Should Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 Be Attributed to God? image

Should Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 Be Attributed to God?

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There are a lot of things I could say about David Instone-Brewer’s article about Esther in Christianity this month, but I’m inclined to let the ancient texts speak for themselves. For those who missed it, Instone-Brewer’s argument runs like this:
  • 1. There was a battle between two rival family structures in the ancient world: the Jewish one, in which “many feisty and independent women are celebrated”, and the Gentile (Persian and Greek) one, in which “women were inferior to men”. Esther was trying to defeat the latter.
  • 2. The Persian and Greek one was victorious by the time of the New Testament, such that we ended up with Aristotle’s threefold submission (wives and husbands, children and fathers, slaves and masters) being incorporated into both Jewish thinking (in Philo and Josephus) and even Christian thinking (Titus 2:5; Eph 5:22-6:9; Col 3:18-4:1; 1 Tim 2:9-3:7; 6:1-2; 1 Pet 2:18-3:7), for fear of appearing “uncouth and immoral in the eyes of their Gentile overlords”.
  • 3. Consequently, these texts should not be seen as part of God’s word to us. After all, not everything in the Bible is spoken by God; some is spoken by fools (Psa 53:1), drunken kings (Est 1:22) and pagan poets (Titus 1:12). In the same way, Peter and Paul are merely citing Aristotle’s three rules of submission in these passages, and therefore “we should not automatically attribute these to God and consider them to be part of his perfect law.”
  • 4. It is therefore an ironic paradox (?) that Christians continue to live as Paul and Peter instructed, since these days, gender inequality is considered immoral (rather than moral) by unbelievers.
  • I don’t have any particular quibbles with #1, other than its rather selective nature (there are, as critics never tire of telling us, a whole bunch of Jewish texts that aren’t quite as feminist as modern academics might like them to be). I regularly teach on the difference between Jewish and pagan ways of thinking about women, and agree with Instone-Brewer’s general point here.

    My problems begin with #2, partly because I disagree with the key point (that Judeo-Christian Haustafels were merely “citing” Aristotle to avoid offending pagans, rather than seeing creational and even Christological principles at work in human relationships, and using Aristotle’s threefold structure to reform and subvert the existing paradigm), and partly because Instone-Brewer has represented the ancient sources – which few readers of Christianity are likely to have – in such a misleading way (at least, if I have understood him rightly; I’m happy to be corrected on this point). His two Jewish sources are Philo’s Hypothetica 7:2-3, and Josephus’s Contra Apionem 2:24-30, both of which, he argues, encourage Aristotle’s rules to avoid seeming immoral to their Gentile overlords. Ewok resonances notwithstanding, this is simply not how either explains their position. Neither refers to the need not to offend Gentiles, and on the contrary, Josephus explicitly links his teaching to the Torah:

    But, then, what are our laws about marriage? That law owns no other mixture of sexes but that which nature hath appointed, of a man with his wife, and that this be used only for the procreation of children. But it abhors the mixture of a male with a male; and if any one do that, death is its punishment. It commands us also, when we marry, not to have regard to portion, nor to take a woman by violence, nor to persuade her deceitfully and knavishly; but to demand her in marriage of him who hath power to dispose of her, and is fit to give her away by the nearness of his kindred; for, says the Scripture, “A woman is inferior to her husband in all things.” Let her, therefore, be obedient to him; not so that he should abuse her, but that she may acknowledge her duty to her husband; for God hath given the authority to the husband ... The law ordains also, that parents should be honored immediately after God himself, and delivers that son who does not requite them for the benefits he hath received from them, but is deficient on any such occasion, to be stoned. It also says that the young men should pay due respect to every elder, since God is the eldest of all beings ... He hath also provided for such as are taken captive, that they may not be injured, and especially that the women may not be abused. (Con. Ap., 2:25, 28, 30)

    He also gives many other injunctions, such as these, that wives shall serve their husbands, not indeed in any particular so as to be insulted by them, but in the spirit of reasonable obedience in all things; that parents shall govern their children for their preservation and benefit; that every one shall be the lord of his own possessions, provided he has not dedicated them to God, nor spoken of God as their owner; but if he has vowed them only by a single word, then it is not lawful for him to lay hands upon or to touch them, but he must at once separate himself from them all. (Hyp, 7:3)

    This is not to say, of course, that concern about Gentile perception played no part in their instructions. It is simply to say that they do not, as would appear from Instone-Brewer’s article, express their motivations that way, but rather find their grounding, in Josephus’ case, in the Jewish Law (which also explains the very countercultural instructions about homosexuality and stoning children, which would not obviously be designed to avoid appearing uncouth and immoral in the eyes of Gentiles).

