READING THE HOUSEHOLD CODE IN COLOSSIANS FROM AN ETHICAL PERSPECTIVE
BY JASON GOBLE
The ancient church outside the synagogue began its existence in Greco-Roman households making the church and the household inseparable. Invariably, and for a variety of reasons, the New Testament authors found it necessary to give instructions to these household church units. Today, these household codes have become the topic of some debate for the social paradigm they appear to impose on the church. It is the purpose of this paper to look at the oldest New Testament code found in Colossians 3:18-4:1 from an ethical point of view in the hope of bringing another perspective to the discussion. I will begin by examining the ethical world that the church in Colossae inhabited, followed by a look at how they would have read these instructions in that ethical context. Then, I will survey the two types of ethical instructions found in the Bible – deontological rule and virtue ethics. Which type of ethic the household code represents will influence how they are read today. Finally, I will close with a few thoughts on how the code might now be read in light of this ethical discussion.
The Ethical World of Colossians
Two points of historical context are germane to this discussion of New Testament household codes. First, the social environment at that time and place included one perspective that appears to have crossed all ethnic, national, religious, class, and economic lines - a hierarchical worldview. Whether we are talking about an elite pagan household in Rome or a peasant Jewish family in Palestine it was commonly accepted that everyone fell into a pecking order of greater than and less than. Those who were lower in the pecking order were expected to be in submission to those who were higher. In the ancient world the lowest positions were reserved for women, children and slaves. In theory the lowest free man in the empire would have still been above these three groups. The extant pagan and Christian writers did not seem to think of this as an arbitrary state of affairs, but the very nature of things. It is not at all clear that any ancient ever considered the possibility of life outside social hierarchy. Therefore, any ethical teacher would have assumed that this hierarchical worldview was the only possible milieu in which their household instructions could be received. This brings us to the second point – the first time the church in Colossae heard Colossians 3:18-4:1 was not the first time they had heard such ethical teachings. It was commonly accepted in the empire that a person’s fortunes were tied to the wellbeing of the state (see Hierocles 3.39.34-36). In turn, the wellbeing of the state was tied to the household which was considered its basic building block (see Aristotle, Politics 1253b 1-4; Hierocles 4.22.21-24). The logic that followed was simple – a well ordered state was comprised of well-ordered households in which the primary virtue of those under authority was to submit to that authority. Therefore, the instructions to husbands and wives, fathers and children, and masters and slaves like those found in Colossians created the framework for a household code of conduct that was often the topic of philosophers as the ethical teachers of the ancient Greco-Roman world.
Recognizing the similarities in instructions between the New Testament texts and earlier pagan sources, some effort has been exerted over the last hundred years to find the literary basis for New Testament household codes. Initially it was noted that Stoic ethics provided close parallels in pattern and motivation (“as is fitting” and “acceptable” were Stoic phrases). But, as it turned out, Jewish Hellenistic writers such as Philo and Josephus were even closer in form, addressing social classes instead of individuals and dealing in terms of duties between them (See Philo, The Apology For The Jews 7.3; Decalogue 165-167; Josephus, Against Apion 2. 199-214). However, in the past few decades it has been observed and accepted that the nearest resemblance is to discussions of household management in Hellenistic street philosophy influenced by Aristotle in his Politics I 1253b 1-14. Just like the code in Colossians, the earlier Aristotelian text “outlines relationships between a) three pairs of social classes b) which are related reciprocally, and c) it argues that one social class in each of the three pairs is to “be ruled.’” Determining the exact literary influence behind the Colossians code is not the point of this paper. What is important is to recognize that the basic ethics being taught were by no means unique to Christianity.
The similarities between Greco-Roman instructions for household management and the household code of Colossians 3:18-4:1 are impossible to miss. First, the teachings of these philosophers and the New Testament often shared a common form. For example, we see identical pairings being addressed and in the same order. Seneca, a contemporary of Paul, wrote that the part of philosophy which “advises how a husband should conduct himself towards his wife, or how a father should bring up his children, or how a master should rule his slaves… is accepted by some as the only significant part” (cf. Aristotle, Politics 1.12). Second, it was common for the content of the pagan and biblical codes to share a strong resemblance, though not literary interdependence, to each other. (Ps.-)Charondas says “Every man should love his wife who lawfully belongs to him and beget children with her” (as recorded by Stobaeus 62.30). In return, Pythagorean letters were particularly concerned with the conduct of wives. One such letter instructed the wife that “she must please her husband by doing what he wishes, for a husband’s wishes ought to be an unwritten law to an orderly wife, and she should live by them” (cf. Josephus, Apion 2 201). Hierocles tells children to honor their parents “more highly than the gods” (On Duties 4.25.53). The Greek playwright Meander instructed fathers to “correct a child not by hurting him but by persuading him,” and “A father who is always threatening does not receive much reverence.” In regards to the treatment of slaves, Hierocles instructs masters to treat slaves as “he would want to be treated if the slave was the master and he was the slave.” The significance of these similarities will be discussed below, what is important for now is to understand the ubiquitous hierarchical world view that existed, and that the basic content of the ethical teaching in Colossians was not original to its author.
