The Politics of Jesus | John Howard Yoder (Ch. 9)


Chapter 9: Revolutionary Subordination


1972: Many point to the Haustafeln (e.g. Colossians 3:18-4:1; Ephesians 5:21-6:9; 1 Peter 2:13-37) as proof that the early church simply borrowed their ethical instruction from earlier Hellenistic (especially Stoic) and Jewish sources since Jesus didn’t provide an adequate ethical foundation for the growing church. Dibelius championed this view. This movement can be interpreted either positively or negatively. Yoder disagrees that the Haustafeln was mere appropriation.

A careful examination of the Haustafeln reveals significant differences from Stoic sources despite the vague similarities.

  1. Stoic morality urged people to live up to their own nature while the biblical Haustafeln stress the relationship between pairs (husbands/wives, slaves/masters, etc, children/parents).
  2. Stoic morality spoke to individuals in the singular and gave no thought to women while the biblical Haustafeln includes all believers.
  3. Stoic morality seeks insight into the nature of things and assumes the person will act accordingly while the biblical Haustafeln are cast in the imperative.
  4. The biblical Haustafeln uses different vocabulary than Stoicism, even where the same point is being made (e.g. for obedience, Stoicism use peithesthai where the biblical Haustafeln uses hypakouein).
  5. Stoic morality addresses man in his dignity while the biblical Haustafeln is addressed to the subject first (slave, children, wives). This is critical: the Haustafeln speaks to the subordinate person as a legitimate moral agent.
  6. Stoic morality stressed a man’s freedom from bondage and obligation while the biblical Haustafeln urged people to willingly accept their station for the benefit of others because they have already transcended it in Christ.
  7. Stoic morality motivated followers by calling them to the appropriateness of living according to the nature of things while the biblical Haustafeln refer to the example of Christ and their influence on their neighbour.
  8. The biblical Haustafeln, after speaking to the subordinate person in the relationship first, turns to the dominant partners and calls them to subordination as well.

We see the ethical influence of the Haustafeln elsewhere in the New Testament. For example, consider the Corinthian women who were unveiling their heads. Paul called them to obedience, recognizing that the relationship of subordination was not a difference in worth (1 Corinthians 11:11-12). That said, people were not asked to seek subordination. For example, if a slave had the opportunity to become free, he should take it (1 Corinthians 7:21).

The voluntary subjection of the church was intended to be a key witness in the world. Since the old world’s structure is passing away and the new is dawning, voluntary subjection is understood as something to be willingly embraced. After all, the structure’s on its way out anyway. In subjection is witness.

1994: This chapter proved to be the most controversial one in the 1972 edition. Many, because of their ideological rejection of subordination, rejected the logic. Work on the Haustafeln has continued, with more attempts made to untangle Greek, Stoic, Hellenistic, and Jewish sources. The biggest challenge today is to discern how the Haustafeln can speak in the midst of modern presuppositions. The Haustafeln is a tactic for change in the light of Christ.


After reflection on this chapter, three points stood out:

  1. Paul’s appropriation of Stoic models of instruction strikes me as similar to the ancient Israelite’s use of contemporary creation myths—it’s polemic. If Paul’s hearers would have been familiar with Stoic morality, then the part of the Haustafeln that would have jumped out at them would be the difference between Paul’s writing and Stoic thought. I wonder who’s continuing this work of subverting the mythos of our modern culture?
  2. Next was a brilliant footnote. I’m used to reading 2 Corinthians 5:17 as it’s translated in the ESV: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” Yoder notes that there’s no need to link “new creation” with the individual person. Indeed, we could read, “If one is in Christ, behold a whole new world” (185)! I’ll need to explore the translation a little more, but just imagine how much broader and more generous that second translation is.
  3. Finally, in the light of late twentieth century feminist and liberation theology, it’s refreshing and remarkably Christlike to consider the subversive revolution of accepting voluntary mutual subordination. I suspect the polemic power of Paul’s appropriation of the Haustafeln from Stoicism remains undiminished in our Enlightenment context.

< Ch. 8: Christ and Power

Ch. 10: Let Every Soul Be Subject: Romans 13 and the Authority of the State >

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