Some of the most controversial passages in scripture deal with the “household codes” in the New Testament epistles. Most prominent among these are Ephesians 5:18-6:9 and Colossians 3:18-4:1. Some scholars regard Ephesians and Colossians as deutero-Pauline epistles written after Paul’s death. Part of the case against Pauline authorship is their inclusion of the household codes and their “culturally accommodating” nature. I find the deutero-Pauline view unpersuasive but this issue is not central for our purposes here. What is central is the household codes. Far from being “accommodating,” I think they are radically subversive of the Roman Empire. I am going to direct my attention specifically to the household code in Ephesians 5:18-6:9. We can not appreciate the impact of this scripture without cultural context.
Writing instructions for the proper household management was a common practice of Greek social philosophers. These “household codes” usually instructed the father in the household to “rule” over his household wisely. Instructions were not given to the wife, children, and slaves. The husband/father/master was exhorted to bring his wife, children and slaves into submission as his duty in preserving the social order. (1)
The Roman household (familia) structure was very similar to the Greek household structure. The ruler of the Roman household was called the paterfamilias. His wife, children and slaves were subject to him until his death. It is important to understand that the household code in Ephesians is not referring to three separate sets of relationships. (husband and wife, father and children, master and slaves) It is referring to the relationship of one person, the paterfamilias, to the rest of the household. (2)
The archetypical Roman household was the villa in the Roman countryside. These were self-sufficient plantations. The paterfamilias might live at the villa only part of the year. Indeed, he might have had more than one villa and a residence in the city. Wealth through agriculture was the epitome of social status while wealth gained through merchant trade was unseemly to the Roman hierarchy (although trading was widely practiced.) (3)
Unlike our use of the term “household” to refer to a family’s residence, the Roman household was an estate with land. Most people in the empire did not live in households. Most people by the New Testament era lived in multistory apartment buildings (insulae) that had small shops on the ground floor where the residents worked. A “deluxe” apartment might be on the first floor behind the shops occupied by those with more wealth. Only the very wealthy had stand-alone homes in the city. (4)
In the age preceding Jesus’ birth, the paterfamilias essentially had the power of life and death over the members of the household. There is evidence that authoritarian household rule was lessening in the First Century C.E. Woman were enjoying more freedom and slave manumission had become so prevalent that the Roman establishment feared a dilution of Roman citizenship. (5) Caesar Augustus decreed in 4 C.E. that emancipation was prohibited before the age of thirty and he placed limits on the total emancipations each year. (6) This degree of social change made those with power in First Century Rome more apprehensive about threats to the social order.
Worship and Voluntary Associations
Worship of the Roman gods was considered essential to the reinforcement of Roman social values. Failure to participate in this worship made one suspect. Households were expected to worship the deity worshiped by the paterfamilias as well as honor the festivals to other deities throughout the year. In the century preceding Jesus’ birth, the Jews had been granted an exemption from worshiping the Roman deities and from engaging in emperor worship. Christians were viewed as a Jewish sect until about 64 C.E., when Nero singled out Christians as responsible for a massive fire in Rome. Until that time, Christians were exempt from the Roman worship requirements as well. The Jewish rebellion in the late 60s C.E. ended the worship exemptions. (7)
Public assemblies were forbidden by Rome except for gatherings of approved voluntary associations of which there were four types by the First Century C.E.: professional, religious, burial and household. Professional associations met to deal with issues related to their trade. Religious associations met to honor and worship a deity. Since the Jews had permission to worship their god, they were permitted to erect synagogues in Roman cities. Burial associations usually consisted of people wanting to provide a decent burial for themselves and their relatives. They usually consisted of the poor, ex-slaves and slaves without wealthy patrons. By paying an initiation fee, paying monthly dues, and participating in the burial of others, members could ensure a decent burial for themselves. Household associations were made up of members of a household plus those free and slave individuals associated with the household. (8)
Initially churches formed in synagogues but as the fracture between Judaism and Christianity widened, Christians were no longer welcomed in the synagogues. We can tell from Paul’s letters that some churches become household associations sponsored by a wealthy patron. Scholar James Jeffers also believes that some of the churches may have met as burial associations based on certain hints in Paul’s letters. The burial associations were the least formal of the associations and required only the submission of a list of members to the authorities. This would likely have been the best option for a church of poor members without a patron. (9)
What is especially innovative about the “household of God” language used by Paul is that it envisions a connection of the individual associations to each other as one household with Christ as the paterfamilias. This appears to have been true from the beginning. Roman associations had no such connectedness. (10) But this was a minimal difference compared to other distinctions. As Jeffers observes, to the Romans, “the Christians were a mysterious combination of Jews, Gentiles and Romans. They acted like a single people, even though they represented many nations. To the Romans this clearly was unnatural.” (11) Furthermore, the Christians didn’t worship the Roman gods but instead worshiped a figure from the backwaters of the Empire who had been crucified, the most shameful form of execution the Romans could imagine. (12) Christians were frequently accused of being everything from atheists to cannibals (i.e. “eating the body of Christ”) who were a potential threat to the social order of the Empire.
