Paul and the early Christian believers lived in a polygamous society that was centered around the Pater familias. The 1st century Greco Roman Gentile and Jewish husband was the ruler over his wife, children and slaves/concubines of his household. He was the ruling patriarch and under the household codes of that culture, they were his possessions and he lorded his authority over them. Women were inferior and just commodities for producing heirs and for sexual satisfaction. In fact, they were less valuable than cattle! (read more on wives and the Greco Roman Jewish culture here) As a result, the Roman authorities believed that these codes preserved the Pax Romana society as a whole and enforced many laws to protect the codes.
The Jewish authorities held to the same household codes as Philo writes
Wives must be in servitude to their husbands, a servitude not imposed by violent ill-treatment but promoting obedience in all things.
However, the early church was so unique within that society as they began to practice gender equality. Paul had issued a new set of household codes that were so radically different from the Greco Roman codes. However, he had to be careful so that the new codes would not be looked on as threatening or perceived as subverting the stability of Roman society.
Respect is Conditional In God’s Household
Paul gave HUSBANDS in the church a command – ” you love your wife” … “SO THAT your wife may respect you”.
Greco Roman husbands were not used to being told that they ‘had to love, cherish and nurture their wives’. Love was not a husband’s duty in the Greco Roman household codes but it was in the Christian community as they were practicing what Jesus taught.
I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” ~ John 13:34
As a result, the Church, by following His example had great numbers of women, slaves, and poor uneducated converts. There was neither Jew or gentile, male or female, slave or freeman, but all were equal in God’s Household.
One point that the culture of that day would never EVER dream of was making respect from a wife conditional.
It was like saying this to a Greco-Roman man …
Husband, you’re the head (source/provider) because your wife receives benefits. She left her own family, gave up her name and now everything she depends on comes from you – her shelter, her clothing, her food, her name, her family, AND EVEN her household gods come from you. BUT make sure she receives those benefits so that she respects you, as that respect is conditional.
But Paul expected it in a Christian marriage!
Self – Giving and Nurture instead of Authority and Control!
For Christians, the husband was to sacrificially love his wife, to nourish, and cherish her, so in turn, the wife would respect her husband. In other words, Husbands, you ought also to love and serve your wives, just as Christ loved and served the church, giving His life for her on the cross.
But there’s more …
Mutual Love and Respect Between Spouses
You see marriages in those days were arranged by the bride’s parents for the benefit of the whole family and a couple wouldn’t necessarily have fallen head over heels in love beforehand. But once that cycle of love and respect started to flow as a wife was given her place as an equal in the marriage, a new type of loving relationship could form.
We can see that encouragement given in Titus 2 to younger women to love their husbands:
Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands ~ Titus 2: 3-4
But if a married woman became a Christian you could see how a serious conflict could develop within her non-Christian Greco Roman family. Hence the reason Paul gave the advice in 1 Corinthians 7 about trying to win over an unbelieving husband with the wife’s behaviour. But if the husband wanted to leave the marriage, to just let him go. (You can read more here about Paul and Divorce).
Likewise, the husband would respect/honour his wife too despite her being perceived as being ‘the weaker vessel’ in that Patriarchal society, as she had equal standing before God.
Husbands, likewise, submit by living with your wife in ways that honor her, knowing that she is the weaker partner (in the Greco Roman culture). Honour her all the more, as she is also a co-heir of the gracious care of life. Do this so that your prayers won’t be hindered. ~ ` Peter 3 CEB
The New Covenant Undermined the Culture of Rulership
For someone living in that Greco Roman culture, a family arrangement like the one below was a total paradigm shift. A husband and wife were to be equals, each accountable for their own actions, having only Jesus as their mediator.
- Paul wrote these things to the church under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. So why do so many Christians still insist on the husband’s overall authority in the marriage especially in spiritual matters?
- If we believe that husbands are the ‘spiritual head’ of a wife then we make husbands into idols and suppress the Holy Spirit’s expression within wives by quenching the gifts they have been given. I certainly can’t find ‘Husbands, spiritually lead your wives’ mentioned anywhere in the bible. Spouses are not to first go through any person – spouse or religious leader. All men, women, husbands, and wives are to go directly to Jesus as He is our mediator.
- Nowhere in Scripture does it say that a husband has the authority to demand his wife to submit, respect and obey him. God gave both man and woman a divine command to exercise dominion over Creation, NOT each other. So if he has to force submission then it is no longer submission. Rather it’s subjugation and manipulation, in other words, religious coercive control.
Advancing the Kingdom Through Co-Leadership
Finally, in closing, Kingdom Living for me means that there should be unity and equality between husbands and their wives. It’s where leadership and decision making is through mutual submission under the guidance and teaching of the Holy Spirit.
The domination of wives by their husbands is a result of the curse, not a command, and Christians should oppose it.
- Society today, void of scripture has decided that equal, consensual and respectful relationships are its ultimate benchmark, so why not Churchianity? What is still holding it back?