Voice in the Wind: A Religion of Rules

Voice in the Wind: A Religion of Rules November 10, 2017

Voice in the Wind, pp. 364-367

And we’re BACK. When Hadassah visits Trophimus’ stall in the market to buy apricots for Julia, Trophimus mentions that they haven’t seen her at their meetings for a while. Hadassah explains as follows:

“I’m back at the Valerian villa,” she said quietly, her eyes shadowed. When she had been sent to Julia, she had returned to the night meetings. As soon as Julia moved in with her parents again, she obeyed Marcus’ command not to leave the villa unless ordered to do so.

Trophimus understood. Hadassah had brought her dilemma before the others, and they had tried to help her decide what the Lord would have her do. To worship God with the others, she would have to defy her masters. As a slave, Hadassah must serve and obey them. Marcus hadn’t said she couldn’t worship God, only that she couldn’t worship with the others. She had decided she must obey him and pray and worship as she had done before meeting Trophimus.

Someone needs to remind Hadassah that Marcus is not her master. Julia is. Hadassah does not have to obey Marcus’ order that she not worship with other Christians, because he is not her master. She also would not have to obey Marcus’ order to have sex with him, should he command it, because he is not her master (she somehow thinks she does). But this entire situation brings to mind similar conversations that take place today within conservative evangelicalism.

When is a woman allowed to disobey her husband? This really shouldn’t be a question anyone is asking in the early twenty-first century, but such is life, and such are conservative evangelicals. The Pearls argue that a woman can disobey her husband only if he orders her to look at porn or have anal sex. John Piper argues that even an abused woman must retain a spirit of submission to her husband. And Michael Farris, happily, has directly addressed the question of what a woman should do if her husband orders her not to attend church.

No really. Here’s an excerpt from a section in Farris’s book, The Spiritual Power of a Mother, titled “practical questions”:

Should I take my children to church alone? By all means. If your husband doesn’t forbid you, then the issue is easy. Take them to church. If he forbids you from taking the children to church, then you probably need to follow his directions in this. Teach them at home. If he doesn’t forbid playing sermon tapes, do that instead.

I suppose the issue Farris addresses, technically, is whether a wife should take her children to church if her husband forbids it, and not whether she can go to church if he orders her not to—I just rechecked the passage and couldn’t find an answer to this one way or another—but the basic import is the same.

What’s weird, here, is that Hadassah is a literal slave, but the questions being grappled with are the same. When should a slave/wife obey her master/husband, and when is it okay for her to disobey? What if her master/husband orders her not to go to church? I want to see Hadassah grapple with what she should do if her master ordered her to cease her prayers and worship all together, but Rivers decided to opt out of resolving that one.

I have another question, though. If women can disobey their husbands if their husbands order them to engage in sinful behaviors like anal sex (a la the Pearls), should Hadassah be allowed to disobey if Marcus ordered her to have sex with him (fornication)? In the earlier passage when he almost did, it certainly wasn’t treated that way. There was a tacit acknowledgement that if Marcus ordered it, she at least wouldn’t resist. This is weird not only because Marcus is not her master, but also because evangelicals like Rivers tend to give wives (who are bound by the same “obey” command) the ability to object to sinful sexual demands (viewing pornography, for example) even when they must obey in other areas.

Anyway, several New Testament passages do command slaves to obey their masters. This became an issue in the years leading up to the Civil War in the U.S., when antebellum slaveowners used the Bible to justify the practice. Rivers doesn’t mention a specific book for this teaching. That’s good, because most of the passages that order slaves to obey their masters are found in books that were likely written after 75 A.D. And even if some of these books were already written, it is unlikely that Hadassah would have had access to them. In many cases, their authors put pen to teachings already going around orally, so it’s not impossible that “slaves obey your masters” would be a teaching she would already be familiar with.

What the early church actually did and did not believe and teach is an ongoing area of scholarly exploration, and one that I find fascinating. “Slaves obey your masters,” though, seems oddly convenient, as slavery was a key part of the period’s social fabric and preaching slave insurrection would have offered only more reason to view early Christianity as socially disruptive, and thus something that should be repressed. From time to time, after all, these social conventions, when commanded in the New Testament, come with some justification along the lines of “so that no one will think badly of us.”

Anyway, Hadassah tells Trophimus they’re moving to Ephesus, and that she’s worried because they worship Artemis there. Trophimus tells her that the Apostle John is in Ephesus; Hadassah is excited (she knows John) but sinks back into her gloom after she concludes that her odds of running into John in a huge city are slim. (It seems to me that she wouldn’t have to run into John, she’d only have to run into another Christian, like she did Trophimus here in Rome.)

But then we get this:

“Trophimus, my courage fails with every opportunity the Lord gives me. Sometimes I even wonder if I am a true believer. If I were, wouldn’t I be willing to risk my life to speak the truth?”

I remember thinking this exact same thing. Well—I wasn’t worried about risking my life. But I did ask myself why I wasn’t constantly witnessing to everyone I came in contact with. If I was really a believer, I wouldn’t fear social sanction, would I? I wouldn’t fear someone judging me for randomly walking up to them and proselytizing them, right?

For a religion that claims to be all about freedom from guilt, this book is sure full of a lot of guilt. Rivers portrays Hadassah’s inner peace and kindness as attractive to those around her, but I see a whole lot of legalistic decisions and fear here, and not much inner peace at all. As for kindness—jumping obediently to meet Julia’s physical needs while constantly judging her and blaming her for everything bad in her life isn’t want I’d call kind.

And for all the evangelical talk of religion being a relationship, and not a list of rules, there’s an awful lot of legalistic hair-splitting going on here. When can a slave/wife disobey their master? What are the rules?

Oh and Rivers confirms that Ephesus is worse than Rome:

If Rome was corrupt and dangerous, Ephesus was the very throne of Satan.

Why the Ephesus hate? When Hadassah passed through there, a slave on her way to Rome, she had been terrified of being chosen to serve as a prostitute in the Temple of Ephesus (scholars have increasingly questioned whether the cult of Artemis at Ephesus actually involved prostitution). But what of this, the description of Ephesus as “the very throne of Satan”? I actually don’t have the answer and I just ran out of time and need to post this. Perhaps it’s something some of my readers could explore, for further discussion in the comments!

Next week, we’re on a boat! One going to Ephesus, that is.

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