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Household Codes

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri

We perhaps think that “the family” is timeless and always the same. On the contrary, many cultures have very different ideas of family than what we are used to. In the New Testament world, “family” could mean all those related by blood and marriage, or those who lived in the same household, including slaves, or something like what we would call nuclear family or ancestry.

What is a “household code”?

Some New Testament texts, especially the Epistles to the Colossians (Col 3:18-4:1) and Ephesians (Eph 5:21-6:9) as well as 1Tim 6:1-2 as well as 1Pet 2:18-3:7, contain descriptions of the ideal family according to societal expectations of the time. These so-called “household codes,” already begun by Aristotle, depict relationships of the male head of household with his wife, children, and slaves—an integral part of the affluent household in Roman society. Similar texts appear in the writings of Cato, Xenophon, and Seneca as well as Philo (De Decalogo 165-67; De Hypothetica 7:1-14) and Josephus (Contra Apion 2.1990-208). They also appear in other early Christian literature, including the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, and the Doctrina Apostolorum. Seen today as patriarchal and perhaps abusive, these descriptions assume a social world in which dominant males control all women, children, and other men, in which women are essentially inferior to men, and in which slavery is pervasive and seldom questioned. Those who consider the subordinate relationships that these texts describe to be authoritative today must be prepared to legitimize not only male dominance over women but slavery as well.

Why do New Testament writers write about this?

Earlier and contemporaneous writers were convinced that the stable household under firm patriarchal rule was the basic unit of a stable patriarchal society, reflected in the husband-wife, parent-child, and master-slave relationships. New Testament writers wanted to give assurance that the Christian household contributed just as much to a stable society.

However, there is a noticeable difference between the New Testament and these other texts. Usually the codes focus on the male figure as husband, father, and master and advise him how to act toward his subordinates. In the New Testament codes, both parties are addressed, and the subordinate person is addressed first in each pair: wife and husband, child and parent, slave and master. This recognition of the important role of the subordinate figure is significant. Although the authors could not in their context imagine a fully equal and mutual relationship, they nevertheless intended to convey full access to salvation in Christ to everyone. Ephesians also restricts male privilege in stating that while the wife should “respect” the husband, the husband must “love his wife as himself” (Eph 5:33). Moreover, the passage in Ephesians begins with a general exhortation to submission for everyone (Eph 5:21), that is, not to insist on one’s own prerogatives over against the rights of others.

While today we may hear the “submission” language as antiquated and recognize that assigning this role based on gender or social status is unacceptable, it is nevertheless worth remembering that the authors promote a mutual relationship of all, subordinated to the heavenly Master.

  • Carolyn Osiek

    Carolyn Osiek is Charles Fischer Catholic Professor of New Testament (emerita) at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University. She is author or editor of twelve books and many articles and a past president of the Society of Biblical Literature (2005).