Book Reviews

The Power of Children

The Construction of Christian Families in the Greco-Roman World

Margaret Y. MacDonald Waco, TX August 29, 2014

Scholars in a variety of disciplines have focused attention in recent years on the New Testament authors’ use of household codes (Col. 3:18–4:1; Eph. 5:21–6:9; 2 Tim. 2:8–15; 5:1–2; 6:1–2; Titus 2:1–10). For biblical scholars the research has especially concentrated on what the use of such codes reveals about early Christian treatment of marriage, women, and slavery. Margaret Y. MacDonald (Ph.D., Oxford), dean of arts at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, has participated in this conversation through her works Colossians and Ephesians; The Pauline Churches; A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity; and Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion.

Meanwhile, growing interest in the study of children has spawned the new interdisciplinary field of children’s or childhood studies. Within this emerging field biblical scholars are benefiting from fresh looks at references to children in the New Testament. Additionally, scholars are considering how overlapping identities in slave-holding communities affected the lives and practices of the earliest Christians. With the exception of MacDonald and a small number of others, few have focused on children, what the biblical text reveals about their lives, overlapping identities that involved children, and what references to children reveal about the earliest Christians. Margaret MacDonald addresses all of these in her groundbreaking The Power of Children: The Construction of Christian Families in the Greco-Roman World.

Scholars have long noted that when the author of Ephesians addresses father, husband, and master, he might be speaking to a single person. Until recently, however, few had raised the possibility that the wives, children, and slaves addressed might also have overlapping categories. MacDonald considers how, in addition to wives and fathers, children might be slaves. And, especially if still an adolescent, a wife might also fall into the category of a child who must obey her father. MacDonald observes that a person addressed as a child might be a freeborn person who comes to worship with his or her spiritual father, who could be freeborn, freed, or slave; he or she could also be the child of a slave brought to worship by a freeborn master. By paying careful attention to children’s overlapping identities as well as to how children are addressed, MacDonald demonstrates that one can find messages that challenge the status quo embedded in the biblical writers’ use of household codes.

That children are directly addressed in the context of the gathered church reveals more than their mere presence. This direct address, MacDonald says, “has been identified as a distinctly Christian innovation to the household codes.” The much more usual pattern “is to address the head of the household directly . . . . No precise parallel exists to addressing subordinate members in this direct manner” (p. 7). If the New Testament is not unique in this, MacDonald says, it is certainly almost so. Children, including those of slaves, are elevated. The use of codes, then, does not subjugate, as one might expect at first glance; rather, it honors.

In explaining what she considers the biblical authors’ rationale for incorporated household codes, MacDonald describes their cultural context: “With increasing hostility came . . . a need to explain and defend the way of life of these first Christians. In particular, these believers wished to illustrate that their familial life matched and even exceeded the best of Greco-Roman ideals” (p. 5).

Yet while the household codes contain language with distinct meaning for outsiders, those within the church would have heard the same words as challenging the mindset of the dominant group. The promise of inheritance to slaves (Col. 3:24), for example, is countercultural; it appeals to the Christians’ new identity. Thus, while seeming to uphold society’s structures by referencing the very codes readers follow, the authors subtly subvert such structures, infusing them with elevated meanings.

One of MacDonald’s unique tools of analysis is her imagination, but that imagination is well grounded in research and informed by a deep knowledge of the Roman world. Lynn Cohick, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, noted, “MacDonald imagines herself seated with listeners of an epistle, embarking on a cross-cultural adventure in which she peels back abstraction.”[1] In doing so MacDonald purposely brings children to the center, exploring not only children’s authority and the lack thereof, but also veiled challenges to the status quo. By imagining what it was like for a child in the early church to hear an epistle read, MacDonald picks up on clues in the text that others have missed. One happy result is that she recognizes slave children’s contribution to the growth of early Christianity.

Her tools of analysis are not limited to her informed imagination, but include historical-critical and social-scientific methods applied across disciplines such as biblical studies, literary studies, art, and discourse analysis, which recognizes that language can be a form of performance.

       The Power of Children is divided into five sections, which MacDonald follows with a helpful bibliography, an index of biblical and early Christian and Jewish literature, a subject index, and fourteen pages of works cited. But of particular benefit is her forty-one-page listing of footnotes loaded with comments, sources, and concise summaries of related issues.

Section 1, the introduction, begins with fictional scenarios that suggest how first-century listeners in the ekklesia would have heard epistle writers’ references to household codes and how these were used in complex ways. The sources from which the author draws to create her scenarios range from the Dead Sea Scrolls to Plutarch to passages such as 1 Peter 3. While the latter does not mention children directly, it introduces the possibility that believing wives of unbelievers took children—slave and free—with them to Christian gatherings. Certainly, the children would not have been sequestered. They would have heard sound doctrine taught.

Introduced in this section are four threads of thought that the author goes on to weave throughout the book: whether the prescriptive tone of the codes should be understood as a description of what was actually going on in the communities (MacDonald doesn’t think so); whether the household codes simply reinforce the traditional role of parents (she thinks they reshape such roles); whether the codes, as used in the New Testament, are culture-affirming only (she suggests they also include some countercultural elements); and finally, the ramifications of all this study.

