Seditious Households: How Holy Kisses, Tables, and House(hold) Church Habitus Subverted Oppression and Slavery (Part 4a)
Trajectory Application: Two NT Case Studies that Address Tyranny and Oppression (A)
Trajectory application is typically accused of going beyond the text and “modernizing” or “making relevant” the bible’s ancient (and antiquated) sense of things. However, forming outcomes relevant and appropriate to fulfill the meaning of a text should have some biblical foundation to them. In this last section, we will focus two trajectory applications of the household gathered-church found in the New Testament itself: Paul’s Ephesians household-table and his appeal to Philemon concerning the runaway slave, Onesimus.
The seditious Ephesian church-household (table). The household was the venue of the NT gathered-church, which is significance, for the Roman household was the foundational institution for the Roman Empire. Aristotle provides the framing of the household we are to imagine in the NT world: “. . . the first and fewest possible parts of a family are master and slave, husband and wife, father and children.” Note the priority of the master-husband-father in his description. Although seemingly inconsequential, recreating the household “in Christ,” changed everything. The belief that a man is “intended by nature to rule as husband, father, and master, and that failure to adhere to this proper hierarchy is detrimental not only to the household but also to the life of the state.” Outside the free male, all others lessened in value and any behavior (i.e., social, civil, or religious) that opposed the centrality of the male head of household was inappropriate, even seditious to the empire.
In the Ephesians household-table (Eph 5:21–6:9), Paul tears up the encultured tiered human hierarchy household habitus, and thus, the household-gathered habitus of the worshiping community became the paradigm for believing households. The Ephesians household-table presents three seditious elemental changes to the status quo of the Roman household: 1) the lesser household member (i.e., wives, children, slaves) is addressed first—contrasted with the male head of household who always heads in such tables; 2) a reorientation of the metanarrative for each relationship pair—a contrast to the ordering of life that relies on the centrality of the male in social institutions; and, 3) the reciprocity called upon for each relationship-pair—contrasted with no such male corresponding reciprocity toward the other lesser household members in typical household tables. These three elements are subversive to the culturally embedded view of women, children, slaves, and husbands-fathers-masters. There is a reorientation toward a horizontal rather than a vertical assertion in these relationships. This would have had systemic implications felt in concentric circles out from households to all the nooks and crannies of the social and institutional world.
Wives. Statements about women in the first two centuries are difficult for there are nuances of difference among the various social and religious classes and between urban and rural. The value toward the female, however, can be seen in Aristotle’s words: “Again, the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind.” All evidence in antiquity “unanimously testifies that the supreme purpose of marriage was none other than producing legitimate heirs.” Typically, chastity was a female obligation in marriage contracts, on the one hand, which compelled wives to sexual faithfulness, whereas husbands, on the other, were not bound to such requirements. Although some progress had been made regarding the place of women in the society, the popular association of women imagined at the deipnon/symposium was one of servant, entertainer, or prostitute. Paul reorients the wives-husbands into a relationship built on mutuality, which contrasts with the purpose of a Roman household. This all changed because of the Christian habitus that formed the gathered-church at deipnon and symposium, which then saw women equally at table
Children. Modern concern for the welfare of children has no equivalent in the NT world. Affirming the dignity of children was socially counter-cultural, for children were universally “displayed as negative symbols or paradigms” and were “ill-suited portraits for adults.” The preservation of the Roman family estate was the social and civic emphasis, not the protection and prosperity of the child. A child’s life was cheap. Children could face sexual exploitation by adult males, forced into heavy labor, or subject to maltreatment by tutors. The despicable ancient common, practice known as exposure, the abandonment of unwanted infants, is illustrative of the social mapping that declared the centrality of the adult male in the household. Paul’s words on children in the Ephesians household-table would have been striking to all, especially to the male head of household, for whom the compelling cultural and legal focus was his heir. In the NT world, children were “an investment for the future” for the honor of the paterfamilias and for the empire. Household baptism, the kiss, and the table at the gathered-church created a habitus that displayed the intrinsic value of all in the household, including children.
Slaves. Informing slaves they are to obey their masters was self-evident in the Roman context. How slaves were viewed, especially as household members, is completely reoriented in the Ephesian household-table. Slaves are told to be obedient to their masters (6:5a), but not out of obligation, but from mutual respect: Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling (6:5). Paul presents the phrase “fear and trembling” differently than we typically hear it. In English “fear and trembling” has a range of connotations: fear of failure, nervous anxiety, cultural respect for someone of higher position. In the NT, however, when fear and trembling are juxtaposed they suggest something positive rather than something negative. Paul joins the two words to indicate the disposition people should have toward each other (1 Cor 2:3; 2 Cor 7:15; Eph 6:5; Phil 2:12). This is reflected in that the master is to show “the same” (ta auta, 6:9a) mutuality to household slaves. Along with being welcomed as equals at table (and in the kiss and as recipients of baptism), this turned the household world of the master upside-down, having rippling effects throughout the empire as the recreated household reflected a seditious reconciliation “in Christ.”
 Aristotle, Politics (trans. Benjamin Jowett: Kitchener: Batoche Books, 1999); online version, accessed 8/3/2015 < http://socserv2.socsci.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/aristotle/Politics.pdf>, Book One, Part III, p. 6.
 Lincoln, “The Letter to the Colossians,” 653; also A. T. Lincoln, “The Household Code and Wisdom Mode of Colossians,” JSNT 74 (1999): 93–112.
 Note Spencer, “From Poet to Judge”; also, Lisa Marie Belz, “The Rhetoric of Gender in the Household of God: Ephesians 5:21–33 and Its Place in Pauline Tradition,” <ecommons.luc.edu/luc_diss/502>, accessed 7/13/15 (Diss: Loyola University Chicago, 2013): 217–18.
 Aristotle, Politics, Book One, Part V, p. 9.
 Dudrey, “‘Submit Yourself to One Another.’”
 Kathleen E. Corley, “Were the Women Around Jesus Really Prostitutes? Women in the Context of Greco-Roman Meals,” SBL 1989 Seminar Papers, ed. David J. Lull (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989), 487-521.
 O. M. Bakke, When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity (trans Brian McNeil: Minneapolis: Fortess, 2005), 21–2.
 Bakke, When Children Became People, 54–5, quoting Suzanne Dixon, The Roman Family (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 130–31.
 Dudrey, “‘Submit Yourself to One Another’’’ and see Bakke, When Children Became People, 22–47.
 Bakke, When Children Became People, 24.
 Chip M. Anderson, Destroying Our Private Cities, Building Our Spiritual Life (Xulon, 2003), 113.
This is a thread consisting of parts of a a recent paper presented at the 2017 Evangelical Theological Society's annual meeting in Providence, RI. The goal is to develop an anthology of essays (by various authors) on the subject, Christian Responses to Tyranny.
Part 1 | Part 2a | Part 2b | Part 2c | Part 3 | Part 3a | Part 3b | Part 4a | Part 4b | Part 5
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Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.