Jesus and the New Testament leaders needed ways to metaphorically express the ethos of God’s new community. Family and household became dominant metaphors. There were instances of the household image in the Old Testament but nothing like the rich imagery we see in the New Testament.
Yet the Jesus movement was not the only one employing household metaphors in the early first century. Caesar had transformed the Republic into an Empire, with him as the supreme ruler late in the first century B.C.E. Romans had long been proud of governance without a king. Attempting to avoid the king image, Caesar cast himself as the father of the fatherland; the paterfamilias of the Household of Rome. The imagery was intended to keep the hierarchical status and patronage traditions in tact but to locate the ultimate top of the patronage pyramid in beneficent Caesar. Caesar used the idea of household to solidify his power over society and to direct all allegiance ultimately toward him.
The Essenes, as evidenced by the Qumran community, also employed the fictive family metaphor. They frequently used sibling terminology and pictured God as their intimate father. However, the use of the metaphor solidified internal commitments and excluded outsiders. It was barrier against a hostile world beyond the boundaries of the community.
Jesus came as the Son of God the Father. This was a direct challenge to the idea of Caesar as the son of God but it also communicated much about who Jesus was. He carried the full authority of his father and was a living image of the character of his father, just as a Roman or Near Eastern son would have been for his earthly father.
So what themes can we identify that express the way the family and household metaphors work in the New Testament? Here are a few I’ve identified. Maybe you see others.
Identity – The family was the source of identity for the Greco-Roman and the Near East worlds. Honor was due one’s parents and ancestors. Protecting the family honor was paramount. By extension, this allegiance went out to tribe and race. The way a son most honored his father was to sire sons to perpetuate the family. A woman’s worth was tied up with the sons she bore for her husband.
Jesus demanded we make stark choices between earthly family and the fictive family of the new creation. It was not a call to abandon earthly families but rather to place family in its proper context with regard to the new creation that God was ushering in. Jesus demanded that we find our identity in God. Similarly Paul gives instructions in 1 Corinthians 7 that suggest that singleness may actually be a preferred option for some in service of God’s work. Just as family members of an earthly household would find their identity in the paterfamilias, we are instructed to give our allegiance to God as our paterfamilias, and not be preoccupied with perpetuating earthly family identity.
Unity – Siblings were the most intimate of human relationships within Greco-Roman and Near Eastern society. They were the one place were patronage and status competition were supposed to be absent. Siblings were more or less equal in status and bound by love for each other. It is significant that the first murder in the Bible is between two brothers (Cain and Able) and the myth of Rome’s founding involves a struggle between two brothers (Romulus and Remus). Brothers at odds was disturbing imagery.
Jesus’ parable of the Compassionate Father in Luke 15, which became known by the Church as “the gospel within the gospel,” features a father reconciling a law-breaking son and a law-keeping son to himself through acts of costly grace. But the story is also about an attempt by the father to reconcile the two brothers to each other and unite a household. As we saw in Romans 4 and in Galatians 3, Paul casts Jew and Gentile as children of Abraham, uniting them as siblings of one family. In Galatians 3:25-4:7, Paul declares that “Jew or Greek …. slave or free …. male and female” are no longer relevant categories for determining our identity and status, as we’ve all been made children of God. Writing to the fractious church at Corinth, Paul employs the “concord” genre to bring unity. The Roman concord discourse implored people to honor the social order and the respective strata within it for the sake of the Republic or Empire. Yet Paul writes:
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. (1 Cor. 1:10)
The unity is based on the affection of siblings harmoniously working together, having the same heart and mind as they engage in the business of the paterfamilias. It isn’t a submission to hierarchies and status structures for the good of society. Paul also writes in Ephesians 2 of the demolition of the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile; the two being united in the “household of God.”
Fictive family is a key basis for unity and it metaphorically teaches the type of respect, care, and love that disciples are to have for one another: brotherly and sisterly love.
Mission – One of the issues we visited early in this series is that the archetypical households referred to in Greco-Roman oratories were also businesses, usually large plantations. The children and members of the household were united in a common mission; the economic enterprise of the household. We don’t see this concept explicitly articulated in connection with the household metaphors very often but it is never far from the surface. Explicit connection isn’t needed. Sons and daughters are in the business of the paterfamilias and go about the household business imitating the very heart and mind of the paterfamilias. While there certainly is companionship and caring, the household is a missional entity. Koinonia is what emerges as brothers and sisters work alongside each other in mission.
Inheritance – As children of God, and as brothers and sisters of Christ (Romans 8), we are heirs of the new creation that is to come. We have a share of ownership, an investment, in the coming new order. We are brothers and sisters but we are siblings in a royal and priestly household. We exercise royal and priestly duties (1 Peter 2:9), along with our elder brother Christ, in interceding for the world and we will one day be re-established as co-regents over creation under God in the new creation. Just as a son would expect to gain an inheritance within a household, so are we as sons and daughters guaranteed an inheritance in the new creation.
Affection – Paul and New Testament writers frequently used fictive family to express affection and fondness for fellow workers. But fictive family was also used to convey the affection and nearness of God. The Compassionate Father of Jesus’ Luke 15 parable certainly communicated this. Jesus repeatedly casts the Father as one who is intimately involved in our lives. Paul twice tells us (Rom. 8:15, Gal. 4:6) that God is one who we can cry out to saying “Abba! Father!” Hebrews 12 tells us that God cares so much for us that, like a father, he disciplines us so we may come to maturity. And, of course, the central theme of the New Testament is a God who is a father who sacrifices is son to restore relationship with us. (John 3:16, among many other passages.)
What I want to do next is look at the household codes found in multiple New Testament books. We have seen how the New Testament employed fictive family and household. What I want to do now is explore how this concept of fictive family and household connects with instructions given on actual family and household life in New Testament contexts.