Reading the Household Codes in Colossians and Ephesians Today
by Warren C. Trenchard | 18 April 2023 |
After reading Ron Hessel’s timely consideration of Eph 5:22 (4 April 2023), I decided to look at this passage in light of Colossians, its likely source.
The New Testament contains two versions of a fully formed, comprehensive set of Household Codes in the Letters to the Colossians and to the Ephesians. Although the issue of the Pauline authenticity concerning either or both letters, traditionally ascribed to Paul the Apostle, is not the concern of this study, I understand them both to be post-Pauline, while reflecting various Pauline ideas or developments. These parallel texts in Colossians and Ephesians are as follows:
Even a cursory glance at these texts clearly reveals three sets of relationships, each involving two entities. The first set consists of wives and husbands; the second, children and parents/fathers; the third, slaves and masters. In each set, the identified subordinate group receives a command regarding the supposedly superior group, followed by the reverse, resulting in these six subsections:
- Wives, with reference to husbands
- Husbands, with reference to wives
- Children, with reference to parents
- Fathers, with reference to children
- Slaves, with reference to masters
- Masters, with reference to slaves
These sets of relationships constituted the typical Greco-Roman household in the 1st century. They were the elements of what was governed by the legal principle of pater familias that set out the privileges and responsibilities of the male, head of household. From the list above, one may clearly see that each of the three sets of relationships includes a male – husband, father, and master. Furthermore, all these “superior” roles are played by one male head of the household. The principle of pater familias also defined the subordinate roles and privileges of wives, children, and slaves.
The New Testament material quoted above requires some observations.
- The writers were clearly aware of pater familias and included its relationship components and specific household members in both the order of their consideration and with their general subordinations.
- These texts should be read and interpreted as complete, three-part units that deal with 1st-century Christian households in the context of contemporary Greco-Roman legal and social principles and not as isolated instructions concerning any one relationship set within them.
- Because it is much shorter and less developed, the earlier of the two versions seems to be the one found in Colossians; evidence suggests it was used by the author of Ephesians.
- These codes are not intended to define the general relationships and levels of authority between men and women. They deal only with relationship sets within a household, e.g., between husbands and wives.
- The authors of these texts were clearly Christians who sought to attach their values to the stark legal principles, suggesting that, although they assumed and essentially adopted the prevailing understanding of contemporary households and their internal relationships, they did so within the spiritual and more equitable contexts of Christianity.
- In both accounts, the role of each “subordinate” group (wives, children, slaves) is expressed with limiting, Christianizing references to “the lord.”
- In Colossians, the male head of household is to treat each “subordinate” group with love, non-provocation, and fairness, respectively.
- The most important change made in Ephesians is the addition of Christological motives, i.e., extensively employing the example of Christ and the Church, especially in the subsections on wives and husbands.
- The writer of Ephesians also added a general Christological heading to the code (5:21) that, in effect, calls for the members of each of the following three relationship groups to “be subject to each other.” Because mutual subjugation is impossible, particularly in the context of pater familias, this injunction must mean that, although 1st-century Christian households will be structured according to pater familias, they should function within the value systems of love, freedom from provocation, and fairness, and modeled after the relationship of Christ with his Church.
- Except for their timeless Christian principles of love, freedom from provocation, and fairness and the model of Christ’s relationship with the Church that should govern Christian homes, these texts have no meaning today for readers in most current democratic countries, where societies are not governed by the 1st-century pater familias or its equivalent, i.e., their households do not have the legal structure of a male head of household with wives, children, and slaves subordinate to them.
The Household Codes in the Letters to the Colossians and to the Ephesians are examples of biblical materials that are properly understood today only by acknowledging their ancient contexts. The 1st-century Christian recipients of these letters lived within the social and domestic confines of these codes but were urged to do so in the setting of their overarching commitments to Christian values.
Most readers of these materials today do not experience such legal domestic structures and, therefore, are not subject to their individual or collective expectations of superiority and subjugation. However, they may appropriately be guided by the timeless Christian values that these texts promote.
- Less-developed versions of the Household Codes in the New Testament appear in 1 Pet 2:13-3:6; 1 Tim 2:1-3, 8-15; 6:1-2; Titus 2:1-10. ↑
- These texts are from the New Revised Standard Version. ↑
- See, e.g., Aristotle, Politics. ↑
- This includes a Greek participle used as a command or, at least, an extension of the same circumstances expressed in the imperative verbs in 5:18 and vv. 19-20. The command, using the same verb found in Col 3:18 and in participle form in Eph 5:21, is properly implied in v. 22 (cf. v. 24). It is common for the ideas of Greek verbs or verbal forms, such as participles, to carry forward into the following sentences. ↑
Warren C. Trenchard is Professor Emeritus of New Testament and Early Christian Literature at La Sierra University.