Authority de jure

The Christian wife and submission

Marriage, a topic challenged and supported by the Bible, is shaped by its surrounding context as it shapes a context in turn. Marriage is a concept that may take on several forms, a few included thus: Allusion, institution, symbol, systemic oppression, foundation, choice, and path. When the Bible is consulted in describing marriage, the roles of husband and wife are debated. Reading the Bible asks for awareness and understanding, chipping at what constitutes a heterosexual ideal marriage. By interpretative debate, whether through societal and theological discussion, a form of marriage is defined, upheld, or objected.

What, then, did the New Testament letters present for marriage when narrowed to the roles of husband and wife? A cursory glance may be too bold in applying my reading of specific words and terms (i.e., authority and submission) familiar to my ordinary discourse. I do not equate submission with subordination nor subservience. My reading of husbands and wives in Ephesians and 1 Peter would be affected by this perspective, and may not be supported by studying these texts if I am peering into a time not my own. I will argue that when framed as a power dynamic, submission is a power unto itself. These, in my reading, are the intentions and views of the authors for Ephesians and 1 Peter.

To grapple with ideals of submission in husband-wife relationship, I will discuss my conviction that the premise of the ideal husband-wife dyad described in both Ephesians 5:22-33 [1] and 1 Peter 2:18-3:7 is not analogous to the slave’s instructions issued by the mentioned passage from 1 Peter. I propose these three arguments in the two noted texts above: Husbands and wives have duties to each other, the husband-wife roles are not founded upon default authority, and the differences in the master’s authority to a husband’s authority in these texts are suggestible for clarification. Again, I stress that Ephesians and 1 Peter are grounded in their sociohistorical contexts, and these texts intend a precedent for an ideal husband-wife relationship for ancient audiences.

[1] All biblical citations are from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise indicated.

For biblical scholarship, Ephesians is a disputed Pauline letter. [2] 1 Peter may be considered pseudepigraphical. [3] What biblical scholars question is the authenticity of authorship and not the authenticity of the composition, particularly for the hearers then readers. Since the authorship is unclear for both Ephesians and 1 Peter, I focus on the contents of these texts as more relevant in this discussion.

[2] Powell, Ephesians, 9.
[3] Powell, 1 Peter, 4.
The Christian wife, for pillars in society

A key thematic difference between Ephesians and 1 Peter is the understanding of how Christian life is in relationship with the world. For Ephesians, the city held importance in the Roman Empire as the main celebrant for the Roman imperial cult. [4] Luke-Acts provided a report that Paul had visited Ephesus. The Christian community founded in Ephesus was subjected to much struggle and strife due to their differences in social conduct, organization, withdrawal, and refusals to participate in the city’s roles. [5] Powell suggested that the author of Ephesians had sent this letter to Gentiles in the midst of living in a city quite oppositional to their chosen identity. [6]

[4] Powell, Ephesians, 5.
[5] Powell, Ephesians, 5-6.
[6] Powell, Ephesians, 12.

Communities following witness of Jesus’ life and death were often countercultural with their practices and conduct. [7] For the hearers of Ephesians and 1 Peter, employment of household codes was a vital and necessary resemblance. Ephesians is notable for exhorting its addressed Christians to differentiate themselves from the surrounding social climate. [8] Aspects of daily living are transformed in symbolic language, as if to encourage these Christians’ understanding of their lives are reflective and conducive to Christ’s coming (Ephesians 5:32).

[7] Powell, Ephesians, 12.
[8] Powell, Ephesians, 12.

1 Peter reveals that Christians were subjected to various forms of insult for denying participation in their wider social context. [9] The author of 1 Peter appears to focus more on Gentile (i.e., non-Jewish) Christians coping with their world as a hostile place. [10] The world in 1 Peter is a transient experience in which Christians may expect to be rewarded for their sufferings in the world next. [11] The author encourages assimilation only in the sense that Christians are not seen as dangerous to the social structure nor viable targets for scapegoating. [12]

[9] Powell, 1 Peter, 9.
[10] Powell, 1 Peter, 7.
[11] Powell, 1 Peter, 12.
[12] Powell, 1 Peter, 15.

As consequence of infighting by peoples, the developing Roman rulership established a proposal for systematic order throughout the Roman Empire. [13] The family and household were new subjects for Roman interest as foundational for sustaining society. [14] The identification with domesticity as firm ground for Roman imperial rule, [15] combined with higher mortality in the first century, suggests to me that the reorganization flourished and crept into the lives of governed peoples to the lower societal strata. [16]

[13] Osiek & Pouya, Gender, 44.
[14] MacDonald, Kinship, 31.
[15] Osiek & Pouya, Gender, 44.
[16] MacDonald, Kinship, 31.

Support for the family and the household as philosophers proximal to the Roman culture of this period exemplify their selected pillars for society. The pillars in society — family and household, were codified. [17] Restrictions were placed on intermarriages between groups predefined (i.e., by freedom status). Laws were implemented that, by method of concession, would compel and/or coerce a family and household into stability. Possibly due to a focus on patrilineal inheritance, the head of a household was more likely to be male.

[17] Osiek & Pouya, Gender, 44.

A distinction must be made in the changes between the household and family in the earlier centuries CE. Here, I sketch from MacDonald’s presumptions for a modern readership. [18] Family, in MacDonald’s essay, extends beyond a bloodline-defined household. On this trail is a reminder that household does not simply apply to a modern construct of nuclear families. [19] The household ideal in this ancient time encircles members, who may or may not be related with one another, with the buildings, production, and social interaction.

[18] MacDonald, Kinship, 30.
[19] See MacDonald, Kinship, 30. Having less experience in early childhood in a nuclear family, I attempt to sympathize with such an upbringing as ordinary. MacDonald presupposes a great deal for the readership. This is hardly problematic. The presuppositions clarify the interpretative lenses (i.e., biases) and target audiences.

Ephesians 5:22-24 may appear as an echo of this Roman ideal, yet 5:25-33 illuminates the smaller passage beyond such a frame. I suggest that 1 Peter 3:1-7 is similar to Ephesians in regarding the roles of husband and wife. Ephesians posited a remarkable view of marriage as symbolic and reflective of Christ’s relationship with the church. Here, the epistle’s author conceptualized the church as coexisting in both worlds. [20] How an individual member behaves and operates on an earthly dimension paralleled their contribution and reflection of the church in a spiritual understanding. The behaviour and conduct of a member is hardly restricted to a private domain. [21] It is particularly vital for the public viewing of members to embody and enact the church’s legacy through Christ.

[20] Powell, Ephesians, 16.
[21] Rohrbaugh, Honor, 112.

1 Peter places the wife as paramount to the husband’s standing in public and spiritual domains. Where Ephesians compares a wife to the church through a mediating image of Christ as husband of the church, 1 Peter’s advice to wives glimpses into a moment where their submission may be transformative for husbands. The conduct of a Christian wife, for 1 Peter, [22] may compel a husband or onlookers towards Christianity. This author, as stated above, [23] is likely concerned with the welfare of struggling Christians amidst suspicion. By providing an example of “holy women” (3:6) in earlier stories, this audience has an example and model to not behave unexpectedly or scandalously to the detriment of themselves, husbands, and the church.

[22] MacDonald, Kinship, 37-38.
[23] See notes 9 & 10.

1 Peter devotes time into upholding Christians as participants and adoptees for the covenant established for Israel. [24] Suffering, in this letter, shares the idea that living the new values and beliefs is a re-enactment and remembrance of Christ. [25] While 1 Peter emphasizes living with the world, the consequences and opportunities entail danger. Ephesians, by contrast, emphasizes living in the world. [26] Consequences and opportunities contribute to the church. 1 Peter may be suggesting that through accepting authority as already established in their society, wives maintain family and husbands’ honour/shame in the public domain. [27] Wives also may open other persons to the idea that Christianity is no threat to families as the pillar of their society, perhaps drawing sceptical or suspicious others in as well. The family and household of this Roman culture, and the family and household of the concurrent church, are preserved by the power of submission.

[24] Powell, 1 Peter, 7.
[25] Powell, 1 Peter, 10-11.
[26] Powell, Ephesians, 16-17.
[27] See Rohrbaugh, Honor, 112-113. Wives’ maintaining honour is “shame.” Shame, as Rohrbaugh explained, is not always the removal of honour, but rather the retainment of honour.
The Christian wife, not as slave

MacDonald argued that an elite Roman household refers to property more so than a group living together. [28] This reconstruction of family and household is not necessarily the most frequent throughout this ancient empire, [29] yet it provided a sufficient framework for me to begin exploring the weight that Ephesians and 1 Peter’s authors insist upon husbands and wives in marriage.

[28] MacDonald, Kinship, 30.
[29] MacDonald, Kinship, 30-31.

1 Peter does not equate a wife with a slave. While a wife may possess a different visibility in the public domain when compared with a husband, [30] the wife retains an identity and a personhood. [31] These states are distinct from a slave, [32] which are genderless and sexless. Slaves were considered property in this Roman society, [33] and expected to conduct themselves under any master as the authority. Whether the master is, by our reckoning, cruel or not, slaves did not have agency. Slaves may be suffering unjustly; however, they are property in the household and not family members (i.e., persons). There is a separated sense of mutual benefit and/or reciprocity for a master-slave establishment in the ideal of a husband-wife relationship.

[30] MacDonald, Kinship, 35.
[31] Osiek & Pouya, Gender, 47.
[32] Osiek & Pouya, Gender, 47-48.
[33] MacDonald, Kinship, 38.

