Neither Biblical Nor Just

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.

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.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1998
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