Yes, a wife’s submission is culturally outdated (a response to John Piper)

It seems #mutuality2012 has caught John Piper’s attention. Piper is one of the elder statesmen of the complementarian perspective, which teaches that women must unilaterally submit to the authority of men in both the home and the church.

Today, Piper tweeted the following:

At issue are the “household codes” in the New Testament (Colossians 3:18-25; Ephesians 5:21 – 6:9; 1 Peter 2:18 – 3:7), which address the relationship between husbands and wives, children and parents, and slaves and masters.

Complementarians often cite these household codes when arguing that God wants women everywhere to submit unilaterally to their husbands. Egalitarians like me point out that if you’re going to argue this way, consistency demands you interpret the slave/master passages the same way.

Not so fast, says Piper. The article he tweeted, “Is a Wife’s Submission Culturally Outdated?” by Tony Reinke from Desiring God Ministries, argues that Paul treated marriage and slavery differently. Therefore, even though both appear in the same set of household codes, one is forever binding and the other is not. Wives’ submission to their husbands is rooted in “the theological fibers of creation or eschatological expectation.” In other words, the instructions concerning husbands and wives “have theological strings attached to them that slavery does not.”

I’d like to suggest three problems with this argument.

1. None of the household codes say anything about creation.

Paul does appeal to creation elsewhere — for example, when giving some ground rules for women prophesying in church (1 Corinthians 11:2-16). But unless Piper & co. are prepared to tell women to start wearing head coverings to church, they may not want to hang their hats on this argument.

2. Paul roots slaves’ obedience in something much bigger than creation.

It’s true that Paul doesn’t base his instructions to slaves on anything in creation or eschatology. Instead, he roots it in obedience to Christ:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ… (Ephesians 6:5-6, NIV)

In other words, pretty much the same way the wife’s obligations to her husband are rooted in obedience to Christ.

3. Four words: “In the same way.”

The apostle Peter also included a set of household codes in his first letter. After instructing slaves to obey even when their masters abused them, he turned his attention to wives:

            Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands… (1 Peter 3:1)

Peter makes no distinction between a slave’s obedience and a wife’s. Married women are to submit in the same way (Gk. homoyoce) that slaves do.

In short, Piper is pressing an artificial distinction. Both commands are rooted in theology. Both are connected to obedience to Christ.

Both were also products of their culture. Household codes were hardly unique to Paul or Peter. (Rachel Held Evans has a good overview, if you’d like to read more about them.)

Similar codes are found in ancient letters from Philo and Josephus. The household codes were considered essential to the preservation of Roman society, at the center of which stood the pater familias or head of the family. Any new movement or sect thought to undermine the authority of the pater familias (and with it the stability of the whole Roman system) would have drawn unwelcome attention.

Paul did not throw away the Roman household codes; to do so would have been suicide for himself and the early church. But he did seek to reform them by urging the pater familias to show a measure of kindness, restraint, and respect not typically expected of him.

Paul did not liberate the weaker parties (slaves and women) from their culturally-bound obligations. Rather, he offered them a way to work within these obligations — turning them in an opportunity to imitate Christ’s suffering and thus redeeming an unjust situation.

So when it comes to the New Testament’s instructions for women and slaves, I don’t think Piper and Reinke have made their case. You can’t say one is a product of its culture and the other is a timeless command. They are either both one or the other. We can’t have it both ways.

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