The world you live in is Rome’s, their laws, their power. You cannot defeat them in the streets. There is another way.
So many times I talk with Christians about things like household codes, there’s this disconnection with the power and influence of Rome and what’s taught applied to us here and now. We’re missing a lot from Scripture and we don’t even know it.
Before Rome’s expansion and conquest – it saw itself as an island of perfect civilization. When it imposed it’s authority on other cultures, it over-rode their traditions and required it’s own patterns be obeyed. Think of them as an ancient version of the Borg – assimilating other cultures into their own way of life; erasing distinctiveness and replacing it with unity. Bringing chaos to order. Rome had stone tablets on which the law had been written. There were rules governing all details of life – including the smallest unit of the empire: the household.
Seeing then that the state is made up of households, before speaking of the state we must speak of the management of the household. The parts of household management correspond to the persons who compose the household, and a complete household consists of slaves and freemen. Now we should begin by examining everything in its fewest possible elements; and the first and fewest possible parts of a family are master and slave, husband and wife, father and children. We have therefore to consider what each of these three relations is and ought to be: I mean the relation of master and servant, the marriage relation (the conjunction of man and wife has no name of its own), and thirdly, the procreative relation (this also has no proper name). – Aristotle, Politics Book II
It’s difficult for us to imagine a scenario in which we are required to obey specific formulas for the make-up and operation of our families or else suffer dishonor. In Ancient Rome, a father wasn’t just the head of a family, he was also the family lawyer, the family priest, the family businessman – he was the public representative whereas all other members were not. Something that we sometimes miss about the household codes was that only the churches in what would become modern-day Turkey were having problems understanding how to look like Romans on the outside and act like Christians on the inside. It seems evident then, that they had quite a culture clash – having been “civilized” by the Romans and their own customs erased, only to have their new faith amount to turning the Roman Household Codes upside-down and inside-out. If carried out correctly, masters would see themselves as no different than their slaves because they too were slaves in the name of Christ. Husbands would no longer lord their authority over their wives, they would recognize their wives as part of their very being and vital to their own well-being to treat them as their equal or as they would want to be treated. Children wouldn’t be inconveniences that could be sold off as slaves or thought of as resources to exploit – but parents would remember that they too are children in the eyes of God.
Rome’s rules were all about hierarchy and power. They existed in concentric circles. Men had power over women. Elders had power over youth. Freeman had power over slaves. The rich had power over the poor. Old, wealthy, free men had the most power of all, young, poor, enslaved women had the least power of all. A father’s power over his household was unquestionable and undeniable. A father could demand his pregnant wife to expose their child to the wilderness if it were a girl or instruct her to keep the child if it were a boy. He could sell off his children to slavery if angered or they shamed him. He could do as he pleased – have concubines or as many wives as he could afford or whatever suited him whenever he wanted it. Sons were vital to carrying on the family line. Daughters – not so much. That’s why most exposed infants were girls. Unlucky ones wouldn’t die, they’d be picked up and raised into the slave trade.
The Christian ‘twist’ on the Roman household codes wasn’t meant to enshrine Rome’s exacting standards as God’s design the world over until the end of time. It’s not as if Paul really expected his version to supersede Rome’s, nor did he think for a moment that they would endure long after the laws they were based on eroded away. And yet, here we are – continuing to dance long after the music has stopped.
Paul and Jesus both seemed to think that the best way to redeem a culture was not making big protests, was not living in outright rejection of the values of that culture. To that end, their advice today would more likely be to look like those that are around us – if our culture is a patriarchal one, then clearly fathers must be the heads of their households. If our culture is a matriarchal one, then clearly mothers must be the heads of their households. If our culture is an egalitarian one, then clearly both men and women must be co-heads of their households – whatever brings a family honor and respect among the community also brings that family honor and respect to their God. Living contrary to our culture’s standards only brings further dishonor upon God – something that Jesus and Paul wanted to avoid at all costs.
If Jesus and Paul lived here and now – they’d most likely speak directly to our culture, they’d ask us to treat others as we would want to be treated, to love our neighbors, to speak up for the outcasts and oppressed, to use our wealth to help the poor, to feed the hungry, to visit the ill or the imprisoned – but I think they’d say remarkably little about how families ought to be – we don’t have it written in our law that one member of a household has greater authority than another on account of their gender. We would probably be reminded not to take advantage of other people, to be fair and consider others before ourselves. They’d likely end up saying some things the Bible never needed to say – our challenges are different than those faced two thousand years ago. But I think we have to learn to look for the spirit of the law rather than obeying the letter. Sometimes you can’t have it both ways.