Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Christian Home

Image result for family dinner

This essay was prepared for a discussion of Ephesians 5:22 - 6:9 on May 21 and 28, 2017. These few verses have been used in arguments about the roles of women and men in society, the church, and the home. 
My primary objective in this essay is to challenge the methods of those who gloss over the antediluvian biblical teaching about the household codes set forth by the author of Ephesians[i] toward the end of the letter (5:21-6:9). My secondary objective is to present arguments for gender equality by emphasizing ethical principles consistent with the teachings of Jesus and Paul and simultaneously to challenge the loophole-theology employed by some evangelicals. I have not heard any Christians arguing for slavery in recent years; yet I think a review of Paul’s teaching worthwhile considering the selective cover-up of Paul’s affirmation of this inhumane practice. Paul’s directive that slaves ought to be obedient is crucial to understanding the contribution of first century Christian morality to the temporal extension of the horrific destruction of those who lived in chains of iron as well as those who were even recently restricted by the chains of law and continue to be limited by attitudes that maintain racist walls betwixt people having discernible differences in appearance, behavior, or another recognizable characteristic.

It is a commonplace to consider context when discussing a particular scripture. And it is equally common to criticize another’s arguments by challenging the context. In short, when it comes to selecting a context for any portion of scripture an academic can be as guilty of cherry picking as those who post or tweet a favorite scripture verse with the only context being that person’s fleeting neural activity. My difficulty in limiting the context for Paul’s advice to the Ephesians is his similar comments in other letters[ii] in which he takes us back to the Garden of Eden (1 Tim. 2:14). What we must thus consider is the entirety of the Hebrew Bible.[iii] But even that is not enough.

Other contexts are part of Paul’s cultural milieu. The most obvious of these are norms derived from centuries of Greek and Roman cultures—especially those relevant to an understanding of relationships among God or gods, men, women, children, and slaves. An adequate review of the historical background relevant to Pauline theology would be hard to accomplish in a school semester thus I must risk an abridgement, which will of necessity be incomplete.[iv]

Finally, to understand the ancient text, we must approach the nigh impossible task of decontextualizing the New Testament manuscripts from those aspects of contemporary culture likely to distort any original intent. We have been inundated by perfidious nonsense that passes for instructions to contemporary Christians ignorant of living lives of submission to ancient militaristic male dictators buttressed by divine authority and wielding the chains of imprisonment, which were often a prelude to torturous death for those who might suggest people ought to be treated as equals. Assertiveness is foolhardy when looking at the teeth of a lion.


Without question, the early followers of Jesus were Jews acquainted with the stories and laws attributed to Moses. Certainly, our author quotes or paraphrases many portions of the Hebrew Bible[v] as he offers instruction on one matter or another. So, I begin my look at the Ephesians’ passage by considering the spiritual family and inheritance metaphors with God as a jealous and protective Father (Ex. 20:5) and Israel as the errant bride (Hos. 2:2-23) in a covenant relationship. In parallel to this spiritual family we have an earthly family of nations headed by the patriarch Abraham (Gen 17:5) who was blessed with Isaac, the miracle male child. Following a near death experience explained as Abraham’s obedience, Isaac obtained the culturally desirable blessing of an eternal dynasty of countless descendants. Along the way to Jesus, challenges to the family line emerged but there was always a man to ensure the promised inheritance would not fail.

The stories and laws recorded by the men of Israel reveal the powerful role of earthly fathers who like God retain the power of life and death over their wives, children, and slaves. Moses’ laws[vi] set some parameters on what an earthly father can or cannot do. But like the Greeks and Romans, women, children, and slaves were the chattels of their fathers.[vii] The control over women passed from father to husband. It is worth mentioning that despite the power of fathers and husbands over other humans, the laws differentiated between wives and concubines, male and female children, and slaves. Discrimination has a long history. To understand Paul, we must recognize his use of the slave metaphor.

