James B. Jordan on Heads of Household

In my lengthy series on patriarchy, I devoted one part to dealing with the claim that family and ecclesiastical life are governed patriarchally, that is, by “heads of households,” essentially presumed to be the males of the family and church.

Well, just today I got some new work from theologian James B. Jordan that ties neatly with that and expands upon some of my comments, an essay titled “Heads of Households and Household Baptism,” in Rite Reasons No. 104. His intent is to criticize the patriarchalist impulse evident in “household” churches, but the way he goes about doing this is by exploring what a “household” was in the Greco-Roman empire.

He writes that the “assumption” that the “husband of a nuclear family is the ‘head’ of his ‘household'” is something that “has no foundation anywhere in church history, and it is not found in the Bible.” He calls it a “problem” for churches that are patriarchalist in structure: “women do not think as men do, and [so] soliciting the advice and counsel of women is essential for the healthy governance of the church.”

Then, following Wayne Meeks’ The First Urban Christians and Meeks other scholarship, Jordan explores what a “household” was in ancient Rome. The term oikos was evidently far broader than the natural or immediate family, but referred to a vast network of relationships that included extended family, servants and bondslaves, friends and even clients of the household business. Examining the example of Lydia, Jordan summarizes that her household was “the people of her circle who look to her for leadership” in their social lives and for their livelihoods.

Thus, the conversion of households, while including any children and infants within it, also included non-blood relatives or kinsmen, but encompassed any who looked to Lydia for advice and trusted her. Her baptism spurred her whole social network (if you will) to imitate her in getting baptized as well.

And though Jordan does not support women’s leadership in the Church, the implications of his argument lead is directly there. For what else can we conclude but that the households of all the women listed in Romans 16 with their households are, in fact, the overseers of large social groups (“households”) which they continued to oversee once the whole household had been baptized and brought into the Church?

There seems to be no other choice. Given what we know about Greco-Roman households and the way they functioned, Paul’s repeated mention of households in Romans 16 and elsewhere along with the name of the person, man or woman, who oversaw the household really boxes opponents of women’s leadership into a corner. They must either deny the scholarship regarding Roman households and social structure, or deny that Paul spoke about churches in Romans 16 at all. But as Meeks points out (First Urban Christians, 75-77), the Greek phrase he kat’ oikon ekklesia is best translated as “the assembly at _____’s household,” (cf. 1 Cor. 16:19; Rom. 16:5; Col. 4:15, etc.).

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