Paul's social conservatism

Paul’s Social Conservatism

'Wives, submit to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them'.

What planet did Paul live on? Earth? What would he make of our society today? The context of these teachings on marriage make what Paul says understandable. In Jewish law women had no legal rights. A man could divorce his wife if he wished but a woman could never divorce her husband. Greek women in Paul’s time lived rather like Muslim women in Arab countries do today. A respectable Greek wife did not go out alone not even to the markets. At home, she had her own rooms and did not mix with men, even for meals. A Greek husband could go out and could have liaisons to but a wife could not. Both in Jewish and Greek culture, men had the privileges and women had the duties.

What then appears to us at first sight to be social conservatism on Paul’s part in relation to marriage actually was something revolutionary in its context. Submissive is not a politically correct idea today. Paul asked Christian women to give their husbands respect. However, he asked Christian men to love their wives and to treat them with kindness and gentleness. This was new. This was radical. Jewish converts or Greek men becoming Christians were being asked to adopt a completely new understanding of marriage. That would not be easy for them. When they went to work or when they met their male friends, their attitudes to the wives would be very different from those who were not Christian. So - although Paul may seem old fashioned to us today - he was far from old-fashioned in his lifetime and culture. His basic teaching was that marriage should be the place and context in which Christ’s love should be practised between the partners. The difference was Jesus Christ in the lives of Christians. This was enabling love not just romantic love. A Christian man or a Christian woman should be motivated by Christ’s love within them and the first person to benefit is the marriage partner.

I would humbly suggest that this is what Christian marriage is meant to be. Can this work today when women go out to work and have careers? Can it work when women have friends and activities outside marriage just as men do? If the basic idea is of mutual love and respect then it can. Submission is a strong word but it is balanced by the revolutionary idea of the husband’s Christian love for his wife. Remember - Paul is thinking of Jesus’ example of love, doing good, caring, healing, serving, washing feet, dying on Calvary. It is Christ’s example that the Christian husband is to follow. And the wife is to be respectful in return.

In America recently there has been a backlash against the feminist movement. A woman called Jade Grace published a book called 'The submissive wife and the servant husband'. It has sold many millions of copies. Submissive is not taken to mean subservient. It is in fact a plea for grace in marriage, for affirming a more intelligent and positive means of relating and is, of course, aimed at preserving marriages and preventing the misery of divorce and its consequences for children down through the generations. Jade Grace’s message is that it is liberating to be a good wife. Much more liberating than extreme individualistic feminist ideology.

Does Paul have anything to say to us here today? I think his emphasis on the context of marriage for Christians as Jesus Christ Himself is distinctive and fresh. The grace of Jesus is an effective and practical help in marriage. It gives more space for forgiveness and for men it gives reason to do the right thing without feeling the lesser for it among men. It asks women if they marry a man to respect that man and not turn against him, mock him or belittle him since this was their choice. This is true in society and public as well for many women belittle their husbands and embarrass them and seem to enjoy doing so. It can be almost a power thing for some women to psychologically abuse their husbands and some for many years. And some mothers sideline husbands in the decision-making and push them to silent resentment and distance over the years.

It is also true that the treatment that some men give to their wives in our wider society today is appalling. Far from equality, women seem to suffer more in abusive relationships than they have ever done. But there may be an explanation for this. There are not many Christian men in our society today. Not many men have the love of Christ in them sufficient for a good marriage. Paul may seem out of time and out of touch, but, in fact, what he says counts towards human happiness and fulfilment, social stability and a nurturing environment for children.

Which leads us on to Paul’s next teaching. 'Children obey your parents in everything for this pleases the Lord'. Then he adds 'Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged'. Now - perhaps you agree 100% with this. But that is not how our society operates, is it? Parenting is an extreme sport. Finding the correct balance between discipline and freedom is key. We usually feel annoyed when we see undisciplined children at Tesco, howling and screaming and the parent having no authority to stop the performance. It is hard for us who were not brought up that way ourselves and seemed to have had respect for our parents far greater it would seem than children have today. Were we that good? I think there were limits in those days that are not present today. Children now commit murder of children - something , I think, unheard of before. Society is more child-centred to the exclusion of much traditional parental authority. There are no PC Murdoch’s around any more. There are only weak social restraints on the bad behaviour of teenagers. Rebellion and disobedience are ways of life for many children.

