Posted by: vicholdsforth | February 1, 2010

A Theology of Woman (Part 9: “Idios” and other cultural notes)

In our last installment, we added Colossians, 1 Peter, and Titus to our discussion of male authority in the home, and built a solid case, rooted in Scripture, that these texts were not intended to enjoin permanent female obedience to a (hopefully beneficent) male rule; but rather, to remove a potential stumbling block in order that men, who were conferred by their culture with unilateral authority over everyone in their household, might have an opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel.

Today we’ll look at some notes that give us additional insight into the cultural milieu in which Peter and Paul ministered and wrote.  We’ll start with a significant little word that is frequently omitted in many English translations, idios.  Eph 5:22, Titus 2:5, and 1 Pet 3:1 do not say “wives…to your husbands.”  They say “wives to your idios husband.”  No, ladies, not idiot, idios.  That is, your own husband.  (Sorry, guys…I can’t resist a pun!)  It’s important to remember when we’re reading the Epistles, that they are less like an instruction manual, and more like listening in to one side of a telephone conversation.  In some cases, we’re even jumping into the middle of the conversation (see 1 Cor 7:1, e.g.).  Bearing this in mind, let’s take a look at what that little word idios might do to the meaning of this text.  If my kids and husband are in the kitchen and I’m in another part of the house, I might overhear my husband say, “Kids, eat your chicken nuggets.”  I’m not in the room, but it seems reasonable to conclude that they have been dawdling over their lunches and my husband is encouraging them to finish up.  But if I instead hear him say, “Kids, eat your own chicken nuggets,” well, now, that’s different, isn’t it?  Now it sounds like they’ve been grabbing food from one another’s plates and are being instructed to stop.  We can make a similar case regarding “wives…to your own husbands.”

When we understand marriage contracts and family structure in the first-century Roman Empire, this seemingly insignificant omission takes on greater importance.  In ancient Rome, men did not achieve adult status when they reached a certain age, when they married, or even when they had children of their own.  A man, even a married father, was under the authority of his father (the patriarch) until the patriarch died.  So was everyone in his household (with the possible exception of his wife).  A woman, depending upon how her marriage contract was written, was under the authority of either her own father or her husband’s father.  If she was a slave, she was under the authority of her owner (or his father), not her husband.  It is quite possible, then, that Paul and Peter were correcting the then-current cultural convention in which a married woman was expected to render loyalty to someone other than her own husband, which obfuscated the biblical teaching on marriage found in Gen 2:24, Matt 19:5, and Mark 10:7.  Notice also that Paul even reiterates this principle in Eph 5:31.  Jesus refuted the Jewish practice of “divorce for any reason” in Matt 19 in much the same way.

Egalitarians assert that if we handle the texts consistently, then we must conclude that God condones slavery along with male authority.  There is no textual justification to insist that one institution is universal and permanent while the other is not.  Few Christians today would argue that God condones slavery; but in 19th century America, many preachers opposed abolition, not because they approved of slavery, but because they recognized that if they supported abolition, it naturally followed that women would have to be emancipated as well.  Complementarians attempt to refute this comparison by dissociating female submission from slavery, and instead linking it exclusively to children to obeying their parents, which most Christians agree should be considered timeless.  But before we accept that the text may be dissected and certain of its components made to stand independent of the others, it must be understood that patriarchy had polluted the parent-child relationship in a manner similar to its obfuscation of the marriage relationship, discussed above.

When Paul wrote “children obey your parents,” he used the word tekna, which includes both adult and juvenile children.  See, for example, 1 Tim 5:4 in which Paul expects a widow’s tekna to support her before she seeks aid from the church.  Clearly, these are adult children, as they are expected to support not only themselves, but a dependent, as well.  Had Paul wanted to communicate that only juveniles were expected to obey their parents, he could have used paidios or one of its variations.  While they are worthy of respect throughout their lives, few Christians today expect adult children to actually obey their parents once they are making their own way in the world; but if we are consistent in our handling of these texts, the only way to maintain permanent male authority is to embrace permanent parental authority, as well.  If we instead understand the apostles as providing instruction as to how to live as Christians within the conventions of patriarchy without necessarily condoning it, we may handle the entire household code in a logically coherent manner, rather than creating arbitrary distinctions between some members of the household and others.  This understanding of male authority as a feature of patriarchy, a human institution, as opposed to marriage, the divine institution, is further reinforced by the grammatical structure of 1 Peter:  “Submit yourselves to every human institution (2:13)…wives, likewise… (3:1)”  Like what?  Like subjects submitting to the civil authorities (2:13-17) and slaves submitting to their earthly masters (2:18-25).  The conjunction “likewise,” omoios, unmistakably identifies male authority as a human institution.

An understanding of first-century ideas about physiology further undermines the insistence that “head” means “boss.”  People in the first century didn’t think of the head as directing personal action (they thought the head was where sperm was produced).  Decision-making was the realm of the heart, a metaphor that is common in both the Old and New Testaments (e.g., Luke 9:47, “knowing what they were thinking in their heart…”; 1 Cor 7:37, “has decided this in his own heart…”; Hebrews 4:12, “able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart”; Rev 18:7, “she says in her heart…”).   Interestingly, scientists are now beginning to understand that our thought processes are not isolated to the brain, but rather, are distributed in cells throughout the entire body.  One intriguing evidence that this is so is the documented phenomenon known as Cell Memory:  the experience of organ transplant recipients (especially hearts—and in light of the texts cited above, this may be more than coincidence) exhibiting the memories, behaviors, habits, and preferences of the organ donor.  Complementarians’ appeal to the head as the part of the body responsible for decision-making as justification for husbands making all the decisions in a marriage is has always been textually and linguistically questionable; we now know that it is physiologically untenable, as well.

Finally, we’ve discussed some of the revolutionary strides forward Christianity provided for women.  A few more details about about the status of women help aid our understanding of the biblical texts.  The members of the culture in which the biblical texts were penned thought of women as profoundly different from and lesser than men, actually more like animals than human beings.  Even Jews, who should have known better, had vilified and demonized them, joining the surrounding cultures in their shabby treatment of women.  (We’ll take a closer look at that tomorrow when we discuss Jesus and His interactions with women.)  Women were thought to have come from a variety of sub-human sources, including pigs, horses, dogs, and seawater.  The only place a man was thought to be able to find a “soul mate” was among other men.  Even Augustine wrote that other men were better companions for men than women were.  Understanding this cultural backdrop enhances our confidence that when Paul characterized the husband as the head of the wife, he was correcting these erroneous beliefs with biblical truth:  that women and men are of the same stuff, that women are fully human, that woman came from man himself, not some lower creature; in other words, the themes of oneness and interdependence that appear throughout the New Testament and should characterize all Christian relationships.



  1. Well said! Can you add a “share this” button, so that these posts can be immediately posted to other social media platforms?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: