So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. (Eph 2:19-20, NRSV)
Oikos tou Theou, “household of God.” I have done revisioning work over the years with a variety of congregations and I have served in a variety of ecclesial capacities. Without question, the most pervasive image of the church I encounter is the church as fictive family. When I have worked with the leadership of dying congregations I begin by asking how them, “How would you characterize congregation?” Invariably, they respond (join me in unison please) “We are a warm friendly family.” But they are warm friendly families into which no one else seems willing to marry.
The idea of fictive family plays into another major debate raging in the life of the church: gender roles. Throughout the New Testament (Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Peter, most notably) are compilations of instructions for household behavior called the haustafel - the “household tables” or “household codes.” They parallel a style of household instruction very similar to that of Greek philosophers dating back to Aristotle and beyond. Our responses to these teachings tend to be of two varieties.
One response is to read these passages as though they were culturally transcendent instructions for behavior within families today. Not conforming to these instructions is to disobey scripture. I reject the assumption that these instructions are culturally transcendent.
The other response is to look at the earlier writings of Paul (Galatians or 1 Corinthians) and contrast them with later letters that contain the household codes (Ephesians or 1 Timothy). It is claimed that a radical shift is made from passages like Galatians 3:28 “no longer male and female” to passages teaching subordination and hierarchy. On this basis, deutero (secondary) authorship is claimed for the later books because they reflect a reactionary bent that was contrary to Paul’s earlier teaching. They were likely written by Paul’s students. While I have no issue with the possibility of deutero authorship (the primary issue is that the early church saw these works as authoritative), I am not persuaded that the teaching of these various books is truly in conflict.
The key to this is what Craig Hill calls the “but in Christ” principle. We find Jesus explicitly saying in the gospels “You have heard thus-and-so, but I tell you…” We find “You were once this way or that, but in Christ…” throughout the New Testament letters. Direct comparisons are made between an old order and the new creation. But there are also a great many inferred “but in Christ” teachings that were obvious to the original audience because they knew their own culture and could readily appreciate that what they were being taught was a significant new creation departure from the status quo. However, because we are not of the culture, we frequently miss these shifts and the theological/ethical significance of these shifts. It is in these shifts that we begin to discern the ultimate ethic of God at work in these specific circumstances. Correctly grasping the ultimate ethic that was in play is our paramount concern.
Therefore, I am initiating what I expect will be a lengthy series of posts aimed at developing a better understanding of the fictive family taught in scripture and the idea of the household of God. I want to lay out some historical cultural context. Then I want to examine what Jesus had to say about family and household. I will wrap up with analysis of some the controversial passages in scripture that touch on the household with a special eye to the household codes. I make no claim to be an expert on any of these topics. It is my attempt here to process “out loud” what I have been learning over the years and to see what input you might have. These posts are going to be very hit and miss; posted as I have time to get to them. They will be interspersed with posts on other topics. I will have them under the category heading of “Household of God” in the right margin. I hope you will stop by from time to time give me your input.