Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Wives, Obey Your Husbands...?

In Bible Study on Friday I found myself in an all-female group, looking at 1 Peter 3:1-7. Well, actually it was next to the passage we were going to read, and I decided we'd read this one instead. This passage is part of one of the household codes in the New Testament.

As we were reading, Megan G. flipped back a page and said, "I wanted to see what they were talking about before... and they were talking about slaves." Yes, first they tell slaves that they should accept the authority of their masters and that if they are punished unjustly - lucky them - they get to suffer like Christ! Then they tell wives to submit to their husbands even if the husbands don't obey the word. Needless to say we read this passage with mixed feelings. As often happens, everyone looked at me with expressions that said "why are you making us read this???"

We shared some reactions to the passage... will a husband's prayers really be hindered if they do not honor their wives? Why does it talk about Sarah calling Abraham lord? It would kind of such to be Sarah at times. What do we do with these instructions?

We happen to be studying these codes in my New Testament class right now (which is partly why I wanted to hear what my friends' insights were). Today we looked at three different Biblical household codes. As it happens, the message of Christianity was liberating to women, slaves, widows, the poor, etc early on. Women held leadership and teaching roles in the church. Paul said there was neither slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile, woman nor man in Christ.

This message of liberation had the potential to upset the social system of the day, though, so eventually they started to use writings like these codes to show people outside the church that Christians were keeping the social customs. This was not just a PR move. Although these codes undermined the freedom that people were granted in Christ, they added expectations for husbands and masters. This was fairly counter-cultural. Men were told that while they had authority over their wives, children and slaves, they also had obligations to treat them as Christ would.

It seems to me these codes are a great example of what happens when something that is progressive for its time becomes an unchanging standard. So much harm has been done this way; these passages are still used to justify domestic violence and oppression of women. The New Testament is a conversation between different voices who were praying and writing about what it means to live as a Christian. The speak to us from a time before there were set standards and doctrines. The husband-wife relationship prescribed in these codes is liberating in its context; when we bring it into today's world it is oppressive. If we do not continue to push the limits of our understanding of scripture to be more inclusive and liberating, we risk robbing the Gospel of its power.

© 2008 Megan Shitama

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