Masters and Slaves, Husbands and Wives

Bob Edwards


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Masters and Slaves, Husbands and Wives (1)

In the pre-Civil War era, Christians in the U.S. used the Bible to justify slavery. 

They did this by referring to an Old Testament curse pronounced on a man named Canaan: “When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers'” (Gen 9:18-25, RSV).

Pro-slavery theologians wrongly assumed that Canaan was the ancestor of all African slaves.  They concluded that God had ordained white Americans—wrongly assumed to be the descendants of Canaan’s brothers—to be slave masters.  In reality, there was no biblical or historical reason to connect Canaan’s curse with slavery in the American south.[1]

In 4th century A.D. Rome, Christians used the Bible to justify male authority.

They did this by referring to an Old Testament “curse*” pronounced on a woman named Eve: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16, NIV).

Fourth century Bible translator, St. Jerome, concluded that in the curse of Genesis 3:16, God was reducing Eve “to the condition of a slave to her husband”.[2] According to Jerome, God enslaved Eve to Adam for two reasons:

1) Adam was created first and was therefore presumed to be in charge.  Sin entered the human race when Adam listened to Eve, thereby reversing God’s “order of creation”.

2) Eve was deceived by the devil because she was a woman.  Therefore all women must be more easily deceived than all men, and should, as a result, be subject to male authority.[3]

Today’s theologians do not continue to justify racial slavery on the basis of Canaan’s curse.  In some corners of the church, however, the subjection of women to male authority remains.

For example, the New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition asserts that husbands are the “masters” of their wives and that wives have a duty to “obey” them.[4]  Similarly, church leader and author John Piper maintains that men must exercise authority over women at church and in the home.  According to Piper, women must submit to male authority for two reasons:

1) Adam was created first and was therefore presumed to be in charge.  Sin entered the human race when Adam listened to Eve, thereby reversing God’s order of creation.

2) Eve was deceived by the devil because she was a woman, and therefore all women must share a vulnerability to deception as an inherent “weakness.”  He attempts to qualify that this weakness probably shows itself only in “some kinds of situations.”[5]

Piper’s rationale is simply a restatement of St. Jerome’s assumptions. 

That should come as no surprise to the student of church history.  Jerome’s viewpoint has been accepted as orthodox theology for more than a thousand years.  In the case of slavery, false assumptions about a curse found in the book Genesis were used to rationalize racial inequality.  Assumptions about a curse used to justify gender inequality are just as false.

Jerome’s first assumption is that because Adam was created first, he must have been “in charge.” 

But nowhere in the Bible is creation order explicitly associated with rank. Throughout the Genesis account, Adam and Eve are depicted as equals.  They are equally created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), and they are equally given stewardship of all creation (Genesis 1:26).  The first mention of Adam “ruling over” Eve occurs after humanity’s fall into a sinful state.  A male-dominated hierarchy is never portrayed as God’s original plan for men and women or husbands and wives. 

The idea that creation order indicates rank is found not in the Bible itself, but in Bible Commentaries from the 4th century, written by a colleague of St. Jerome–St. Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo.  Augustine based his chronology/rank association on his observation that Adam referred to Eve as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23, NIV).  Augustine was an avid student of Plato’s philosophy.  Plato wrote about life in terms of dualities.  One of these dualities was “flesh” and “spirit.”  Plato believed that in order to be moral, a person’s spirit must rule over the passions of the flesh.  When Augustine saw that Eve was referred to as “flesh,” he wrongly assumed that Adam must be symbolic of the spirit.  He concluded that just as spirit must rule flesh, Adam must have ruled over Eve.

Augustine did not get this idea from the Bible.  He borrowed it from non-biblical ancient Greek philosophy. In fact, the Bible directly contradicts Augustine’s assumption: “You need to learn, however, that in Christ woman is not different from man, and man is not different from woman.  Woman may come from man, but man is born of woman.  And both come from God” (1 Corinthians 11:11-12, TIB).

Jerome’s second assumption is that Eve was more vulnerable to deception because she was a woman.

Was Eve deceived?  According to the Genesis account, yes she was.  Was she deceived because she was a woman?  The Bible does not attribute her error to being female.  And the Bible does not say that because one woman was deceived all women are more prone to deception than men.  That is the kind of negative generalization one finds with outright prejudice.  In this case, it is prejudice against women. Once again – for a student of church history, the notion that Jerome was prejudiced against women should come as no surprise.  He once asserted that women are “classed with the greatest evils.”[6]

If we reject Old Testament curses as the basis for inequality, can we look to the pages of the New Testament for insight into the mind of God regarding masters and slaves, husbands and wives? We can, and this is what we find: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NIV).

