Here’s something that has come up in a couple of conversations lately . . .
Womanhood and Manhood
I know of pastors who not only teach that wives are to be submissive to their own husbands, but also teach that, as a general principle, all women are to be submissive to all men. John Piper is one such person who is very outspoken on this issue. He explains in books, articles, and videoed conversations that all men are wired to lead, and that all women are to affirm, support, submit to, and even nurture the supposed masculine leadership and authority of men. Piper, and a few others who believe that God has ordained a gender hierarchy in marriage and in the church, defines manhood and womanhood purely in terms of authority and submission.
Instructions for wives to submit to their husbands are mentioned five times in the New Testament. In each of these occasions, the verses are part of the passages that have been labelled “household codes” (Eph. 5:21-3:6; Col. 3:18-4:1), or they are part of passages that have some similarities with household codes (Tit. 2:2-10; 1 Pet. 2:18-3:7). The more I study the first-century Mediterranean world and the more I study the early church, the more I’m convinced that these household codes were a concession to the Greco-Roman culture, but with some interesting twists.
Childhood and Parenthood
Children are also mentioned in the household codes, where they are told to obey their parents, both their father and mother (Eph. 6:1-3; Col. 3:20). All the instructions in the household codes reflect the society of the first-century Greco-Roman world and, in that society, all children, including adult children, were expected to obey their paterfamilias (the senior man of the family). They were also expected to obey their parents. (A person’s father may not necessarily be the paterfamilias of an extended household. On the other hand, some households were governed by a materfamilias.)
In some cultures today, we still see that adult children are expected to be obedient to their parents. Likewise, in the household codes of Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3, children are instructed to obey their mother as well as their father. There is no gender hierarchy here between fathers and mothers.
Paul expected grown sons to honour and obey their mothers.
While I believe, as a general principle, children should obey their own parents, I have never heard John Piper, or any other pastor teach that all children should obey all parents. Furthermore, I have never heard anyone define childhood purely in terms of obedience to parents.
Slavery and Female Masters
Slaves made up another sector of the average first-century Greco-Roman household. It has been estimated that about a third of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves.
Christian slaves are addressed in the New Testament household codes, where they are told to obey their masters, even their unsaved masters (Eph. 6:5-8; Col. 3:22ff; Tit. 2:9-10; 1 Pet. 2:18ff). Thankfully, this is a principle that churches rarely insist on, especially as slavery has been outlawed in many nations. In Western society we try to rescue and free slaves, rather than insist they obey their masters.
But the thing that I have noticed in recent conversations is that when people think of masters, they tend to think of men. Many masters in New Testament times, however, were women; and many women had male slaves. The author of the Shepherd of Hermas is just one example of a man who had been sold to a female master (HermVis 1:1).
Male slaves with female masters were included in the New Testament instructions for slaves to obey their masters. Conversely, women masters were included in the instructions to masters (Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1).
Paul expected male slaves to obey and be submissive to their female masters.
The obedience of slaves was simply a normal part of first century Greco-Roman society. In the Greco-Roman world there was not only a gender hierarchy (women were considered inferior to men), but there was also a hierarchy of slave and free (slaves were considered inferior to free men and free women.)
How do hierarchical complementarians, such as John Piper, reconcile their own notions of manhood and womanhood with the instructions of the apostles Paul and Peter that children (including adult sons) should obey their parents (including their mothers), and that slaves (including male slaves) should obey their masters (including female masters)? And why do complementarians rely on the household codes, which included concessions to an ancient culture, to support their views on so-called “gender roles”?
Most people now recognise that no group or sector of humanity is inferior to another group. We are all intrinsically equal. This is especially true for Christians who are all one in Christ and are children of the same Father. As brothers and sisters we are all to mutually support, serve, and submit to one another. There is no place for hierarchies, or one-sided submission and servitude, in the body of Christ. The idea that God has given all men authority over all women is false and has no biblical basis.
”Household codes” is the “translation of the German Haustafeln, used by commentators for a literary type developed for ethical instruction in the Hellenistic world, adopted by Jewish Hellenistic synagogues, and thence by the NT (Col. 3: 18–4: 1, but also Eph. 5: 22–6: 9; 1 Tim. 2: 9–15; Titus 2: 2–10; 1 Pet. 2: 13–3: 7). The codes were an attempt by leaders of the Christian community to establish a pattern of family and social life not unlike that of traditional families among Gentile and Jewish contemporaries in the Graeco-Roman world. . . .”
“household codes” in A Dictionary of the Bible. Ed. W. R. F. Browning. Oxford Biblical Studies Online. http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/article/opr/t94/e912.
 Even in the ancient Roman world, the backdrop of the New Testament, it was recognised that few men had a significant authority over others; it was also recognised that a few women had an authority over others, both men and women. Authority was linked to complex customs and patterns surrounding social status, wealth, and patronage.
Illustration is of Flavia interrogating her slave Malchus, from the book The Young Carthaginian: A Story of the Times of Hannibal by G. A. Henty, published in 1887. Illustrated by C. J. Staniland.
Leading Together in the Home
Wifely Submission and Holy Kisses
Mutual Submission is not a Myth
Mutual Submission in First Clement
Gender Equality in Second Clement
“Equality” in Paul’s Letters
Wealthy Women in the First-Century Roman World and in the Church