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Role Reversals in the Gospel

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

As one muses upon the Haustafeln—the “household codes” Paul discusses in Ephesians and Colossians that set out the roles of husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves—one might arrive at several conclusions startling in their repudiation of ancient Roman values . . . and perhaps some of ours as well.

1. God raises the subordinate to equality. In each case, the subordinate role in ancient Roman society was matched to a belief in the innate inferiority of the person. Women were understood to be substandard men: less rational, less strong, less noble, less wise, less. Children were unformed adults. And slaves deserved their fate by belonging to peoples who had lost in war or to classes who had failed in the economy.

Salvation instead comes to everyone and to everyone fully. The intrinsic rightness of these hierarchies, as based on intrinsic superiority and inferiority, is thus utterly undermined.

In church fellowship, the implication follows, worldly status is to disappear. Spiritual gifts are given to everyone to participate as he or she can in the edification of each other and of the whole group. Everyone.

Wives can thus minister to husbands—imagine! Children can thus bless parents—imagine! Slaves can thus help masters—imagine! The Gospel literally both reframes and restructures society within the Church, and within each local gathering of believers.

Husbands and wives can no longer look at each other the same way again. Nor can children and parents. Nor can slaves and masters. The reverberations echo out into domestic life and, eventually, public life as well. Thus the Christian case against slavery, yes, but also the case against the bad treatment of children (think of laws against beating children or putting them to hard labour) and the case against the subjugation of women in home and society at large.

2. God lowers the superordinate to subordinate status—and the particular subordination in view in each case—in relation to God.

Christian husbands become members of the Body of Christ who is the betrothed of Jesus: the feminine to his masculine, the woman to his man. Christian men join Christian women in needing Jesus the way women were forced to need men in the ancient world: for social status, yes, and also for legal standing, property rights, physical protection, even subsistence.

Christian fathers become children of God, thus joining their own children in needing God the way children need parents: for social status, yes, but also for instruction, discipline, comfort, encouragement, and reward.

Christian masters become slaves, and in two respects. The language Paul typically uses regarding salvation is the language of slavery. We sinners—and that’s everyone—are slaves to sin and death. Christ redeems us—pays for our manumission—through the infinitely costly price of his blood, his very life. God declares us “not guilty,” as freed slaves were sometimes declared “unjustly enslaved” at the time of their emancipation, and so were entitled to proper social status. And God adopts us into his very family—a shocking reversal of status indeed.

We Christians yet become slaves of Christ—one of Paul’s favourite self-designations. Christ has bought us with a price and we are his. Furthermore, we are, so to speak, love-slaves—not in some dubious sexual way, of course, but as those so grateful and committed to our Saviour that we gladly do his every bidding.

Thus the Christian husband, father, and master must see himself as radically repositioned toward God, the ultimate Point of Reference. Again, any sense of his intrinsic superiority must vanish, and his sense of solidarity with wife, child, and slave must deepen.

3. God makes us all one people. The epistles frequently refer to Christians as simply one body in which all of us play vital roles as members. As I have mentioned elsewhere, Paul addresses Christians as “brothers” (and not “brothers and sisters”) not only because of linguistic conventions of the time but to imply that women are not to be sorted out as separate from the men. Everyone is a brother now, so to speak. Everyone is to be a full, functioning member of Christian society.

4. To reiterate, this Gospel therefore radically undermines hierarchy’s pretense to permanent validity based on intrinsic differences of worth. There are, instead, merely different, and temporary, roles for us to play.

In these roles as well as others, furthermore, this good news requires everyone to serve each other. Ephesians 5:21 (“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”) thus nicely connects a passage in which Paul exhorts all Christians to live and rejoice together in the Spirit with his redefinition of the household codes. In the light of Paul’s picture of joyful fellowship comes the implication of mutual service, even in the most basic social relationships that have heretofore seemed rock-solidly unequal and typically oppressive.

A powerful Christian man must now see himself also as part of the Bride of Christ, a child of God, and a slave of the Lord. A Christian woman, a Christian boy or girl, and a Christian slave must now see himself or herself as fully that man’s equal in Christ—the only scale of worth that ultimately matters.

This grace amazes—as a husband, father, and slaveship captain could perhaps fully appreciate . . . as should we all.

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