In chapter 2, “Small, Silent, but Ever Present,” MacDonald explores Colossians 3:18–4:1. She does so by reminding readers that children were ever-present in gatherings large and small, and slave children shared living space with free.

In chapter 3, “Socialization and Education,” MacDonald raises the possibility that parenthood, as envisioned in the New Testament, extended beyond the biological family. She looks at the household of God as a place where spiritual children have surrogate parents. Drawing heavily on Ephesians 5:21–6:4, as well as the Pastoral Epistles, the author shows how the father was to stabilize and pass on the family’s identity. MacDonald suggests that the reference to parents “in the Lord” does not necessarily mean only believing biological parents. Rather, she thinks “in the Lord” raises the possibility of pseudo-parents (e.g., p. 107) who will teach children the Scriptures and traditions. The emphasis, she says, is on spiritual caregivers in addition to physical ones.

Hence, MacDonald does not see the “fathers” as only the householders. MacDonald sees pseudo-parenting as including Christian nurture and admonition. And all believers have the status of sons in this household. So whereas slaves, whether adult or children, are not heirs nor do they have patrimony, in Christ they are citizens and “sons,” promised full inheritance rights.

MacDonald also reconsiders the sexual ethics of Colossians 3:5–7 and sees in them an ethical imperative that calls believing masters to avoid using slaves with whom they worship as tools for sexual pleasure. She asserts that the author called for respecting the rights of slave marriages: “One could not bestow the slaves of the community with honor as being renewed in the image of God [Col. 3:11] and continue to support their sexual use” (p. 152).

The church, the author asserts, has a lineage to be passed on. And this “passing on” happens through teaching. If the household is for managing, the school is for educating—the emphasis in chapter 4, “The House Church as Home School.” Including the Pastoral Epistles in her list of relevant texts, MacDonald points out that the very place where children at this time lived and received their educations was the place where the church gathered, such as “in their [Aquila and Priscilla’s] house” (Rom. 16:3–5) and “in her [Nympha’s] house” (Col. 4:15). Teaching is connected with more than public spaces. It takes place both within the gathered church and in everyday family conversations.

The content of the teaching, which MacDonald argues was intergenerational, seems to have followed Jewish models and methods. Being unable to read, for the most part, the common person would have memorized psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, the content of which included Scripture, ethics, doctrine, and even household order.

Readers of her work should be aware that MacDonald differs from conservatives on authorship and dating issues. She writes, “I am persuaded by the body of scholarship that views 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy (many have viewed the latter as based on authentic Pauline notes or an earlier letter), and Titus as pseudonymous” (p. 198, n. 1). Additionally, while she draws on her vast knowledge of Rome and the Roman world, she does not draw on the vast amounts of specialized knowledge about the province of Asia that might have informed her work in the Ephesian context. She also does not even hint at the possibility that the author of the epistles in question might be addressing problems in their teaching. These aside, MacDonald has brought several scholarly conversations a giant step forward in fields that range from children to household codes to overlapping roles.

MacDonald ends with a chapter on the ramifications. The early church’s emphasis on passing on Christian doctrine has led her to conclude that children should be present at all times in today’s churches. The tendency, she said, is to dismiss them during the sermon so as to prevent any interruptions that might distract grown-ups. But this, she thinks, is less faithful to the apostolic vision than enduring the distractions in order to allow children to learn with the intergenerational community.

More globally, MacDonald believes that as scholars have studied the phenomenal growth of early Christianity, they have overlooked a key factor for how that happened—largely through the lives of believing children. A freeborn child without a biological father and mother could find such a parent in Christ, even among godly slaves. The slave child, used for his or her master’s sexual pleasure with no prospect of rights or inheritance, was promised a legitimate son’s inheritance in the Lord. The church’s passing on of the doctrines of the faith both in set-time gatherings and in daily domestic spaces from father to child, mother to child, slave to child, and overheard conversations between older and younger believers—all of these contributed to generations who passed on what they had learned. MacDonald notes, “At home they were instructed in the Scriptures by parents, grandparents, and pseudo-parents. In the houses of leading women, they were taught doctrines and household management. In the houses of hospitable overseers, they were taught how to pray to the one God (1 Tim 2:5)” (p. 163). So it would appear that not only does the kingdom of heaven belong to these (Matt. 19:14), but word of that kingdom was apparently broadcast through their witness.

[1]  Lynn Cohick, “Panel Discussion: Review of Margaret Y. MacDonald, The Power of Children: The Construction of Christian Families in the Greco-Roman World,” Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Atlanta, GA, November 19, 2015.

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Sandra Glahn
Dr. Glahn serves as associate professor in Media Arts and Worship and is a multi-published author of both fiction and non-fiction. She is a journalist, and a speaker who advocates for thinking that transforms. Dr. Glahn’s more than twenty books relate to bioethics, sexuality, and reproductive technologies as well as ten Bible studies in the Coffee Cup Bible Study series. She is a regular blogger at Engage, Bible.org’s site for women in Christian leadership, the owner of Aspire Productions, and served as editor-in-chief for Kindred Spirit from 1999 to 2015.
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