The household code presented in Colossians 3:18-4:1 follows a formal pattern, namely: address, instruction, and motivation. The instructions will be discussed below. What is of particular interest here is the addressees and the motivation, this is where we find the greatest deviation from Greco-Roman codes. First, the subordinate in each pairing is addressed directly. While this occasionally happened in Greco-Roman literature (see Pseudo-Melissa, Letter to Kleareta), it was exceptional to address anyone other than the paterfamilias. To address wives, children, and slaves directly alongside husbands/fathers/masters assumes that in Christ all were equal members of the church, equally worthy of instruction, and had mutual duties to one another in Christ. Similarly, the motivation shifted as the household code was brought into the church. In Stoic literature arguments for acting properly were commonly grounded in personal benefit, reciprocity, or in an appeal to the nature of things (see Hierocles, On Duties 3.39.34-4.28.21). However, in the church the motivation has changed to what “is fitting in the Lord,” “pleases the Lord,” is in “reverence for the Lord,” as “working for the Lord,” etc. In other words, being “in Christ” has become the locus for all ethical motivation. With this in mind it could be argued that for the church in Colossae the household code actually begins with verse 17 - And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus. This both frames and motivates everything to come.
Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.
As everywhere in the ancient world, here the wife was expected to take a submissive role to her husband. This was not to say that a woman could not be the head of a household (see Hierocles, On Duties. 4.28.21; Acts 16:15; 1 Cor 1:11; Col 4:15) However, if a husband was present it was normative for him to rule over the household including his wife. Webb has pointed out several factors would have made husbands natural leaders at this time including the age difference, education, economics, and safety and security. The text does not indicate that the woman is in some way inferior to the man, though the original hearers may have assumed that to be the case. In turn the husband was not told to rule over his wife, instead he was warned not to abuse his authority but to make his primary attitude toward his wife that of love. Neither party was instructed to demand or force the other party to fulfill their duty, nor are the instructions contingent. The husband was to love his wife whether she submitted or not, likewise the wife was called to submit even if unloved. In doing so, both parties imitate Christ. However, these instructions were given “all things being equal.” The injunction to submit was not tantamount to a suicide pact by which the woman had to submit no matter how far off the path of Christ her husband led. The Bible affirms that divine authority must override earthly authority when the two are in conflict (see Acts 4:19). Therefore, v. 18 was not intended to go so far as to override the wife’s conscience. She was expected to submit, but only as would be fitting in the Lord.
Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.
Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.
In similar fashion children were enjoined to obey their parents. Like the wife, many of the same factors made obedience the wise choice including maturity, education, economics, and vulnerability. It is unclear if the “in everything” was restricted to parents who were acting within basic social norms, or if it also included those who had abdicated any notion of their parental responsibilities, but it certainly did not intend obedience to parents when that would go against Christ. Calling for the obedience of children was common in the Greco-Roman world, but the motivation - For this pleases the Lord - situated this instruction deep in a Semitic context (see Philo, On the Change of Names 40). The father, who held nearly absolute legal authority over his children (see Hierocles, On Duties, On Marriage 4.24.14), was limited on how he could exercise that authority so as not to cause discouragement or bitterness. What was lacking was any positive instruction to fathers (cf. Eph 6:4) which has led to speculation about an occasion that would have called forth this specific negative injunction (see Dunn 252). However, none of the suggestions appear to add any useful nuance to the intention to call for obedience. Though the mother is not specifically mentioned, her actions would have been under the authority of her husband and would have been likewise constrained.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
Ancient writers never addressed slaves directly, only their masters, so it is interesting to see this much space devoted to direct exhortation of Christian slaves and speaks to their unique status and possible number in the early church. As property, obedience was expected, but as humans without freedom or status there was little motivation to do more than what was necessary to avoid punishment. Here slaves were called to a higher standard. They were not just serving their earthly master, they were serving Christ. It has been noted that this instruction would have been more enthusiastically received by masters; however the point was that all the work a Christian slave did was done for the Lord regardless of circumstances. Any benefit to earthly masters was an unintended byproduct of that kingdom goal.
