wanted to test their own reading of scripture. Those who had authority in the area of scriptural interpretation were those who stood in the succession of Christian teachers, men who were dedicated to faithfully passing on what they had received, who were known to be committed Christians and holy men, and who sometimes gave their lives for what they believed. It was with their writings that Christians compared their own thoughts. For all the differences in their reading of tradition, this was true for Protestants as well as for Catholics and Orthodox, at least for men such as Luther, Calvin, and Wesley. In more recent years, however, there has been a shift. People are now supposed to compare their interpretation of scripture with that of scripture scholars, Christian or pagan, preferably those who are the most recent. Underlying this change in scriptural interpretive authority is a further change in the understanding of scriptural interpretation: a change in the Christian mind that is one of the more significant changes among the Christian people in recent centuries.

The last chapters presented the scriptural teaching on the roles of men and women; they included a discussion of the ideas and insights of modem scripture scholars. This chapter and the next will compare the views of the early teachers in Christian tradition (the Fathers) with the results of the previous chapters. While the understandings of the Fathers of the Christian church have been present in the earlier chapters, as the footnotes and occasional references in the text reveal, these two chapters will consider them and the rest of Christian tradition explicitly. For a subject like that of the roles of men and women, Christian tradition can more easily be treated in a brief form, since the primary contribution it makes is to underline and strengthen the results of the scripture discussion. Christian tradition does have more to say about the roles -of men and women than appears explicitly in scripture, but it does not diverge from or add significantly to the main outlines of the roles for men and women as set forth in scripture.

Many have remarked that one of the main advantages of reading Christian tradition is the protection it gives modern Christians from the limitations of their own age when they come to read scripture or think about Christianity. The subject of the roles of men and women is one of the areas where tradition can best perform such a service. As was pointed out in the last chapter, our age is quick to judge that cultural conditioning relativizes the contributions of the past, but it does not at the same time eagerly apply this same approach to the dogmas of the present. By contrast, Christian tradition consistently sees the distinctiveness of the scriptural approach to the roles of men and women and carries on that scriptural teaching from age to age and from culture to culture. The steady witness of tradition can help us see more clearly how the views of the present age color a reading of the scriptural message about the roles of men and women.

What Is Tradition?(1)

"Tradition" (paradosis), as was discussed in Chapter Seven, means "handing over," "handing on," or, more literally, "giving over." In this and the following chapter, the word refers to the handing on of what was taught by Jesus and the apostles. There is tradition in scripture. Scripture sees the basic gospel message itself as a matter of tradition (I Cor 15:1-5; 2 Thes 2-.5; see also Cot 2:6-8; 1 Thes 2:13). It also sees basic teaching about the Christian way of life, including Christian social customs, as a matter of tradition (I Cor 11:2, 23; 2 Thes 3:6; Rom 6:17; Phil 4:9), In a real sense, all of the New Testament could be said to be tradition. The books of the New Testament were carefully handed on with their authority attested to by those who handed them on.(2)

Tradition continued from the scripture to the early church. The teaching of Jesus and his apostles was handed on from teacher to teacher.(3) Later ages termed the great teachers of the earliest tradition "Fathers" of the church. These men were pastors, most commonly bishops but also presbyters or elders, both officially ordained and unordained. They were men with a recognized teaching gift and of recognized holiness of life and tested doctrine. Because of the kind of men they were and the kind of teaching they did, the Fathers were seen as men who taught with great authority and therefore men whose opinions carried weight. Not all of them were of equal authority, however. Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus, Athanasius, Basil, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, and Augustine were clearly recognized as greater authorities than Athenagoras, Methodius, Lactantius, and Didymus. Nonetheless, all the Fathers were seen as witnesses to true Christian tradition.

Sometimes when people refer to Christian tradition, they are primarily referring to the Fathers and referring only in a secondary way, if at all, to later Christian tradition, There is, however, a broader meaning of "Christian tradition" than the scriptural sense of the handing on of teaching. What was handed on in tradition, in and through the kerygma and teaching, was the presence and life of the Lord Jesus and the active working of the Holy Spirit. Christians handed on a living relationship with Christ. Thus, in a sense, tradition refers to all of Christian history-the history of the Christian people being led by the Spirit through many circumstances and teaching his word in the face of many challenges and new situations.

