Christian Hierarchies: Yes or No?

Christian Hierarchies: Yes or No? September 18, 2019

Andrew Bartlett, in his new book Men and Women in Christ (MWiC), asks if Paul affirms or denies hierarchies in Christian marriage?

Good question. He explores these questions with finesse and nuance and even-handedness.

Being willing to take the lowest place for the good of others is at the heart of Christian love and living. Jesus taught this and also lived it, both in his ministry and supremely at the cross (Mark 10:42-45;John 13:1-17; 15:12-17; Phil. 2:5-
-8). Because Paul’s view of the world is Christ-centred, this theme is often picked up in his teaching:

‘loving,… preferring one another in honour’ (Rom. 12:10)…

This has significant implications.

The fellowship of God’s church is therefore built not on hierarchies but on humble love.

However, this does not mean that Paul is opposed to all hierarchy. He endorses the existence and exercise of authority where appropriate. For example, believers should submit to civil government, because it is God’s provision for the active restraint of evil (Rom. 13:1-7). And he endorses the appropriate exercise of authority by parents over children. We know this because one of the qualifications for eldership is that elders should have their children under proper control (i Tim. 3:4-5 – ‘having children in subjection’). Paul is innocent of today’s Western cultural distaste for hierarchies.

Grudem says that Paul’s use of hupotasso implies a hierarchy of husband over wife. He claims that hupotasso is always used of submission to an authority. … Grudem’s reasoning skips over an essential interpretive decision which has to be made when we read the texts concerning wives’ submission. Does Paul mean that wives should submit because their husbands are in authority over them? Or does Paul mean that wives should behave as if their husbands ranked above them, even though in Christ husbands and wives are not in a hierarchy but are on an equal footing as brothers and sisters? On the first view submission is appropriate because the wife should recognize the husband’s authoritative position. On the second view submission is appropriate simply as an expression of Christian humility. On either view the idea of ranking is central to Paul’s meaning. The question is whether it is an objective ranking, reflecting the existence of an actual hierarchy, or whether it is a subjective ranking, reflecting a deliberate choice to behave with humility towards another person. This makes a real difference to Paul’s readers, since the first view affirms a husband’s unilateral authority and the second does not.

Conclusions:

  • Paul is not opposed to hierarchies where they are appropriate.
  • The word ‘submit’ (hupotasso) carries the idea of being ranked below someone else. But Paul’s instruction to wives to submit does not of itself imply the existence of a hierarchy in marriage. We have to decide whether he means that wives should submit because their husbands are in authority over them or whether he means that wives should behave as if their husbands ranked above them.
  • Submission in Christian relationships does not mean giving unquestioning obedience to another person. There is no Christian duty to follow another person into wrongdoing.
  • There was not a uniform view of marriage in first-century culture, but typically the husband had unilateral authority over the wife.
  • Paul’s instructions to wives to submit, and to husbands to love, are partly driven by practical considerations.
  • Paul endorses the authority of parents over children but not of slave owners over slaves. Comparing the three household relationships (wife to husband, child to father, slave to master) does not establish that Paul approves of husbands having unilateral authority over their wives.
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