Review: Husband, Wife, Father, Child, Master, Slave

Husband Wife Father Child Master Slave

Husband, Wife, Father, Child, Master, Slave, Kurt C Schaefer. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2018.

Summary: In contrast to many biblical scholars who argue that the “household codes” of scripture do indeed, for various reasons, affirm cultural role expectations, this work argues that Peter’s version is actually a subtle satire that opposes the cultural norms of Greco-Roman culture.

Contemporary biblical interpreters and teachers have explained the presence of the “household code” passages (Ephesians 5:21-33; Colossians 3:18-4:1; 1 Peter 2:13-3:7)  either as representing enduring role differences or as an accommodation of a nascent movement to powerful cultural norms eventually to be transcended. One thing that is true of most interpreters is that they agree that the biblical writers are affirming the existing “household codes,” perhaps with minor modifications. Of course this raises questions about slavery, as well as misogynous and patriarchal treatment of women. Most of those who endorse the permanent relevance of these role expectations sidestep slavery, substituting employment relationships, which in fact significantly differ from slavery.

Kurt C. Schaefer, a Calvin College economist, has ventured into this discussion, which may not be as disconnected from economics as one thinks since the word derives from the Greek words oikos and nomos, the word used for “household.” and “law” or management. Schaefer focuses his study on 1 Peter and contends that while Peter uses the form of a household code, the substance of what Peter says both in the immediate text and the context suggests that Peter is engaged in a subtle form of satire, a kind of parody of Aristotle, that actually dissents from the cultural norm, calling the Christian community to very different kinds of relationships.

Schaefer builds his case for this contention by first carefully studying the Aristotelian household codes that shaped Greco-Roman culture, observing how these are premised in underlying differences in the essence of different human beings–men and women, masters and slaves, parents and children. He goes on to show how Rome re-purposed these codes to undergird their imperial power.

Then Schaefer turns to 1 Peter. He argues that both the beginning and conclusion of the book emphasize the church’s non-conformity to the culture of the empire and the radical equality of all under divine grace, and that it just doesn’t make sense to include a section that urges conformity to cultural codes premised on fundamental inequality. But the reader then asks, how then ought we understand the household code passage? Schaefer handles this by a side-by-side comparison of Aristotle and 1 Peter.

Space prohibits a complete account of Schaefer’s treatment but a few key elements include the paradox that they live as servants of God and free people; that slaves should suffer for doing right, which assumes that slaves will not submit to the idolatrous worship of masters or any other sinful practice; that there are no instructions to masters, perhaps because Peter assumed that no Christians would have slaves (there are such instructions in Paul, however); and that wives not focus on outward adornment (the expectation of Roman culture) but inward character and virtuous behavior.  He notes there is no parallel passage in Aristotle to Peter’s instruction to men, and that the language of husbands “honoring” wives reverses cultural expectations. Schaefer is essentially arguing that Peter turns the Aristotelian household code on its head, even while following the form of such a code.

One area where Schaefer may be challenged is in his proposed translation of hupotasso, often translated as “submit” or “subordinate oneself to,” as “engage with.” Part of his case is to argue that “engage with is both more complicated, and relationally rich, than merely “to obey” or conversely “to rebel.” This helps explain how a slave may remain “subject” to a master and yet suffer for doing right. They do not give implicit obedience in all things, or become recalcitrant. They may try to loyally serve while giving ultimate allegiance to God, and suffer if a master is unwilling to accept this. Schaefer’s proposal is tenuous in that he does not offer lexicographical support for this translation, either in discussing the root words or the usage of this word in extrabiblical literature. (Ann Nyland has argued that the primary extrabiblical usage of this word is found in various papyri, mostly private letters, where context suggests it means something like “support.”)

In his epilogue, Schaefer discusses the subsequent history of treatment by the early fathers of the church, and proposes that the early fathers follow his interpretation of 1 Peter. He notes the later reversion to Aristotelian understandings with the rise of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He concludes by noting the continued embrace of Aristotelian versions of household codes in some parts of the church:

“In the twenty-first century, the Aristotelian impulse still has its advocates. Some of the church’s most influential leadership counsel male superiority relative to women, strong parental authoritarianism toward children, and social constructions that reinforce racial/ethnic privilege. As we have seen, this impulse is denounced by Peter’s great epistle.”

I think the strength of this work is the extensive cultural background work on household codes that serves as the basis for showing how 1 Peter parodies these codes as a form of dissent from them rather than support for them. His approach of setting 1 Peter and Aristotle side by side is instructive for showing how Peter’s vision of the household of God (1 Peter 2:5; 4:17) contrasts with the Aristotelian household. This reading removes the stumbling block of these texts’ implicit support for slavery and the subordination of women without treating the texts as anachronisms or accommodations. It also reminds us that it is possible for biblical writers to use satire and wit in their writing, something we may overlook in our seriousness about biblical authority.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.