Paul, a Hellenistic Jew, not only inherited the sacred cultural traditions of his ethnic ancestors but as a Roman citizen born outside Palestine, he appears to be influenced by the laws and customs of the Romans[viii] and the Greeks.[ix] What we have in Ephesians is no surprise to the Ephesians.[x] Everyone knows wives ought to submit to their husbands. Everyone knows children ought to honor their parents. And everyone knows slaves ought to respect and obey their masters. That was the way of the ancient world. And that is the way the secular and Christian world ran, with a few exceptions, until a few decades ago.

What Ephesians might not have known is that Jesus is the head of the church and in this spiritual kingdom everyone lives in submission to Jesus (5:21). Before this Heavenly King, all people are equal—Greeks and Jews, men and women, freemen and slaves (Gal. 3:28). Like earthly Kings, Jesus qua God, has the power of life and death over his subjects (Matt. 10:28). But unlike earthly tyrants, Jesus wants to rule with love (5:1-2).

Like many contemporary pastors, Paul proclaims the spiritual truth of Christ’s love for the church but when faced with liars, thieves, gossips and the immoral, he draws upon old ways to bring about at least the appearance of decency by encouraging the virtuous life. He encourages the Ephesians to shed the old ways as one might remove filthy garments and don righteous raiment (4:22-24). And he reminds readers that our spiritual father holds the power of life and death (5:5-7). The spiritual inheritance of Abraham comes with a high price—the sacrifice of a son. Sharing in the son’s inheritance requires living a life worthy of such high honor.

Now it would appear that some Ephesians were not living up to the expectations of the virtuous life (Eph. 5). In reminding wives, children and slaves of their duty, Paul calls on the head of the family to follow Christ’s example. He must love his wife, and practice self-control in disciplining his children and managing his slaves. Remember, Paul advises, the earthly master and his slave have the same heavenly master.

We are not Ephesians

For the most part, we do not live according to the customs of the Ephesians. And few moderns would want to slavishly adhere to the teachings of Paul. Though in fairness, Paul does recognize some degree of mutuality as in his teaching about conjugal rights.[xi]

As I consider the present state of the Christian family in Western cultures I see many families where the woman is the head of a household having a few children and limited resources.[xii] I see churches that would offer very little to their community if it were not for women volunteering to take on a variety of responsibilities.

When it comes to various types of employment, the best person for a position is sometimes a woman and sometimes a man. On average, there are no significant gender differences in intelligence or the capacity to learn. Western cultures have led the way to considering women as equal with men. The church has lagged behind contemporary western cultures in affirming gender equality.[xiii]

Sexism has a long history in Christianity and continues in many overt and subtle ways within many churches[xiv] and Christian organizations.[xv]

Children are still expected to obey their parents but in most cases,[xvi] they no longer fear their father will end their lives in childhood if they fail to comply with his requests. On average, even disobedient children will have longer lives than was the case in previous centuries. In fact, we could argue that Western cultures have reversed the biblical commandment to read, “Thou shalt honor thy children.” We Westerners live in a culture that glorifies youth and families often to the detriment of the elderly. Ageism is a reality that deserves the attention of all Christians. What we really need is a reminder to show love and respect to everyone regardless of age.

And what about slaves? Well, slaves are few and far between in most Western cultures. Yes, people are still slaves.[xvii] And others are near-slaves. But most humans have more freedom than in most eras of recorded history. One thing we ought not to do is gloss over the obvious meaning of biblical texts when the words are referring to slaves qua human property rather than hired servants.[xviii] If your translation reads servant instead of slave you may be overlooking an inconvenient truth. If we gloss over slave language, we fail to recognize the role of Christianity in supporting the perceived right of churches, clergy, and wealthy Christians to buy, sell, and hold people as property.[xix] And we fail to see the biblical connection to apartheid,[xx] racist laws, and race-based discrimination.[xxi]

How should Christians read Paul?

Frankly, I think we ought to exert some effort to understand what is written before reacting from a semi-free twenty-first century Western cultural perspective. Unfortunately, we find that despite similarities among modern translations, Christians disagree on how to apply the teaching to one’s life. I find myself approaching a sympathetic stance toward fundamentalists who claim something like, “The Bible means what it says” or with worn black leather clad Bible raised, “God’s word says!” My respect does not go to the passionate purveyor of priestly placards announcing one absolute truth or another but to their intentional integrity. That is, sincere fundamentalists aim to live according to the texts they quote.

