Can We Apply the New Testament Household Codes Today?

Can We Apply the New Testament Household Codes Today? January 13, 2020

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd once appeared on the talk show Q&A where he was asked by a member of the audience why he, as a Christian, doesn’t believe what Jesus says in the Bible about marriage being a divinely sanctioned relationship between a man and a woman. His reply was curt and forceful version of a reductio absurdum argument: “Well mate, if I was gonna have that view, the Bible says that slavery is a natural condition. Because St. Paul said in the New Testament, ‘Slaves be obedient to your masters.’ Therefore, we should have all fought for the confederacy in the US civil war.” Rudd deployed the Pauline household codes with their recognition of the normalcy of slavery as a way of showing that biblical mandates are culturally contingent and therefore potentially replaceable with an ethical paradigm that is better informed by contemporary sciences and still upholds the basic love command of the New Testament.

The NT household codes prescribe the order of relations between masters, wives, children, and slaves (see Col 3:18–4: 1; Eph 5:22–6: 9; 1 Tim 2:9–15; Tit 2:2–10; 1 Pet 2:13–3:7; For the post-apostolic period see Did. 4.9-11; Barn. 19.5-7; 1 Clem. 1.3-2.1; 21.3-9).

It is widely acknowledged that the NT household codes were largely borrowed from Greco-Roman cultural norms and were adopted for Christian households for the purpose of promoting familial order and social cohesion. The problem is that application of these texts to our own setting is not straight forward. Christians today do not live within a Greco-Roman environment where the household codes were formulated and esteemed. Christians generally prefer social orders that are egalitarian rather than hierarchical. Even Christian complementarians who support male headship would not espouse the patriarchal powers normally given to a household’s paterfamilias including the power of life and death over all members. Contemporary Christian expectations of the manner a child’s obedience to his or her parents are markedly different as to what they were in the Greco-Roman world. Christians today overwhelmingly abhor the idea of slavery and usually have had a reformist or abolitionist stance towards its practice. Thus it is legitimate to ask how we are to understand and appropriate the NT household codes for ourselves while recognizing the normative nature of biblical commands and the complexities of applying them in diverse contexts.

One approach for us to consider, at least as a conversation starter, is William Webb’s redemptive-movement hermeneutic.[1] Webb attempts to set up a hermeneutical method by which we can discern which biblical commands remain in force and which biblical commands do not. He does that by observing how biblical texts compare with their broader culture and how they sound within the development of the canon and then applying the developmental pattern to how Christians can now apply biblical commands in their own culture. In which case, Webb plots a way to go beyond the Bible while still following what he sees as biblically defined trajectories.[2]

In the case of the household codes, Webb argues that the theological analogies about Christ’s headship over the church as a basis for male headship over women in Eph 5:22-24 and 1 Cor 11:3 are not necessarily transcultural. That is because similar theological analogies are used to justify slavery and submission to a monarchy in other biblical texts. To prove his point further he says that no man would use God’s command for Hosea to expose Gomer to disgrace as a model for husbands disciplining their wives (see Hosea 2). Male headship may continue to be practiced for pragmatic reasons in instances where physical protection and economic dependence are the norm, but the transcultural aspect here is that husbands and wives are to love and serve each other sacrificially.[3] On the submission of children to parents, Webb believes that some dimension of hierarchy between parents and children is normative in all cultures due to the dependency of children on their parents. Cultural factors in the ancient world meant that such submission would be life-long, whereas such cultural factors do not exist in the present time, with the result that adult children should be expected to honour rather than obey their parents.[4] In the case of slavery, Webb maintains that Scripture does not present a finalized ethic in the area of slavery, but establishes a reformist approach to the institution even when it is treated as normal. Moreover, the NT remarks about slavery logically entail a trajectory for a better ethic that calls for the abolition of slavery. What is more, the idea that employee-employer relationships are an application of master-slave relationships is a misnomer; there is simply no fitting analogy for the application of slavery to our modern context. The application we should make is to follow the biblical trajectory and work to abolish modern slavery and slave-like conditions throughout the world.[5]

[1] William J. Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001).

[2] On the idea of having an ethic that is “better” than the Bible, Webb has courted much criticism. See Thomas R. Schreiner. “William J. Webb’s Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: A Review Article,” SBJT 6 (2002) 46–65; Wayne Grudem. “Review Article: Should We Move Beyond the New Testament to a Better Ethic? An Analysis of William J. Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis,” JETS 47 (2004) 299–346; Benjamin Reaoch, Women, Slaves, and the Gender Debate (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2012).

[3] Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, 188-90, 213-16, 248-50.

[4] Ibid., 212.

[5] Ibid., 247-48.

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