    But worse is to come when the New Testament texts are considered. In fact, the four bêtes noires for the contemporary egalitarian interpreter (Eph 5-6, Col 3, 1 Tim 2-3 and 1 Pet 2-3) do not mention the concern about the perception of Gentiles at all. Instead, these texts repeatedly ground their instructions in the scriptures, the created order, the nature of life “in the Lord”, and the relationship between Christ and the church:

    Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Eph 5:22-33)

    Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honour your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him. (Eph 6:1-9)

    We could go on, but you get the point. Paul’s (and elsewhere, Peter’s) stated basis for instructing believers in this way is not, as Instone-Brewer claims, merely to avoid appearing uncouth and immoral to the pagan world around them; it is grounded in the scriptures, the way of Christ, creation and the gospel, even when it uses a traditional Haustafel structure. So to say, as Instone-Brewer does, that “Jews and Christians followed Aristotle’s rules in order to avoid being dismissed as ‘immoral’”, and therefore that modern Christians should not assume these represent God’s word to us – even to the point of mocking those who continue to live by them as ironic and paradoxical, on the grounds that “gender inequality is now considered immoral by unbelievers” – is unfair in its approach to fellow believers, unrepresentative of the ancient sources on which such a conclusion is based, and functionally dismissive of a whole raft of biblical material that has shaped and sustained godly marriages for twenty centuries.

    Recently, in an article on whether egalitarianism should be seen as a slippery slope (my conclusion was “it depends on why someone is an egalitarian”), I summarised four varieties of egalitarianism that I had come across. To these, it seems, we must now add a fifth:

    Exegetical egalitarianism. Some argue that we should do whatever the New Testament says, but that when the exegesis is done properly, there is no restriction on women being elders in the New Testament. The famous prohibition of 1 Timothy 2:12 is about teaching false doctrine in a way that usurps or undermines men, and need not imply eldership was off-limits; the requirement for elders to be “one women men” simply means that men were the only people in that world who would be polygamous; and the wide range of women in key roles in his churches indicates that Paul had no problem with women teaching or leading men. This is the position of Tom Wright, for example. Personally I do not agree with it, but it is certainly not a slippery slope to liberalism.

    Experiential egalitarianism. Others are egalitarian because, no matter what Paul or anyone else might say, their experience indicates that women can be elders, and that’s that. This might be personal (“I’ve felt God tell me to do this, and you’ve got no right to say that’s wrong”), or observational (“so-and-so is a woman, and she’s an elder, and God is blessing her, so how can that be wrong?”), or even societal (“the world has changed, and if we keep doing this, they’ll think we’re idiots”). This is completely different, and in putting personal experience above the scriptures, has already crossed a critical line on the slide towards liberalism (even if it never ends up there).

    Trajectory hermeneutic egalitarianism. This is the idea that the New Testament doesn’t give us God’s definitive ethic, but it gives us an important stepping stone (or series of stepping stones) towards it. So yes, the apostles thought wives should submit to their husbands, but that doesn’t mean we should; after all, they were children of their time, and God was trying to draw them forwards into new levels of equality and inclusivity. This again, in putting “where we feel the New Testament is heading” above “what the New Testament says”, is likely to cause all sorts of other problems down the line, as recent announcements on gay marriage have illustrated.

    “Kingdom now” egalitarianism. I was in a recent conversation with two pastors in a Vineyard church. They made the argument that we should all be egalitarians, because the essence of the Christian life is to bring the future kingdom into the present, and there will be no submission of wives to husbands in marriage, or distinctions in gender roles in the church, in the new creation. Once more, although I don’t agree with it, this argument is obviously not a slippery slope leading to liberalism. It is, however, a slippery slope leading to celibacy. (Take your time).

    “God never said it” egalitarianism. All of the New Testament texts involving women and men having different parts to play in marriage or the church are, despite appearances, extended citations of Aristotle which we should ignore unless we live in heavily patriarchal societies. Thank goodness for that.

    Admittedly, that last paragraph verges on the snarky. But when respected evangelical scholars start telling large audiences that they can pretty much ignore various New Testament passages, and implicitly that strong women like Deborah, Esther and Miriam cannot coexist with Christ-and-the-church-shaped submission in marriage, I do tend to get irked. I think the apostles would have, too.

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