Paul makes extensive use of fictive family and household metaphors throughout his letters. The central focus of his fictive family metaphors is other-centered love as siblings, the most intimate and least status conscious of relationships in the Greco-Roman world. God is the paterfamilias. Yet the church lived in the midst of an extremely status conscious society where the powerful were already skittish about subversive movements detracting from worship of traditional gods and undermining status hierarchies that preserved the social order. Paul and New Testament teachers had a dilemma.
Become flippant about Roman customs and the church risked alienating and provoking the people they intended to reach. Continue living as they always had and they would negate the core message of the gospel. The folks with less status would likely want to act on their newly elevated status in Christ, thus making the community suspect with outsiders. Those folks with status would likely not surrender status and thus negate the gospel.
We have already seen the motivating factors for household codes found in 1 Peter (here, here, and here) and in Titus (here). Whereas the household code in Greek literature was addressed to the paterfamilias, encouraging him to rule his household for the sake of preserving the social order, 1 Peter and Titus have instructions for each member of the community. The motivation for adhering to social structures is faithfulness in mission: don’t needlessly give offense to the surrounding culture as you practice other-centered love.
Ephesians, unlike 1 Peter, Titus, and Colossians (which we will get to shortly) appears to have been written as circular to a number of churches in Asia Minor. As I noted earlier, Gordon Fee believes that Colossians was written to address a specific outbreak of false teaching, Philemon was written to address specific relational problem, and Ephesians emerged out of these interactions as lengthier general discourse.
Like Colossians, Ephesians begins with some of the most powerful and eloquent descriptions of Christ’s supremacy and glory. There is a prayer for the readers to come to full appreciation of what this means. But then Ephesians turns to a discourse about God’s purposes in the world in chapters 2 and 3. There is salvation through grace by which Jew and Gentile are brought into one household and made one in Christ. Unity in Christ as a witness to the world about God seems to be the central theme. Chapter 4 presents the marvelous passage about gifts given to the church for its building it up. Then the audience is reminded of the old ways which are compared with the new ways in Christ.
Chapter 5 is an exhortation to put off pagan ways of thinking and behaving. We might expect that having put off the pagan way of thinking and behaving that the author would next introduce an alternative. It is here that we encounter the household code. Many interpret the household code as instruction to follow the old patriarchal standards of Greco-Roman society. Others suggest it is teaching husbands to lead but with a softer and gentler patriarchy grounded in something often called servant-leadership - sort of a Greco-Roman lite. Others, in contrast, see the total abolition of patriarchy and hierarchy.
I think part of the problem is that many of us are coming to the passage looking for an answer to a question the author is not asking or addressing. I would invite us to remember that Paul and other New Testament writers seemed far more concerned about relational attitudes than social-structural configurations. We have to try to listen to the author on his own terms before asking how a passage applies to any questions we may have. So let us take a look at the first part of the household code.
18 …but be filled with the Spirit, 19 as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. (NRSV)
Now if you are familiar with the debate over the household code in Ephesians, then you know that there has been a debate over whether the household code begins with verse 21 as a preamble, or verse 21 concludes a previous deliberation with verse 22 beginning a new discussion. Actually, from what I read of language scholars (which I most assuredly am not) verses 18-22 are one long complicated sentence. (See Gordon Fee) Rodger Sellers has a diagram of the sentence at his website which a professor of his diagrammed once. (Warning folks! This is not for the faint hearted. Every time I look at this my palms grow sweaty and I break out in hives as I flashbacks to high school English classes.)
Gordon Fee emphasizes that the structure of this sentence is important for two reasons:
2. Some observations. Before turning our attention to some words about culture, I want to make a few further observations that are important for understanding this passage in the larger context of Ephesians.
Note first that verse 18 is the swing verse in a passage that begins in 5:1–2—key not only for walking as children of light (vv. 2–17), but also especially for everything that follows. ….
a. In Greek, the sentence has a single subject and verb, which comes in the form of an imperative: “You [the readers] be filled with the Spirit”; this is then followed by a string of modifying participles:
speaking to each other in psalms, hymns, and so on;
singing and hymning the Lord (Christ) from the heart;
thanking our God and Father always for all things through Jesus Christ;
submitting to one another in the fear of Christ, followed by words to the wives with respect to their husbands.
b. The significance of this is twofold: First, the words to wives and husbands are to be understood as totally dependent on their being filled with the Spirit. That is, all the words in 5:22–6:9 presuppose a household of believers who are continually being filled with the Spirit of God.
Second, and especially important for us: In Paul’s mind there is the closest kind of link between Christian worship and the Christian household. This is almost certainly because the former (worship) took place primarily in the latter (the household). The point is that most of the earliest churches met in households, and the various households themselves, therefore, served as the primary nuclei of the body of Christ (or God’s household) in any given location.
One more observation. The words “be subject to” are not present in Greek in verse 22. They have been added in English translations to make the passage clearer. Verses 21-22 at the end of this lengthy sentence from 18-22 would literally read something like:
…be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ, wives to your husbands as you are to the Lord.
The idea that “subject to” (hupotassomenoi) means something different in the two verses is untenable as the two verses are both drawing on the one use of the word in verse 21. The word means, “to choose to place yourself under in authority and/or status.”
As we now move into the meat of the household code, we need to keep the above context in mind. This household code is missional. This code is giving the alternative to pagan living that people “filled with the spirit” will live in order to exhibit the unity and mindset that Christ brings into the world.