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What validity is there to the popular belief that Christianity teaches male headship and for this reason is a chief carrier of patriarchy and female oppression? Honesty requires us to acknowledge that the entire ancient world was in some sense patriarchal and that all of its religions, including primitive Christianity, were implicated in the elevation of males over females. But this confession opens a deeper question: in what direction was the Jesus movement we now call Christianity actually moving on family and gender issues? Was early Christianity in tension with, and subtly undermining, what many scholars now call the "honor-shame codes" of the Greco-Roman world and their embeddedness in patriarchy?
There are good reasons to believe that the earliest forms of Christianity were in conflict on gender issues with their surrounding cultures. When our information is placed in context, it becomes clear that early Christian communities, along with aspects of Stoicism, functioned to mitigate male power and elevate women. Furthermore, their theological direction was to bring the principle of neighbor love or "equal regard" into the center of family life and the husband-wife relation. Love as equal in marriage means that both husband and wife should treat each other as ends - as persons - and never as means to other ends, i.e., as objects of manipulation. Within this mutual respect, they also should work equally for each other's good. This means they should strive to provide in principle equal access to the privileges and responsibilities of both the public sphere of politics and employment and the domestic sphere of child care and household duties. Self-sacrificial love, in this view, has a place but is not an end in itself; it is, instead, that extra effort needed to restore broken relationships to mutuality and equal regard once again.
This was the argument of From Culture Wars to Common Ground: Religion and the American Family Debate, the summary book of the Religion, Culture, and Family Project. In the early days of this project, biblical scholar David Balch (co-author with Carolyn Osiek of Families in the New Testament World) often said at our seminars, "The early Christian family was the Greco-Roman family with a twist." With this formula, he reminded us that in urban centers throughout the Middle East the relation of the family to society (the polis) was defined predominantly by Hellenistic philosophical traditions. Specifically, it was shaped by Aristotle's threefold household theory about the tyrannical rule of master over slave, the aristocratic rule of husband over wife, and the monarchical rule of father over children. Aristotle's views had been spread by his student Alexander the Great throughout the Mediterranean world and later mingled with the Roman Empire, creating what we now call Roman Hellenism.
Pronouncements of the Southern Baptist church on the biblical mandate for wives to submit to husbands failed to identify this source of the male-headship tradition. It is, however, commonly known among New Testament scholars, including those in Southern Baptist institutions. This threefold theory can be found in both Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and his Politics. Because it was part of the culture of the day, this Aristotelian family theory worked its way into the texts of early Christianity and can be found in Ephesians 5:21-33, Colossians 3:18-25, and 1 Peter 3:1-7. To give an example, note the threefold structure of the Colossians passage: "Wives, be subject to your husbands.... Children, obey your parents in everything.... Slaves, obey ... your earthly masters."
To catch the parallel with Aristotle, it helps to hear the philosopher's own words. In Politics, he wrote, "Of household management ... there are three parts - one is the rule of a master over slaves, another of a father, and the third of a husband." In the Nicomachean Ethics, he gets more specific:
For the association of a father with his sons bears the form of monarchy, since the father cares for his children.... Tyrannical too is the rule of master over slaves; for it is the advantage of the master that is brought about in it.... The association of man and wife seems to be aristocratic; for the man rules in accordance with his worth.
Christianity and the Honor-Shame Culture
To further understand early Christian families as a "twist" on Greco-Roman patterns, Professor Osiek directed us to the anthropological and historical work on the honor-shame codes governing male-female behavior in ancient Mediterranean areas. These codes had much in common with Aristotle's philosophical formulations of worth (or honor) and their implications for family hierarchies. The codes reflect what many scholars call an "agonistic" culture, a culture organized around conflicts between men over issues of honor. In such cultures honor was associated with male dominance and agency while shame was associated with male weakness and passivity. A sign of male weakness and shame was permitting the violation of the women of a man's household - wife, sister, or mother - without proper defense or retaliation. To keep such encroachments from happening, males enforced the systematic restriction of women to the domestic sphere. If such an offense did occur, any self-respecting male was to challenge and subdue the violator with physical force. At the same time, free men were entitled to a great deal of public, political, and sexual freedom. They also could gain honor if they could get away with shaming other men by seducing or offending the women in their households.
Although primitive Christianity never completely escaped the honor-shame codes of Roman Hellenism, it did fracture or partially undermine them. The early church required Christian men to restrict their sexual activity to their wives. The church also rejected the agonistic challenge-riposte pattern of the Greco-Roman male-honor code. The ancient custom of infanticide, largely practiced when men for various reasons rejected their unwanted infants, was condemned by early Christian communities. Christian men were exhorted to imitate in their family relations Christ's sacrificial love for the church (Eph. 5:25). Women helped administer the love feast in the early Christian house churches and exercised leadership in evangelism.
The new patterns between males and females occurring in the ecclesia spilled over into the everyday domestic life of early Christians. Husbands and wives related in more egalitarian ways at home, following patterns first established at their house churches. This happened to such an extent that early Christian families were seen by their pagan neighbors as threatening the official relation of family to polis in ancient cities, provoking authorities to persecute them for offenses to the established order. This in turn precipitated a retrenchment on gender equality in the post-Pauline church, as we see in 1 Peter.
Ephesians versus Aristotle
Those who believe that early Christianity was an intentional teacher of male headship must confront this question: what direction was early Christianity going on this issue? Additional evidence is found that it experimented with new ideas on gender relations if we compare Ephesians 5:21-33 to Aristotle's theory of male responsibility in Politics and Nicomachean Ethics. First, Ephesians begins with a radical injunction toward mutuality of husband and wife: "Be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ" (5:21). This precedes and frames the soon-to-follow words asking wives to be "subject" to their husbands (5:22). Aristotle, on the other hand, spoke of a proportional equity between husband and wife ("the man rules in accordance with his worth") and a constitutional aristocracy of the husband over the wife based on this superior worth. There is no thing approaching the idea of mutual subjection between husband and wife to be found in Aristotle's thought.
