Submit to one another, part 6: Transformation

In the last post, I suggested that Paul shouldn’t be read as imposing patriarchy in the home.  The Roman household was already strongly patriarchal in ways that would be difficult for us to comprehend.  Paul, as a pastor, was helping believers envision how the gospel might transform such relationships from the inside out.

One might argue, however, that by not setting patriarchal norms firmly aside, Paul was in fact tacitly affirming them.  That’s plausible.  But there’s another way of thinking about this.  Let me put forward an even thornier matter, just to make the point: if Paul tells slaves to obey their masters, does that mean he supports slavery as God’s will for households?

Some have thought so.  In a brief letter to his friend Philemon, for example, Paul deals with a sticky situation.  Philemon, one of Paul’s converts, is a prominent Christian in Colossae.  A slave named Onesimus has run away from Philemon’s household, met Paul, and become a Christian as well.  Thus, while Philemon has a legitimate legal grudge against Onesimus, the two are now brothers in Christ.  What’s Paul to do?

Put briefly, he uses a bit of moral arm-twisting to encourage Philemon to show love and grace toward Onesimus.  But he doesn’t insist.  And this is what some readers find disturbing: Paul doesn’t come right out and speak against the evil of slavery.  Indeed, the argument that a lack of explicit condemnation from Paul is the same as implicit approval has been used in the past to justify slavery.

I don’t know that there’s an airtight response here, but I believe the question betrays a bias in the way one might read Paul.  How does Paul see himself, his calling, his mission?  Reading his letters, I don’t think he sees his job as changing society through argument.  The gospel is not promoted by his individually and verbally attacking social institutions like slavery.  It’s promoted by nurturing communities of believers whose life together witnesses to the transforming power of grace.

Look at his letter to the Romans.  Paul tells believers to submit (the same verb as in Eph 5) to the government, because all authority comes from God (13:1), and they only punish people who do wrong (13:3-4).  Really?  Is Paul just being naive?  Doesn’t he know what Rome is capable of?  Has he forgotten what happened to Jesus?

I think it’s safe to say he never forgets the cross.

Paul is able to encourage submission to existing authorities because of his complete confidence in the sovereignty of God.  We have to read Romans 13 against the background of Romans 12.  If you truly understand the incredible mercy of God, Paul urges, you will give your life to him as a willing and worshipful sacrifice (12:1).  And that means being transformed from the inside out (12:2), so that it shows in the way you live with each other, your neighbors, and even your enemies (12:9-21).  It’s in that context that Paul then talks about how believers should relate to the government, even going as far as to tell people to pay their taxes (13:6-7).

The point is this: Paul as pastor may not challenge social institutions directly, but that in itself is not a case for concluding that he endorses them.  If Paul doesn’t set patriarchy aside, that doesn’t mean he is establishing patriarchy as a Christian norm.

But wait, one might object — don’t his words about male headship do just that?  Again, not necessarily.  That’s the subject of the next post.