Paul has been accused of many things. He’s been called a chauvinist, a supporter of slavery, and, when it comes to children, an authoritarian. These accusations are usually based on readings (misreadings, I believe) of his ethical teachings in texts like Colossians (especially 3:18–4:1) or Ephesians (5:21–6:4) or, to a lesser degree, Philemon. Other scholars have been so perturbed by these passages that they have concluded that Paul could not possibly have written the letters (particularly Colossians and Ephesians).
There are numerous problems with this reasoning, not the least of which is that it fails to take into account the level of moral discourse found in each letter.
By levels of moral discourse I mean quite simply this: What one says to an intimate friend is likely to be more involved, direct and free than what one says to strangers. And what one says to a repeat audience may be more to the point than one’s opening salvo, but it still does not always include everything that one would like to say. I believe that Colossians, Ephesians and Philemon represent at least three different levels of moral discourse. The letters are thus not full of contradictions; they simply represent different degrees of frankness on Paul’s part.
Colossians is written to an audience Paul has not personally converted and that he has never met face to face; it is thus an example of what I call moral discourse of the first order. He has only “heard” of their faith (Colossians 1:4). What we have in Colossians, then, is Paul’s opening gambit, his initial remarks to an audience he cannot yet be fully direct with, especially when it comes to such delicate matters as household relations.
As is typical of Paul, the apostle begins with the audience where they are, and where they are—the de facto situation in the Greco-Roman world—is in a patriarchal society with a patriarchal household structure. What is striking about the way Paul deals with this structure is not how he promotes it, but how he seeks to modify it, to make it more in accord with Christian values. In particular, he insists that the head of the household is obliged to love his wife, not frustrate his children and treat his slaves fairly, always bearing in mind he has himself a heavenly Master. Paul’s strictures go well beyond the run-of-the-mill advice of ethicists of the day, who just told heads of households how to “manage” the subordinate members of the home. Love and fairness were generally not part of the picture in Paul’s world.
In Ephesians, we find second-order moral discourse. Here Paul is addressing Christians who have heard from him before but who still don’t know him too well. This document seems to have been a circulating homily that went to Colossae, Laodicea, Ephesus and other churches in this region. What is especially noteworthy about Paul’s discussion of household relations in Ephesians is his call to mutual submission of all Christians to all other Christians including husbands and wives (Ephesians 5:21). This was definitely not the status quo. Rather it is an attempt to make family structure more egalitarian in nature.
Paul’s letter to Philemon, one of his converts who had become a close friend and co-worker, is an example of third-order moral discourse. Here, at last, Paul is bold enough to be direct. He not only reminds Philemon that once his slave Onesimus is converted, he should be seen as “no longer a slave but more than a slave, a brother in Christ,” he also pressures Philemon to manumit Onesimus, that is, to set him free. In Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5, Paul simply tried to ameliorate the damaging effects of slavery in the Christian household. In Philemon we see where his remarks on slavery were ultimately leading.
What all this means is that when we 044assess Paul’s ethics, we must always remember whom he is addressing and we must consider where any one statement lies on the trajectory of Paul’s remarks. A reader who patiently studies all of Paul’s remarks on a subject in their respective contexts will discover that Paul was not simply baptizing the status quo and calling it good. Rather he was injecting the leaven of the gospel into the context of the Christian household, seeking to modify age-old practices and to mold them into a more Christ-like shape.
In Ephesians 5:21, we see the call to mutual submission, not merely the submission of wives, children and slaves to the head of the household. In Philemon we find that if you recognize someone to be your brother or sister in Christ, he or she should no longer be viewed or treated as a slave. And finally, in all this material, we find Paul treating all members of the family, including the children and slaves, as moral agents responsible for their own behavior. This is remarkable in comparison with other ethical literature of the day, which treated women, children and slaves as property or objects to be managed rather than as subjects to be related to.
Paul was working hard, with great rhetorical finesse, to implement what he firmly believed: Anyone who was “in Christ” had been set free from the old oppressive patterns of life and was to live as a new creature, re-created in the image of Christ. Reading Paul’s ethical remarks as if they were all addressed to the same audience at the same time, without regard for what the audience already knew and what Paul was ready to reveal to them, is a sure recipe for misunderstanding Paul’s advice.
Paul has been accused of many things. He’s been called a chauvinist, a supporter of slavery, and, when it comes to children, an authoritarian. These accusations are usually based on readings (misreadings, I believe) of his ethical teachings in texts like Colossians (especially 3:18–4:1) or Ephesians (5:21–6:4) or, to a lesser degree, Philemon. Other scholars have been so perturbed by these passages that they have concluded that Paul could not possibly have written the letters (particularly Colossians and Ephesians). There are numerous problems with this reasoning, not the least of which is that it fails to take into account […]