Submission, Subjection, and Subversion in Household Codes

A ViewPoint by Reta Halteman Finger

ChainRecently my sister attended a wedding of one of her son’s friends. It was in a more conservative church, she said, and the ceremony “reeked of patriarchy.” The text was the familiar Ephesians 5:22-33. Only the bride vowed to submit to her husband, and they were introduced as “Mr. and Mrs.,” using only his name. I would have been as outraged as she was.

I agree with Rachel Held Evans’ posting on the topic of female submission. Using principles of inductive Bible study and placing relevant texts in historical context are key to enlightened and accurate interpretation.

Alas, our human tendency is to pick and choose texts that can be shaped to conform to our current beliefs and practices, ignoring those that challenge them. A recent example is the Second Amendment of our constitution, which gave 18th-century “well-organized” town militias the “right to bear arms” (such as 8-pound, 6-foot rifles!); this amendment is now widely assumed to give any individual the right to carry a concealed handgun almost anywhere.

Interpretation as power

In a struggle between two or more individuals, groups, or ideologies, the major question to ask is: who’s got the power and the money? In situations where power imbalances are tolerated, the powerful usually pull rank over and abuse the less powerful. So why is this issue so rarely identified? For instance, the power imbalance between Palestinians and Israelis is staggering. Yet in the effort to work out a peace agreement between them, it is rarely mentioned—at least not in our American, pro-Israel context.

The same holds true in a traditional marriage relationship where the husband not only earns (most of) the money but is expected to have authority over his wife. Is it any wonder that abuse often occurs, and that strong-willed, clever wives develop subtle ways to undermine such authority?

In striking contrast, the overarching message of Jesus throughout the New Testament is a call for those in power to give it up or lay it aside for the sake of the powerless or for the greater good of the community. The theme of “little ones” being greatest in God’s kin-dom saturates the Synoptic Gospels. Jesus flees popularity, risks his life to defy rigid structures that oppress “little ones,” and finally endures the shame of crucifixion as a rebel against Roman domination.

Follow me and do the same, says Jesus. In John 13, Jesus lays aside his outer garment, picks up a towel as a common slave, and washes the dirty feet of his disciples. The point: “If I have washed your feet, you also ought to wash each other’s feet” (John 13:14-15). Any later instructions in the New Testament must be seen in light of Jesus’ life and example.

With this background, let’s look at the household codes in 1 Peter and Ephesians that so often have been used to limit women and rob them of their power and self-worth.

Living without civil rights—1 Peter

First Peter is a letter written to immigrants in five Roman provinces who are not native to the land where they now live. They may have fled from their homes because of violence, war, or unpayable taxes. The author, from a similar marginalized church in Rome, first reminds them of their high status before God and the great spiritual inheritance promised them in 1:2-2:10.

Then 2:11-3:7 provide practical instructions for how these believers with almost no political or civil rights should behave in a place where they are, in effect, “undocumented.” The instructions to obey “for the Lord’s sake” every form of authority is eerily similar to instructions Hispanic workers (whether undocumented or with a green card) in our country give each other: always obey the laws, no matter what; do not call attention to yourself or you could be deported or imprisoned. Stay under the radar! (See 1 Peter 2:13-17, 1 Peter 2:18-23, and my article on 1 Peter in the March issue of Sojourners.)

First Peter then instructs the believers, most of whom are women and male and female slaves, how to do this. Chattel slaves, who may have been kidnapped from another land, have no rights or honor. All they have is their spiritual inheritance from God and their resulting sense of self-worth. In their submission, they model Jesus, who also suffered unjustly, to the entire believing community.

Wives, another powerless category, are challenged to subject themselves to their husbands for the missionary purpose of converting them to Christ (3:1-2). In a culture where marriages were arranged for economic reasons, not romance, some men may have looked for wives with no relatives and thus no bride price, or married one of their slaves. Rather than dressing up to impress their husbands to get what they want, Peter says it’s the inward attitude and behavior that is most effective.

(I would challenge this writer, however, on his interpretation of Sarah in 3:6 as one who “obeyed Abraham and called him lord.” A reference to Genesis 18:12, this term—kurios in Greek—is the common word for husband or “sir,” and in this context refers not to obedience, but to pleasurable sexual union. Furthermore, reading through the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar in Genesis, it is clear that Sarah is calling the shots in their relationship, not Abe!)

Instructions to Christian husbands in 1 Peter 3:7 make clear that women have less honor and power in that society than men, so husbands are called to restrain their power and honor their wives as “co-heirs of the gift of life.”

Ephesians on equality and mutual subjection

leafThe Romans loved order and hierarchy. From gods to emperors to senators to equestrians on down to the lowest slave, everyone belonged to a particular status and was expected to stay there. Democracy meant chaos. The Roman household reflected the political structure. The oldest male ruled as husband, father, and master.

When Paul and other Christian missionaries brought the gospel of mutuality, agape love, democracy, and equality to communities in the Roman Empire, they were challenging the very foundation of Roman law and culture. Over the years, as small house churches grew, the pure gospel would have become more and more of a threat to the Roman society around them. No doubt some individuals or groups capitulated to cultural practices more than others.

The letter we call Ephesians is a sermon rather than a personal letter. Early copies of it do not include “to the Ephesians,” so it was probably circulated among many churches Paul and others had planted. Although the theology reflects Paul’s teaching and contains about 70 percent of Colossians, in numerous ways it suggests a time perhaps a generation after Paul.