On the other hand, I find myself frustrated with evangelicals who raise voices of protest pregnant with Pauline passages ranting about rainbows, blathering about bathrooms, or pussy-footing around politicians’ peccancy whilst on the other hand they deftly ignore those inconvenient truths prompting love, kindness, humility, and forgiveness coupled with reminders to care for the needy and marginalized.

Further, I think evangelicals have created a loophole theology of biblical gender equality on slender strands of an honorable mention here and there, a quibble over translating a submission verse,[xxii] or even the recognition of a female leader or two.[xxiii] This type of reasoning around the odious texts has become the hermeneutical pathway to destruction for those intellectually deft enough to drive a locomotive through the gender loophole to discover other biblical inconsistencies that interrupt a pleasurable life.[xxiv] When I see evangelicals ferreting out obscure texts I am reminded of the wiles of the first deception, “Did God really say (Gen. 3:1)?”

I would not be so brash as to say I have the correct answer to interpreting Paul’s inconvenient pronouncements for contemporary cultures. I cannot affirm the harmful outcomes of fundamentalist interpretations of the texts. I might affirm the conclusions reached by evangelicals in matters of gender and ethnicity but as I have already mentioned, I question the adequacy of their methodology. I think the carping about culture has led evangelicals into a moral quagmire of relativism, which has been rejected by some in favor of a move toward the certain safety of fundamentalism. I will not hesitate to say I think the principles within the teachings of Jesus show a better way to a life of freedom than methods aimed at finding freedom through the eye of a hermeneutical needle.

Contemporary Christian morality[xxv] ought to embrace the ethical principles of scripture. In the Christian household and the community, the virtuous life promotes positive relationships but even the virtues mentioned by Paul and others must be subject to principles to avoid self-righteous imperatives. Principles promote just policies and laws as long as one weighs their consequences.

I agree with others who have observed that there is a resemblance to the categorical imperative within Jesus command to love our neighbors and, by an alternate wording the commandment sets a no-harm consequentialist parameter.[xxvi] Thus, in one phrasing, Jesus points toward the two great approaches to morality (Matt. 7:12; 22:39).

Jesus also points people in the direction of making ethical decisions that appear to violate customs such as providing healthcare on the Sabbath (Matt. 12). It takes courage to go against cultural customs—especially religious customs thought to come from God. Finally, I add the words of Jesus echoed in the writings of Paul to replace the old with the new. Old customs and cultures like old garments and old wineskins (Matt. 9: 14-17) are not good enough for the truth that in the Kingdom of heaven there are no ethnic minorities, no gender minorities, and no socioeconomic minorities (Gal. 3:28). Paul points his readers toward freedom and equality as heirs with His Son.

If we are free and equal before God, then let us be free and equal in society, in the church, and in the home. Let us show respect to all persons regardless of gender or age. And let us embrace people regardless of social group as we work with them to sever spiritual and social chains.

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References & Endnotes

Althouse, P. (2016). Jesus, empire, and Christian ethics: Implications for the moral critique of mass incarceration in the United States. In G. W. Sutton and B. Schmidly (eds). Christian morality: An interdisciplinary framework for thinking about contemporary moral issues. Eugene, OR: Pickwick.

Burgess, R.V. (2016). A woman’s place: Perspectives on gender equality. In G. W. Sutton and B. Schmidly (eds). Christian morality: An interdisciplinary framework for thinking about contemporary moral issues. Eugene, OR: Pickwick.

Frankenna, William K. Ethics. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963.

Furnish, V. P. (1985). The moral teaching of Paul: Selected issues. 3rd Edition. Nashville, Abingdon Press.

Mostert, J and van der Spuy, M. (2010). “Truth and Reconciliation: A South African Perspective”. Chapter in Mittelstadt, M. and Sutton, G. (Eds.) Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Restoration: Multidisciplinary Studies from a Pentecostal Perspective. Pickwick Publications.