There are many views of how to approach the writings from Christian tradition. Orthodox, Catholics, and some Protestants acknowledge a reliable and authoritative Christian tradition. Most Protestants find much of Christian tradition helpful, even if they do not hold it as being authoritative. There is, however, a convergence on some of the most central aspects of viewing tradition. First, Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants agree that no writing from tradition equals scripture in authority.(4) In the view of some, tradition might be of highest authority because they see it as a passing on of the revelation given through the apostles, but no individual writing outside the canonized scripture is equal in authority to scripture.(5)

Second, no orthodox Christian views tradition as a substitute for scripture. Rather, the writings of tradition are seen as an aid in understanding scripture. Even among Catholic theologians who hold that some of Christian revelation was preserved in tradition but is not contained in scripture,(6) there is clear agreement that the primary purpose of tradition is to aid in the interpretation of scripture.

Finally, for Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant alike, not everything found in Christian history or written by one of the Fathers is true tradition in the sense of having been authentically handed over by Jesus or the apostles. First, in addition to the handing on of the basic Christian proclamation and teaching, there is what could be called good Christian human tradition. Good Christians in the past, like good Christians now, have had to deal with new circumstances. As a result, they have had new insights and wisdom, and have learned from the writings and experiences of others, including non-Christians. Much of this has been done with the help, discernment, and even inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Second, there is also mistake and corruption in Christian tradition in the broad sense, and failure to faithfully pass on Christian tradition in the narrower sense. Even the greatest of the Fathers made mistakes and omissions, and their teaching is not on the same level of authority as the scriptures. Hence, Christian writings through the centuries, the patristic writings among them, have to be sorted out and tested to find the reliable elements and also to find what in it is true tradition in the full sense of teaching faithfully handed on from Christ and the apostles. Because of the nature of the tradition on the roles of men and women, especially because of the uniform consensus on matters of social role until most recent centuries, the theological differences among Christian groups on assessing tradition do not affect the results of the study. These chapters can easily operate within the field defined by the convergence of the major Christian theological positions.

These chapters will provide a brief survey of the sources from earlier centuries about the roles of men and women among the Christian people and then consider the further history of that tradition.(7) Each chapter will take one area in the scriptural teaching on basic social structure and trace it through the Fathers. Chapter Twelve will treat the husband-wife relationship in the family, partly because of its intrinsic importance, and partly because it presents one of the clearest examples of a unanimous confirmation of scripture by tradition. Chapter Thirteen will treat the rule that the governing authorities of the Christian community should be chosen from among the men of the community. In the course of these two chapters, other aspects of the teaching of tradition on the roles of men and women will be considered, but the focus will be upon the two areas just described.

Family Order in Tradition

The New Testament presents a clear and consistent teaching on the husband-wife relationship. It can be summarized as a relationship of mutual partnership in which the wife is subordinate to the husband for the sake of greater unity. The husband, as the chief governing authority or head of the family, has a responsibility to care for his wife, while she has a responsibility to be subordinate to him. This role difference is based on a difference in their areas of responsibility: The wife's primary responsibility is internal to the family, while the husband's is oriented more to the broader life of the people, both the Christian people and secular society. All of this teaching about the relationship Of husband and wife is set within the context of how two Christians, in this case husband and wife, should love one another as brother and sister in the Lord.

This basic New Testament teaching has been held with a clear consistency throughout most of Christian history. Today, many Christians no longer accept the headship of the husband in the family, or even the idea of any role difference at all. But in early tradition the New Testament teaching was carried out in a way that indicated a unanimous consensus about the area. One can read exhortations to husbands showing that the husband was often not performing as the head of the family the way he was supposed to be in theory. However, one cannot find even a small controversy in early tradition over who should be the head of the family, much less over whether there should be a head. Few areas in early Christian teaching are as uniform, and fewer still were held with the same consistency as long as this one, since the first Christian voices advocating a different approach were raised only in about the nineteenth century. The following series of quotations illustrates how consistent the teaching on the husband-wife relationship was among the early Christian teachers.(8)

The Apostolic Fathers

The first witnesses to tradition after the New Testament are the Apostolic Fathers, orthodox teachers who lived at a time close enough to the apostles to have been taught by them personally. The Apostolic Fathers show a great deal of similarity to the epistle writers of the New Testament in the way they teach about the roles of men and women. The "household code" tradition lives on in their writings, and though household life by no means takes up the bulk of their writing, their general exhortations on Christian living often pass on a relationship teaching similar to that in the New Testament. Some examples of such teaching are found in the letter of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians (c. 95 A.D.) In commending the Corinthians for the good order they had shown in the past, he says:

The wives you enjoined to discharge all their duties with a conscience pure and undefiled and to cherish a dutiful affection for their husbands; you taught them also to stay within the established norm of obedience in managing the household with decency and consummate prudence. [or: you taught them to keep in the rule of obedience, and to manage the affairs of their household in seemliness, with all discretion]. (I Clement 1:3)(9)

Later in his letter Clement gives the following exhortation in urging the Corinthians to good order:

