Slavery, Misogyny, and Scripture...

I'm writing a paper on the "household code" of Colossians, which instructs women to subordinate themselves to their husbands, and slaves to obey their masters. It's a challenging and frustrating text, and it's forcing me to confront all of the misogyny I grew up holding tightly to. Ten years ago as an undergrad I began to reject those attitudes, but I confess I have only been dealing with the theological baggage for a few years now.

I wanted to share a couple of wonderful excerpts from several books I'm citing, thought you might enjoy:

  • "The evidence from tradition is consistent and transparent. Until modern times, most Christians believed that the Bible regulated and legitimated slavery… The apostolic fathers, the Apologists, Clement of Alexandria, Origen and John Chrysostom all wrote in support of slavery… The early church fathers endorsed slavery on the basis that the apostles had accepted slavery." Giles, Kevin. The Trinity and Subordinationism (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002) 220.

  • "The significance of sexuality for slave-master relationships has frequently been highlighted by historians of the Roman family. The sexual exploitation of slaves was rooted in the notion of slaves as property (cf. Aristotle Politics I.1254a7) that could be used or disposed of at the whim of the master. Male and female slaves were quite simply sexually available to their masters at all times – whether children, adolescents or adults – and also available to those to whom their owners granted rights." Macdonald, Margaret Y. “Slavery, Sexuality and House Churches: A Reassessment of Colossians 3.1-4.1 in Light of New Research on the Roman Family,” New Testament Studies 53 (2007): 95.

  • "Paul’s failure to clarify whether sexual contact with one’s own slaves constitutes porneia raises the question of whether Paul’s silence was due to an unspoken expectation that the sexual use of slaves is abhorrent or, conversely, to an acceptance of cultural norms regarding the sexual use of slaves… The lack of explicit prohibitions against using slaves as sexual outlets when the practice was generally considered morally neutral, leads [Jennifer A.] Glancy to doubt that any such expectations of restraint can be read into the exhortation that masters treat slaves ‘justly and fairly’." Macdonald, Margaret Y. “Slavery, Sexuality and House Churches: A Reassessment of Colossians 3.1-4.1 in Light of New Research on the Roman Family,” New Testament Studies 53 (2007): 96.

  • "The main divide is between those who think the only solution allowed to evangelicals is an exegetical one and those, like myself, who think that exegesis alone can only take us so far… When one takes only the exegetical path, some strained interpretations appear as one attempts to get the biblical authors to speak as if they held a modern perspective on women." Giles, Kevin. The Trinity and Subordinationism (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002) 194.

Here's my take: It seems evident, reading all the way back to Genesis, that many biblical reflections of gender roles are not endorsements or guidelines, but rather a direct result of sin. Genesis 3:16 demonstrates the impact of the fall: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” But this verse does not indicate God’s will. Rather, God describes what will result from the actions of the man and woman. By obeying such descriptions as command (rather than recognizing them as ill effects) Christians are actively rejecting the liberty in Christ’s atonement.



Brandon K. Baker said...

I have a thought...

can I use this stuff in my paper???

Just kidding, I'll cite my own sources.

I tend to agree with Mr. Giles. It's almost humorous when we try to use exegesis to make it seem as though biblical authors "held a modern perspective on women." We try and justify what Paul wrote and refer to him as "a man of his time." We rarely consider the liberating but scary idea that perhaps Paul was flat out wrong. Unfortunately, suggesting that Paul was wrong is not "academic" enough for me to base a paper around. ;)

So, I suppose I too shall try and make it seem as though he "held a modern perspective on women."

Josh Mueller said...

I think both Philemon 16 and Galatians 3:28 show clearly enough that Paul would have no problem agreeing with you that slavery is a direct result of sin. How a Christian lives WITHIN continuing sinful systems and structures is an entirely different question.

What's so offensive about deliberately obeying (notice the qualifiers "out of reverence for Christ" - Eph.5:21 - and "for the Lord's sake" - 1 Peter 2:13!) an authority which is temporary and unable to touch the inner freedom and equality in God's eyes?

As far as Paul's instructions towards the marriage relationship is concerned, don't you think they begin in Ephesians 5:21, not V.22? MUTUAL submission is a sign of strength and sacrificial love, not an outdated conformity to exploiting practices which he was quite familiar with.

The silence on sexual exploitation is just that: SILENCE. Let's not read more into that than is really there.

Here's a question for you, Peter:

What in your opinion SHOULD Peter and Paul have written if they were wrong in their instructions?

Peter said...