Verses 23-24 become the heart of the Christianizing of the household code by baptizing it in eschatology. The motivation to work with all your heart was to receive an inheritance from the Lord, something they could have never hoped for from their human master. As such, slaves were to consider their work as serving Christ through their human master. Unlike their pagan counterparts, Christian slaves now had the hope that their lot in life was not in vain. Just as in the previous sets of instructions, the weaker party was called to a standard but the stronger party was not called to enforce it. The master was not enjoined to make sure their slaves were working as to Christ. The Christian slave would have to answer to God for the way he/she served (See v. 25 below).
Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.
Continuing the eschatological theme, verse 25 acts as a hinge between the instructions to the slave and the instruction to the master. No favoritism spoke to both the slave who might have thought his/her unfair circumstance provided license to do wrong while at the same time it spoke to masters who could not have expected to escape judgment for mistreating their property.
Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.
The single instruction to masters could be summed up in a variation on the Golden Rule: Master your slave as you would be mastered (cf. Hierocles, On Duties. 4.27.20). By framing it this way the Lord Jesus became the model for masters to imitate. In doing so, the master would have provided not only what was right and fair but also grace, peace, forgiveness, and mercy. Though the institution of slavery was not demolished outright, it is not difficult to see how this new paradigm led to slavery becoming untenable in the church over time, particularly considering the prevalent New Testament theme of Jesus setting captives free (see Philemon 1:8-17).
Having done the “there and then” of exegesis, we have one more stop before we tackle the more difficult “here and now” questions of hermeneutics. It is certain that the household code was an ethical teaching, the question is what kind of ethical teaching and does the Bible treat all ethical teachings the same? I will address the second question first.
The Bible generally uses two types of normative ethics. The first is deontological rule ethics in which an exceptionless objective moral law is given. Generally, these are moral laws that are transcultural - true for all people at all times in all places (whether they recognize them or not.) The Decalogue would be an example of deontological rule ethics. The second type of biblical ethic is virtue ethics, which are more concerned with what makes a good person and enables one to live a good moral life, in short - those habits that lead to human flourishing. For example, the classic virtues of courage, justice, prudence, and temperance were thought to make up the character of a good person. Notice that virtues are more like character traits to be learned and developed than specific rules to follow. For example the virtue of justice expects you to act in a way that is fair and equitable, but it does not tell you specifically what is fair and equitable in a given situation. It is left to the community to determine what practices best embodied a particular virtue. Therefore, even though the virtue itself is transcultural, the specific practice may be culturally bound. If the household code was intended to be a set of deontological rules then the message to them is a message to us. On the other hand, if the code was intended to be a set of practices that represented the best possible way to live out the virtues of prudence and justice in the household at that time in that place and for those people then we must ask if the same is true in our context today. This brings me back to the first question, what type of ethic is the household code in Colossians? There are no clear criteria for determining which type of ethic was intended, and the direction one leans is likely to be influenced by the desired outcome. However, I will argue that the way the author chose to utilize existing ethical material hints at which type of ethic was intended.
Given that the author of Colossians wanted to give an ethical instruction to the church regarding households he had three options:
Create something brand new that did not resemble existing codes in any significant way
Baptize an existing code - copying it essentially unaltered
Modify an existing code
Had he chosen the first option a sound argument could be made that the instruction was to be considered a set of transcultural deontological rules for all Christians everywhere at all times regardless of their social context because current social practices had obviously not influenced its creation. Had he chosen the second option it would have indicated that Christ had nothing unique to say to our closest relationships - that becoming a Christian had no effect on prevailing social structures. In this case an argument could be made that the instructions were virtue ethics or simply culturally bound pragmatic instructions to keep the church in good standing with the society at large. By choosing to modify an existing code we see that Christianity does have something unique to say to these relationships, while allowing their social context to help determine how these relationships are best lived out. This is much closer to how a virtue ethic functions than a deontological rule. In addition, the household instructions do not read like the Decalogue or other examples of deontological rules in the Bible. They really do sound like ethical practices based on virtue ethics. Finally, I would argue that our moral understanding has grown to the point that it is generally recognized that slavery is morally abhorrent, and therefore the statement, “No one shall own another human being” is recognized as an objective deontological rule. Given this epistemological growth the instructions to slaves and masters in Colossians are almost certainly not deontological, but they could still represent the best understanding of how to live out a virtue in that given context. For these three reasons I argue that the household code in Colossians should be read as culturally bound ethical practices describing the best possible way to live out the classic virtues in an ancient Christian household in the Greco-Roman world, but not necessarily the best possible way for us to live out those same virtues today in our context.