Let us guide our wives [or women] to what is good. [Or: "Let us train our wives in all that is good."] Let them exhibit the loveable quality of purity, let them display their sincere gentleness of disposition, let them show the forbearance of their tongues by their silence, let them bestow their affection not with partiality, but in holiness upon all alike who fear God. (I Clement 21:7)(10)

One of the epistles which Ignatius of Antioch (107 A.D.) wrote on his way to martyrdom was addressed to Polycarp of Smyrna instructing him on how to be the bishop of a Christian community. The letter is reminiscent of the pastoral epistles and contains this exhortation:

Tell my sisters to love the Lord and be contented with their husbands in body and spirit. In the same way, charge my brethren to love their wives as the Lord loves the Church … It is right for men and women who are marrying to form their union with the approval of the bishop, in order that their marriage may be in accordance with the Lord's will and not to gratify desire. Let it all be done to the honor of God. (Letter to Polycarp 5:1-2)(11)

Finally, Polycarp of Smyrna, a disciple of the apostle John and the recipient of one of the letters of Ignatius, gives a similar exhortation in a letter he wrote to the Philippians (probably when he sent them copies of Ignatius' letters [c. 107 A.D.]):

So knowing that we brought nothing into the world, and can take nothing out of it either, let us put on the armor of righteousness and teach ourselves first of all to follow the command of the Lord. Then teach your wives to live in the faith that has been given them in love and purity, being devoted to their husbands in all sincerity and loving all alike with perfect chastity, and to bring up their children in the fear of God. (Letter to the Philippians 4:2)(12)

The writings of Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp provide a picture of communities formed by the kind of teaching given for Christian churches in Gentile lands. Their writings show a concern both for communal life and for solid relationships among Christians. Their exhortations to different categories of people show that these writers were concerned not only with relationships within the household (an impression that studies of the household codes in the New Testament sometimes leave), but with a whole range of relationships within and outside of the Christian community. Their teaching on relationships stands within the tradition of New Testament teaching. The first quotation from Clement is particularly interesting in showing that Clement understood that the wife should rule the household. The second quotation from Clement and the quotation from Polycarp are of interest for their view that the husbands should instruct wives to take their proper roles. The quotation from Ignatius about getting the bishop's approval for marriages indicates that the Christian community provided the kind of support the family or clan provided in Israel. It also shows how the early Christian community could view marriage as a unit of community life, of concern to the whole Christian people.

Second and Third Century Fathers

A second sampling of early Christian writings can provide a picture of Christian teaching on family life about 200 A.D., roughly half-way between the apostles and the great Fathers of the fourth century. Two teachers from the Alexandrian school, Clement of Alexandria and Origen, give a full picture of the Christian household, at least among upper-class Christians in Alexandria.(13) At the same time Tertullian, the first Latin "theologian" and a presbyter in Carthage in North Africa, provides a view of Christian marriage in the West. Clement (d. c. 215 A.D.) is particularly helpful. Christian living is a major concern of his Pedagogue and Stromata, and marriage and family receive extensive treatment. The following quotations contain some of the passages most relevant to this survey:

The virtue of man and woman is the same. For if the God of both is one, the master of both is also one; one Church, one temperance, one modesty: Their food is common, marriage an equal yoke; respiration, sight, hearing, knowledge, hope, obedience, love all alike. And those whose life is common, have common graces and, a common salvation; common to them are love and training. (Pedagogue, 1, 4)(14)

We do not say that woman's nature is the same as man's, as she is woman. For undoubtedly it stands to reason that some difference should exist between each of them in virtue of which one is male and the other is female. Pregnancy and childbirth, accordingly, we say belong to woman, as she is woman and not as she is a human being. But if there were no difference between man and woman, both would do and suffer the same things … As then there is sameness, as far as respects the soul, she will attain to the same virtue; but as there is difference as respects the peculiar construction of the body, she is destined for childbearing and housekeeping. (Stromata, IV, 8)(15)

Moreover, women must with their own hands, bring from the pantry whatever we need. And it is not dishonorable for them to work at the millstone, nor to tend to food preparation in order to be pleasing to their husbands; nor is the spouse to be disapproved of, who keeps her house and is a helpmate to her husband. If a woman gets out of bed in order to bring her husband something to drink when thirsty, or to bring him something to eat, such an act can only be an exercise beneficial to both her physical and moral health; our Teacher approves of such a woman, who puts her shoulder to the wheel and holds her spindle firmly … she also knows how to open her hand to the poor and stretch out her arms to the beggar; she is not ashamed to emulate Sarah in the most beautiful of services: to be helpful to travellers. Abraham, indeed says to her, "knead three measures of wheat flour and make loaves cooked in the ashes." "Rachel, daughter of Laban," says Scripture, "arrived with her father's ewe lambs." But this is not all: In order to teach us humility, the text adds, "She herself led her father's sheep to pasture." (Pedagogue, 111, 10)(16)

