New Testament Household Codes: Embarrassing or Enlightening?

New Testament Household Codes: Embarrassing or Enlightening? September 29, 2016

In my old church we never read the household codes. (The church I’m referring to here is the denomination I served for nearly 20 years.)

What codes am I referring to? These: Ephesians 5:22-6:9, Colossians 3:18-4:1, 1 Peter 2:13-3:7, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

We never read them from the pulpit, and if we could manage to skip them in small group Bible studies or Sunday School, we did. And no one would object, on the contrary, audible sighs of relief might be heard.

Nonetheless, those good folk believed in the plenary inspiration of scripture. But it never jibed for me, either the codes are inspired, or they aren’t. If they are, we should read them. If they aren’t, we should say so.

Since I believe that they are inspired I left that church (for this reason among others). But some of my old friends appear to have reconciled their faith with their practices and are now saying that some parts of the Bible are inspired and useful for life and godliness, and others simply are not.

Still, some of those folk feel a need to justify themselves and here’s how they do it. Essentially it boils down to cultural relativism. The idea is that those embarrassing codes were culturally relevant for the time, and Paul, not wishing to upset anybody, simply was all things to all men and all that. He didn’t really mean what he was saying though, and since those benighted practices are defunct, we no longer have to talk about them. (That’s what the nice people say anyway. Others just say Paul that was a misogynist.)

But this doesn’t seem right to me either (not that I couldn’t imagine Paul trying to be all things to all men, he said he was) but because that’s not the way Paul justified himself. Instead he used the codes to help his readers understand justification, among other things. (I’m thinking of Ephesians chapter five here in particular–and yes, you can take that to mean I do believe Paul wrote Ephesians.)

And when I’d ask my old friends something along this line, “Okay, I get the culture argument, but can you help me understand what it was about that culture that made those codes legitimate?” the argument usually boils down to patriarchy, you know, the institutionalization of that irrational urge many men suffer from to control everything. In other words, it was always wrong, but Paul just couldn’t bring himself to say it.

I’m sorry, but that’s just weird. Paul seemed to enjoy a good scuffle; he didn’t shy away from stirring things up.

And these conversations got me thinking, “Could it be that Paul knew something we’ve forgotten?”

That line of thought has been tremendously helpful for me. It has helped me to reconstruct in my own mind the institutional framework within which Paul and his interlocutors lived and spoke of salvation. And this has lead to some unexpected discoveries.

One of those discoveries is this: our attempts to contextualize the gospel to modern life has twisted the gospel. We believe we can abstract the gospel from the practices and institutions from which it sprang and then insert it into new patterns of life without altering it. But there’s the wineskins problem, form and content always go together, and we can’t hold the gospel in some cultural forms.

This has had two outcomes. First, this has driven a wedge between faith and practice, and consequently between salvation and creation. Now many Christians unintentionally practice their faith in a way that smacks of gnosticism. Salvation is for individuals and it is an inward thing. The social dimensions of the Christian faith, when we attempt to recover them, necessarily end up being filtered through the institutions of liberal democracy. This means that the atomistic and mechanistic features of the modern world get baptized. The result is what you can read about over at Patheos Progressive Christian. (I’m sorry, but the apostles and the church fathers wouldn’t recognize most of that as Christian.)

But here’s something else that I’ve discovered, we’ve had it largely wrong when it comes to the households of antiquity. Sure, there were many abuses, and there are certain features we do not need to recover. But those households had this going for them: they held together many things we’ve allowed to fly apart. Within those households: love and law, men and women, young and old, faith and works, creation and redemption, all worked together.

What I intend to do for the next month or so is introduce you to the household that I’ve discovered and I believe Paul knew. As I’ve grown in my understanding of it I’ve gone from seeing the household codes as embarrassing detritus we can live without, to a sort of rosetta stone for interpreting salvation and practicing the Christian life.

And to begin I will speak to that institution that many people consider most damning: slavery.

Return next Thursday for that.

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