The simplest and most common way to read ethical teachings in the Bible is as deontological rules – whatever the instruction is that is what we should do. This has the advantage of feeling safe. We do not have to think too much about it, and we do not find ourselves in the uncomfortable situation of arguing against a biblical instruction. The problem with this methodology is that it makes no effort to differentiate transcultural ethical principles from culturally bound ethical practices, and it assumes that all biblical ethical teaching exists timelessly with no impact on its production by societal norms. The second approach to reading ethical teachings in the Bible is as a contextually-bound telos - this assumes that what we have been given are ethical practices that are bound by culture and occasion. We have not necessarily been given the ethical principles behind them. Therefore, our hermeneutical goal is to understand what purpose or telos these practices served. We are then called to find appropriate contemporary practices that will accomplish the original telos. This has the advantage of keeping us true to divine intent where biblical instruction followed woodenly in our context might actually find us at cross purposes with God’s ethical principles. The problem with this methodology is that it is much more complicated, it makes the Bible more oblique to the lay reader, and it requires a certain amount of speculation of intent.
As a fairly conservative Evangelical I am drawn to the first method. However, I simply cannot ignore the fact that no ethical practice exists in a vacuum. By definition ethics are concerned with the right ordering of relationships, and while the principles may be objective and transcultural, how we live out those principles is culturally-bound. Therefore, I feel obligated to the second method with its goal to identify and separate the principles from the practices in biblical ethical teachings such as household codes and then to discern how best to live out those principles today. It is beyond the scope of this paper to attempt to ascertain the author’s intent in detail or to make an argument for which practices would best allow us to live out that intent in our context so I will simply close with a few hermeneutical observations about hierarchy.
The master-slave hierarchy no longer exists in our western context and though perhaps we can legitimately glean some principles for what kind of Christian workers we should be, the slave texts are largely avoided today likely out of historical and biblical embarrassment. I tend to agree with those who point out that the fledging church was not capable of being an instrument of social change so the author was simply describing how to live faithfully in a world dominated by slavery. However, according to Philo the Essenes recognized the immorality of slavery and rejected the practice in their community citing the “principle of equality” and “the ordinance of nature which generated them all equally,” so it would be incorrect to say that no other ethical option existed for the author to choose from. What seems reasonable to me is that the author of Colossians was more interested in taking into Christ the hierarchical relationships that already existed inside the church than he was in creating new relationships or declaring which types of relationships were morally praiseworthy. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to fault the author for not taking a stronger stance against slavery.
The social factors listed above that necessitated the instructions to children remain transcultural and so the prescribed ethical practice of obedience remains in effect which is good news for exasperated parents looking for any leverage they can find. Unfortunately, these same parents often stop reading after v. 20. Although we would define the “in everything” as well as the legal rights of the father a bit differently than the church at Colossae did, few would argue against direct application of v. 20-21 along with their hierarchical assumptions in our households today. It is interesting to note that some models of parenting outside of a hierarchical structure are being explored. Perhaps these two innocuous verses will be a future area of contention as our moral epistemology continues to grow.
Today, the real controversy centers on the relationship between husbands and wives. Though I have never heard any complaints about the call for a husband to love and not be harsh, there is plenty of disagreement in how to handle the instruction for wives to submit. Unlike the situation with children, the social factors identified above that necessitated submission (age difference, education, economics, and safety and security concerns) are not transcultural and simply do not exist in our western culture. Therefore, it is hard to understand why the culturally bound ethical practice should remain in effect. There is nothing wrong with wives choosing to submit to their husbands and vice versa (Eph 5:21). But, it should be done by both parties from a place of equality and freedom out of love and reverence to Christ, not as if obeying a deontological rule.
I have looked at the hierarchical and ethical world that the Colossians household code was written into as well as the two types of ethics at work in Scripture with an eye toward how ethical studies may shape our response to biblical ethical practices. Ultimately, it comes down to the question – is the Bible the pinnacle of moral revelation, or a historical snapshot? I believe the instructions to slaves and masters shows definitively that it was a snapshot. When you couple that with the universal hierarchical cultural context that the Colossians snapshot was taken in I believe there is a good argument to be made that the instructions to slaves and masters were understandable but currently irrelevant in our society, the instructions to children and parents remain transcultural, but the instruction and assumed relationship of wives to husbands was culturally bound to a specific time and place. In addition, I would argue that our moral epistemology has grown to the point that society generally recognizes that Philo’s “ordinances of nature” which “created all men equally” did so with women as well. To treat v. 18 like a transcultural deontological rule will hold the church back from moral epistemological growth and bring condemnation to Christ’s bride; something I believe the author of Colossians was keenly interested in avoiding.
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