But it is the same man and Lord who makes the old new, by no longer allowing several marriages (for at that time God required it when men had to increase and multiply), and by teaching single marriage for the sake of begetting children and looking after domestic affairs, for which purpose woman was given as a "helper". (Stromata, 111, 12)(17)

"Let the husband give the wife her due and likewise also the wives to the husband." In fulfilling this delegation she is a helper in the house and in Christian faith. (Stromata, 111, 15)(18)

In Origen (d.c. 255 A.D.) the treatment of men and women in family life is more incidental. He does, however, take an approach very similar to that of Clement, as the following quotation shows:

"Sarah stood listening at the tent entrance behind Abraham." May these examples of the patriarchs instruct women; may the women learn, I say, to follow their husbands. it is not written without purpose, that Sarah kept behind Abraham: This is to show that if the man is first in meeting the Lord, the woman must follow. I wish to say that the woman must follow when she sees that her husband clings to the Lord. (Hom. in Gen. IV, 4)(19)

The first quotation from Clement of Alexandria is one of the strongest statements of the principle that man and woman are alike in the most important respects. This statement from the Pedagogue is Clement's explication of "neither male and female" in Gal 3:28. Men and women have a common destiny, and their spiritual status and accomplishments can be equal. Although Clement does explain the relationship of man and woman from a second century viewpoint, he is a clear witness to the fact that Paul's basic teaching on the oneness of man and woman in Christ was considered important a century after the death of the last apostle. Nonetheless, Clement also took role differences seriously. Woman was to be subordinate to man, especially in the family, as her husband's helper. Her sphere was the home, and there she was essential to her husband both for childbearing and for the management of the household. Origen's view is basically the same. For him the man and woman are equal, but the husband is the head. His responsibility is to lead his family in prayer, instruct them in right doctrine, and direct them in daily life. Thus the Christian household of Alexandria of about 200 A.D. emerges to light as having the same outlines as the Christian households portrayed by the Apostolic Fathers.

Tertullian (d.c. 220 A.D.), a presbyter-teacher in Carthage, has been called the first Latin theologian because he was the first significant Christian writer in Latin (the Roman church was still using Greek at this time), and played a decisive role in the formation of Latin as a language of Christian teaching. Toward the end of his life he came under Montanist influence, which for him involved increasing rigorism in his approach to matters of Christian living. Providing a balanced interpretation of Tertullian which allows one to use him as a sound representative of Christian teaching on family life is therefore not easy.(20) Nevertheless, he does present a fair amount of material which provides a picture of how Christian family life was lived in the North African church. The following quotation illustrates Tertullian's approach to marriage in his pre-Montanist period:

How can we be equal to the task of singing the happiness of a marriage which the church unites, the Eucharist confirms, the blessing consecrates, the angels proclaim, the Father ratifies? Not even in the world do sons marry rightly and properly without their father's consent. What is the tie of two believers with one hope, one discipline, one service? They are siblings; they are fellow slaves; there is no separation of spirit or flesh. They are truly two in one flesh; where there is one flesh, there is also one spirit. Together they pray, they work, they fast, teaching, exhorting, supporting one another. Together in the church of God, at the banquet of God, in anxieties, in persecutions, in joys; no one hides anything, avoids the other, or is disagreeable to the other; willingly the sick is visited, the poor is helped; alms without afterthought, sacrifices without hesitancy, daily zeal without obstacle; no greeting is hurried, no congratulation lukewarm, no blessing unspoken; among themselves they sing psalms and hymns, and challenge one another to sing better for God. When he sees and hears them, Christ rejoices and sends them his peace; where the two are, there he also is, and there is no evil. (Ad Uxorem II, 9)(21)

This is a remarkable picture of love and harmony in a Christian household. Tertullian has been called a misogynist, for reasons that will be considered in the next chapter, but he seems to have been happily married and been a loving, respectful husband to his wife. For him, married life is a partnership, not only in the material matters of daily life, but in the Christian service carried out through the household. At the same time, Tertullian sees the man as the head of the household and, additionally, as the one who takes the primary concern for what happens outside the household.(22)

The Fourth Century Fathers

The fourth century is the great age of patristic Christian teaching. For the most part, the Protestant reformers, as well as Catholic and Orthodox authorities, have considered the leading writers of that century the most important Christian teachers after the apostles. From the extensive material in this century, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, and Augustine provide a good picture of the teaching on the Christian family household of fourth century Christians, both East and West.(23)

