Greco-Roman household codes were instructions to the paterfamilias on how to rule over his household for the sake of the social order. They typically included instruction about wives, slaves, and sometimes children. The biblical writers tended to follow this pattern as well as we have seen in 1 Peter and in Titus. Ephesians does the same. We have just examined the rather complex instruction (to our minds anyway) that Paul gives concerning wives and husbands. What we need to pay close intention to in the next section is the justification given for instructions to children and slaves. So continuing with the code at 6:1:
1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 "Honor your father and mother" -- this is the first commandment with a promise: 3 "so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth."
4 And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (NRSV)
Verse 1 says “for this is right” but 2 and 3 go on to link it to a promise. The premise for obedience is subtly shifted away from accepting domination and toward obedience as an act of service to the Lord. Furthermore, it is an act of service that will be rewarded.
Verse 4 says nothing about bringing up sons as good Roman citizen who will carry on the family business and perpetuate the family name, or daughters who will be worthy of marriages that create important family alliances. Instead, children are to be brought up “…in the discipline and instruction of the Lord,” the paterfamilias of the household of God. Children are to be raised to assume their roles as adult children of God in his household and not used as instruments for developing the legacy of the earthly paterfamilias.
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; 6 not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7 Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, 8 knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.
9 And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality. (NRSV)
Here, unlike in 1 Peter or Titus, we have instruction to obey (hupakouo) meaning “to conform to authority” instead of to submit (hupotasso) meaning “to place one’s self under another.” The term “obey” has a more obligatory element than the more volitional idea of “submit.” Still, the act of obedience is transformed from being an act of service to the earthly paterfamilias into an act of service to God, the paterfamilias of the Household of God.
Verse 9 rather imprecisely says “masters, do the same to them.” The presumed “same” seems to be the action of doing to the other as a response to the Lord. Albert Harrill points out that slaves were presumed to be dishonest and untrustworthy. They had to be periodically beaten into submission. Archeologists have even uncovered a business in one Roman city that was devoted to torturing slaves on an outsourcing basis. This is not a part of Paul’s household vision. Yet, if Paul wanted to dissolve status differences, he could have employed his fictive family metaphor of siblings here. Interestingly, he chooses to demote the paterfamilias to slave and says “you are both slaves in God’s household.” Yet another example of Paul messing with their minds concerning status issues.
Now as we take this instruction altogether we must again acknowledge it as a radical departure from Greco-Roman instruction. Instruction in Greco-Roman codes was given to the paterfamilias alone. There was no need to instruct wives, slaves, or children. They obeyed. Period! The structure of the code makes unmistakable that each member of the household is missional partner, contributing of their own volition to the larger mission of God as the paterfamilias of the Household of God.
I made these following contrasts with Greco-Roman codes when I presented 1 Peter and Titus:
- The code is not based on a desire to protect the social order or gain conformity to some ordained order of the world.
- Nowhere is the paterfamilias told to rule his household.
- Members of the household, like women and slaves, are treated as free moral agents who have the ability to choose how to behave within the household.
The third point is a little less obvious with regard to slave here but I think the general principle holds. 1 Peter and Titus tend to be a little more specific about the missional impact of their codes. But clearly the Ephesians code is tied to the broader them of unity and the demonstration of unity as a witness to the world of Jesus Christ is the letter’s missional theme. The household codes are not cultural compromises but calls to missional living.
Next up is the household code in Colossians, the last instruction that follows this particular format.