Second, Ephesians based this mutual subjection on reverence for Christ. Aristotle, on the other hand, grounded proportional equity in the alleged higher deliberative powers of males. Aristotle writes, "For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female."
Third, Ephesians tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church, thereby developing a theory of male servanthood. Aristotle, on the other hand, writes that the higher honor should go to the better: "The friendship of man and wife, again, is the same that is found in an aristocracy; for it is in accordance with virtue - the better gets more of what is good."
Finally, Ephesians tells us that husbands should love "their wives as they do their own bodies.... For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body" (5:28-30). In these words we hear the love commandment - "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 22:39) - brought directly into the inner precincts of marital relations. Nothing similar to this can be found in Aristotle or, for the most part, in other pagan philosophical writings on marriage and family.
Christian Neighbor Love and the "Male Problematic"
These striking contrasts between Aristotle and Ephesians do not completely deliver early Christianity from patriarchy, but they suggest that its trajectory is away from it. It is generally thought that the principle of neighbor love is the interpretive center of Christian ethics. We learn this in Jesus' response to the lawyer who asked, "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" In answering, Jesus lists first the command to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and second the command, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." It follows from this, I argue, that the present task of Christian theology is to complete the early church's critique of male headship with its associated honor-shame code and finish the task of implementing its direction toward a marriage ethic of equal regard.
But the idea of neighbor love - and the concept of equal regard between husband and wife that it implies - does not give a complete ethic for families. More is needed. In From Culture Wars to Common Ground, we took the concept of male servanthood very seriously. Fathers and husbands, in being servants to their families, are not only contradicting ancient honor-shame patterns, they are imitating - indeed recapitulating - the nature of God as revealed in the love of Christ. This is a very heady idea, but one worth pondering. It may reveal something profound about the nature of humans, the nature of God, and the uniqueness of Christian family theory.
Insight into the meaning of early Christianity's redefinition of male responsibility can be discovered in some startling formulations of Christian family theory made by Thomas Aquinas. In his "Supplement" to the Summa Theologica and in Summa contra Gentiles, Aquinas made remarkable observations, quite consistent with some modern social science views, about the natural needs that lead to the formation of human families. These observations do not constitute a Christian theory of marriage and family as such, but they do provide insights into the natural conditions of family formation that should be kept in mind when building a Christian view. Aquinas's observations deepen understanding of why human males became involved in families, generally with considerable ambivalence. They also help us to see how Christianity used concepts and symbols that both appealed to these natural tendencies and transformed them, thereby helping to stabilize Christian male commitment to children and wives.
For instance, Aquinas was aware, as is contemporary evolutionary theory, that human males are unique among animals in learning to care for their progeny and becoming attached to their consorts. Other male primates, for the most part, do not help care for their infants after fathering them. Aquinas advanced several reasons why human males became involved in families over the course of history. He listed (1) the long period of human infant dependency that leads the female to demand help from her sexual partner in raising their offspring, (2) the recognition by a human male that a particular child is most likely his and therefore a part of his very biological existence, (3) sexual exchange that integrates the male into a more stable relation with his female partner (following Paul, he called it paying the "marital debt"), and (4) mutual assistance between male and female that further consolidates their relationship. These are natural reasons Aquinas gives for how human males are pulled into long-term relationships with offspring and consorts.
It is widely known that Thomas Aquinas believed marriage to be an unbreakable sacrament, but a very important part of that theory is almost always overlooked. The logic of his argument for the permanence of marriage reveals that he wanted a ground for stabilizing fragile male commitment to families. He was aware that a human female knows with certainty that the infant she births is hers; for instance, she experiences the burdens of pregnancy and the trials of delivery. Males have much more tentative and difficult-to-discern relations to the infants they father. Behind Aquinas's theory of sacramental permanence of the marital bond was his insight into human male ambivalence about fatherhood - an ambivalence that I sometimes call the "male problematic."
Aquinas was similar to contemporary evolutionary biologists in his awareness that human males are almost unique among mammals in their capacity to bond with their children and mates. I agree with John Miller in his Biblical Faith and Fathering that stabilizing male responsibility and giving it sacred meaning was one of the great accomplishments of both Judaism and Christianity. Both faiths depicted God as a caring father whom human males were commanded to imitate. Whether one takes Aquinas's sacramentalism literarily or symbolically, we find in his thought additional helpful insight into this transformation of men into fathers.
Modern evolutionary biology and psychology recognize variations of the same four natural factors leading to family formation that Aquinas discussed. Aquinas's thought is in many ways better, however - fuller and less reductionistic. His worldview adds much that evolutionary psychologists generally overlook. They do contribute, nevertheless, an important additional theory - the theory of "kin altruism." (Aquinas took over something like this theory from Aristotle but never explicitly stated it.)
Excerpted from DOES CHRISTIANITY TEACH MALE HEADSHIP? Copyright © 2004 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission.
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|1||The Problem of Men||3|
|2||Is Equal Regard in the Bible?||13|
|3||Did Early Christians Teach, or Merely Assume, Male Headship?||23|
|4||Male Headship: Reform of the Protestant Tradition||28|
|5||The Feminist Pope||40|
|6||A Feminist Christian Theologian Looks (Askance) at Headship||49|
|7||The Problem of Men, Reconsidered||65|
|8||The Problem of Protestants||74|
|9||Headship and the Bible||82|
|10||Marriage, Subordination, and the Development of Christian Doctrine||92|
|11||Reflections on Headship||111|
|Reflections on the Debate||126|