Ambrose (d. 397), the bishop of Milan, was the great leader of Western Christianity in his day and one of the foremost teaching authorities of the Western church. The following quotations illustrate his view of husband-wife relationships:

Grace is not only for men, while woman would be alien to sanctification; and the nature of the two sexes is distinct so that bodies are not confused in procreation. Men have their tasks, and women have the precise functions of their sex. The generation of human succession belongs to women; it is impossible to man. (De Cain et Abel 1, 10, 46)(24)

Woman must respect her husband, not be a slave to him; she consents to be ruled, not to be forced. The one whom a yoke would fit is not fit for the yoke of marriage. As to man, he should guide his wife like a pilot, honor her as a partner in life, share with her as a co-heir of grace. (Ep. LXIII, 79)(25)

How great is the power of marriage, that the stronger is also at the service of the other. (De Viduis 13, 79)(26)

Most of Ambrose's teaching on the role of women comes in the context of his teaching on virginity but, as the above quotations indicate, his writings also contain basic instructions on marriage. They show that fourth century Christian households were formed on the same principles as those of 200 A.D. and the New Testament period. The husband is clearly the head of the family, but at the same time the wife is his partner in daily life and in spiritual matters. The woman subordinates herself freely to her husband. Man and woman alike have their different responsibilities within the family and therefore in other areas of life as well.

John Chrysostom (d. 407), the Antiochene presbyter who became bishop of Constantinople, was a close contemporary of Ambrose. His writings provide a corresponding picture of family life from the Eastern church. Chrysostom preached more often than Ambrose about family life and, consequently, his writings give a somewhat fuller picture of his thought in this area. The following quotations are characteristic of his approach: And that not only in cities, but also in each family there might be greater unanimity, He honoured the man with rule and superiority; the woman on the other hand He armed with desire: and the gift also of procreation of children, He committed in common to both, and withal He furnished also other things apt to conciliate love: neither entrusting all to the man, nor all to the woman: but "dividing these things also severally to each;" to her entrusting the household, and to him the market; to him the work of feeding, for he tills the ground; to her that of clothing, for the loom and the distaff are the woman's. (Homily XXXIV on I Cor)(27) Since our lives consist of two kinds of affairs, public and private, the Lord has divided the task between man and woman: to her he has assigned the responsibility of the home, while to man is assigned the affairs of state, all those affairs which occur in public—trials, consultations, army orders, and all the rest. Quales Ducendae Sint Uxores)(28)

Further, in order that the one might be subject, and the other rule; (for equal honor is wont oftentimes to bring in strife;) he suffered it not to be a democracy, but a monarchy; and as in an army, this order one may see in every family. In the rank of monarch, for instance, there is the husband; but in the rank of lieutenant and general, the wife; and the children too are allotted a third station in command. Then after these a fourth order, that of servants. For these also bear rule over their inferiors, and some one of them is oftentimes set over the whole, keeping ever the post of the master, but still as a servant, And together with this again another command, and among the children themselves again another, according to their age, and according to their sex; since among the children the female does not possess equal sway. And everywhere has God made governments at small distances and thick together, that all might abide in concord and much good order. Therefore even before the race was increased to a multitude, when the first two only were in being, He bade him govern, and her obey. And in order again that He might not despise her as inferior, and separate from her, see how He honored her, and made them one and even before her creation. (Homily XXXIV on 1 Cor)(29)

The wife is a second authority; let not her then demand equal honor for she is is under the head; nor let him despise her as being in subjection, for she is the body; and if the head despise the body, it will itself also perish. But let him bring in love as a counterpoise to obedience; as is the case with the head and the body; the body yielding the hands, the feet, and all the rest of the members for service, the head providing for the body, and containing all feeling in itself. Nothing can be better than this union … Hence he places the one in subjection, and the other in authority that there may be peace; for where there is equality of ranks there can never be peace; neither where a house in a democracy, nor where all are rulers; but the ruling power must of necessity be one. (Homily XX on Ephesians)(30)

You have seen the measure of obedience, hear also the measure of love. Would you have your wife obedient unto you, as the Church is to Christ? Take then the same provident care for her, as Christ takes for the Church. Yes, even if it shall be needful for you to give your life for her, yes, and to be cut into ten thousand pieces, yes, and to endure and undergo any suffering whatever,-refuse it not. Though you should undergo all this, yet you will not, no, not even then, have done anything like Christ … For there is nothing more absolute than these chains, and especially for husband and wife. A servant, indeed, one will be able, perhaps, to bind down by fear; nay not even him, for he will soon start away and be gone. But the partner of one's life, the mother of one's children, the foundation of all one's joy, one ought never to chain down by fear and menaces, but with love and good temper. For what sort of union is that, where the wife trembles at her husband? (Homily XX on Ephesians)(31)