In addition to what Evans and others have written, I will make three points about the content and literary context of the household codes in Ephesians 5:21-33. First, the word often translated “submit” in verses 21-24 is hupotasso—“be subject to” or “order yourselves under.” Although in our language, submission often refers to an attitude, here it reflects the Roman concept of hierarchy and order. Regardless of feelings or attitudes, all must subject themselves to their place in society.

Second, as Evans and others have noted, this household code differs strikingly from pagan Roman household codes. I would call it subversive. In a culture where the male head has total authority over everyone else in the household, these instructions limit him in every relationship.

In these arranged marriages, harmony was a higher value than love, so marriages tended to look more like uncle and niece than a relationship of peers founded on love. Yet the detailed paragraph in 5:25-33 instructs a Christian husband to love his wife like Jesus loved his community of disciples, even to death—to love her as he loves his own body. How counter-cultural is that in a society where the Roman writer Plutarch instructs new wives to remain chaste but to overlook their husbands’ sexual indiscretions!

Would you rather be a child in that world? It was common to beat children for many infractions and force them to work at an early age. But as a Christian father, the male head must refrain from abusing his children and provoking them to anger (6:4). The same limits apply to his role as slave master. This author was not in a position to condemn or abolish slavery; it was the foundation of the economy. Instead, a Christian owner was to treat his slaves with the same attitude of respect that he wanted from them—because they were of equal worth to the “Master in heaven” (6:9). Ordinary Roman men would have scorned such nonsense.

My third point relates to the larger literary context of Ephesians. The theological section (chapters 1-3) contains a beautiful passage about broken walls between Jews and non-Jews (2:11-22). Uncircumcised gentiles are now “citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (2:19). (This is one piece of evidence that the document post-dates Paul, since the struggle for ethnic equality was not completed in his lifetime; see Galatians and Romans.)

This majestic, lyrical passage focuses on household imagery. These formerly alienated groups are now one household built on the foundation of apostles and prophets, Jesus himself the chief cornerstone (2:20). That is the spiritual reality. Within the unequal and hierarchical Roman household itself, all Christian members shall orient themselves to this ideal of equality.

A further example underscores how this sermon subverts ordinary Roman structures of society. In 6:10-17, believers are instructed to adopt the discipline and armor of the typical Roman soldier to fight against evil (6:10-17). But the struggle is not against “enemies of flesh and blood”—we do not kill people. Rather, oppose “the authorities and powers of this present darkness” (6:12) Then the belt, breastplate, shoes, shield, helmet, and sword so familiar to those living under Rome’s domination are transformed into spiritual armor that resists the powers of hierarchy and domination.

In this way, both theological and practical sections of Ephesians work together to envision a church that is radically different from the stratified and oppressive culture around it. Unfortunately, the church has historically resisted the practice of giving up power and authority for the greater good of “the household of God.” Believers must continually reform and revitalize the church through grit, determination, agape love, and proper interpretation of our foundational texts.

© 2013 by EEWC-Christian Feminism Today 

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.


  1. This is marvelous, Reta, thank you.

    My one caveat is your depiction of Sarah as the one “calling the shots” rather than Abraham — it’s depicted as such in scripture but that scripture is highly patriarchal (in particular, in this narrative, the offensive claim that God would bless Hagar and Ishmael because of their slave owner and rapist and not Hagar’s wisdom and courage and chosenness as matriarch of Islam and 12 tribes. So that scripture should also be read critically rather than unfairly stigmatize Sarah for their joint abuse of Hagar and Ishmael of which he was at least as guilty and arguably more. Remember that in that culture she may well have had no choice to marry him; he was free to beat or rape her at any time; he had the power to lie about their relationship and put her in danger on their travels; that culture gave her no worth without bearing a male son which helped fuel her evil plans to have him rape Hagar and steal her child; and she had no power to make him carry out that rape or the subsequent abandonment of her and Ishmael in the desert.

  2. I quite agree with everything you say. There is no question that much of the OT is written from a patriarchal perspective. Perhaps Sarah’s role in oppressing Hagar throughout these texts is highlighted to get Abe off the hook.

    But my problem with the NT writer of 1 Peter is that he is proof-texting and misunderstanding one small verse in Genesis and presenting Sarah as quiet and submissive, which indeed she was not, in terms of the larger narrative.

  3. I think it’s also very important to watch the heritage line of God’s blessing. It goes through the women, not the men. The women uphold it and carry it forward per God’s directive:

    Hagar’s son is rejected; it must be Sarah’s child. Isaac’s choice of Esau is incorrect; Rebecca ensures that God’s choice (and hers) carries the blessing. Bilhah’s, Zipporah’s and Leah’s son’s are not the heirs, it must be Rachel’s child.

    The men were not required to be progenitors. It was the women who carried forward God’s particular blessing.

    Interesting, don’t you think?

    (BTW, I loved “Daughters of Sarah.” I subscribed through that lovely magazine’s last issue. Marooned as I felt on a farm in the middle of South Dakota, it was a life’s blood to me.)

  4. Hello, Deb,

    Thank you for your comments–and for reading Daughters of Sarah. One never knows who is being influenced, so it’s good to know we reached the middle of South Dakota!

    I’ve just been writing Sunday school columns for this fall on those foundational stories of Sarah, Rebekah, etc., for our church publication called Mennonite Weekly Review. I don’t like Sarah’s behavior toward Hagar, but it does point to the fact that, in spite of the patrilineal structure of ancient society, wives ruled their households, the private sphere of life. Each woman made life-changing decisions that apparently even God (who sounds like a patriarch himself) goes along with. As you say, it’s the women who change the course of history in these stories.


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