Wives, according to 1 Peter 3:1-6, are to accept the authority of husbands. If a husband does “not obey the word,” (3:1) the wife is to accept the husband’s authority all the same. At a glance, this may be similar to a slave’s unconditional acceptance of a master’s authority, [34] unjust or no. Here, the wife’s submission is unlike the slave’s subordination (Ephesians 5:28,33). Wives’ conduct is not for the husband’s satisfaction, but instead, for influence. In a wife’s submission, the husband’s authority is justified as Ephesians’ description of marriage as Christ and church (Ephesians 5:24).

[34] MacDonald, Kinship, 35.

For masters and slaves, the master has authority because the role of master gives that authority. A slave lost distinguishable traits upon entry into slavery. [35] For husbands and wives, authority is conferred and earned by the wife’s respect and societal recognition. Ephesians and 1 Peter record instructions for husbands, not only wives and slaves. 1 Peter reminds husbands that wives are to be honoured and considered (3:7), should a husband persist in prayer. Ephesians places wives as equivalent to Christ’s regard for the church (Ephesians 5:29). Husbands are to love and care for wives as for themselves (Ephesians 5:28).

[35] Osiek & Pouya, Gender, 48.
The Christian wife, a solicited position and person

Ephesians and 1 Peter are considered pseudepigraphical writings. Both are addressed to presumably Gentile audiences, taking different approaches to Christian living within a non-Christian society. While tempting to present both epistles’ advice for husbands and wives as a singular Christian premise, this would be an oversight. Ephesians bears similarities to Colossians yet contain striking contrasts despite its Pauline attribution. [36] 1 Peter is considered closer to its Petrine attribution, [37] though scholars are not in broadest agreement and may consider 1 Peter as Pauline.

[36] Powell, Ephesians, 9-10.
[37] Powell, 1 Peter, 4.

What am I to make of these precautions? The issue I attempted to address is the difference between the Christian wife and a slave. Gentile Christians were considered a separate grouping from Jewish Christians, [38] and these two epistles were written for them. It is important to stress the implications in harmonizing separate texts, that is, assuming connections that may not be the authors’ intention. In defense of my analysis, despite this confounding element upon which my argument lays, I assert that understanding the Christian wife as not a slave is important for my contemporary audience. An antecedent may be gleaned from Ephesians and 1 Peter. Wives are not equated with slaves, and the master-slave dynamic is described and advised upon in theological and sociological manners dissimilar to the husband and wife.

[38] Powell, 1 Peter, 7.
The Christian wife, and power in submission — Reflection

This course invited students to explore how biblical writings were meaningful and relevant for the peoples and social formations of its time. In effect, students are asked to attempt a preliminary exercise in historical sociolinguistics. As a student, I am to examine what and how I read the Bible, followed by my comparing and contrasting to what the translated text potentially offered earlier audiences. During this course, I reacquainted with my conversion to Catholicism in 2000.

I continue to struggle with popular feminism, learning with practice what proves harmful and what is helpful from various women-led movements. One issue that I hold difficulty in discussion is the power of submission. My experience and understanding does not agree with submission as subordination, and I do not equate dominion with removing a person’s agency. In my current viewing of Catholic marriage, the husband and wife are responsible to each other. In marriage, both are leading each other towards God. Instead of framing a relationship or hierarchy as inherent power struggles, I consider the dynamic between entities as a sharing. I cannot expect another person to be exact to myself and vice versa.

The Christian wives of the New Testament likely had less choice with submission’s influence upon their husbands, families, households, and societies. [39] My point is that I think they could influence. I doubt that agency and dominion has existence without communion and submission, and my experience informs me that the two are reciprocal. Not all interactions between others and me must be based and codified into privilege and power. Interactions can be sharing with another human being, as simple or complex as this may be. My analysis of Ephesians and 1 Peter, with my attention lain on to the Christian wife, gave me an opportunity to perceive another conception of communication.

[39] Osiek & Pouya, Gender, 47.

— August 3rd, 2018.
Berenson, Jennifer K. “The Letter of Paul to the Ephesians.” In The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New Revised Standard Version, 4th ed., edited by Michael D. Coogan et al., 2052-60. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Boring, M. Eugene. “The First Letter of Peter.” In The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New Revised Standard Version, 4th ed., edited by Michael D. Coogan et al., 2126-31. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

MacDonald, Margaret Y. “Kinship and Family in the New Testament World.” In Understanding the Social World of the New Testament, edited by Dietmar Neufeld and Richard E. DeMaris, 29-43. London and New York: Routledge, 2010.

Osiek, Carolyn & Pouya, Jennifer. “Constructions of Gender in the Roman Imperial World.” In Understanding the Social World of the New Testament, edited by Dietmar Neufeld and Richard E. DeMaris, 44-56. London and New York: Routledge, 2010.

Powell, Mark Allan. “1 Peter.” In Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey. Baker Publishing Group, 2009.

———. “Ephesians.” In Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey. Baker Publishing Group, 2009.

Rohrbaugh, Richard L. “Honor: Core Value in the Biblical World.” In Understanding the Social World of the New Testament, edited by Dietmar Neufeld and Richard E. DeMaris, 109-125. London and New York: Routledge, 2010.

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