Struggling With the Household Code

Pen Pals Slide -April-June copyEphesians 5:21-6:9
Teaching Segment Recap
By Randell Neudorf
June 14, 2015

All through the book of Ephesians we are given words to describe God. Father, Husband, Head…

We decided to take some time to collectively come up with words to describe God in the form of scrabble letters.


We acknowledged that none of these words are a perfect fit, they all fall short. Yes God is Father, no God is not a Father, God is more than a Father. This is why we have so many different words and pictures for God, they each give us a little more of a clue to who God is.

Ephesians 5:21-6:9 is often called “The Household Code.” It is actually a fairly awkward and troublesome passage that has been used to condone slavery, wife abuse, and the mistreatment of children. We began by looking at the passage and blacking out any of the words that seem like they might be out of date, dangerous, or uncomfortable. This is what we ended up with:

EDIT - Ephesians 5 21 - 6 9

If you are unfamiliar with the passage you can read it here.

Is this even for me?

We then asked our selves “Is this even for me?” What if I’m not married? What if my parents have passed away? I don’t own any slaves and I’m not a slave myself, so what does this have to do with me?

For all of Ephesians we have been utilizing the Believers Church Bible Commentary by Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld (who I like to call Tom) says that this passage is actually for the whole church and not just relevant individuals:

“…given the emphasis on church as home and family in the earlier parts of Ephesians (eg. 2:19-22, 3:14, 4:6, 4:16), these instructions should be read as applying by implication to the church family as a whole.” (Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld, Ephesians Believers Church Bible Commentary P 253. Please Note that any citations unless otherwise noted are Tom’s words and ideas.)

That being said, a lot of this seems out of date & overwhelming. We need a lens to focus this passage through. For me that lens is Verse 21, the first verse of our reading today, Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Tom says that,

“…mutual submission is the walk of the wise, a manner of life rooted in God’s wisdom, empowered by the Spirit, and enlivened by worship.” This submission is connected to “walk as the wise in evil days (5:15-16)” (p.255)

Where is all this coming from?
Why is Paul writing all these rules for family and slaves?

“The Household Code” In Biblical times created a Pecking order for society:

  1. Husband
  2. Wife & Children
  3. Free People (former slaves)
  4. Slaves

It is important to realize that this pecking order, this Household Code was something that already existed, It wasn’t invented by Paul (the author of Ephesians) or the Church. This passage actually expands and subverst the cultural household code to include the idea Mutual Submission through the Holy Spirit. (p 255)

Both God and People function in many diverse roles all at once.

P1000365When we look at our scrabble board we see a lot of different roles and words being used in relation to God. As the community that makes up the church, we also function under many different word pictures. In this passage the church is described as a Bride, a Wife. Both men & women within the church function as wives in relation to Christ. That being said as followers of Jesus (the Husband of the Church), we are also all called to emulate Jesus’ sacrifice, in doing so become like the Husband. In relation to God we always function in multiple roles, we are all part of the Bride of Christ, we are all called to emulate Jesus our Husband. We are also called Children of God and Brothers and Sisters to the Incarnate Jesus who is both fully Human and fully God. Our own multiple roles stems straight from God’s own diversity. Christ is both our head–savior and lord–but also our goal–hope and mentor (p.257). In this passage “…two meanings of [the word] head as “authority” and “source” converge … the church is the prime beneficiary of the power of the raised and exalted Christ…” (ibid P 258).

This all turns the word “head” on “its own head.”

  1. Christ is like the authority, the brain sending signals to the nervous system of the body.
  2. also the word Head can be thought of as a mentor, the one we follow. Like a yoga or fitness instructor
  3. The head can also be thought of as the root or the bulb that the body of plant grows out of.

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Hasn’t this passage been misused to allow abuse?

Yes this passage, this household code has been extremely misused to allow abuse to go unchecked. But when that happens it is a perversion of what Paul is saying here. Here is a couple things Tom points out in his Commentary:

“A wife’s subordination to her husband is commanded only within the frame of mutual subordination.” (p 258)

“Headship means lordship, yes, but a lordship that is expressed most fully in liberating and exalting the subordinate one” (p 259)

This House hold code has been used sadly for many people as an abusive power, and yet if we are following Christ and living in mutual submission this should not be the case. The bad uses of this difficult passage is the perversion of the intended goal of mutual submission. In following Christ’s form of sacrificial headship and submission, really Paul is breaking down the existing oppressive house hold code. Christ restores and elevates His Bride, giving her a place of honour and privilege. “…love finds expression in liberation….” (ibid p261).

