Biblically Faithful in Our Time, Not Theirs

The Rev. Madison T. Shockley II is pastor of the Congregational Church of Christian Fellowship, United Church of Christ, in Mid-City and a member of Mobilization for the Human Family: a Progressive Christian Movement

The Southern Baptist Convention has felt the need to reaffirm its teaching that in marriage, the man rules. And further, that the Christian duty of the wife is not only to submit to his rule but to do so "graciously." Not being Southern Baptist, I have no particular stake in what they choose to teach. My concern, however, is the presumption that this teaching is the genuine biblical teaching. When it comes to the Bible, I have quite a stake.

The Bible did not fall from heaven in perfect English. It has come to us through many human hands--inspired by encounters with God, but human hands all the same. So the question must be asked, what did the writer of Ephesians mean to accomplish by advocating that wives be submissive to their husbands? Were he and the other early Christians transmitting sacred doctrine from God to their new emerging community to lead them away from the pagan world around them?

The clear historical answer is a resounding no. They were, in fact, quite deliberately trying to fit in to the Hellenistic culture that was the nurturing environment for the growing church. They were not only evangelizing in a spiritually and philosophically competitive arena, but at the same time holding a somewhat defensive posture in light of the not infrequent persecutions directed toward the new religion. It was important to the early Christians to be like the world around them, and they expressed this to their followers as being consistent with their faith.

If the church today is to be faithful to biblical principles as well as words, we must continue to interpret the world around us and determine appropriate contemporary Christian responses to it. The Christian community of 2nd century Hellenistic culture sought to fit in to the highest values of the philosophical standards of the day. Christians wanted to show that their faith produced persons at least as honorable as the disciples of the Stoic schools. So, yes, Christians are "good" husbands to their wives, "good" fathers to their children and "good" masters to their slaves. Have we forgotten about the church's ancient and not-so-ancient acquiescence to the brutality of slavery? We also like to forget that in the Bible, the injunction to wives is inseparable from the immediately subsequent instruction that slaves be subject to their masters.

These so-called "household codes" were standard fare for the Greco-Roman world. The only thing "Christian" about them are the embellishments that encourage love toward wives, nonprovocative parenting techniques and nonthreatening strategies toward obtaining slaves' obedience. Therefore, liberal mainline churches teach that to be faithful Christians, we must look at the world around us and encourage the best and highest values of our society. It was only such an approach that allowed the Christian church to join the enlightenment spirit and fight for the abolition of slavery. It was only such an approach that allowed the church to join the women's liberation movement and fight for women's rights.

Now that the church and society have succeeded in broadening women's roles and opportunities in the world, it would seem inconsistent to confine and restrict women's roles in a Christian marriage and family. Remember, too, that there are real world consequences to these narrow interpretations, such as wives being abused by husbands.

Those who wrote the words we revere in the Bible did not know that they would be read by us nearly 2,000 years later. To be faithful to their words and our God, we need not live in their time, but faithfully live in ours.

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