You will notice we say "brother and sister" 'round here,
It's because we're a family and these are so near;
When one has a heartache, we all share the tears,
And rejoice in each victory in this family so dear.
I'm so glad I'm a part of the Family of God,
I've been washed in the fountain, cleansed by His Blood!
Joint heirs with Jesus as we travel this sod,
For I'm part of the family,
The Family of God
(From “Family of God” by William Gaither, 1970)
What do you think of when you hear the words “family” and “household?” If you are like most people in post-industrial Western nations, you think of something resembling a nuclear family living in a house closed off from the world. You likely do not picture the home as a workplace but rather as a haven from work and the pressures of the outside world. Family and home are where you receive nurture, emotional support and companionship. In other words, you view family from a perspective that has been foreign to human existence until the past century or so.
The family prior to the Industrial Revolution was not merely a unit of economic consumption. It was an economically productive entity. As late as 1885 in the United States, the average family produced 85% of everything it consumed. Just thirty years later in 1915, it produced 15% of everything it consumed. Historically most people have been at work in agriculture, working as families out of their homes. Even the artisans and craftsmen in the towns worked out of their homes. Now the family and the household is almost exclusively a unit of economic consumption. Wealth is earned outside the family and brought back to the home for personal consumption and fulfillment.
What has happened over the past century or so is that we have read our modern notion of family back into the metaphor of “family of God” or “household of God.” Church is a place where we go to get our needs met, to be nurtured, and to receive emotional support and companionship. The idea that the church is engaged in a mission that “produces a product” has been lost on us. Robert Banks points out in Paul’s Idea of Community that the word koinonia has different connotations than we frequently give it today. We frequently interpret it as fellowship and view at as an end we are trying to achieve. Banks claims that every time the New Testament uses koinonia, it refers to something that develops out of joint participation in some object or activity. “Paul’s emphasis is upon their participation alongside one another in such things, not in one another as the term “fellowship” suggests.” (57) The pre-industrial idea of household readily symbolized how koinonia develops. But reading our 21st century Western notions of family into the scripture severely distorts the church into an entity that serves our personal needs.
We need to rediscover the Hebrew hayitt, Greek oikos, and Latin domus, if want to recover the biblical notion of the household of God. While these are all similar to each other they do not translate directly into our modern idea of household. A male householder (called the paterfamilias in Latin) ruled each household and everything in the household was said to be “under his hand.” This meant his wife, children, slaves, animals, tools, physical structures and land were under his near total control with him possessing the power of life and death over those in the household. The householder even exercised control over his sons and their households until his death. (This was true in Rome throughout most of the Roman Republic era, which ended a few years prior to Christ’s birth. As we will see, there were considerable regional differences among the Greeks in these matters. There was considerable liberalization underway in the Roman Empire by Christ’s time that continued throughout the first century C.E., including the rise of single or widowed women householders.) Some households could include dozens of people. Furthermore, each household was engaged in a household business.
Therefore, the “household” of the biblical times was not the sentimental inward looking family of the Gaither song. We cannot appreciate what the image of the “household of God” signifies, nor understand what the biblical teaching given concerning households conveyed, unless we get a better sense of what the household of biblical times was. We begin this rediscovery in the next post by first getting a handle of what the physical surroundings may have looked like.