No racial prejudice, no slavery, no gender inequality.  This is God’s heart and plan for humanity.

Let’s not rely on faulty assumptions about Old Testament curses to determine how Christians should relate to one another in the church today, for “[we] are all one in Christ Jesus.”



*The text in Genesis 3:14-19 is sometimes referred to as “The Curse”.  It is important to point out, though, that Adam and Eve were NOT part of what was cursed. Only the earth and the serpent were cursed.  In fact, it is actually quite striking to see the contrast.  God’s grace is already at work in the case of Adam and Eve.  More in-depth discussion of this passage can be found here.

[1] Goldenberg, D. (2005). The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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  • What do you make of 1Timothy 2:11-14?

    A woman[a] should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;[b] she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.

    It seems to me that one cannot really address this issue without dealing with these verses.

    What are your thoughts?

  • Thanks for this: “*The text in Genesis 3:14-19 is sometimes referred to as “The Curse”. It is important to point out, though, that Adam and Eve were NOT part of what was cursed. Only the earth and the serpent were cursed. In fact, it is actually quite striking to see the contrast. God’s grace is already at work in the case of Adam and Eve. More in-depth discussion of this passage can be found here.”

    I keep pointing it out in nearly every discussion on this passage!

    • The idea that God cursed Eve is embedded in the patriarchal theology that the church has embraced since the time of Jerome and Augustine. In my view, their misperception of the curse says much more about them and their culture than it does about God. Thank you Vicki for persistently communicated this truth.

      • I might move in less extreme circles, but I’ve always heard the whole “sweat of your brow” thing God says to Adam to be his curse.

  • Thanks for bringing in the church history with the development of the faulty understanding of Scripture about male/female relationships, Bob. Very helpful.


  • Very good post, Thanks Bob! I cannot believe it is taking this long for these thoughts to be accepted in the church instead of hierarchies.

  • Hi Bob, thanks for another great article.

    In upholding Gal 3:28 as a pattern for the way we treat one another I am constantly criticised for taking the verse out of context. The common complaint is that this verse is only about our spiritual condition before Christ, and does not have a bearing on issues of authority and/or submission in the church and home. While I am obviously in complete disagreement with this assumption it is very complicated to explain this succinctly to these critics. I posted an article a little while ago on this verse and one of the responses I got was to ignore the article and pick on the writer of it instead! Another person said “Of course women have a part to play in church but it’s not to the effect that they are to take verses about faith & grace & twist it into a social discrimination argument.”. These people are close friends of mine, by the way.

    Any resources you are aware of that might help me with this important verse and its interpretation would be greatly appreciated.

    • Hi there Fluffy, In my book, Let My People Go: A Call to End the Oppression of Women in the Church, Revised and Expanded, I devote a large section to addressing the argument that Galatians 3:28 only refers to “equality in salvation.” I believe this is in chapter 7.

      Simply put, I examine how the same argument was used to justify slavery. Slaves should still be slaves, some said, though they are “equal in salvation.”

      I then look at verses in James that discuss living out the Christian faith “without partiality.” I do not believe that James would have accepted the “equal only in salvation” philosophy.

      Other authors that make similar arguments are Longnecker and Gasque in a book entitled “Women, Authority and The Bible.”

      Finally, there is nothing in the Galatians passage that limits the meaning of 3:28 exclusively to “equality in salvation.” In fact, Paul references notable social injustices of the day that were reflected in rabbinic traditions (e.g. social stigma assigned to Gentiles, slaves and women).

      In my view the “equal in salvation” argument comes across as a rationalization that has no support in the text itself, or its immediate context. It also seems to deny the biblical notion that salvation transforms people and their relationships.

  • Bob…thanks for your note at the end. I have gone blue in the face with years of making this exact point. Please, people, please stop calling it The Curse! 😉

    • Hi Peggy, you can thank Gail for that. I think the footnote highlights an important point: the notion that God was subjecting Eve to Adam is an interpretation; not something the text itself explicitly states.

      Personally I think the statement “he shall rule over you” was predictive. I believe God was explaining how sin would impact the relationship between Adam and Eve, husbands and wives, men and women. Men would seek to “rule” over women. We certainly see ample evidence of that throughout history. To suggest that this kind of oppression and inequality was God’s idea for women and men is a grievous error, rooted in prejudice.

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