Rules for Christian Households
18 Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.
20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord. 21Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart. 22Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. 23Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, 24since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ. 25For the wrongdoer will be paid back for whatever wrong has been done, and there is no partiality.
This is what is known as a “household code”; it was a common genre (kind of writing) for the first century, especially in Hellenistic (Greek culture) societies. It reflects societal standards of the time. The wife was considered the property of her husband, the patriarch having absolute authority over everyone in his household. The wife, as well as the slaves were required and expected to obey him. And yet, Paul is saying “submit yourselves”, not obey, as he says to the children and to slaves. Translators have failed to include the “tois”, “yourself”, in translation and it changes the meaning of the sentence! Paul is, actually, taking a step toward support for women by acknowledging them as independent beings who have the option to “submit themselves”, or not. But to submit themselves is the appropriate thing to do, in their society. But husbands also have a duty in this household code, which was also unusual. Most household codes related only what the members of the household were supposed to do for him! Husbands have a duty to love their wives! And never to treat them harshly. Yes, I said “a duty to love”. Love, here, is not defined as an emotion, but as a way of living, a choice to care for someone above oneself. All of this is a way for a couple to live in the Lord.
Children, in Jewish society as well as in Greek societies, were required to obey their parents. The patriarch had the right to have a disobedient child put to death. And yet, here again, Paul has instructions for the father – don’t “provoke” your children – we might say, don’t be constantly critical, or nagging, or demanding of perfection – lest the child lose heart.
And then, Paul has words for the slaves in the household. We have concerns for Paul’s “support of slavery” in these words, but, again, we must realize that this was a way of life in the ancient world. Slavery was included throughout the Old Testament, and was used even in New Testament times as a way of getting out of debt, selling oneself, as well as putting prisoners, especially prisoners of war, to work (rather than to the sword). Nevertheless, it was nothing like the institution of slavery in our own country 150 years ago. It was not dependent on a particular race, and slaves were generally set free after a few years of loyal work. The families of slaves did not automatically belong to their owners, and slaves could own property. They were often well-educated, and served as teachers, or heads of household, for their masters. Finally, Paul is not speaking to the institution, but to people who find themselves in a position of servitude. Again, I am aware that these particular words were used by southern plantation owners to control people, to support the ownership of slaves with the Bible, which is onerous. I am aware that there are African-American folks to this day who refuse to read Paul’s letters because of these words. The warning for us is that we must not find justification in the Bible for our actions, rather than living out the principles of the Bible, the first of which is love.
What Paul says to the slaves could apply to any of us, when we are working for someone. Do the job (obey your master) to the best of your ability, whether the boss is watching or not. Consider that your work is done for the Lord, not for your master. And finally, there is also a word for masters of slaves – treat them justly and fairly. You all answer to the same Master in Heaven.
We must remember that Paul is writing to people in a specific time and place. We cannot blame him for the culture in which he lived. What he offers is a way of living in that culture that calls all parties, including the one with the most power, to live in a way that is accountable to the Lord, a way that is respectful and loving of one another.