Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband. Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honour your father and mother’—this is the first commandment with a promise: ‘so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.’ And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free. And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.
For years I’ve wrestled trying to work out if Paul was being subversive or conservative. His teaching reads to us like the ramblings of a sexist bigot. Yet, in his age, he was stating little more than the obvious as wives had to be subject to their husbands. Similarly slaves had little choice but to obey their masters as masters had the power of life and death over them. The injunctions, then, to masters to realise that they also served a master in heaven and to husbands to love and cherish their wives and children might be seen as subversive of the social order. The social order now, however, is different.
Realising that Paul spoke into a particular time and context frees us from interpreting this passage, and others like it, as eternal truth. Taking the ideas behind Paul’s words – equality, love, and respect – can make this passage fruitful for us in our own contexts where men still disrespect women. Legal slavery is behind us but many are trafficked into the UK on the promise of work only to find they are prostituted or made to work as domestic slaves. Fear of deportation works against them speaking out. Paul’s words here to slaves would not be helpful or good news to them.
So we can read the words of our brother Paul. We can do our homework and find out about the Roman world in which he lived and ministered. We can see how his words made sense in that context, and see how they quietly undermined the social order pushing a little against it. Our homework, however, should also include a little work about our own society. It’s not good enough to think, smugly, that our world is better than Paul’s. How might we see what’s wrong in our world and what might Paul had made of it? What might we? How might we push back against it and undermine the unjust ideologies of our age?
Help us, Aching God, to see the pain in our world, understand the systems and structures which rule us, and give us the strength to spoke the wheels of evil which enslave us, that we, and all Your people, might be free. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston is the URC’s Minister for Digital Worship and member of the Peedie Kirk URC in Orkney.