Jesus modeled this same submission with the apostles (his subordinates). He was their leader, rabbi, and commander. But in this authority He lovingly empowering them to go out and lead and to grow into the gifts of His own spirit. In reality “Christ’s love is deeply self giving” (p 261). Some scholars think that Patriarchy may have been too strong at the time for Paul to fully come out and talk of full mutual submission, but the seeds were planted for that exact thing and there is no reason why the church today cannot embrace that. The house hold codes that were described by Paul (even in a system of hierarchy) if lived out fully absolutely lead to full mutual submission and partnership. (P 263)

How does any of this tie in with the teachings of Jesus?

Love your wife as you love your own flesh harks back to Jesus’ words right before the story of the Good Samaritan (p 265):

One of the teachers of the Law of Moses came up while Jesus and the Sadducees were arguing. When he heard Jesus give a good answer, he asked him, “What is the most important commandment?” Jesus answered, “The most important one says: ‘People of Israel, you have only one Lord and God. You must love him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.’ The second most important commandment says: ‘Love others as much as you love yourself.’ No other commandment is more important than these.”” (Mark 12:28-31 CEV)

 Again, this expectation of mutual submission was a core teaching of Jesus and was an expectation for the whole community.

What about the Kids?

It is interesting that Children are addressed specifically. This tells us a number of things:

  1. Kids are listening, and are part of Paul’s audience.
  2. Children are an important part of the Body and have a role to play as well.
  3. We as the church are expected to be inter-generational.
    (p 269)

Tom does make a bit of a disclaimer here for the extent of this parental authority, “as in the case of subordination in the first set (5:21-33), no explicit limit is here placed on obedience (6:1). It is of course typical of terse commandments to ignore mitigating circumstances.” Two exceptions are outlined by saying “Obey parents in the Lord” as to say if they are following God’s desires. Also there is a warning to Father’s which implies that there are limits to what should be expected of children (ibid p269). One reason Fathers are directly centred out in this passage is because in the system of the day, Fathers were the sole authority over their children. (p270)

Parrables in the Park copyI just want to say one more thing about being an Inter-generational Church. Inter-generational stuff is so important. When we create something for someone that is not us (like the kids) we are practicing mutual submission. I’m not good at it, but we need to think this way. My wife Susan is amazing at it, that is why she is organizing the first week in our summer park series. Talk to her if you are looking for inter-generational ideas.

Isn’t Slavery just wrong?

No arguments here in support of slavery. Notice that when Paul is talking to Masters of Slaves the very first thing said is basically, What I just said to the slaves, the exact same thing goes for you as well. Plus don’t threaten them, and God is your judge, remember you have no special privilege in this new family (p274). Tom says “Though this is hardly a frontal attack on the institution of slavery, the exhortation, if taken seriously, is profoundly destabelizing to relationships of structural inequality.” (p274)

This New Household code is an act of Peacemaking

In a hostile environment the house hold code for Christians was a stabilizing element to be an act of peacemaking in the wider society. The freedom found in Christ could be viewed as a threat and so voluntary submission is really an act of peacemaking (ibid p280). Yes we will submit but we will subvert the patriarchal system, the slave system, the system that leads to the abuse of children. We the church will live out a new kind of submission code that echoes Christ our Lord who became a Servant.

For more Reflection on Authority and Submission:

Think of times in your life when you have been in charge of something or someone else. When have you been in authority. You might be a manager, a care giver, a baby sitter, or even the unofficial leader of your small group of friends. We all have moments in our life when we are in authority over someone else. While thinking about this authority in your own life read the verses directed to slaves and masters and see if there are any places where God might be calling you to incorporate acts Submission in your moments of Authority. Especially remember that the person in Authority (the master) is called to all the same things as the subordinate (the slave).

 Ephesians 6:5-9

Slaves, you must obey your earthly masters. Show them great respect and be as loyal to them as you are to Christ. Try to please them at all times, and not just when you think they are watching. You are slaves of Christ, so with your whole heart you must do what God wants you to do. Gladly serve your masters, as though they were the Lord himself, and not simply people. You know that you will be rewarded for any good things you do, whether you are slaves or free.

Slave owners, you must treat your slaves with this same respect [AKA all of the above]. Don’t threaten them. They have the same Master in heaven that you do, and he doesn’t have any favorites.