Sutton, Geoffrey W. A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2016.

[i] Henceforth, I shall use the traditional name of Paul for the author because I do not consider it crucial to this topic to become entangled in a justification of pseudo-Paul, whomever he or they might be. For readers who do not know, many scholars believe Paul did not write the Pastoral Epistles.
[ii] e.g., 1 Cor 14: 34-35; Col 3:18 – 4:1; 1 Tim 2: 11-15.
[iii] In addition to the Septuagint, Paul’s writings have some language in common with works in the Apocrypha. See Goode (2015).
[iv] I have written more about conservative and progressive views of Christian marriage and gender issues in A House Divided, 2016.
[v] For example see Ludlow (2006) Paul’s use of Old Testament; Harrington (2009) Paul’s use of the Old Testament in Romans.
[vi] An interesting aside is the current term “Baby Moses Law” permitting parents to deliver their infants to a Safe Haven site e.g., Texas DFPS.
[vii] Bible quotes illustrating humans as property: Ex. 20:17; 21:7; 22:16-17
[ix] For an example of Greek customs, See
[x] Previously mentioned by Dr. Martin Mittelstadt of Evangel University.
[xi] The mutuality in 1 Cor. 7:3-4 appears to lessen a male-centric marriage suggested in older Hebrew texts.
[xii] For recent household census data, see
[xiii] See Furnish (1985) chapter 4, “Women in the church."
[xiv] I was reminded by Stan Burgess that some Pentecostals (e.g., Assemblies of God) ordain women. This is particularly interesting because of the Assemblies’ conservative position on other matters. I have heard Pentecostals comment on the ministry of women related to their gifting by the Holy Spirit.
[xv] For example, see Ruth Burgess (2016) for a discussion of sexism in religious texts and the church.
[xvi] Child abuse leading to death continues to be a problem in many cultures. Of the people in the household code, contemporary laws only allow adults to hit children. Spanking is legal in all 50 US states and is allowed in many school districts (Nicks, 2014). In 2014, TIME identified 43 countries where spanking is illegal.
[xvii] For example, see “What is Modern Slavery?”
[xviii] For more about the Greek word for slave, doulos, see Read more about Roman slaves at this link: 
[xix] For example, see “Why did so many Christians…” Also see Morrison. “The Religious Defense…”
[xx] Mostert and van der Spuy, 2010.
[xxi] For example, see Althouse, 2016.
[xxii] For example, hypotasso missing in Eph. 5:22 but present in Col. 3:18.
[xxiii] Ruth Burgess (2016) reminds her readers of the Gospel of Mary. According to some feminists, this document and other texts suggests a repression of female voices in early Christianity. For more information on the Gospel of Mary see Also,
[xxiv] Different writers emphasize one point or another to mitigate Paul’s blunt teaching about women. A more scholarly example is the writing of Craig Keener
[xxv] I make no difference between ethics and morals, which is the common practice in moral philosophy.

Monday, May 15, 2017

When Christians Were Divided Over Slavery

Lola in The Atlantic June, 2017

Lola was the slave next door. An American author, Alex Tizon, tells the story of his family slave--a gift from his grandfather to his mother. The troubling story of the unpaid household servant appears in the June 2017 edition of The Atlantic.
Christians were “A House Divided” regarding slavery. As with most other moral issues, Christians quoted the biblical texts to support and condemn slavery. From the perspective of the 21st century it seems absurd until you realize that a particular approache to scripture provides the moral foundation for slavery. A look back may help some Christians be more careful when it comes to slavish biblical interpretation.

When Christians Argued the Moral Case for Slavery

The Christian moral case for slavery can be found in the laws of Moses and the biblical leaders who owned slaves. It is perhaps ironic that the Exodus experience used as a metaphor for God’s deliverance from slavery during American history should contain the laws governing the institution of slavery.

‘’2 When you buy a Hebrew slave,[a] he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. 3 If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out alone.5 But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ 6 then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.” Exodus 21 ESV.

Christians could of course point to support from the Apostle Paul who advised slaves to “obey your masters” (Ephesians 6: 5-9).

