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Published Date: May 4, 2023

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Let’s Stop Doing as the Romans Do

Editor’s note: This is a CBE 2022 Writing Contest Honorable Mention!

When we lived in the US, my wife Renee and I would occasionally turn the television to 17 (then 18, then 19) Kids and Counting to watch the Duggars “Duggaring.” It was mildly amusing to watch this massive clan dressing in their homemade prairie clothes, playing violins, and cooking 1,387 waffles for their family breakfast. Once, they even took the show on the road, loaded up the family bus and, along with their “worldly” cousin, Duggared their way across the state border to a Christian theme park in Branson, Missouri—where, to borrow the words of Obi Wan Kenobi, “You will never find a more wretched hive of kitsch and Christian-ry.”

Like Star Wars, though, there’s a dark side to Duggar culture and the so-called “Quiverfull” movement: the way that it treats women. We’ve recently been journeying with a friend of ours who has left that culture behind, yet she continues to suffer many indignities heaped upon her and her children by a controlling ex-husband and a family of origin that has disowned her. Alyssa Wakefield tells a similar story about her ordeals within this movement, a story that had Renee and I riveted, yet we were horrified at the blatant abuse she allegedly experienced. If only these types of narratives were rare!

I didn’t grow up amongst Quiverfull acolytes, but I’m certain that my conservative community’s view of women—indeed, my own view of women—was only superior by degrees. In my Christian community, men led from the front, sat on the church elder board, served as the pastors, preached the sermons, and called the shots in their families. Women filled the secretary pool, taught children’s Sunday school, played the piano, and organised the church’s potluck suppers, supplying the congregation with molded Jell-O and sweet potatoes with brown sugar and mini marshmallows. It’s a structure that’s optimistically labelled “complementarianism” by its proponents, because, apparently, these stringently demarcated paths of service are how women and men “complement” each other.

A glance at the website for the church where I came of age suggests that nothing has changed with respect to women. However, I certainly have. Full disclosure: I now attend a church led with grace and sensitivity by a female pastor, where my wife (not me) has served as an elder—and where I recently preached a sermon series on Ephesians. I’ve been pondering that series as we’ve followed, with great sadness, the twists and turns of our friend’s personal story. And one thing that has occurred to me is that complementarians think less like Christians and more like Romans.

The rigid stratification of Roman society has been well-documented.[1] The paterfamilias (the male head of household) held absolute authority over all household members: wives, children, and slaves. Roman law (Pater Potestas) gave husbands unquestioned control over almost every aspect of the lives of their wives. This order extended all the way to the top of the societal ladder, with the emperor seen as paterfamilias to the empire. It was an order handed down by the gods, and to challenge it was to endanger the very foundations of the Roman world.

It’s interesting to me that fundamentalist Christian groups and complementarians speak about church and family structures and female submission in much the same way: as an order handed down by God, which is apparently so foundational that to question it is tantamount to heresy. However, when we turn to Ephesians 5:21–33 (incidentally, a favourite “proof text” passage for complementarians), what we find are subtle subversions of the established order.

We’re likely familiar with the instructions Paul gives to wives in 5:21–24, but we should notice straight away that the majority of instructions in this section are reserved for husbands. To them, Paul states:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies.

Ephesians 5:25–28

In our contemporary churches, we can and do take these instructions for granted. Yet Paul’s words would have hit a first-century Roman male like a seismic shock. “Love?” Love (along with monogamous fidelity on the man’s part) was not an essential ingredient in Roman marriages. And to “give yourself up” for your wife would be unthinkable to a Roman husband, whose role according to the thinking of the day was to rule his wife.[2]

Of course, Paul understood his audience and their reality; he knew he couldn’t completely rewrite the established social order with a few strokes of the stylus (as theologian Marg Mowczko notes in an excellent piece on Paul’s household codes). But within the bounds of that society, he could offer these Jesus-like revisions of the rules.

He could teach his churches to think more like Christians, and less like Romans.

Further along in this section of Ephesians, Paul gives a similar set of instructions, first to slaves, then to masters (6:5–9). He tells slaves to obey their masters and to serve them with enthusiasm. Then, he commands masters to “do the same” toward their slaves. Blasphemy! Roman masters owed nothing to their slaves—not even kind treatment, and certainly not “service”!

Again, Paul was thinking not like a Roman, but like a Christian.

The question is, why don’t we? Why do so many of us insist on maintaining rigid Roman-style gender hierarchies in our families and churches? After all, I’ve seen no churches issuing clarion calls to reintroduce slavery on the grounds that Paul somehow “affirms” slavery in this passage. No, we rightly recognise that slavery was a Roman institution that has no place in our churches. Yet we refuse to apply the same logic to Roman gender structures addressed by Paul a mere few paragraphs earlier.

I know that some will respond to all of this with thought-terminating cliches like, “It is what it is,” or “These are peripheral issues,” or “We should focus on more important things.” But is this really a peripheral issue? Is this truly unimportant, something we shouldn’t argue about?

No, it’s not peripheral at all. Our friend’s story and the stories of so many other women show us that truth. It’s not unimportant when male-dominated pyramid structures and “submission” principles are used to eliminate women’s agency and keep them completely dependent on men for their wellbeing and even their survival. It’s not unimportant when emotional, spiritual, financial, physical, and sexual abuse is enabled, and when women are sent back into the arms of their abusers with the injunction to “submit” to them. And it’s not unimportant that complementarian churches routinely suppress the gifts of leadership and teaching with which the Spirit has endowed so many women. None of that is peripheral. Neither is it in any way acceptable.

Two centuries ago, strong Christian voices like William Wilberforce in the UK and the Quakers in the US called out slavery as a cruel and inhumane practice, belonging to a bygone era, that had no place in any just society. They recognized that a genuine, Christ-centered assessment of slavery demanded something more than a flat and simplistic reading of Ephesians 6:5–9 and similar passages. What’s more, their Christian belief that all people were equal in the new creation of Jesus compelled them to agitate and strive for change. I wonder if and when those of us in complementarian and fundamentalist circles will, in the same way, reassess our Roman-style subjugation of women.

Photo by Juliana Malta on Unsplash.

[1] cf. Ralph Mathisen, Ancient Roman Civilization: History and Sources, 753 BCE to 640 CE (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019); John K Evans. War, Women and Children in Ancient Rome (London and New York: Routledge, 1991).

[2] Aristotle, for example, wrote this very instruction to husbands in his own well-known version of the household codes. (See Politics, Book 1, XII).

Related Resources

How Jesus Defies American and Roman Masculinity

Woman’s Role in New Testament Household Codes: Transforming First-Century Roman Culture

A Religion of “Women and Children”? A Christian Woman’s Place in the Greco-Roman World Before AD 300