Chrysostom presents a clear picture of the husband-wife relationship in the family. Men and women were made by God for different tasks and spheres of responsibility. if this were not the case, there would be unhealthy competition between them and a tendency for the men to have contempt for the women. They were made to need one another. The wife serves as the manager of the household and as the second head. As Paul taught in his epistles, the husband is the first head, and the wife should subordinate herself to him. The wife should be subordinate, not in a servile way however, but willingly as an equal. The husband honors his wife and cares for her, relying upon her as part of himself. Because of her help he is able to care for his proper responsibility—the public sphere. Together, they form a little cell of the Christian community, for "a house is a little church" in which God is worshipped and served.(32)

Augustine (d. 431) completes the picture of Christian family life in the fourth century church. He was the bishop of Hippo in North Africa, and was the most influential figure in Western Christian teaching in the ages that followed. Although his treatment of family life is not as extensive as Chrysostom's, there is enough material for an adequate picture:

For they are joined one to another side by side, who walk together, and look together where they walk. Then follows the connection of fellowship in children, which is the one alone worthy fruit, not of the union of male and female, but of the sexual intercourse. For it would be possible that there should exist in either sex, even without such intercourse, a certain friendly and true union of the one ruling, and the other obeying. (De Bono Conjugale: 1, 1)(33)

You, 0 Mother Church, instruct us children in childish fashion. You teach youths with power and the aged in quietude, and you teach every one of these not only in accordance with the ripeness of his years but in accordance with the ripeness of his understanding. You subject the wife to her husband in chaste and faithful obedience, not for the satisfaction of lust, but for the propagation of children and that the bond of the family may be preserved. You make the husband the head of the wife, not for the abuse of the more peaceful sex, but because this is the law of sincere love. You subject the children to the parents that they may freely serve them, and you give the parents a loving dominion over their children. (De Moribus Ecclesiae Catholicae 1, XXX, 63)(34)

Augustine is a controversial teacher in this area because of his views on sex and because of the various later discussions about the effect of those views on Western Christian teaching. However, his view of family life is not particularly controversial, at least not in a way that differs significantly from the other Fathers, and it adds little new to the picture that has emerged so far. More than most of the Fathers, Augustine stresses the idea that woman was given to man as a helper for reproduction. But he does not hold that woman therefore has no purpose outside of marriage, since he believed that consecrated virginity provides a better opportunity for her. The most important feature o her life comes from what she is as a human being and a Christian. As a woman, however, she was created for childbearing, and her sphere of operation is within the family. She is to be subordinate to her husband, and he is to rule over her and care for her. Each has his or her own sphere of responsibility and his or her own tasks.

The teaching of the Fathers of the early church on family life is remarkably uniform. It could be viewed as an extension of and commentary on the scripture texts of the New Testament. Some of the Fathers are significantly clearer on the different spheres of responsibility that underlie the role differences, but those different spheres are also visible in scripture. The Fathers show us that the early Christians had a particular way of life which was especially visible in their family life. They were not like their pagan neighbors, and they did not expect to be.

In some ways patristic teaching is not particularly interesting when it discusses family life. It is more interesting when the Fathers attempt to state the differences between men and women and attempt to provide an understanding of the significance of those differences. It is also more interesting when the Fathers attempt to state the meaning of sex in the Christian life. But the patristic teaching on the roles of men and women in family life does not contain the same variety or tendency to further develop what is contained in scripture. The reason for this is not difficult to find. Many of the Fathers were educated men who thought seriously about the reasons for the Christian approach to various areas, and they felt a need to defend Christianity against its critics. They therefore developed "theologies" of men-women differences and of sex. However, in their instructions on family life and the roles of men and women, the Fathers saw themselves more as pastors who were simply passing on a tradition received from the scriptures. This tradition was not controversial among Christians, even when it differed significantly from the approach of their pa gan neighbors. Nor did it differ among Christians from country to country or culture to culture. In short, the teaching on the roles of men and women in family and household is one of the best examples available of a consistent, faithful passing on of Christian tradition.

Post-Patristic Tradition

To continue to trace and illustrate Christian teaching on husband wife roles any further in history would go beyond the scope of this book and add little to the basic point. Up until the last century, there has been a continuous teaching about the equality of spiritual status in Christ of man and woman, about the husband being the head of the family, and about the husband and wife having different spheres of responsibility. Catholics, Orthodox, the major reformers, the Evangelical movement-all were agreed on this point.(35) All Christians saw a clear teaching in scripture, unambiguously supported in the Fathers, and they were committed to a Christian approach to family life, even when they might not live out that commitment well.