Paul’s advice in Ephesians is consistent with his general moral approach, which emphasizes the moral foundation of authority. Other writings provide examples of the moral foundations of purity, care-harm, loyalty, liberty, and equality. In short, Paul provides an example of a conservative approach to Christian morality by integrating Scripture into his thinking to create a Christian worldview and emphasizing certain moral foundations in his discourse.

Paul’s teaching about slavery occurs in the context of rules about households. The meta-metaphor is the relationship of God to the church via Christ who is the head of the church. God is the quintessential Father and all Christians are his children who have the right to a divine inheritance. In Ephesians 5-6, he turns from the spiritual kingdom to address more practical concerns in the Christian household, which reveals his respect for authority and order. Like Christ is head of the church, wives submit to husbands, children honor their parents, and slaves obey their masters.

When it comes to slaves, Paul emphasizes two moral foundations: authority and care-harm. The authority emphasis is evident in the words about submission and obedience. People focused on authority will look for evidence of "moral authority."

The Christian Moral Case Against Slavery

Interestingly, the moral case against slavery can also be derived from the words of Paul. At the immediate level of living within a slave-holding Roman culture, Paul does not just encourage obedience but he directs masters to treat their slaves as they would be treated in recognition that their Master in heaven is the Master of both earthly masters and slaves. The case of Onesimus is often used as an example of Paul’s pleas for Onesimus’ freedom from his master, Philemon. It is frustrating from a contemporary perspective to read Paul's call for slaves to obey their masters.

The moral foundations found in the words of Jesus and Paul provide two bases employed by progressives when they argued against slavery. The love ethic of Jesus, most obvious in the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Mark 12:31), is the preeminent principle. Before advising men about how to treat their slaves, Paul has reminded them of the love of Christ for the church (Ephesians 5). Paul makes the case for Christian love in his writings. Unfortunately, for many, Paul did not condemn slavery as a practice not characterized by love.

Perhaps most relevant to the discussion of slavery is the moral foundation of equality in God’s household where Paul finds“there is neither…slave nor free…for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28. Here in Galatians there is a glimpse that Paul could envision a better world where there would be no ethnic, gender, or class distinctions. 

It would be many centuries before people would make significant progress in reducing inequality among people. Battles have been fought and won but the war is not over.

Twisted Texts

It is easy to accuse Christians who quote scripture when disagreeing with us of twisting biblical texts (e.g., Keener, Slaves and slaveholders). No doubt some play fast and loose with scripture to serve their own ends. Slaves benefit their masters and entire nations as sources of cheap labor. Selling children provides poor families with funds for survival. However, in the case of slavery and scripture, the argument for twisting scripture is not so evident. People who wish to remain true to a close reading of the Bible easily find support for slavery and do not find any condemnation of slavery. It is little wonder that slavery persisted for centuries in Christian cultures.

Justice as Fairness

The case against slavery is derived from the moral principle of justice as fairness and the moral foundation of equality. The case is bolstered by the common accounts of horrific treatment of slaves as less than human property subject to the whims of men motivated by greed and selfishness concerned only with satisfying their own appetites and freely expressing anger upon nearby possessions when some aspect of their desire is frustrated. Alas, principles of morality rarely hold human nature in check. Laws backed by force and informed by moral principles are needed to protect the vulnerable from abuse.
(For readers familiar with philosophy-- I am influenced by John Rawls.)

Notes on Israelite Slavery

Slavery has been common in the world since ancient times. The formation of the nation of Israel from expanded tribal families begins with the well-known story of Moses who leads his enslaved people to freedom.

The Exodus story continued to inspired enslaved people for centuries.

Soon after the Israelites entered their promised land and kingdom formation got off the ground, we see rules governing master-slave relationships. Slavery was indeed a part of Hebrew culture.

Using the Ezra text, scholars figure the ratio of free people to slaves was 5 to 1.

The Bible does not condemn slavery. But the Hebrew laws do identify slave rights and Paul warned against abuse.


Notes on Roman Slavery

Slaves were foreigners, which included POWs and people bought outside Roman lands.

Fathers could sell their children into slavery.

