Posted by: vicholdsforth | January 30, 2010

A Theology of Woman (Part 8: The Household Codes)

Yesterday we took a look at the Household Code appearing in Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus.  We learned that submission is, first, not a command, but rather, a byproduct of being filled with the Spirit (5:18-21).  Secondly, we saw that submission is not a unique characteristic of wives, but rather, that every member of the church should approach the others with a submissive spirit (5:21; cf. Phil 2:3, 1 Cor 12:21).  Consequently, it seems highly unlikely that Paul had a marital chain of command in mind when he wrote this letter.  This conclusion raises some legitimate questions:  “Why did Paul speak specifically about husbands and wives at all if there is no distinction in how they are to behave?  If he wasn’t affirming marital hierarchy, what was he trying to say?”  Today, we’ll look at the Household Codes in 1 Pet 3:1-6 & Col 3:18-19, as well as Titus 2, and try to answer these questions.

Before we do, it is important to note the consistent distinction the apostles make between wives, and slaves & children.  In all of these texts, wives are described as hupotasso, “submitting” to their husbands; unlike slaves and children, who are commanded to “obey,” hupokuete.  There is no text in the Old or New Testament in which women are commanded to obey their husbands.  Even as he points to Sarah’s example as an obedient wife in 1 Pet 3, Peter, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, instructs the recipients of his letter to “submit,” not “obey.”  Like Paul, Peter explains that what he means by “submission” is respect (3:2).  As we saw in the previous installment, the whole counsel of Scripture dictates that we understand submission as yielding our own agenda and placing the well-being of others before our own (Phil 2:3, 1 Cor 12:21).  Obedience is defined as “to comply with or follow the commands, restrictions, wishes, or instructions of” another.  Complementarians maintain that they recognize that there is a difference between submission and obedience.  But when they argue that husbands are the leaders of the home and wives are responsible to follow their decisions and directives, what they are demanding is obedience, not submission.  It is also interesting to note that few complementarians construe 1 Pet 5:5 as requiring younger men to follow the decisions and directives of older ones.

Now let’s turn our attention to the glaring questions concerning why these passages appear in the Bible at all.  Both Peter and Paul clearly explain the reason they are issuing these particular instructions.  Peter justifies wifely submission by holding out the possibility that unsaved husbands will be influenced by their wives (3:1-2), not because male authority is a timeless, God-ordained pattern for marriage.  Paul, too, explains that the reason is “so that no one will malign the word of God”  (Titus 2:5).  Why would both Peter and Paul concern themselves with what outsiders thought?

As we have seen, Christianity offered women a revolutionary improvement in status compared to the surrounding culture.  Women, who had been treated as property, were now “joint heirs” (1 Pet 3:7); those who couldn’t receive an education could now be teachers (Acts 18:26); those who were deemed untrustworthy were now entrusted with the proclamation of the gospel (Mark 16:7, Rom 16:1-3).  In fact, Saul (Paul) deemed the women of this new sect enough of a threat, that he was arresting the women right along with the men (Acts 8:3).  One of the prerogatives of the head of the household was to choose the family’s religion.  Any woman who became a Christian outside of her husband’s election was clearly insubordinate to her husband.  Yet, the apostles evangelized women directly anyway, and gave them instructions as to how to live in this new and tenuous situation (1 Pet 3).  Things haven’t changed for many women in the Middle East over the centuries, so it shouldn’t be very difficult for any of us to accept that men would have a problem with this.

There is ample biblical precedent for Christians to defer to the sensitivities of others, particularly where the proclamation of the gospel is concerned (Acts 16:3, 1 Cor 9:22, e.g.).  Peter and Paul’s instruction that a woman respect her husband amounted to what was already culturally expected of her.  The family, headed by the patriarch, was an incredibly important element of Roman culture.  Any sect that was perceived as undermining this social construct was subject to special scrutiny.  A wife that appeared to be insubordinate was a bad witness for the gospel.  Conversely, the apostles’ instructions to husbands were extraordinary.  Peter instructs husbands to honor their wives as “fellow heirs,” while Paul calls upon husbands to “nourish,” “cherish,” and “lay themselves down for” their wives, expectations that had been, and are, typically placed upon wives on behalf of their husbands.  Again, what strikes us as repressive due to our cultural filters was actually revolutionary teaching that significantly elevated the position of women.  Women were instructed to submit to their husbands in order to remove barriers to the unsaved in hearing and accepting the gospel.  To lift these instructions out of context and woodenly execute them now casts Christianity as regressive and irrelevant, transforming them into the very stumbling block that they were intended to eliminate.



  1. this is great…thanks for taking the time to lay it down!!

    • Thanks for your kind and encouraging words. Please tell your friends!

  2. I think that last sentence really sums up the issue, and I hope these writings gain traction. The church body needs to hear this message!