In recent years, the Christian approach to family life has not so much been overturned as faded. In the early stages of this process, there were often vigorous protests by Christian leaders. The following quote from a modem church leader, in this case Pius XI, illustrates the kind of attempts that Christian leaders have made to reaffirm the Christian approach to family life in the midst of the social currents of the modem world:

This order includes both the primacy of the husband with regard to the wife and children, and the ready submission of the wife and her willing obedience, which the Apostle commands in these words: "Let women be submissive to their husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the Church" (Eph 5:23).

This submission, however, does not deny or take away the liberty which fully belongs to the woman both in view of her dignity as a human person, and in view of her most noble office as wife and mother and companion; nor does it bid her obey her husband's every request if not in harmony with right reason or with the dignity due to the wife; nor in fine, does it imply that the wife should be put on a level with those persons who in law are called minors, to whom it is not customary to allow free exercise of their rights on account of their lack of mature judgment, or of their ignorance of human affairs. But it forbids that exaggerated liberty which cares not for the good of the family; it forbids that in this body which is the family, the heart be separated from the head to the great detriment of the whole body and the proximate danger of ruin. For if the man is the head, the woman is the heart, and as he occupies the chief place in ruling, so she may and ought to claim for herself the chief place in love.

Again, this submission of wife to husband in its degree and manner may vary according to the different conditions of persons, place, and time. In fact, if the husband neglect his duty, it falls to the wife to take his place in directing the family. But the structure of the family and its fundamental law, established and confirmed by God, must always and everywhere be maintained intact.

With great wisdom Our predecessor, Leo XIII, of happy memory, in the Encyclical on Christian marriage which We have already mentioned, speaking of this order to be maintained between man and wife, teaches: "The husband is the chief of the family, and the head of the wife. The woman, because she is flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone, must be subject to her husband and obey him, not indeed, as a servant, but as a companion, so that her obedience shall be wanting in neither honour nor dignity. Since the husband represents Christ, and since the wife represents the Church, let there always be, both in him who commands and in her who obeys, a heavenborn love guiding both in their respective duties."(36)

This quotation is paralleled by similar statements from leaders of every Christian tradition.

Later in this book we will consider the reasons why the social currents of the modern world work against the approach to family life taught in the scriptures and handed on by the Fathers. At this point, it is enough to observe that there are few instances where it is clearer that a change in the approach of Christians is an abandonment of Christian tradition, and not only of tradition, but of every source of authoritative teaching that can lay claim on a Christian.


1. A very positive view of tradition among modern thinkers is often to be found among cultural anthropologists. For a helpful discussion of tradition from the cultural perspective see Lutzbetak, pp. 115-116.

2. For a good summary of tradition in the New Testament, see Congar, Tradition and Traditions, pp. 12-22. See also "Tradition" in New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 14, pp. 225-228. Recent Catholic thinking tends to emphasize this latter aspect.

3. Examples of the consciousness of the early church that it had received its teaching from the apostles, and of the importance that it placed on that fact, can be found in Clement of Rome (Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, part 1, vol. 11, pp. 135ff), Irenaeus (PG 7, 1056), and Tertullian (PL 2, 32-33).

4. The concern of this and the next chapter will be with what could be called "the monuments of tradition," (for a discussion of the concept, see Congar, pp. 427ff), those written documents which are indications of teaching passed on by the early Christians. These writings are evidence both for the living tradition of the Holy Spirit present among the Christian people and for the teaching tradition passed on from teacher to teacher. I specially as indications of the teaching tradition, they can be used as evidence for what Jesus and the apostles taught. They are, in other words, helpful in interpreting scripture. For an example of how they can be useful, see the discussion of deacons and deaconesses in Chapter Five.

5. Catholics would consider other materials "canonical" besides the canonical scriptures. Some decisions of councils as well as some statements of popes would be in this category. A canonical decision in a doctrinal controversy, however, or a canonical decision on how to order the life of the church would be authoritative ( a "rule" for how to proceed), but it would not be in the same category as inspired, apostolic writings. See Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum, 21.

6. The question of the sources of revelation was debated at Vatican 11. Some Catholic theologians hold that there is revelation passed on in oral tradition that appears in later writings that is not contained in scripture. Other Catholic theologians hold that all authoritative revelation is in scripture, even though it is often not clearly stated and needs tradition for its explication. The issue was not decided at the Council, so that both would have to be considered acceptable Catholic opinions.