The “Head” metaphor
English speaking people today use “heart” and “head” as metaphors for “emotion” and “intellect” respectively. Additionally, we also use “head” to mean “authority,” “starting point,” “first in order” and “prominence.” In fact, Webster’s unabridged dictionary lists 85 different connotations for the word “head!”
For the ancient Greeks, the heart was associated with emotion, mind, intellect, will, and spirit. For example, Jesus said,
But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. (Matthew 15:18-19)
Kephale is the Greek word for head. The traditional English connotation assumed of the head metaphor in scripture has been to use it as synonym for “in authority over.” Some Greek lexicons include authority as a possible interpretation. However, closer examination using more recent scholarship indicates more nuance with this metaphor.
Kephale comes from the root word kapto which means “seize,” in the sense of “grabbing a hold of” the most readily taken hold of body part. Word studies of the ancient Greek manuscripts have turned up more than 2,300 instances of the word but only 49 cases are metaphorical, including 12 instances in the New Testament (13). Interpretation of these 49 metaphorical uses is hotly contested. Southern Baptist Wayne Grudem and many fundamentalists are quick to demonize as radical feminists anyone who departs from interpreting “head” as authority in scripture. Furthermore, there is not complete unanimity about the word’s meaning among those who discount the authority interpretation. (14)
Paul refers to Christ as “Lord” all throughout his letters. Christ is Lord of the Church. Yet, in just a handful of references, Paul also describes Christ as head of the Church. He never uses head in reference to any worldly authority. Why use this metaphor? What nuance was Paul intending to communicate?
Let us first look at Paul’s exhortations in Colossians 2:18-19 and Ephesians 4:15-16 about remaining grounded in Christ:
18 Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God. (Colossians 2:18-19)
15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:15-16)
Just like a plant grows out of a root, the Greeks had the idea that the body grew out of the head. This makes good sense if you consider that most inputs to the body enter through the head: food, water, air, sight and hearing.
Paul also uses the connotation of prominence or preeminence, in Colossians 1:18:
He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.
Now turn to Ephesians 1:20-23 where many would say there is a clear use of “head” as authority.
20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Notice that in verses 20-22 through the word "feet" there is a description of Christ assuming Lordship status over every power. Next comes "and" suggesting that something in addition to becoming ruler has happened.
...and has made him the head (over/of) all things for the church …
… which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
To be the animating life source who fills the entire body! (15)
The Household Code: Ephesians 5:18-6:9
There are at lest two astonishing aspects to this passage when we keep in mind the social context and language issues. First is the fact that Paul addresses the subordinate participants in the household, not just the paterfamilias. This elevates them to full participants in the life of the household, not just inferiors to be ruled over. (16) They are to do their duties not out of submission to the natural order but as a service to God in mutual submission.
Second, if Paul were to imitate Plato or Aristotle, Paul would have used the Greek exousia (privilege or authority) to describe the paterfamilias relationship to his wife and those in the household. No where does Paul tell the paterfamilias to either be in authority or to “be the head!” The “head” language is used in reference to his wife.