Josh, good question: "what's so offensive?"

Maybe nothing, in its historical context. But today? What's offensive is that there is no defensible reason women should be forced - or even asked - to subordinate themselves to men. Moreover, so many men are entirely unworthy of such subordination. But that is tangential. No human, in my opinion, should be worthy of others' subordination based on gender.

To me, it seems placating and even abusive to say, corporately, "for the Lord's sake" accept a subservient position. Why in the world should that please the Lord? Especially in a society where it is obviously unconscionably disrespectful behavior.

I agree with you that MUTUAL submission is a beautiful sign of strength, humility and love. So for his part, Paul WAS "one-upping" the Greco-Roman culture at large in a way that did not threaten the status quo. He gets my mild applause for that (I realize my applause is worth little if anything).

Josh, your final question is tough and to the point: "what SHOULD Peter and Paul have written...?"

I can't tell you that. Above my paygrade (as I'm sure you could argue, critique is too...) I can only say what I feel spiritually moved, over. And that's a very subjective thing.

Here's what my gut tells me, and it's no condemnation, because I hardly feel ready to see my family, friends, church, and myself martyred:

Jesus' teaching was subversive enough to get him killed. He did scandalous, even outrageous things. Sure, he moderated his language from time to time (e.g. "render unto Caesar...") but he was nothing less than radical.

And there were plenty of early Christians who followed that path to death, including Peter and Paul. I don't think Peter and Paul were afraid of death, or even afraid of the wrath of the Empire. But they were probably afraid of writing down a teaching that might endanger the survival of the entire church.

Right or wrong? Again, I can't say. I do believe Scripture is inspired by God, but that too is subjectively stated (for me).

The problem I have is that Christ's followers, led by the Holy Spirit, should have been outraged by slavery. History (as opposed to conservative Christian conjecture) demonstrates that it was every bit as horrific in Greco-Roman times as in the American South.

I'm not saying the early church needed to take global emancipation upon itself. But not speaking directy against it? I have a problem with that. Moreover, I have a problem with 2,000 years of justification for slavery precisely BECAUSE Scripture and early church tradition was so "silent" as you say.

Josh, I continue to appreciate your questions, dialogue and even pushback. I hope we can continue. I pray my "indignance" does not translate to you as arrogance or elitism. I'm just trying to stumble through all of these doors I've found left open. I can tell you, I was a lot more comfortable before I started peering inside...

Blessings to you.

Peter said...

I forgot to add this, and I mean it with all my heart:

I pray and seek God every day. I've dedicated my life to becoming a better man, a better follower of Christ, a better human being and neighbor. A better husband.

I've known and loved Jen for 10 years.

We choose to submit to one another as wife and husband.

And there hasn't been a single day in which I have been worthy of her subordination, "in Christ" or out.

Josh Mueller said...

Thanks, Peter, that clarifies it enough for me. I'm still looking at the whole thing from a little different angle. I see the deliberate choice to obey as the same kind of subversive behavior Jesus called for, right along the encouragement to walk the second mile with the soldier who forced the Jew to go the first, not to resist evil and to bless the enemies.

It may well be that they tempered their outrage thinking about the survival of the church but it could also be that the kind of monumental societal change necessary to see slavery abolished was seen either as a very distant goal or something that would not realistically materialize apart from the parousia of Christ Himself. And there is enough evidence that they expected the end of the present world order and the return of Christ rather sooner than later.

Since they didn't have the vantage point of 2000 years of church history, I really can't blame them for being any more radical than they were already.

If we separate exegesis and contemporary application properly, there's no real need to tag anything they said as sinful per se. It also doesn't mean to follow literally in their footsteps, I think we'd agree on that point.

RickNiekLikeBikes said...

Jesus told Peter (no not you) to put away his sword. I think Colossians is not about the Holy rite of man as much as it might be a need Paul addressed with that church whatever those needs were, but the message seemed to be directly to the women of that church. Either way, seems to me Paul's simply saying "put down your swords and work together on this thing."

Peter said...

Josh, yes, I agree with you:
"If we separate exegesis and contemporary application properly, there's no real need to tag anything they said as sinful per se. It also doesn't mean to follow literally in their footsteps, I think we'd agree on that point."

I also think you're right on the money as far as thinking of usurping the system of slavery: obviously not a short-term end.

Rick, I like the "putting down swords and working together" take.

But I remain struck by something else Kevin Giles (Trinity and Subordinationism) wrote: that this passage (along with its counterparts) was interpreted and implemented quiet consistently for almost 1900 years. Maybe we can't hold Paul or Peter accountable for this... but they sure seemed to set up some very problematic misreadings.

