A perennial question in the gender debate concerns how much the New Testament writers adopted the “patriarchal status quo” in their writings and whether they attempted to subvert that status quo through their teachings. When Paul speaks about wives submitting to husbands, was he simply instructing Christians how to live well in their current cultural context or was he articulating a theological truth which transcends all cultural distinctives?
How should our knowledge of first-century, Greco-Roman culture inform our exegesis with respect to gender? John Piper and Wayne Grudem address these issues in Fifty Crucial Questions.
Question 15: Don’t you think that these texts are examples of temporary compromise with the patriarchal status quo, while the main thrust of Scripture is toward the leveling of gender-based role differences?
We recognize that Scripture sometimes regulates undesirable relationships without condoning them as permanent ideals. For example, Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Matthew 19:8). Another example is Paul’s regulation of how Christians sue each other, even though “the very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already” (1 Corinthians 6:1-8). Another example is the regulation of how Christian slaves were to relate to their masters, even though Paul longed for every slave to be received by his master “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 16).
But we do not put the loving headship of husbands or the godly eldership of men in the same category with divorce, lawsuits, or slavery. The reason we don’t is threefold:
Question 17: Since the New Testament teaching on the submission of wives in marriage is found in the part of Scripture known as the “household codes” (Haustafeln), which were taken over in part from first-century culture, shouldn’t we recognize that what Scripture is teaching us is not to offend against current culture but to fit in with it up to a point and thus be willing to change our practices of how men and women relate, rather than hold fast to a temporary first-century pattern?
This is a more sophisticated form of the kind of questions already asked in question 15 and question 16. A few additional comments may be helpful. First of all, by way of explanation, the “household codes” refer to Ephesians 5:22-6:9, Colossians 3:18-4:1, and less exactly 1 Peter 2:13-3:7, which include instructions for pairs of household members: wives/husbands, children/parents, and slaves/masters.
Our first problem with this argument is that the parallels to these “household codes” in the surrounding world are not very close to what we have in the New Testament. It is not at all as though Paul simply took over either content or form from his culture. Both are very different from the nonbiblical “parallels” that we know of.
Our second problem with this argument is that it maximizes what is incidental (the little that Paul’s teaching has in common with the surrounding world) and minimizes what is utterly crucial (the radically Christian nature and foundation of what Paul teaches concerning marriage in the “household codes”). We have shown in question 15 and question 16 that Paul is hardly unreflective in saying some things that are superficially similar to the surrounding culture. He bases his teaching of headship on the nature of Christ’s relation to the church, which he sees “mysteriously” revealed in Genesis 2:24 and, thus, in creation itself.
We do not think that it honors the integrity of Paul or the inspiration of Scripture to claim that Paul resorted to arguing that his exhortations were rooted in the very order of creation and in the work of Christ in order to justify his sanctioning temporary accommodations to his culture. It is far more likely that the theological depth and divine inspiration of the apostle led him not only to be very discriminating in what he took over from the world but also to sanction his ethical commands with creation only where they had abiding validity. Thus we believe that there is good reason to affirm the enduring validity of Paul’s pattern for marriage: Let the husband, as head of the home, love and lead as Christ does the church, and let the wife affirm that loving leadership as the church honors Christ.
Other posts from Fifty Crucial Questions include:
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