By Joe LaGuardia
In a sermon (see below) delivered on 3 May 2020, I explore the meaning– and gospel truth– of “Household codes”, as they are often called: Those scriptures that inform how Christians are to relate to others, including spouses, governments, and (for slaves) masters and parents in non-Christian settings.
The codes are present within the New Testament epistles, such as Colossians, Ephesians, and 1 Peter and have, for some, become “texts of terror” over the years. Scriptures become texts of terror when people use the text to oppress or marginalize others, and when they are used to perpetuate violence.
In the segregated south, for instance, Christian masters subjugated slaves by reminding slaves to “obey your masters” just as the Bible says without giving context to the entirety of the Gospel message.
Domestic violence in households have occurred when, upon reaching out for help in an abusive situation, more than one wife has been told by her spiritual leader, “If you only submit to your husband, as the Bible says, then you will not cause him reason to hit you.”
It may sound like I’m exaggerating, but my previous church ran a domestic violence support group in which an overwhelming number of women had experienced spiritual abuse in addition to spousal abuse because of these New Testament texts.
The abuse and misuse of the Household Codes are the result of a faulty, incomplete reading of each text in which they are found and the message of Christ as a whole. The codes are not gospel prescriptions for Christian households. In fact, the early church was identified by a radical egalitarianism in which masters and slaves, men and women, children and parents, were welcomed at the Lord’s table and in leadership (see Romans 16; Galatians 3:26-28; Colossians 3:11). Since churches met in households, there were not hierarchies. God was paterfamilias; Christ was brother; baptized believers all brothers and sisters in Christ; and ministry leadership delegated among the gifting of both men and women (see 1 Corinthians 11, for example of instructions for both men and women prophets–preachers of the day).
This gave rise to empowered people who were not used to power. Peter says in 1 Peter, “Live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.”
The Household Codes, therefore, were not prescriptions for Christian households, but warnings for Christians who abused their power and exploited their freedom in Christ over and against their non-believing households and families, thus hindering the evangelistic message of the Gospel (this is the point and the context of 1 Corinthians 13:1 – 14:40; in which silence is used as a means to bring order to an otherwise disorderly church according to local Corinthian and Jewish laws that were in place and of which Christians were overstepping–see 13:34 along with Acts 18:5-13 for more on this cultural “law” that hindered outreach in the Corinthians church).
Peter addressed slaves and women directly in his first letter (unlike first-century authors who only addressed men), and this is a sure sign of both their honor in the Christian church and of their place of equal status in God’s economy of believers. The warning was not a use of oppression or of putting people in their “proper place”, but of valuing the power of the Gospel message over and against the power that people shared in church leadership. As Paul once wrote, “It is to peace that God has called you… Let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you” (1 Corinthians 7:15b, 17).