Thanks for wrestling with this, with me!


Brent said...

Have you ever done a word study on the original word used for "submit" to your husbands? I listened to a pastor who did an in depth study on that word and the original word used and the contexts. It has a very different meaning than how we take it today and in past generations. Don't remember the exact meaning but it resonated with my thoughts on the subject.
If we get stuck on what that word means now we are fighting a pointless battle. If the enemy that we know is active in this world could just scew the meaning a little bit he could create a lot of havoc.

Was there really silence? I know someone in the new testament said it was better to be free if you could be. Isn't there some talk about not having slaves? When he talks to the Christian slaves about obeying there masters in order to win them for Christ, it doesn't seem like in was okay for Christians to have slaves. People also sold themselves into slavery to pay off debt. Was there just an understanding in the Church that Paul didn't have to address? I have questions. I don't know enough about the culture of that time to understand it better. I just find it hard to believe God not revealing slavery's ugliness to His disciples.

What I don't like about a lot of this talk is the searching for a perfect system or a perfect Christian community. Could Paul or Peter ever do everything we think would have been right to do. We all can see we live in a fallen world and along with Peter and Paul none of us can negotiate outside of it. Even I get the feeling with how Paul writes he seems a little arrogant. But is it passion and not arrogance. And if it is arrogance what does it change about what he has said. The arrogant are not always wrong. Maybe how he writes comes out arrogant or translates that way and his heart was no were close to that. I don't know. I personally have chosen to be understanding of Paul and not begrudge n him. I believe he served God with all he had but at the same time he is just a man. I forgive him his mistakes. I pray others can forgive me for mine also.

Peter said...

Brent, really good points. I'm sure there are arguments for the Greek word "submission" being more benign than our current interpretation, but I think those tend to be misleading. It's similar to some churches attempting to argue that slavery in Greco-Roman, New Testament time was somehow better than slavery in the American South. This is not a tenable argument. Historical records show how horrific and abusive slavery generally was, in practice. Of course there were well-treated "house slaves," but that doesn't negate the issue, just as "house slaves" in the American South were neither free nor equal. Nor safe.

BUT, I think you're conclusion on Paul is a good one: "I believe he served God with all he had but at the same time he is just a man. I forgive him his mistakes..."

YES! But Brent, a traditional view of Scripture would hold that Paul's words are the infallible words of God, on par with the sayings of Christ himself! Are you willing to open that door and suggest that Scripture is an imperfect reflection of a perfect God? I am, but it's a scary prospect...

Let me know what you think!

David Henson said...

If you're interested, I've taken up the idea of slavery in one of my older posts on the parable of the slaves (talents).

But, to your points, I think, as a whole, the writings in the New Testament do reflect a male-centered ideology that veered from the relative egalitarianism of Jesus, who included women in his disciple group, flirted with them at wells and was taught not to be a racist (and, by extension, not to be a sexist I suppose to) by one of them.

I have no problem saying that these texts skewed Jesus' message. Maybe this new movement, as it institutionalized, was having a hard time with some of Jesus' messages. Maybe Paul was the biggest heretic in the history of Christianity all in the name of Hellenizing Christ.

I'll quit lighting the fire under my feet now so I can untie my hands from this stake.

Peter said...

David, thanks for the heads up - I'll look for that post. I agree that Paul had a huge role in Hellenizing Christ - I don't know if it's even possible to separate Pauline thinking from Hellenized thought.

Yeah, I don't want to go down as a heretic either...

Anonymous said...

Such an interesting discussion...

I love the idea of submitting to each other. That's the ultimate sign of trust, isn't it?

I remember getting into an argument with a friend when we were in highschool. She was an Evangelical Christian, and believed strongly in the idea of women being inferior to men, (per the whole Adam and Eve episode). I don't know...that whole thing kind of creeps me out. My take on it is that it was what was acceptable at the time, right? Same with slavery. If something works really well, but doesn't feel quite right, people tend to look for reasons to defend. I think that's just a really human thing to do. And couched in the whole "women need to be taken care of...slaves need to be taken care of" mantra, people, (men),actually talked themselves into believing it was "nice". I think we all do this...though maybe not on such a large and painful scale.

My understanding is that the Bible was touched by history, politics, and men. Does it not make sense that there would then be SOME pieces of imperfection there?? That shouldn't take away from the basic teachings, right??

Anyway...just my two cents!!

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