Subjects, Not Objects

Ancient Roman society was profoundly hierarchical, and this can grate on readers today when they encounter certain biblical passages. Prime among these are ancient household codes, which delineate the duties and responsibilities of family members to one another. Part of the purpose of these passages in their historical context was to show how Christians fit within ancient Roman society.

Margaret Y. MacDonald, one of the pre-eminent interpreters of the household codes today, writes in her book The Power of Children about how “discussion of the apologetic functions of the New Testament household codes has frequently led to consideration of how the codes may be framing messages intended to be communicated directly or indirectly to the neighbors of believers who are wondering what exactly is going on in these household cells.” But she goes on to say that “what is emerging especially clearly is not simply the accommodating nature of the household codes, but elements of resistance that stand out more sharply when ideological correlations are noted.”

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The “elements of resistance” in the Letter to the Ephesians are grounded in the family’s allegiance to Christ above allegiance to the Roman emperor, for subjection to one another is “out of reverence for Christ,” not out of concern for the good order of the empire. Christians certainly wanted to make clear that they did not intend to subvert the basic harmony of Rome; but the fact that their family life was based in obedience to Christ, the true Lord, did indeed manifest an element of subversion.

The second “element of resistance” in Ephesians, however, has to do with the relationship of wife to husband. On the surface, the teaching in Ephesians promotes the basic hierarchical relationship between husbands and wives in the ancient Roman Empire: “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife.” Some Christians read the passage today as a statement about a wife’s inferiority and subordination to her husband. But this passage calls husbands and wives to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The passage is not about the objectification of women.

Ephesians cites Gn 2:24 when it speaks of the unity of husband and wife. Recall that when Jesus spoke of marriage in Mt 19:4 and 8, he too cited Genesis, proclaiming that unity was intended “at the beginning” of creation for male and female. Yet Jesus’ teaching applies not only to divorce but to the wholeness and oneness their primal relationship was intended to celebrate. The unity of man and woman that God established in the garden was not marked by domination and objectification but by mutuality.

Reflect on Christ, the letter says, as the example for husbands to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” The husband’s model is the kenosis, the self-emptying of Christ for the church. And wives are to “be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” But subjection to Christ is subjection to the one who offers himself for us, who loves us until death. This is marriage as idealized through Christ, but in neither element of this relationship is there room for objectification of the other or claims of superiority, since we are called to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” True relationships never serve brutish whims.

This is the same unity that Christ creates with the church, as Ephesians notes throughout. Yet even in this profound marriage between Christ and the church, there can be confusion and disagreement. When Jesus tells his disciples that they will eat his flesh and drink his blood, they respond, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” It is only by being subject and open to the Spirit that we are able to grasp Jesus’ teaching, that it brings us to life. Openness to the other, even when understanding is missing, brings about unity.

When asked if they too wished “to go away,” Peter answered Jesus, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” But in order to bring this unity to the church, Christ himself, subject to the will of the Father, offered himself for us. Our unity is not a participation in an object, but subjection to the “head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior.”

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Richard Murray
2 years 8 months ago
Dear Professor Martens, Thank you for your fine article. St. Paul is often doing deep rhetorical and theological moves that, unfortunately, elude modern readers. Today we read at the speed of flying billboards, TV, or computer clicking and scrolling. Too fast for the Biblical Word, which should be a leisurely feast. Ephesians 5 says that women should “obey” their husbands, sure to make people uncomfortable today. An interpretation from Bruno Barnhart: Paul is asking women and men to look at reality through each other’s eyes. Couples who do this will have better relationships. You speak clearly of the very hierarchical Roman societies, in which men especially had to operate on a daily basis: business, politics, and military were entirely masculine and hierarchical. The Roman legions could only have existed with strict enforcement of hierarchical “social” strata. Not too social. But efficient. Paul is asking women to look at the reality in which men operate. He’s saying, “Look at the constant assessing of rank and hierarchy that your men are doing, and the ways at which they give and receive orders, and the emotions, especially anger, that come when your men have to obey orders they would rather not. This is what your men are dealing with every day. If you see this, you’ll understand your men better.” He asks the women to PUT ON A MASCULINE VERB, to consider the word “obey,” to see the world in which men operate. (This language of “masculine” is intended only to make a point, not speak absolute truths about language or gender.) Then he asks men to “love.” He tells the men to PUT ON A FEMININE VERB. It’s as if he’s saying, “Men, when you get home each evening, remember that your wife is not a member of Caesar’s Roman legions. She’s building a nest. A home. Honor and respect her. It’s her place. So take off your armor, have a hot shower, and be a loving husband and father. Shift gears. By the way, she might teach you some radical new things.” If couples are able to develop this spectrum of empathetic mobility within themselves and within their relationships, global joy may grow. (And apologies to Bruno for this crude paraphrase of whatever he brilliantly said back then.)

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