By In Culture, Wisdom

New Testament Household Codes: Enlightening or Embarrassing?

In my old church, we never read the household codes. (The church I’m referring to here is the denomination I served for nearly 20 years.)

What codes am I referring to? These: Ephesians 5:22-6:9, Colossians 3:18-4:1, 1 Peter 2:13-3:7, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

We never read them from the pulpit, and if we could manage to skip them in small group Bible studies, or Sunday School, we did. And no one would object, on the contrary, sighs of relief might be heard.

Nonetheless, those good folk claimed to believe in the plenary inspiration of scripture. But it never jibed for me, either the codes are inspired, or they aren’t. If they are, we should read them. If they aren’t, we should say so.

Since I believe that they are inspired I left that church (for this reason among others). But some of my old friends appear to have reconciled their faith with their practice and are now saying that some parts of the Bible are inspired and useful for life and godliness, and others simply are not.

Still, some of those folk feel a need to justify themselves. Essentially they play the cultural relativism card. The idea is that those embarrassing codes were culturally relevant for the time, and Paul, not wishing to upset anybody, simply was all things to all men and went along with the benighted thinking of the day. He didn’t really mean what he was saying, though, and since those practices are now defunct, we no longer have to talk about them. (That’s what the nice people say anyway. Others just say Paul that was a misogynist.)

But Paul actually justified the codes theologically, not culturally. He actually used the codes to illustrate the Gospel. (I’m thinking of Ephesians chapter five here in particular–and yes, you can take that to mean I do believe Paul wrote Ephesians.)

But let’s just take the cultural relativism argument at face value. We can ask those who proffer it this question: “Okay, I get the culture argument, but can you help me understand what it was about that culture at the time that made those codes legitimate?” The response you will get I assure you will boil down to patriarchy, you know, that irrational urge many men suffer from to control everything. In other words, the codes reinforced a life that was always wrong.

But perhaps Paul knew something contemporary people have forgotten.

That line of thought has been tremendously helpful for me. It has helped me to reconstruct in my own mind the institutional framework within which Paul and his interlocutors lived. And this has led to some unexpected discoveries.

One of those discoveries is this: our attempts to contextualize the gospel to modern life have twisted the gospel. We believe we can abstract the gospel from the practices and institutions from which it sprang and then insert it into new patterns of life without altering it. But there is a wineskins problem here, form and content always go together. And some cultural forms just will not hold the Gospel.

When you try, you drive a wedge between faith and practice, and consequently, between salvation and creation. Christians end up living lives that smack of gnosticism. Salvation is reduced to an inward thing. And the social dimensions of the Christian faith necessarily end up being filtered out.

But here’s something else that I’ve discovered, we’ve had it largely wrong when it comes to the households of antiquity. Sure, there were many abuses, and there are certain features we do not need to recover. But those households had this going for them: they held together many things we’ve allowed to fly apart. Within those households: love and law, men and women, the young and the old, faith and works, creation and redemption, were all kept together and they all worked together.

What I intend to do in upcoming posts is introduce you to the household that I’ve discovered in my research. As I’ve grown in my understanding of it I’ve gone from seeing the household codes as embarrassing detritus we can live without, to a sort of rosetta stone for interpreting salvation and practicing the Christian life.

And to begin I will speak to that institution that many people consider most damning in the household codes: slavery.

An earlier version of this essay was published at Patheos.

If you’d like to read my book on the subject of household economics, Wipf and Stock, the publisher of, Man of the House, has given me permission to share a little sample of the book with you. The hope, of course, is you will like it enough to purchase a copy. Enjoy!.

Click here to download the book excerpt as a PDF: Man of the House_Excerpt


Leave a Reply