  3. You have some great insights! I will be back to read the rest.

    I noticed in your analysis of 1 Tim 2 that you refer to the parsing of the verb (which leads me to believe you understand the impact of the parsing on translation). Please consider that the hupotasso verb in Eph 5:24, 21 and 1 Pet 3:1,5 is in the passive voice. I think its a DEscriptive, not a PREscriptive. I wrote about this here:

    “Wives [are Subject] to Their Own Husbands in Everything” Eph. 5:24

  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Charis. I agree with you that Eph 5:21 is a descriptive rather than a prescriptive text…I think the best way to understand Ephesians 5 is that everyone who is filled with the Spirit will naturally display a deferential attitude towards others, husbands included.

    One of my goals is to equip folks with an argument that they can understand thoroughly enough that they could turn around and make it with somebody else. Once we delve into the original texts, scholars reach divergent conclusions. For example, my research indicates that these verbs are in the middle voice, meaning that the subject performs the action, and the action of the verb affects the subject as well as the direct object. And then there’s the “kephelay” controversy.

    Not many folks have the wherewithal to check these things out, so they just have to decide who they’re going to believe (or ignore it altogether). You’ve probably noticed that my style is to build my case from the context first, and then use Greek as a supplement. When I do look at the original texts, I try to stick with information folks can access through one of the widely available tools such as “Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance.” So when I’m writing for laypersons, you’ll see that when I do use Greek, I make much heavier use of definitions than parsing.

    Thanks for posting your link, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the series!

  5. my research indicates that these verbs are in the middle voice,

    Would you mind sharing the resources which said “middle voice”? Every online interlinear I checked had the passive voice parsing.

    To my ear, the passive parsing of Eph 5:24 makes much more sense and ties up a lot of loose ends. Eph 5:21 takes a bit more digesting to understand how it could be passive, but I am thinking someone like yourself who is interested and planting an organic church would be someone who might more easily grasp how the members of the body ARE SUBJECT to one another in a passive sense (no volition on their own part, it comes with being part of the Body)

    I do understand and respect your desire to write in a really accessible manner. Keep up the good work!

  6. For the biblical texts, I am consulting “The New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament” published in 1990 by Tyndale House. My grammar text is “Basics of Biblical Greek” by William Mounce, the text I used when I took Greek at Wheaton College when I was there studying for my master’s degree.

    Eph 5:21 uses “hupotassomenoi.” According to Mounce, the -menoi ending can be either passive or middle voice. I think the middle voice, i.e., “submitting yourselves one to another” is preferred because of the other participles in this sentence: speaking, singing, melody-making, and thanks-giving, which are all active (they all use the -ntes ending). To go from active to middle (in which the subject retains agency but the action of the verb now affects both the object and the subject and not just the object) makes more sense to me than having the subject’s actions transition from active to passive in the middle of the sentence. Another reason I prefer the middle voice is because choosing to place the interests of others before our own is consistent with the larger context, e.g. Phil 2:3, “in humility consider others better than yourselves.” This is how it’s rendered by the KJV, ASV, & Darby, among others, so at least some professional translators have arrived at the same conclusion.

    If one leans more Calvinistic in their theology than I do, then I can see how the lack of volition would make more sense. This is a good example of how our theological viewpoint affects translation, and is why I try to avoid utilizing arguments that rely upon these kinds of judgement calls when I’m writing for laypersons.

    Regarding our organic church experience, I’d have to say, for myself, anyway, that there’s nothing passive about putting others first. Maybe it comes effortlessly for others, but for me it involves a conscious choice to draw upon the power of the Holy Spirit to enable me to do so. I think that’s why the imperative here is, “Be filled by the Spirit.”

  7. Indeed there is nothing passive about putting others first, but subjection meant “yieldedness”. In a body, the parts are interdependenet/”yielded” whether passively. See 1 Cor 12 for more examples from Paul. And think about the passive yieldedness of a body to the head. If the nourishment that passes through the lips of that head is poison, the body dies.

    What does your interlinear say about verse 24? Not a participle. Present Passive Indicative according to every interlinear I checked. What does this mean?

    but even as the assembly is subject to Christ,
    so also [are] the wives to their own husbands in everything.” Eph 5:24

    is subject

    V-PPI-3S is the Parsing taken from the interlinear. “IS SUBJECT” is parsed in the passive voice and indicative mood.

    Mounce Notes:
    The Passive Voice by definition means that the subject (noun) is the recipient of someone or something else’s action. “No volition – nor even necessarily awareness of the action – is implied on the part of the subject“. [2]

    Indicative Mood
    The indicative mood is a statement of fact or an actual occurrence from the writer’s or speaker’s perspective.
    This is in contrast to one of the other moods (see below) in which the writer/speaker may desire or ask for the action to take place.. It may be action occurring in past, present, or future time. This ’statement of fact’ can even be made with a negative adverb modifying the verb (see the second example).
    For example: “And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb.”
    Rev. 12:11 “God is not mocked.” Gal. 6:7

    The best illustration I could think of for this passage is a quote from the movie Fireproof:

    “A woman’s like a rose.
    If you treat her right, she’ll bloom.
    If you don’t, she’ll wilt.”
    -Firefighter Michael in “Fireproof”

    Does your husband have the power to “wilt” you if he speaks to you in a certain way? Does he have the power to make you bloom if he speaks to you in a certain way?