Paul asks children to please their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by obeying their parents. But then he addresses fathers - note he does not address mothers - 'do not embitter your children'. In the culture in which Paul wrote, the father had full authority over his children. A father could sell his children into slavery for money if he wanted. He could make his children labourers in his fields. He could kill his children within the law. Paul moves away completely from all this. Fathers are to encourage their children. Now Paul is far from the new man of the 1990’s and 2000’s but he has made a significant change in the way Christian fathers are to treat their children. Paul was writing before all the psychological theories of the 20th century. But studies show that our relationships with our fathers are important for what we become. John Newton who wrote Amazing Grace said 'I know that my father loved me but he did not seem to wish me to see it'. Martin Luther found it difficult to call God Father because his own father had been severe towards him. Field Marshall Montgomery was known as a prickly disciplinarian but he was capable of warm humanity. During D Day rehearsals, a young soldier already sea-sick was struggling along in the sand carrying his rifle and pack a bit behind his comrades. Just as he got level with Montgomery who was inspecting the training, he tripped and fell flat on his face. He was crying and struggled to get up and began wandering in the wrong direction. Montgomery went to the young lad and turned him round, gave him a smile and said, 'This way sonny, you’re doing well - very well - but don’t lose touch with the chap in front of you'. The young lad realised it was Montgomery and gave him a look of wonder and adoration. The Christian message is that our Father in heaven speaks to us in a similar way. We may be struggling and indeed going the wrong way about things. God our Father says 'This way lassie, you’re doing well - very well - but don’t lose touch with Jesus in front of you'. 'This way laddie - you’re doing well - very well - but don’t lose touch with Jesus in front of you'.

Paul then speaks at length about the relationship between slaves and masters. He has been castigated over the centuries of modernity for not advocating release of slaves and the abolition of slavery. Christianity has been vilified for taking 1700 years to abolish slavery. Social and political equality of women has only recently come about. And homosexual campaigners suggest that Christianity now needs to acknowledge them.

Under Roman law, a slave could be bought and sold, ill-treated and even killed with impunity. If slaves had children, they belonged to their master. Some slave owners were humane others were not. A very few granted freedom after many years. There were educated slaves as well, teachers and physicians but they were slaves nevertheless. Significantly, Paul did not give slaves the right of rebellion against their slavery nor did he advocate passive resistance against the institution of slavery. Why not? You will have seen the film Spartacus. It is the true story of a slave rebellion. It ended in defeat and 6000 being crucified along the Appian Way south of Rome. Paul was a thoughtful person. Jesus abolished slavery for his followers - that much is clear. Paul concluded that if the eternal spiritual message of Christianity was to be carried throughout the world it could not become embroiled in a political and violent rebellion for the freedom of slaves. If Christianity had been such a movement from its outset it would have been mercilessly crushed by the Romans. Paul likewise reckoned that organised passive resistance by slaves would also result in carnage and slaughter. Above all, Christianity would be identified as a liberation movement for slaves not as an eternally valid spiritual relationship with God.

So - he advocated loyal service by slaves and humane treatment by masters. The relationship is to be one of mutual respect. This was in itself revolutionary. But it was based on the serving example of Jesus. For Paul what you are in this life is of no matter. As a Christian you are bound for a higher better eternal life and it is best to prepare for it now. For him there is neither slave nor free. Social status is irrelevant. Obedience for slaves was their way to spiritual perfection and of guaranteed resurrection salvation and eternal life. That was his argument. A good slave would be closer to Jesus than a bad master and even a good master. For Paul relationships of inequality in this life would be reversed in eternal life. Even Jesus said, 'Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God'.

Paul was not a social conservative in his time. His strategy and purpose was the establishment of witnessing Christian congregations. He was sure that if that message was to survive and thrive in the ancient world it could not use violence or organised political resistance for any reason. Jesus had submitted himself to the injustice of Calvary to gain a greater victory. Paul asked slaves to bide their time and wait for Christ’s victory in them. He asks us to do the same.

Robert Anderson 2017

To contact Robert, please use this email address: