Household Codes, 1 Peter, and the Liberation of a “Text of Terror”

By Joe LaGuardia

In a sermon (see below) delivered on 3 May 2020, I explore the meaning– and gospel truth– of “Household codes”, as they are often called:  Those scriptures that inform how Christians are to relate to others, including spouses, governments, and (for slaves) masters and parents in non-Christian settings.

The codes are present within the New Testament epistles, such as Colossians, Ephesians, and 1 Peter and have, for some, become “texts of terror” over the years.  Scriptures become texts of terror when people use the text to oppress or marginalize others, and when they are used to perpetuate violence.

In the segregated south, for instance, Christian masters subjugated slaves by reminding slaves to “obey your masters” just as the Bible says without giving context to the entirety of the Gospel message.

Domestic violence in households have occurred when, upon reaching out for help in an abusive situation, more than one wife has been told by her spiritual leader, “If you only submit to your husband, as the Bible says, then you will not cause him reason to hit you.”

It may sound like I’m exaggerating, but my previous church ran a domestic violence support group in which an overwhelming number of women had experienced spiritual abuse in addition to spousal abuse because of these New Testament texts.

The abuse and misuse of the Household Codes are the result of a faulty, incomplete reading of each text in which they are found and the message of Christ as a whole.  The codes are not gospel prescriptions for Christian households.  In fact, the early church was identified by a radical egalitarianism in which masters and slaves, men and women, children and parents, were welcomed at the Lord’s table and in leadership (see Romans 16; Galatians 3:26-28; Colossians 3:11).  Since churches met in households, there were not hierarchies.  God was paterfamilias; Christ was brother; baptized believers all brothers and sisters in Christ; and ministry leadership delegated among the gifting of both men and women (see 1 Corinthians 11, for example of instructions for both men and women prophets–preachers of the day).

This gave rise to empowered people who were not used to power.  Peter says in 1 Peter, “Live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.”

The Household Codes, therefore, were not prescriptions for Christian households, but warnings for Christians who abused their power and exploited their freedom in Christ over and against their non-believing households and families, thus hindering the evangelistic message of the Gospel (this is the point and the context of 1 Corinthians 13:1 – 14:40; in which silence is used as a means to bring order to an otherwise disorderly church according to local Corinthian and Jewish laws that were in place and of which Christians were overstepping–see 13:34 along with Acts 18:5-13 for more on this cultural “law” that hindered outreach in the Corinthians church).

Peter addressed slaves and women directly in his first letter (unlike first-century authors who only addressed men), and this is a sure sign of both their honor in the Christian church and of their place of equal status in God’s economy of believers.  The warning was not a use of oppression or of putting people in their “proper place”, but of valuing the power of the Gospel message over and against the power that people shared in church leadership.  As Paul once wrote, “It is to peace that God has called you… Let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you” (1 Corinthians 7:15b, 17).

Pastor’s Reading List and Library for 2020

By Joe LaGuardia

Unlike some other leaders, who propose what they will read for the year, I began a habit last year of only noting–and providing a brief review–of the books I actually read. I pray this will enlighten you and perhaps inspire your own habits of reading.

1. Diary, by St. Maria Faustina Kowalska. This diary of a 20th-century saint is difficult to read for two reasons: St. Maria’s unyielding obedience to Jesus, which keeps readers on their toes and invites a pursuit of their own. And, secondly, because the diary, written in real time of young Maria’s entrance and journey into monastic life, reveals the hardships of life in the convents of old. Unlike today, convents back then did not have the benefit of advanced practices that include therapy and spiritual direction, but were quite medieval in their approach to obedience and submission. This pre-Vatican Council 2 memoir is a reminder why so many people are no longer Catholic, not only because of Catholicism’s neglect of the Bible for churchgoers, but because of the harsh realities of life in Catholic churches and private schools.

2. Planning Sabbaticals, by Robert Saler. This short book is authored by the director of the Clergy Renewal Endowment with the Lily Foundation. I read this because of my own plans to take a sabbatical in late 2021, and am shooting for the very grant that Saler directs. I purchased two copies of this book, for me and the church, because of its clear and concise argument of the necessity and meaning of sabbaticals, along with an explanation of what a sabbatical is not. It also answers common questions pertaining to sabbaticals and how to negotiate them in congregational life and leadership.

3. Sabbaticals 101, by Nancy Matthews. Another book on sabbaticals that express the nuts and bolts of planning a sabbatical. It talks about travel, managing a sabbatical project and time, and traversing issues that often arise.

4. Flowers in the Attic and Petals on the Wind, by V.C. Andrews. A controversial book of fiction that captured the hearts of many middle-school girls when I was growing up, including my older sister. My own attraction to the classic series is due to my “guilty pleasure” of reading Gothic horror fiction (Isak Dinesen anyone?), of which the Flowers in the Attic series squarely sits. Although I realize that the first book (Attic) is controversial, the second in the series (Petals) is more so and contains–warning to readers–more than enough violence towards women to turn the stomach. Although it was a bit much, I can’t help but to order and read the next one–these books are page-turners, and I spent more than one evening reading into the wee hours of the morning.

5. The Living Reminder, by Henri Nouwen. Its been a long time since I read something by my favorite author. In this short book, Nouwen explains how ministers are called to embody memory–in echoing the grand story of the Gospel, in recalling God’s Word made flesh, and encouraging others to consider how memory shapes our shared future. The book was so captivating, I proposed in my sabbatical grant (see above) that my project would consider how memory (origins of Christianity, history of our church, etc.) might inform an intentional program of vision-casting for ministry in the future. Good stuff here, and quite powerful.