22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, … 33 Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband. (Ephesians 5:22-25, 33)
Plato or Aristotle could not have fathomed giving such instructions to a woman. Like children and slaves, they were subject. Period! No need to give a reason. Yet Paul feels compelled to give reasons. Submission by the wife is not given to the paterfamilias because he is the ruler of the household. It is no longer about status and male superiority as with the Greeks and Romans. Submission is given to a husband out of appreciation for the life giving sustenance and resources he provides to the household out of service to Christ; just as Christ is the animating source for his body, the church. The paterfamilias is the patron for his household subjects and in Roman culture that commands respect and service. To not be “subject” to him would have been absolutely scandalous in the eyes of the Romans who already saw scandal among the Christians where there was none. It would have severely discredited the gospel.
For those of us living in 21st Century democracies with a range of options for how to govern our social institutions, it is hard to appreciate just how unalterable social structures must have seemed to Paul, at least until Christ returned. Social structures were not on Paul’s radar. What Paul was concerned about was how we live within the given structures. If people lived in genuine submission to each other, then the power inequities of the structures would be rendered meaningless. Key to his teaching is how the ones with power choose to live; in this case the paterfamilias. The most stunning aspect of Paul’s household code is the absence of an exhortation to rule. Instead, he told the paterfamilias to live as servants to those in his household, even to the point of death, just as Christ, the ultimate “head,” had done in order to give life to his body the church. (17)
This ethic fully realized would no doubt transform any social structure. Indeed, after the collapse of the Roman Empire the church continued its practice of baptizing slaves, based largely on the ethics taught in passages like this. Eventually, edicts were passed prohibiting Christians from holding other Christians as slaves. Slavery was effectively abolished in Europe by the turn of the first millennium (at least until Spain resurrected it against the Church’s wishes in the 15th Century.) (18)
It is impossible to know the impact Paul anticipated his subversive strategy of other-centeredness would actually have on social structures. It was Paul who wrote “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28) What we do know is that it was a direct extension to having the mind and heart of Christ as he fills the earth with his eikons, giving witness of the coming age of shalom.
(1) James S. Jeffers. “The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity.” Downers Grove, IL: 1999. 86-87, 105-107.
(2) Jeffers, 86-87.
(3) Jeffers, 184.
(4) Jeffers, 55-56.
(5) Concerning the role of women see, David C. Verner. “The Household of God: The Social World of the Pastoral Epistles.” Society of Biblical Literature, Dissertation Series; no. 71. Chico, CA: Scholar Press, 1983. 64-65. And, David A. deSilva. “Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture.” Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2000. 180-183. On slavery see Jeffers, 242.
(6) Jeffers, 230.
(7) Jeffers, 102, 105.
(8) Jeffers, 72-77.
(9) Jeffers, 76-77.
(10) Jeffers, 84.
(11) Jeffers, 108.
(12) deSilva, 44-50.
(13) Richard S. Cervin, "Does Kephale Mean 'Source' or 'Authority' in Greek Literature? A Rebuttal," Trinity Journal 10 NS (1989), 85-112. 85.
(14) I. Howard Marshall. “Mutual Love and Submission in Marriage: Colossians 3:18-19 and Ephesians 5:21-33.” An essay in, Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis. “Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy.” Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2004, pages 186-204. 198.
(15) Gilbert Bilezikian, “I Believe in Male Headship.” Article at Christians for Biblical Equality website. Accessed March 16, 2005. www.cbeinternational.org/new/free_articles/male_headship.shtml.
(16) Jeffers, 86.
(17) Gordon D. Fee. “The Cultural Context of Ephesians 5:18-6:9.” Priscilla Papers. 16:1 (Winter, 2002), 3-8. Online here.
(18) Rodney Stark, “The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.” New York: Random House, 2005. 200-202.
Update: Rodger Sellers sent me a link that diagrams the Ephesians 5:18-22. You can see what he had to say in the comments but I thought I would link it here: Ephesians 5:18-22