The Southern Baptist Convention, in a move that drew much media attention, in the late 1990s amended its official statement of belief to affirm that a wife should "graciously submit to the servant leadership of her husband." The amendment—the first change in the largest Protestant denomination's Faith and Message statement since 1963—alludes to Ephesians 5:22-33, part of a so-called "household code" regulating the relationships between persons in the ancient household.
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Household codes were used in the ancient world to reinforce the social hierarchy (e.g. the subordination of women). The proper ordering of the household was seen to be integrally related to the welfare of the state. The early Christians likely adopted the household code in order to allay suspicions that the church—which could be seen as engaging in social experimentation—was disruptive of the general social order. Such a move counteracting egalitarian tendencies in the early church could have seemed necessary to its very survival.
New Testament documents written before Ephesians, such as Galatians and 1 Corinthians, suggest that the beginnings of the church were characterized by some remarkably egalitarian practices and theology. In Galatians 3:28, for example, Paul writes, "There is no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." This theology comes to concrete expression in Paul's acceptance of women co-workers as apostles, prophets, teachers, ministers, and "laborers" in the gospel.
These egalitarian social practices seem to have been extended to the marriage relationship as well. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul gives wives and husbands the same rights and responsibilities in marriage—not different and unequal ones. One of the attractions of early Christianity for women was probably that it afforded them greater freedom and opportunities, based on their full equality before God, than did the dominant culture.
In providing this space for women, the early church was mirroring Jesus' treatment of women, which was so accepting and unstereotypical that it shocked even his own disciples. The impetus behind such mirroring was surely to a great degree the experience of the Holy Spirit outpoured on all flesh at Pentecost in a way that transcended the difference between male and female (see Acts 2).
We ought not to conclude that earliest Christianity was fully egalitarian and that the church soon abandoned the vision of transforming the hierarchical culture around it to conform to the gospel. We can deduce that there never was a fully egalitarian expression of Christian faith in the New Testament church. Rather there is a mixture of the egalitarian and the patriarchal. The second (and more controversial) conclusion we ought not to draw is that early Christianity could have adopted a fully egalitarian expression of Christian faith, if only the church had not made a compromise with the culture. Such a conclusion presumes that it was possible both to differentiate completely the gospel from culture and to live out the gospel in a culturally "uncontaminated" fashion.
ON THE CONTRARY, Christian faith is always "inculturated," wrapped in cultural forms. Thus the equality of the gospel will be experienced partly in the dismantling of patriarchal structures, partly (paradoxically) within the framework of those structures. The New Testament contains different responses to this basic problem of the interrelationship between the gospel and culture. The true test of the teachings is whether and how they allow the gospel to shine its light on the culture and reshape it.
The Ephesians version of this gospel that both adapts to and transforms culture has been called "love patriarchalism": It takes up some aspects of patriarchy (submission of wives) while transforming it through the command to husbands to "love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her." In the experience of many married couples, such self-sacrificial love undermines hierarchy.
Nevertheless, love patriarchalism is not acceptable to most Christian feminists (myself included). It seems anachronistic to apply it to our contemporary Western egalitarian context anyway. What we can absorb from Ephesians, however, is its intent to find a way of inculturating Christian faith that transforms the culture in accordance with the gospel.
The Southern Baptist position neglects the historical purpose of the household code in Ephesians (to alleviate social tensions with the surrounding society) and even contradicts that purpose by provoking such tensions today. It ignores other New Testament teachings on the roles of men and women that reflect early Christian egalitarian impulses. This selective reading of the New Testament is illustrated by the Southern Baptist decision to exclude from the amendment the call to mutual submission in Ephesians 5:21 that prefaces and qualifies the household code: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ."
The Southern Baptist position is offensive in that it fails to recognize the great contributions of women both to the church and to the wider society outside of their traditional roles as wives and mothers. It also dangerously opens the door to horrific abuses in the name of Christ. The Southern Baptist position is neither biblical in a serious sense nor just.
Judith Gundry-Volf was an associate professor of New Testament at Yale University Divinity School when this article appeared.