6. Honor, Shame, and the Rhetoric of 1 Peter, by Barth Campbell. Again, this is something I haven’t done in a while: read a book related to socio-rhetorical criticism. This book came at the right time, too: During the dog days of the coronavirus, in which my heart brought me back to some of my first loves (like Nouwen and, in this case, honor and shame in the Bible); and also for a sermon series on 1 Peter as prescribed by the lectionary.

First Peter is working out well, too! Peter speaks of living in between the times– between Christ’s resurrection and the Second Coming– and applies nicely to this time of COVID 19, which some journalists have begun calling the time of the “Great Pause.” How nicely that fit God’s word as expressed in Peter’s first letter, penned to encourage disoriented and displaced Christians in Asia Minor who faced social distancing of their own.

7. Guidance in Spiritual Direction, by Hugo Doyle. I admit I didn’t finish this book, but I was impressed with the ability of this book to outline a theological program for spiritual direction. It is technical for that very reason, but I assume is a must for practitioners of spiritual direction in more formal circles.

8. For the Living of These Days: the Autobiography of Harry Emerson Fosdick, by H.E. Fosdick.  This is my second time reading through Fosdick’s moving account of his upbringing, call to ministry, rocky vocation, and founding of the historic Riverside Church in Manhattan, New York.  The biography is attractive for two reasons: It is Fosdick’s apologia for his ministry and theology that defined early 20th-century progressive Christianity, as well as a historic snapshot of the early conflicts in Christianity that led to a splintering of church and the ultimate demise of church attendance and influence.  Church splits are not new, but we can blame both fundamentalists and progressives–caught in their own ideological camps–for the mess we are in today.  There was, as one movie line has it, a “failure to communicate.”

9. Interrupting Silence, by Walter Brueggemann. A friend shipped this book just in time for protests and riots to break out across the nation in the wake of deaths of people of color.  My first reaction to those deaths and the protests that ensued was of silence–not in complicit avoidance, but in reactive trauma.  Brueggemann’s book was timely for this reason: It explores various biblical stories to show how “prophetic interruption” dismantles power, privilege, and status quo.

“The church,” he writes, “has a huge stake in breaking silence, because the God of the Bible characteristically appears at the margins of established power arrangements, whether theological or socioeconomic and political.  The church at its most faithful is allied with artistic expression from the margin that voices alternatives to dominate imagination.”  A short book, Brueggemann’s piece is designed to be a Bible study for lay people.  For that, it is accessible and a good introduction to Brueggemann’s thought and writing.

10. Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral, by Thomas Long. In this monumental–and much-needed book–on the history, theology, and application of funerals, Long gives extensive insight to the relevancy and meaning of funerals.  There are two premises driving Long’s thesis–that, first, funerals are worship services and therefore are a response to God’s grace and gift to life, thus putting our preferences for funerals in its proper place.  Second, that the Gospel, rather than our pop-culture, psyco-lingo, ought to shape a service for the Christ-follower.  He states that the Gospel is the message that reinforces hope in the face of death, opens up a space to protest Death, and provides a backdrop that locates us in the company of saints, both the living and the dead, and our destiny in Christ.

Although I am not as stringent on some things as is Long, I posit that his book is a healthy and robust reminder that funerals are for God and God’s people, not primarily to comfort the living.  We find comfort in the Word and in Christ, in our communion together of which the deceased is a part, not in doing something just because we have lost touch with the importance of formal–and explicit–Order of Worships that recall this fact.

11.  Brother to a Dragonfly, by Will Campbell.  My second book by Brother Will in the past year, this is his memoir of growing up in the segregated South with his brother, Joe.  Will’s storytelling zips us back and forth in time, helping us to see what makes him tick as a Civil Rights activist while holding the white liberal establishment, who were on the forefront of protesting segregation, accountable for its own hypocrisies.

I began reading this book aloud to my 12-year old son before the death of George Floyd.  It was perfect time, because it gives perspective to the goals of protest and race reconciliation while highlighting the pitfalls of radical liberalism, violence, and political partisanship.

12.  Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. In this powerful memoir, set as a letter to his son, Coates describes what its like to live in a “body” of color.  This is important, because when people say “Black Lives Matter,” they do not mean that other lives do not.  It is not a black life versus, say, a “blue life.”  What people mean is that black bodies matter.  If you are a person of color, the body you inhabit already puts you at a disadvantage–in real estate, banking, healthcare, and in proximity to fear.  That’s what Coates is getting at, and that’s the clarifying message we are missing in the news today when we reference black lives matter.  We have made a plight a political position, and in the words of Coates, politics does not deny that black people have to work “twice as hard to get half as much.”

13. The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church, by James Smart.  This 1970s book could have been published yesterday.  Smart, from Union Theological Seminary, laments a growing biblical illiteracy in culture and the church, and places the blame squarely on the inability for either the academy of the local church to connect congregations to the life-giving Word of God.  James takes a hermeneutic approach, arguing that the progress and extensive work done in the academy has failed to translate into the congregations, and thus failing to bring much-needed change to culture:

A church that is afraid to look into the Scriptures with open eyes lest it thereby lose something  it considers essential to its life is not likely to have the courage or the faith to let its formulation of the gospel, its institutional existence, and the whole social order of which it is a part come under the really searching and disturbing scrutiny of the word of God that is to be heard at the heart of Scripture.

Elsewhere, Smart writes,

The Bible is marching orders for an army, not bedtime reading to help one sleep more soundly.