Sunday, December 06, 2015

ET6. God calls us to respect our parents and spouses.

This is the sixth post on Christian ethics in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. The third set was on sacraments. This final section is on Christian ethics.
God calls us to respect our parents and spouses.

1. There is a good reason why, not only the Bible, but the vast majority of cultures in history have had obedience to parents and the respect of elders as a core value. When the world more or less stays the same from century to century, it is the older people who have the most knowledge and experience of the world. Similarly, the stability of life in such a world rests on keeping the traditions and norms of your people. [1]

So the commandment says, "Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you" (Exod. 20:12).

Places where the young do not respect the elder are often chaotic places. When the inherited values of a culture are rejected, it is a free for all. People simply do "what is right in their own eyes" (Judg. 17:6; 21:5). They live for themselves, their own selfish pleasures and desires, which causes a society to disintegrate.

2. So biblical instructions to obey parents (Eph. 6:1; Prov. 1:8) and to treat elders as fathers and mothers (1 Tim. 5:1-2) were not just a nice tradition. They had a purpose--the stability and survival of peoples. In the church, it also has the function of defending against false teaching, since the elders of the church are usually not only wiser but they have a tendency to preserve doctrine.

The leaders of the early congregations of the church were called "elders" and they probably were in fact older (e.g., Acts 14:33; 1 Tim. 5:17; Tit. 1:5). [2] In such a world, the older have to be reminded that young people can have insight as well (1 Tim. 5:12).

We thus might see biblical instructions to respect and submit to one's elders in a similar vein to instruction elsewhere to respect and submit to those in authority. Authority preserves order and hopefully embodies the wisdom of a group. People often rise to leadership because they have recognized gifts and are invested with power by the group. So elders usually embody the wisdom of a group.

3. In the ideal world, parents serve a similar function within the family. Of course families in biblical times were bigger than just husband and wife. The oldest male in an extended family was usually the highest authority for that clan or group.

But parents function both to protect and train their children within the smaller unit. "Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray" (Prov. 22:6). This is not an absolute guarantee--there are exceptions--but it captures well the basic principle. Parents train their children to become virtuous and responsible adults.

Parents are not always right, of course. In the case of adults, an adult can sometimes maneuver around a wicked or incompetent authority. Children face a much dangerous situation. They are most vulnerable to a wicked or incompetent parent. The church and society hopefully can help in such situations.

So there is purpose to the biblical instructions to submit to authority, to respect elders, and to obey parents. It is not just a rule that exists for its own sake. Children not only do not have knowledge of the world. Their brains are not fully developed in childhood, and they are prone to self-destructive thinking in their teens. The instruction for children to obey parents is, in most cases, for their own protection and so that they can thrive in life.

4. In most cultures in history, the man has been the dominant figure in relation to the wife. Genesis 3:16 captures the majority situation of history well: "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you."

In Genesis, Eve is given this consequence as a punishment for her sin. But 1 Timothy 2 suggests that the cultures of the ancient world thought of the subordination of wives to husbands as a protective move as well: "Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived" (2:14). So the wife was not thought to be as wise or informed as the husband, making the husband the better leader of the family unit.

To the extent to which the Bible speaks to this question, it assumes the culture norms of its world. "Submit to each other out of respect for Christ. For example, wives should submit to their husbands as if to the Lord. A husband is the head of his wife like Christ is head of the church, that is, the savior of the body... As for husbands, love your wives just like Christ loved the church and gave himself for her" (Eph. 5:21-23, 25, CEB). This default historical approach sees the husband as the protector of the wife and family, with wife and children submitting for their own benefit.

So the purpose of this construction was not to oppress the wife but to protect her. [3] Like the instruction to respect one's elders, there is little that it is uniquely Christian about this structure. Aristotle, writing in the 300s BC, wrote, "A husband and father rules over wife and children… Although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is fitter for command than the female." [4]

5. However, there is another strand in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. First, there were always exceptions. Deborah in Judges is married, but she was still the supreme spiritual and political authority in Israel (Judg. 4:4-6). The high priest, who holds the highest spiritual office in Judah, still goes to the prophetess Huldah in 2 Kings 22:14 to validate the Law. That makes her the one who truly has the highest spiritual authority in the land.

