ST. PAUL, ON SLAVES & WIVES
“Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in singleness of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you are serving the Lord Christ.” (Col 3: 18-24)
Now here is a series of instructions from St. Paul, concerning the Christian household. At least one of these instructions is considered anachronistic, in our time. Namely, this one: “Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters…” Is this a Scripture-quote we would offer today, to anyone held in slavery; say, to a woman held in bondage by human traffickers? No, because things have changed. I think we would seek legal solutions, in the criminal law in place today, to address the situation of one held in slavery today.
But St. Paul was doing his best to deal with a rather different cultural, political, and economic reality, two millennia ago, and with a rather different “Christian household,” when the Holy Spirit had just begun to do His transformative, unifiying work in Christian households. So, we do not, in our time, understand St. Paul’s instructions to the “Christian household” literally, or fundamentally. Because we are not fundamentalists, when it comes to Scripture.
And this holds true, I would suggest, for the instruction also to “wives,” to be “subject” to their husbands, full stop. I know, some readers might be mad at me for saying that, but “wives” today are generally far more educated and responsible, economically and politically, because they occupy a place very different from the place they had in St. Paul’s world. In our world, they have the right to vote, the right to an education, and are often equal, or even primary, bread-winners in Christian families. So, the simple fact is, they are not “subject” to their husbands in the way they were in St. Paul’s time. And that’s OK, because we do accept, as an ever-evolving, ever-relevant Church, the changeable aspects of Church-tradition, – like the one regarding slaves, and also wives. Thank You, Lord, for entering into our ever-changeable history, and challenging us to discern Your presence in its ever-changeable contexts.