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The teaching on family relationships

Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives. Do not treat them harshly.
Children, be obedient to your parents always, because that is what will please the Lord.
Parents,
never drive your children to resentment or you will make them feel frustrated.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; not only when you are under their supervision, as if you only had to please human beings, but with sincerity, out of respect for the Master. Whatever your job is, put your whole heart into it, as a service to the Lord and not for human beings. For you know that the Lord will repay you by making you his heirs. It is Christ the Lord that you are serving . . . .
Masters,
treat your slaves justly and fairly. Realise that you too have a Master in heaven”. Colossians 3,18 - 4,1

See also Ephesians 5,22 - 6,9; 1 Peter 2,18 - 3,7; 1 Timothy 6,1-2.

How to interpret these instructions for our own day and age?

This document is part of an online course. If you want to study the rules of understanding Sacred Scripture methodically, join our course
Interpreting Scripture Correctly.
The course is free and offers distinct advantages.

 

First Observation

 

The passage in Colossians derives from a common instruction handed on in the Early Christian communities known as the 'household code'.

We find parallels to Colossians 3,18 - 4,1 in Ephesians 5,22 - 6,9; 1 Peter 2,18 - 3,7; 1 Timothy 6,1-2.

The structure and common origin is clear from this comparative table.

 
Colossians
Ephesians
1 Peter
1 Timothy
wives 3,18 5,22-24 3,1-6  
husbands 3,19 5,25-33 3,7  
children 3.20 6,1-3    
parents 3,21 6,4    
slaves 3,22-25 6,5-8 2,18-24 6,1-2
masters 4,1 6,9    

The scope of such passages is, obviously, to encourage Christian households to live together in harmony.

The main members of a household at that time [oikos in Greek, familia in Latin] consisted of husband, wife, children and slaves.

Christian leaders probably copied the practice of having such lists of instructions from the Jews, who used to instruct proselytes in similar ways. The specific form the suggestions take derive partly from a new Christian perspective and partly from the standard expectations of society at the time. The intention is to guide Christian families within the specific situation of the time. The overall theme that is repeated often is mutuality in respect and love.

More information about these codes can be found here:

D.DAUBE, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism, London 1956, pp. 90-140, 336-351; D.SCHROEDER, Die Haustafeln des Neuen Testaments, Hamburg 1959; J.E.CROUCH, The Origin and Intention of the Colossian Haustafel, Göttingen 1972; W.LILLIE, ‘The Pauline House-tables’, The Expository Times 86 (1975) pp. 179-183.

 

Second Observation

The household codes are behavioral codes do not aim at social reform. They seek to promote Christian values within the existing social framework.

The catechists who taught these household codesdid not address such fundamental questions as the basic equality of men and women, or the inalienable right of every slave to be a free person. That was simply outside their scope. Such basic matters are touched upon elsewhere, when Paul asserts that there is no distinction between men and women, free person or slave, Greek or Jew (Galatians 3,28; Colossians 3,11; Romans 10,12). Here the purpose is simply immediate, practical advice.

The literary form of behavioral codes also exists in our time. Let me give some examples.

Every country has a code of traffic rules that lay down what is allowed and what is not allowed on public roads. It indicates who has right of way. These rules do not prescribe the width of roads, the length of time after which traffic lights should change from red to green, the thickness of the tarmac surface for highways, and so on. The rules operate within an existing framework of streets, traffic lights, parking bays and control cameras. They are just a behavioral code.

During the Second World War, 250,000 Dutch women and children who lived in Indonesia were imprisoned in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. Many were Christians. Many followed the Christian camp code. This contained recommendations on how to survive the horrendous conditions in a Christian way: how to behave towards other inmates, towards local Dutch camp superiors and also towards the Japanese guards. It said: "Remember that the Japanese too are human beings like us and children of God." The code did not address the injustice of innocent people having been deprived of their freedom, it did not advocate rebellion. It was only a behavioral code.

In Calcutta, thousands of people used to lie on the streets dying of hunder or disease. Mother Theresa could not bear it any longer. She started picking them up and looked after them. She established special hospitals for the dying. She founded a religious congregation of nuns to do this work. She had a code - which we may call the Mother Theresa code: "Take care of each dying person regardless of religion, age, caste or gender." But afterwards critics attacked her: "Why don't you fight the causes of social injustice? Why don't you push the government to instate better social care? and so on." The criticism was unfair. Calcutta needed some people to look after those most in need of care: the dying. That concern was legitimate even if it did not include the fight for social justice

Behavioral codes play a valid role. They do not address wider issues.

 

Conclusion

For all these reasons it is mistaken to claim that these household texts give inspired backing to slavery or to the subjection of women to men. But this is precisely how they have been used by theologians in the past, and how they are still being used by some fundamentalist Christians today. The mistake lies in imputing an intention to the inspired authors which they did not have.

 

Q1. What use is Scripture if these household texts just reinforce the existing relationships of the time?

They don't just reinforce the existing relationships. They seek to transform them by truly Christian principles. Just read the texts and you will see that the overriding principle is mutual respect and love.

"[for husband and wife] "Be subject to each other in obedience to Christ . . . To sum up: each one of you, men, must love his wife as he loves himself; and let every wife respect her husband." Ephesians 5,21,33

Q2. But since these are inspired texts, should they not also have taught the social reforms implied in the renewal Christ has brought about: 'no more distinction between Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female?

First, a careful reading of the household instructions shows that the fundamental equality of all people shines through, if not explicitly at least implicitly.

"[for slave owners] "Masters, make sure that you treat your slaves fairly, remembering that you too have a Master in heaven." Colossians 4,1 --- "Remember that your slaves and you have the same Master in heaven who does not favour one person more than another." Ephesians 6,9

Secondly, who are we to decree that the inspiration of household code texts without a radical social reform agenda is not possible? Rather, we should simply observe what God de facto has done. See Principle 1.

Q3. What you are saying is that the household code have a limited scope? Is that not the same as what we have seen when discussing principle 3?

Yes, the outcome is the same. However, once we understand the literary form they belong to, we know in what way and why their scope is limited. But it is extremely useful to read once more the basic principle of limited scope.

© John Wijngaards

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Credits

The texts in our course Interpreting Scripture Correctly were written by John Wijngaards in 2009. Part of the contents is based on his earlier publications, in particular:

  • Background to the Gospels (New Delhi 1970),
  • God's Word to Israel (Ranchi 1971),
  • Handbook to the Gospels (Ann Arbor 1980),
  • Historicity in the Old Testament (Bangalore 1983)
  • and Together in My Name (London 1991).

Illustrations in the video clip by Jackie Clackson.

Correct Interpretation. Principle 1 Correct Interpretation. Principle 2 Correct Interpretation. Principle 3 Correct Interpretation. Principle 4 Correct Interpretation. Principle 5
Correct Interpretation. Principle 6
Facts
Intention
Focus
Form
Language
Rationalization

Correct Interpretation. Principle 7   Correct Interpretation. Principle 8   Correct Interpretation. Principle 9   Correct Interpretation. Principle 10
Growth
 
Opinion
 
Problems
 
Incarnation