The Mystery In Ephesians: Part 1, in Conversation with Yoder

On March 14th I’ll be presenting a paper titled, “Ephesians and the Household Code: a Conversation with John H. Yoder” at TST’s Advanced Degree Students’ Association Theology Conference. I plan on posting a version of this paper here in four parts.

As a preface, in addition to the influence of Yoder, my treatment of both the household codes and the mystery found in Ephesians, is informed by a tension schematized by Derrida in many different ways throughout his work. In both Ephesians and Yoder’s treatment of household codes, this tension is revealed between the need for a determinate identity and the need to hold identities open to reevaluation and change. In Ephesians, Paul encourages a mode of negotiating or living in this tension that fosters health rather than death.

“For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” Ephesians 5.23-24


I have attended a number of weddings where couples include a reference to this verse in their vows, stressing that the woman shall submit to her husband. Ironically, more times than not, if my newly-wed friends were honest with each other, they would admit the inverse is true of the power dynamics in their relationship. Yet, I still find the inclusion of such a misogynistic sentiment a tad disturbing. These verses are associated with what biblical scholars call Haustafeln, that is, the New Testament (NT) household codes; and they have been an enduring conflict for biblical interpreters throughout the modern era. From abolitionism to women suffrage, household codes have garnered a variety of (sometimes contradictory) interpretations, having been read as oppressive and liberating. Since these verses continue to impact Christian communities, they require repeated readings that consider their past, present, and future relevance.

During the late twentieth century, scholars, attempting to reconcile household codes with more egalitarian motives, reconstructed the social context in which Paul wrote. For example, in his book The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder, an early advocate for an egalitarian reading of the household codes, uses extra-Pauline evidence to support his thesis that the household codes are a response to a temptation to undermine oppressive social structures. The aim of this paper is twofold. First, I briefly explain some of the Yoder’s evidence and support for an egalitarian reading of New Testament ethical instructions that stresses mutual respect between members of society over the importance of power structures. Second, I argue that there is textual evidence in the immediate literary context of the ethical instructions that supports an egalitarian reading of the Haustafeln. These observations reveal a tension in Paul’s thought in that he appreciates both the communally cohesive property of household codes and, at the same time, recognizes the necessity of reinterpretation (or re-application) given new historical circumstance. It will be argued, that this tension is embedded in Paul’s understanding of the mystery made known to him. The mystery, Christ’s power and work, opens up all authority systems and modes of identity production to the possibility of questioning and reevaluation.

Part 1: Yoder and the House Hold Codes

In The Politics of Jesus, Yoder addresses the parallel ethical instructions in Ephesians (5:21:6-9), Colossians (3:18-4:1), and 1 Peter (2:13-3:7). Yoder argues that the household codes have an inner egalitarian logic. We will briefly highlight three of Yoder’s observations supporting this conclusion.

First, NT moral instructions recognize the contextual nature of identity. Yoder writes that household codes are always found in pairs, and “the call to be ‘subject’ or to ‘love’ or to ‘respect’ always uses a verb which relates this person not to herself or himself… but to the other member of that pair.” In contrast, moral instructions in Greco-Roman writings typically do not center on relationships but rather one’s own person, instructions are addressed to a single human type and listed one by one. As a result, the literary structure of pairs, in NT moral instructions, forms part of the imperative—that the social context is a necessary component of identity.

Second, household codes implicitly critique the passivity and hierarchy of Greco-Roman morality. For one, Paul’s moral instructions begin by addressing what would have been considered the “weaker” or subordinate member of society. Moreover, these subordinate persons are addressed as moral agents. On this point Yoder writes, “here we have a faith that assigns personal moral responsibility to those who had no legal or moral status in their culture, and makes of them decision makers.” Additionally, Yoder points out that NT household codes give those suffering under repressive regimes “responsibility for viewing their status in society not as a simple meaningless decree of fate but as their own meaningful witness and ministry, as an issue about which they can make a moral choice.” Not only does this subvert power structures, but it once again points to the contextual nature of identity.

desktopThird, rather than calling the privileged partners to fulfill their calling of mastery, Paul exhorts them to a kind of subordination in turn. Yoder writes that household codes “do not consecrate the existing order when they call for acceptance of subordination by the subordinate person; far more they relativize and undercut this order by then immediately turning the imperative around.” In Ephesians 6.9, for example, Paul implores masters to treat their slaves as Christ would. This reciprocal subordination demonstrates a “revolutionary trait” of household codes, and further challenges a hierarchical social order.

Although we want to be careful not to project a liberal democratic ethos onto Paul, these trends within the household codes indicate that they are not simply a reiteration of Greco-Roman morality and have an egalitarian movement. Furthermore, they demonstrate that early Christian social roles were not understood as established by fate or completely indifferent to their context. Rather the inner logic of household codes suggests that social expectations made of wives, slaves, and children are historical. By historical I mean that these identities have a negotiated past and a contested future, and for this reason historical things are never static but can and should always be open to questioning.

Download a pdf of the full version with citations here

2 thoughts on “The Mystery In Ephesians: Part 1, in Conversation with Yoder

  1. Pingback: Ephesians and John H. Yoder: Part 2 The Egalitarian Mystery | (un)conditional

  2. Pingback: Deconstruction In Ephesians: Part 3, The Conclusion | (un)conditional

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