The age of the Spirit signaled the end of the world as we know it, including the eventual end of male domination. In the kingdom, women are not given to men as wives (e.g., Mark 12:25). In the age of the Spirit, women prophesy just like men (Acts 2:17). They pray and prophesy in public worship, no less (1 Cor. 11:5). Christ has died for the sins of Eve as well as Adam, so the punishment of subordination is ultimately doomed.

We are not surprised to see women in ministry and leadership roles in the early church. Junia may have been an apostle (Rom. 16:7). Phoebe was a deacon (Rom. 16:1). Lydia probably hosted the church of Philippi in her home (Acts 16:15). Euodia and Syntyche worked alongside male co-workers in the church of Philippi too (Phil. 4:2-3).

One of the most striking women in the New Testament church was Priscilla. In four of the six times she is mentioned, she is mentioned before her husband. One of those instances is when she teaches Apollos the way of Christ more accurately (Acts 18:26). A woman teaches a man about Christ, and a very educated man at that.

6. Churches in the Wesleyan tradition, along with most of those in the Pentecostal tradition, have seen women in ministry as a key element of the age of the Spirit. In Christ there is not male and female (Gal. 3:28). Along with Jesus, especially in the Gospel of Luke, we have seen the empowerment and full inclusion of women as a key implication of the gospel.

In places and times where the culture continued to make this possibility more the exception than the rule, it is no surprise that the church has largely accommodated the situation. Even the New Testament accommodated its culture to some extent on this issue, especially as the initial, very charismatic phase of the church began to close and there was a shift toward institutionalization.

But in the kingdom of God there will be no subordination of women to men. There is no spiritual difference in the age of the Spirit. We know there is no intellectual difference. The educational situation is much different than it used to be. Women today are every bit as informed and educated as men.

In an age where the culture is already more like the kingdom (with women empowered) than in most of history, it is perverse and ironic in the extreme for the church to be one of the lone voices pushing for the earthly model, alongside the worst women-haters of the broader culture. It diminishes our witness and shows that we do not know how to read the Bible for its purposes and spirit, only for its letter (2 Cor. 3:6).

A much more Christian model for today is that of mutual submission: "Submit to each other out of respect for Christ" (Eph. 5:21). Both husband and wife should submit to the other. "Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor" (Rom. 12:10). "Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others" (Phil. 2:4).

7. God calls us to respect those in authority. It gives honor to those who are older and to parents. That does not mean that our elders are always right or that parents are always right. It does not mean they are always the wisest or most informed voices. But we are called to respect them.

In the ever-changing and strikingly different world of today, sometimes a younger person is invested with greater authority by a group. In our world, wives are often more competent to lead and minister than their husbands. In such cases, we remember that we are all equal in God's eyes.

No group has been invested with power simply because they are in that group. Those structures are meant to play out God's love for us and the fact that he wants the best for us. When that best follows a different order than it has at other times and places, we carefully carry out God's purpose rather than the mere form of tradition.

Next Sunday: ET7. Thou shalt not murder.

[1] The modern, Western world has presented significant challenges to this norm because of how quickly technology and industry change. Adaptability becomes a key skill, and area in which elders usually do not excel.

[2] Again, when churches were stationary entities that stayed the same for centuries or in America when they were largely small, unchanging entities, this model stayed the same. Today, in a quickly changing and mobile world, the church has followed the culture and come more to value spry, innovative, younger pastors.

[3] 1 Peter, written for a time of persecution, acknowledges that there will be unbelieving husbands (1 Peter 3:1). The letter in general is a defensive strategy, not written for a time when we are to fight for the right but when we are to willingly submit to oppressive powers. See Scot McKnight, 1 Peter (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996).

[4] Politics 1.12.


Sunita Gandhi said...

Good job..Thanks. It's really helpful :)
Global Curriculum

Martin LaBar said...

Well said. Thanks.

See here for a related graphic.