Owners could sell or rent their slaves to others.

Treatment included whipping and branding.

They worked everywhere e.g., homes, farms, mines, roads, buildings

Manumission was a practice of freeing slaves. If by court order, they could become Roman citizens but could not hold office. Any children they bore would be free. PBS

Moral Foundations and Christian Cultures

To read more about moral foundation theory and divisions within Christian cultures, read A House Divided.

Lest we Forget...

“...I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of the land... I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of 'stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.' I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. . . . The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other—devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.”

― Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Friday, May 12, 2017

Paul’s View of Gender Inequality

Image result for prince charles diana stamp
Both were 1.78 metres tall

I support gender equality.

Whether Christian, an adherent of another religion, or having no religious affiliation, I think it important to consider the influence on contemporary attitudes toward women based on interpretations of the Christian texts.

What's the significance of the photo? I will comment below.

I understand the arguments conservative Christians make for supporting different roles for men and women in church, society, and the home. In fact, I think conservatives can find much more support for male superiority in the Bible than progressives can find for gender equality.

I think it’s time for Christians to take a fresh look at the texts that have driven gender inequality for millennia and decide anew why they think women and men should not be equal is all aspects of life. In my view, twisting ancient texts into an agreeable equality-for-all pretzel lacks integrity. I say, give the texts their due, make your peace with some notion of inspiration, and commit to a moral stance—one that declares all people are equal.

The stimulus for this post is my pending talk on the family relationships in the New Testament document knows as Ephesians—the first century letter, imperfectly carved up into six chapters by some Christian about 500 years ago.


"[T]he male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle of necessity extends to all mankind..." Aristotle in Politics.

My first task is to look at the little verse about submission, which causes no end of consternation for contemporary evangelical women not wanting to plunge into the freedoms offered by progressive believers yet somehow hoping they can convince their conservative brethren to get over the submission doctrine and support full equality. In evangelical Christianity, women’s suffrage often suffers from a lack of support. Fundamentalists control the gates of evangelicalism.

To my frustrated female friends and their erstwhile male supporters, I say, consider what you are up against. Let’s be honest. If the problem of inequality could be solved by an honest battle over the true interpretation of the Greek word for submit, the war for equality would be over. But the battle is not just about submission. The battle involves a moral stance that consistently asks women to submit to the authority of scripture as written and interpreted by men for thousands of years. And when it comes to submission, the Israelites shared beliefs with Greeks and Romans.

I have seen arguments about where to carve the submission verses (Ephesians 5:21-22) but those aren’t going to help. The context is far beyond the short letter to the Ephesians. The context is as large as the Bible itself. And the Apostle Paul is just one more man continuing the interpretation of the differences between the sexes as having implications for cultural differences, which create stained glass ceilings in all cathedrals of culture from government to church and the 21st century home. The only window of equality in this massive edifice is the notion that in Jesus humble abode there is no male or female (Galatians 3:38). Other than that window, and a few other holes in the wall, the biblical world is a man’s world ruled by Kings—not queens, Priests—not priestesses, and fathers and husbands not mothers and wives.

The morality of the Apostle Paul conforms to the typical pattern of conservative views. He emphasizes respect for authority. For Paul, as for the Jewish scholars before him, God is the ultimate authority. Like Jesus, Paul quotes from, or paraphrases the words of Moses and the Prophets--perhaps dozens of times—it depends on what you want to count as a quote or paraphrase (Keener, 2014). Authority is important to Paul on a personal level. His authority as an apostle was challenged. He claimed to get his authority directly from Jesus the Christ (Messiah) and from God (2 Corinthians 12: 11-19; Galatians 1:1).

Paul consistently encourages men in the churches to submit to the authority of government (Romans 13; Titus 3:1), which is consistent with the words of other men (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 2:13-14). When Paul writes that women should submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5: 22-25; Colossians 3:18), it is in the context of an orderly hierarchy from God to Jesus to the church. His analogy is that Christ is the head of the church and the man is the head of the woman. Christ does not submit to the church and husbands do not submit to their wives. Paul’s analogy does not permit the notion that Christ is going to be in a mutually submissive relationship with men.

A challenge is sometimes raised by referring to Ephesians 5:21—that’s the verse about “mutualsubmission. Perhaps Paul is confused or perhaps those who want the verse to mean otherwise are ignoring the consistent teaching about wives submitting to husbands. Logically, the 5:21 verse about mutual submission fits with the previous section directing men within the church to submit to each other. True, a few women are mentioned in Paul’s letters (e.g., Romans 16). But let’s be honest, Paul makes some specific comments about women, which are not very supportive of equality in the church (1 Corinthians 14; 1 Timothy 2). It really isn’t any wonder why Christians have not supported equality for centuries—and many still don’t.

Paul’s cultural context has a history of not supporting women as equal with men. We have already noted that Paul quoted from the books attributed to Moses and the Prophets. He knew the scrolls we call the Old Testament. Paul takes readers back to the beginning to establish his concerns about women. He reminds the Corinthians (2 Cor. 11:3) that it was Eve who was deceived by the serpent in Genesis. And he reminds Timothy (1 Tim 2:13-14) of the same point-- making it clear that it was Eve and not Adam who was deceived. Think about Paul’s view of women through the lens of Eve’s deception. It’s as if Eve is a prototypical woman.

As I have written elsewhere (A House Divided, 2016), biblical teaching on women makes it clear that they were under the authority of their fathers who then transferred authority to their husbands. In the Law of Moses, Fathers—not daughters-- were to be compensated if their daughters were violated (Deuteronomy 22:29). There isn’t much concern for women in this law is there? Yes, I know there’s a very nice chapter in Proverbs 31 where a husband, at the city gates with the other ruling men (v. 23), is blessed because his wife takes on all kinds of responsibilities from early morning to late at night.

I support equality for women. I just don’t find support for equality in Paul’s writings. The summary in 1 Timothy 2:11 is pretty consistent with his teaching on women and the preponderance of Scripture before Paul sailed around the Roman Empire: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man…” (emphasis added). The Timothy text is consistent with Paul's teaching, Israel's old laws, and Roman culture-- women have limited roles in life compared to men.


In my view, Paul’s ethical stance on love is consistent with Jesus’ love ethic. In the context of his culture, Paul likely elevated women in the Christian community through his recognition of them and his consistent warning to husbands to love their wives. The teaching and actions of Jesus and Paul revealed a counter-cultural transformative love-based shift to consider women as people rather than property. While not attacking the cultural norms governing life on earth, Paul made it clear in that in the Kingdom of Heaven women and men were equals.

Paul was no misogynist. But he was no supporter of gender equality either. Like all humans, Paul was a product of his culture. I don’t doubt he was inspired. And he often pointed readers in the direction of living a virtuous life—a life bearing fruits that nourish relationships in love, kindness, generosity, and so forth.

It’s no surprise that sincere Christian fundamentalists, adhering to biblical texts, want to be kind and loving toward women but cannot get past the texts. They see the texts clear enough. They are not lacking intelligence nor do they lack integrity. Instead, those evangelicals who try to bend the texts to support biblical equality walk the more precarious path for their path teaches people to look for loopholes, textual inconsistencies, mistranslations of Greek words, and small hints that a wealthy woman here or there got some respect and seemed to be a leader.

To me, the only honest way to get around Paul’s teaching about women being silent and submissive is to take the cultural route-- put off the old man in Paul's language. Paul spoke to men in a male-dominated culture, which has been true of human relationships in most places during human history. The rare places where women were honored are few and far between in the extant historical records. The principle of loving God and one’s neighbor and the principle that regardless of ethnicity, gender, or social status, all are children of God are the kind of principles on which a progressive moral stance of equality has a firm foundation. This moral stance does not attempt to challenge biblical authors for their inconsistencies nor does it seek to locate other proof texts like a child seeking a treat from one parent when the other has said no.

A principled morality requires the courage to discover moral principles and apply them within their cultural milieu. In this way, people can still say they know Christians by their love (John 13:35).