    I am convinced that power your husband holds is what Paul/God are describing in Eph 5:24 “Wives ARE SUBJECT in to their own husbands IN EVERYTHING”

    • I’m not getting the parsing from my interlinear Bible, I’m parsing it myself, following the grammar rules in my Greek textbook. In verse 24, hupotasso appears with the “-etai” ending. Like “-menoi,” whether this is middle or passive is a judgement call on the part of the hearer/translator. This section of Ephesians starts in verse 15: “Be careful, then, how you live…” and is followed by instructions (including “husbands love your wives”). The grammar in 1 Peter is similar and is even more tightly tied to the imperative that precedes it. I would add that passive voice means only that the subject is the recipient of the action; it does not necessarily exclude that the subject could be performing the action. Your own source [2] says “volition may or may not be involved.” Hence a passive verb may be used to issue an instruction, such as in 1 Peter 2:13, “submit to every human institution” (passive-imperative; i.e., “submit yourself to every human institution”). If the passive voice here excludes action on the part of the hearer, it makes no sense to say, “for the Lord’s sake…” Col 3:18, “Wives, be subject to your husbands” is clearly an imperative. So even if we concede your interpretation of Eph 5:21 & 24, this argument cannot be transferred to Colossians.

      I think the real issue is not whether we label this middle or passive voice, but whether the text suggests agency on the part of wives. Even if we choose the passive voice, agency may not be implied, but it is not excluded, either. I believe arguing that these texts must be understood in their cultural context, and that submission was expected of everyone, not just wives, is more convincing. While your interpretation may help you resolve Eph 5, I think complementarians would argue that it is special pleading to insist that Paul was merely describing a state of affairs for wives, but behaviors for everyone else. And they would press you on Col. 3:18. My approach, on the other hand, addresses comprehensively and consistently the other portions of Scripture that deal with this subject using different grammar. I think also to argue that the point of Eph 5:21 & 24 is that men are uniquely capable of making their spouses’ lives miserable (or happy) forgets what we are told elsewhere in Scripture: “The power of life and death are in the tongue” (Prov 18:21) and “Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrlesome wife” (25:24, cf. 21:9 & 21:19).

      Thanks for the dialog, Charis! I enjoy a good theological discussion, and there aren’t too many people who are prepared to get into one with me.

      • I too am enjoying the dialogue.

        As far as Col 3:16 goes, its a different passage, different context, and indeed is in the imperative. There’s no head body metaphor by Paul in that context, and there is a HUGE boundary on this lone occurrence in Scripture of a COMMAND for wives to submit:

        “Wives, submit to your own husbands,
        as is fitting in the Lord.

        I was aware of the Col 3:18 exception and blogged on it here: Colossians 3:18- the only case where “wives submit” is IMPERATIVE!

        I think your approach will be convincing for many. My own fundy background would have left me suspicious if I thought any Scripture was being discounted as “historical” or “cultural”. To this day, I believe Paul and Peter are teaching truth which still applies to me TODAY, and which is accessible to ordinary people (who don’t study history books or greek)

        As far as husbands having a unique power to wilt their wives which their wives do not have in equal measure. I believe they do, (in spite of “Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrlesome wife” on which I have also blogged: Are YOU “a contentious wife”?

        I’m sure we are speaking from quite different frames of reference when it comes to marriage. While I too have been married a quarter century to my Christian husband + (and we went to Columbia Bible Seminary in the late 80’s FWIW), there our stories diverge radically I am sure. I do think there is room for any POV which will speak freedom and life.

        Grace and Peace!

      • I am not trying to discount any portion of the text, but rather, to understand the Scriptures as an integrated whole. There are some apparent contradictions that are easily resolved if we take context into account. For example, why would Paul say that it’s shameful for women to speak in church, and then give instructions for when women speak in church? Few Christians do everything the Bible says (with respect to head coverings, for example, or ear piercing). Most of them can’t really articulate upon what basis they continue to follow some instructions but not others, they just follow in the tradition of their church. Some of those traditions oppress women. Those are the kinds of questions to which I would like to help people find biblical answers. I hope after you’ve read all the material that you recognize that I share your high view of Scripture.

  8. All the participles are active, and then Paul switches. Plus he repeats the passive when referring to the yieldedness/vulnerability of wives to husbands.

    I think that in the body, we are all responsible for sensitivity to those members subject to/vulnerable to us. We are to recognize our power to impact them. The passive voice puts the responsibility on the one to whom the member IS SUBJECT.

    That does not remove our other Christian responsibilities, such as putting other first (per Romans 12 and Phil 2)

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