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“The Power of Children”

May 12, 2015

Over the weekend I finished reading a brilliant new study of early Christian teaching about children and households:  Margaret Y. MacDonald, The Power of Children:  The Construction of Christian Families in the Greco-Roman World (Waco:  Baylor University Press, 2014).  The publisher’s notice on the book is here.

The key NT texts mined in this study are the so-called “household codes”:  Colossians 3:18–4:1; Ephesians 5:21–6:4; with attention also to 1 Peter 3:1-7; and passages in the Pastoral Epistles.  Comparisons with Greco-Roman instructions about household management have often been made, and there are obvious similarities:  e.g., wives, children and slaves are to be submissive to husbands, fathers, masters, etc.  That is, the larger social structures of the Roman era are reflected and accepted in the NT texts.  But, MacDonald argues (creatively and effectively in my view), there are also important notes that are subversive of those structures, or are at least subversive of the abusive aspects of them.

One important observation to be noted right away is that the Greco-Roman household instructions are typically addressed to the dominant male:  e.g., husbands, fathers, slave-masters.  These dominant males are told to (and how) to ensure that their wives, children and slaves are submissive.  But the NT texts address both husbands and wives, both parents and children, both masters and slaves, as forming one “audience.”  This (as others prior to MacDonald have noted) appears to be “a distinctly Christian innovation to the household codes.”  This direct address to subordinate groups as full listening/authentic members of the “audience” (the gathered ekklesia) is “unusual, if not unique” (7).

In addressing these subordinate groups in this manner, the texts affirm their status as fellow members of the ekklesia, and confer on them a certain moral agency.  Moreover, addressing both dominant an subordinate groups together, each one hearing the responsibilities of the others, confers a certain sense of mutual responsibilities.  The relationships are, thereby, made part of the corporate life of the ekklesia, (whereas in Roman law and custom, the “father” of the household answered virtually to no one in how he treated subordinates).  (By the way, we have a particularly vivid example of a private matter being made an ecclesial one in Philemon, where Paul’s exhortations about Philemon’s treatment of Onesimus are addressed also to “the church in your house,” v. 2.)

One of several observations that frame her analysis is that members of Roman-era churches often had multiple identities, e.g., slaves could be husbands or wives, and children could be slaves or free.  “Fathers” could be surrogates (of various sorts) as well as biological ones.  In this and other matters, she helps us take better account of the complexity of Roman-era households and the subtleties of these NT texts.

MacDonald’s analysis is careful and cogent, her conclusions measured (respecting the limits of the evidence), and her approach fully informed by relevant ancient evidence and scholarly work.  The general line of argument is that these NT texts accept Roman-era social structures and yet also creatively challenged aspects of prevailing ideology and practices.

In addition to her specific arguments and conclusions, MacDonald also models how taking greater account of the historical context of NT texts can yield fresh insights into them.  Among those who should read this book, thus, are those contemplating PhD work in the field!

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