7. The primary focus here will be on the earliest tradition, that of the patristic era, which extended roughly over the first five or six centuries after the death of the last apostle. Not all early Christian writers are helpful as witnesses to tradition but, in general, early Christian writers of good reputation who appear to be giving accounts of what they understood to be Christian teaching passed on from the apostles can be of assistance in understanding what the scriptures say. There is an important sense in which the earliest tradition is more helpful and authoritative than later tradition, because an earlier writer is more likely to have received and preserved an undistorted version. For this reason, later teachers have given special weight to the writings of the patristic age. It is sometimes pointed out that later tradition is often more clearsighted on particular issues than is earlier tradition, partly as a result of more reflection over the centuries and partly because of having issues clarified in the course of various controversies. Some would hold, therefore, that later teaching is more reliable. Catholics and Orthodox hold that some issues have been solemnly and deliberately decided by the teaching authority of the whole church and that such elements in later tradition are therefore more authoritative and reliable than many elements in earlier tradition. All other things being equal, however, in the case of a "chain" of tradition over the centuries, an earlier authority has more weight simply because it is earlier and there is less likelihood of distortion. The primary focus of these chapters, therefore, is with the earliest tradition, the tradition of the patristic era.

8. It is beyond the scope of this book to give a full survey of early Christian writings on this subject, and there appear to be no adequate scholarly surveys of the material to date.

9. For the critical text, see J.B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, Part 1, Vol. 11, p. 11.

10. Lightfoot, 1/11, pp. 75-78.

11. Lightfoot, 11/11, pp. 347-350.

12. Lightfoot, 11/111, pp. 328-330.

13. For two helpful treatments of the Alexandrian Fathers and their views on marriage, see Jean-Paul Broudehoux, Manage et Farnille chez Clenicnt d'Alexandrie, (Theologie Historique 11), (Paris: Beauchesne et ses fils, 1970) and Henri Crouzel, Virginite et Mariage selon Origene, (Paris: DesclOe de Brouwer, 1962).

14. PG 8, 260.

15. PG 8, 1271.

16. PG 8, 621-622.

17. PG 8, 1182.

18. PG 8, 1211.

19. Sources Chretiennes, no. 7, p. 129.

20. For a somewhat balanced view of Tertullian's writings on marriage, see Igino Giordani, The Social Message of the Early Church Fathers, (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1977), pp. 220-243. Tavard, pp. 56-62, also makes some attempt to offer a balanced view of Tertullian's views. Many feminist writers (for example, A. Swindler, p. 13) display no effort to present an accurate overview of Tertullian's attitudes toward marriage, and toward women in general. Rather, they choose from among his most offensive statements to characterize his position.

21. CSEL 1, 393-394.

22. The Didascalia Apostolorum, probably written in Syria in the third century, adds its witness to the third century Church Fathers in teaching the following: "And let a woman also be subject to her husband; because the head of the woman is the man, and the head of a man that walks in the way of justice is Christ. After the Lord Almighty, our God and the Father of the worlds, of the present and of that which is to come, and the Lord of every breath and of all powers, and this living and Holy Spirit-to whom is glory and honour for evermore, Amen-woman, fear your husband and reverence him, and please him alone, and be ready to minister to him (there follows a quote from Prv 31:10-31). Didascalia III, Connolly, pp. 20-22.

23. The literature describing the views of marriage held by these great Fathers is not extensive in quantity or very helpful on the whole. See, however, the helpful treatment of Chrysostom in Moulard, St. Jean Chrysostome, le defenseur du mariage et l'apotre de la virginite, (Paris 1923). Of some use in the study of Augustine's thought is K.E. Borreson's Subordination et equivalence. Nature et role de la femme d'apres Augustin et Thomas d'Aquin, (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1968).

24. PL 34, 357-358.

25. PL 16, 1270.

26. PL 16, 272.

27. PG 61, 292.

28. PG 51, 230ff.

29. PG 61, 290.

30. PG 62, 140-141.

31. PG 62, 136-137.

32. John Chrysostom, Homily XX on Ephesians, (PG 62, 143).

33. PL 40, 373.

34. PL 32, 1336.

35. Examples from Protestant sources are numerous. From among the Reformers, see Luther, Lectures on Genesis in Luther's Works, Vol. 1, (St. Louis: Concordia, 1964) pp. 202-203, and Calvin, Commentary on Genesis in Commentaires de Jean Calvin sur I'Ancien Testament, Vol. I, (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1961) pp. 57, 81. See Zerbst, pp. 96-103, for further Protestant examples.

36. Casti Connubu (31 December 1930) pp. 19, 20.

Did you find this resource helpful?

You, too, can help support the ministry of CBMW. We are a non-profit organization that is fully-funded by individual gifts and ministry partnerships. Your contribution will go directly toward the production of more gospel-centered, church-equipping resources.

Donate Today