Thursday, January 20, 2011

Household Codes

Thursday, January 20, 2011 -- Week of 2 Epiphany, Year One
Fabian, Bishop and Martyr of Rome, 250
To read about our daily commemorations, go to our Holy Women, Holy Men blog:

Today's Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 944)
Psalms 37:1-18 (morning)       37:19-42 (evening)
Isaiah 45:5-17
Ephesians 5:15-33
Mark 4:21-34

Today's passage in Ephesians is a reminder that our scriptures are written by human beings within their own historical context.  We say they are inspired, and so they are.  The canonical books carry authority because the church has examined them and authorized them as sacred texts, the Word of God containing all things necessary for salvation.  Just as Jesus is the Word of God, reflecting in human life the character of the divine, yet carrying within himself our common humanity -- a need to eat, to sleep, and a body which when traumatized can die -- so the Bible is sacred writing that reflects the character of the divine, yet carries within itself the language, metaphors, culture and thoughts of human beings living in particular places and particular times.

So we read today from Ephesians a passage articulating household codes, a passage not too dissimilar from other examples of Roman wisdom literature.  This passage and some others form part of an argument among scholars about the authorship of this book.  Some scholars point to letters that are universally attributed to Paul and see teaching of a remarkable equality between male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free.  Paul's household code in 1 Corinthians 7 reflects a remarkable degree of equality between genders and a very deliberate balancing between female/male and male/female. 

This passage from Ephesians 5 parallels some of that earlier teaching:  "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ."  But then this passage departs from the equality of 1 Corinthians and reflects some of the gender hierarchy of Roman culture.  "Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.  ...Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her..."  Actually, traditional Roman attitudes would find this passage a liberal challenge to the tradition of paterfamilias.  It does reflect a hierarchical pattern, but there are mutual and reciprocal duties.  Further, it was not common for inferiors -- wives, children, slaves -- to be address directly rather through their superiors -- husbands, fathers, masters.

Though Ephesians 5 reflects a kind of Roman gender hierarchy, this passage places heavy burdens on husbands, and has more to say to husbands than to wives.  That may indicate that for this letter (and its time and audience) husbands are a greater problem than wives.  One might argue it is easier for wives to obey their husbands as the church does Christ than for husbands to sacrifice themselves for their wives as Christ did for the church.  If that were spoken in a time of persecution, a husband should be ready to die if that would save a wife.

Many scholars point to this passage (among others) to argue that Ephesians was not written by Paul, but by a later disciple of Paul.  Those scholars would emphasize the tradition of radical equality between men and women, wives and husbands (as well as between Jew and Greek, slave and free) that is reflected in the universally acknowledged Pauline texts.  (One note:  1 Corinthians 14:33b-36 is thought by those scholars to be a later insertion.  It changes the subject of the text preceding (prophecy), and the passage reads more consistently without it, and it is placed in a different location by some early manuscripts and even as a separate paragraph in all Greek manuscripts.  More to the point, it explicitly contradicts what Paul said earlier in 1 Corinthians.  One explanation is that a later scribe, copying the words "God is a God not of disorder but of peace," might have thought of female teachers as an example of such disorder and inserted a summary of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 in the margin.  Later scribes inserted it into different locations as they copied.  Further note:  Not many scholars regard 1 Timothy as a text written by Paul.  It seems to be written by a much later disciple, possibly with the intention of changing Paul's teaching of radical equality into a more socially comfortable traditional hierarchy.)

So it is not a good thing to read the scriptures as though they were written by God.  They are written by human beings, but the scriptures reveal God.  They are our story -- they tell us who we are as a believing people and give us a record of our timeless relationship with God.  I like to say that the scriptures give us sufficient knowledge, not comprehensive knowledge. 

This household code from Ephesians offers an inspiring challenge to husband to love and sacrifice himself for his wife.  I think Paul had a truer vision in his teaching of mutual equality, equal respect and love between partners.  I think Paul would not agree with the writer of Ephesians saying "the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church."  That seems like a falling back into cultural norms that Paul challenged. 

But that is part of the great religious conversation we enter into in scripture.  Job writes to challenge the theology of Proverbs and the Deuteronomic historian.  The book of Ruth challenges the ethnic cleansing policies of Ezra and Nehemiah.  We are all in a great stream of debate and interpretation that runs through centuries of rabbis and Christian teachers.  May be be faithful and wise in our day, maybe even adding a bit to the depth of our corporate knowledge of God.



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About Morning Reflections
"Morning Reflections" is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117
An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at -- Click for online Daily Office
Another form of the office from Phyllis Tickle's "Divine Hours" is available on our partner web site at this location -- --  Click for Divine Hours

Discussion Blog:  To comment on today's reflection or readings, go to, or click here for Lowell's blog find today's reading, click "comment" at the bottom of the reading, and post your thoughts.

The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church
is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance, and love.

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Our Rule of Life: 
We aspire to...
    worship weekly
    pray daily
    learn constantly
    serve joyfully 
    live generously.

Lowell Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, Arkansas


At 9:40 AM, Anonymous janet said...


Fascinating commentary on Paul's words, and biblical tradition. I have come to love Paul's wide open thoughts, and coming to comprehend the gift of grace rendering all equal under God's law gives such delight and freedom to one's soul. I previously had such problems with some of the back and forth that Paul seemed to be doing. Writings such as yours today help me hold that freedom that I know God has given to all, explaining how one faction of those writing perhaps were not ready for such a message of freedom and hope and equality.

It reminds me again of our political landscape - Obama comes in with ideas for change - the country is with him - then we start on this, and many pull back, afraid, fearful, how can we possibly offer healthcare to everyone, and excuse after excuse is written in the margins because the thought of taking this equality thing to its logical conclusion is too wonderful to accept.

We see this with any major political change - the right of women to vote - civil rights - ADA passage - how slow we are to embrace what our hearts might tell us to be true.

Peace, Janet

At 8:00 AM, Blogger Lowell said...

I see the connection, Janet.

Today our reading in Ephesians stands in contrast to Paul's letter to Philemon about slaves. Paul writes powerfully, asserting his authority to tell Philemon to treat his runaway slave Onesimus like a equal brother in Christ.

In many ways, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus are letters that try to back away from Paul's vision of equality. It was too much for them to absorb, so they reverted to conventional Roman mores. I'm inspired by Paul and wish his spirit could have prevailed in the church from the beginning.


At 11:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We didn't offer healthcare to everyone tho, we offered insurance to everyone. Yousee, you need doctors to offer healthcare, without them there is no healthcare. And telling them they have to work for pennies is not going to bring more doctors into the system. So good luck with that.

At 8:24 AM, Blogger Lowell said...

I wish we had chosen to expand Medicare to all from birth. It's a simple system, and for the most part it works -- though doctor reimbursements need to be just.

There is some interesting conversation about reimbursements being not so tied to specific services (tests, procedures, etc.) and more tied to results.


At 9:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if your teachers unions would like to talk about results based pay. LOL

At 9:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, is this spreading it around? or is it social justice? Maybe this was Obama's DREAM.


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