Some Additional Thoughts

Submission is a Serious Concern

I have a serious concern about the doctrine of submission as it has sometimes been practiced. In fact, Paul’s teaching that men must love their wives is crucial to the well-being of women encouraged to submit to men. Other biblical teachings that limited divorce options for women have kept submissive women chained to abusive men out of fear of eternal damnation for sinning against God. It is one thing to remind men of their duty to love their wives but it is quite another thing to ensure that men do not abuse their supposed authority to keep their wives in submission by force.

The Unchained Progressive Christian Approach

It might be tempting for fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals to think that progressive Christians, untethered by the literalistic interpretations of biblical texts might as well be agnostics or even atheists. Supporting their fears, some free from the chains of fundamentalists and their close kin in the evangelical community might find their way out of Christianity altogether. Despite those fears, many progressive Christians sincerely attempt to live a moral life informed by the principles of Scripture and shouldering the responsibility to love one another as worked out in the nitty-gritty of contemporary dilemmas that often shroud potential harm and unjust outcomes ignored by Christians who just follow rules with a "Hey, that's what God said" mentality. Progressive Christians are tethered by principles not bound by chains.

Women in Roman Culture

You can learn something about women in Israelite culture from the biblical texts. These would of course be part of Paul's culture as a Jew. But Paul also lived as a Roman citizen so to understand his culture and that of the people he wrote to, it is important to understand Roman culture. I have included a few notes along with references where you can read more.

Roman women were citizens but they could not vote or hold political office.

Women were under a man’s authority. First their fathers then their husbands.

Some wealthy women had more freedom than did other women.

Women could inherit and own property and engage in business.

They could be priestesses.

Marriage age was early teens for women, twenties for men and marriages were arranged.

Unfaithful wives who were divorced could not remarry.

Wives could be divorced if they did not bear a son.

Childbirth and disease risk meant many died in their 30s.

They were expected to be wives who cooked and raised children unless they were wealthy and had slaves.

Women and Ancient Cultures

I quoted Aristotle's view of women's inferiority from the Politics. There are other quotes that sound familiar to the teachings of the Apostle Paul. Recall Paul's comment about silencing women. In the Politics, Aristotle quotes a poet: "Silence is a woman's glory." (See Dudrey, 1999).

Dudrey quotes a neo-Pythagorean text about the importance of a woman's chastity. He obsrves that the worthy woman of Proverbs is similar to the descriptions of the wives of Homer and Plutarch among others. Dudrey concludes that households were fundamental to ancient cultures, which continued through inheritance and succession via worthy sons born to worthy women. The pure, obedient, worthy woman who honors and submits to her hunsband is a pervasive teaching of multiple cultures and shows up in Paul's guidance e.g., Titus 2:3; 1 Corinthians 14:33.

Dudley's article also supports other comments indicating that women were treated as the property of men in ancient cultures. Men had a primary interest in the children born to their wives. Dudley also notes that in ancient Athens, fathers even had control over their married daughters to the extent that they could terminate one marriage and marry the daughter to a more desirable husband.

Text Note

Some of you may be aware that a number of contemporary scholars do not consider the Apostle Paul to be the author of the epistles attributed to him. Those arguments are complex and deal with an analysis of texts beyond the scope of this post. I suggest that even if we were to rely on the texts most agree can be attributed to Paul, women still do not get much support when it comes to equality. Read more on this issue (Ostling, 2015). I also recommend The Moral Teaching of Paul by Victor P. Furnish.

In A House Divided, I write about gender issues, including submission, in Christian cultures. In Chapter 8 I write about Christian marriage and in Chapter 10 I discuss biblical views of women and men.

A House Divided is available from the publisher, PICKWICK, and other booksellers, including AMAZON. The book is used in seminary and university courses.

If you are a professor, get a free examination copy from PICKWICK.


Dudrey, R. (1999). 'Submit Yourselves to One Another': A Socio--Historical Look at the Household Code of Ephesians 5:15-6:9. Restoration Quarterly, 41(1), 27-44.

References by Hyperlink

About the photo: The prince and princess were about the same height but Prince Charles is pictured above his wife revealing a culture of male superiority.