A month and a half ago I introduced this sub-series on the household codes. I noted that there are five themes related to the use of the use of the fictive family metaphor in the New Testament by Jesus, Paul, and others: identity, unity, mission, inheritance, and affection. Yet scattered throughout the New Testament we see instruction about how to live in actual households that seems to contradict this. Indeed, the presence of these instructions in some books of the New Testament is primary evidence to some of their late authorship by other than the identified authors.
I showed that Greco-Roman teachers frequently gave instruction on how the paterfamilias should rule his household for the benefit of the community. We saw how, in some ways, the biblical household codes were mimicking this kind of instruction. (1 Peter 2-3, Titus 2, Ephesians 5-6, and Colossians 3-4) Prior to our discussion of the household codes we saw how Jesus’ teachings in the fourth discourse in Matthew (Chapters 19-20) appear to be organized with a rudimentary household code in mind. Yet as we looked at each of these codes we found consistent differences between the biblical codes and the Greco-Roman codes. In the New Testament:
- The codes were not based on a desire to protect the social order or gain conformity to some ordained order of the world.
- Nowhere is the paterfamilias told to rule his household.
- Members of the household, like women and slaves, were treated as free moral agents who had the ability to choose how to behave within the household.
Having now reviewed the codes I think we can add an addendum to the third item: Household members were free moral agents but they were united by a common mission and that mission became the compass that directed there decisions.
In closing my second post introducing the household codes I wrote:
“I don’t believe the New Testament household codes articulate a culturally transcendent ordering of the family and household. I don’t think the household codes are a departure from earlier teaching by later authors. I also reject the idea that the objective of these codes was to equalize the decision-making authority between husbands and wives. Their objective was to exhibit the new creation ethos of the coming kingdom without creating needless obstacles to hearing the good news. These household codes gave instruction about appropriate relational attitudes among members of temporal households who were siblings in the Household of God, responding to God's mission in the world.”
I hope that the review of the household codes has brought my initial claim into focus and clarifies it. But this review brings up some additional questions about the missional strategy of the first century church.
At one level it seems fair to say that Paul and New Testament authors were unconcerned about the social structures of their time. They did not endorse a separatist movement that sent people into the wilderness to be apart from the evil of the world. They did not organize a revolution. They did not organize a reform movement with street protests to “speak truth to power.” Instead, they entered the structures of the society and they observed the surface appearances of those structures. Yet they utterly redefined their identity in terms that were disconnected from these structures and they lived by values other-centered love.
Christians were simultaneously free from the world and free to the world. They were free from the world’s status domination system because their identity was now located in God as royal sons and daughters of God. Nothing in the world could change that. But it was this freedom that meant they could adapt to the world and tolerate all manner of injustice and abuse, even to the point of death. They were free to do mission in the world because nothing could touch their identity or immortality.
Indeed, Rodney Stark suggests that the big explosions in the growth of the church came in the wake of two outbreaks of the plague in the second and third centuries. Each plague took one quarter to one third of the population. Romans fled the cities in terror but the Christians stayed behind joyously caring for the sick and dying, some succumbing to the plague themselves. This utter fearlessness in the face of death and loss of family legacies was very compelling to the people of the empire. Their action demonstrated that their identity was not entangled with status markers found in this world.
Yet at least by the third century, moving into the fourth, there seems to be evidence of the Roman Empire influencing the church away from its complete identification with God and the coming Kingdom. Roman status and power structures seeped their way into the institutional life of the church. However, that phenomenon is beyond the scope of our current discussion. What is pertinent is to grasp the way the first century church understood their strategy with regard to the social structures of the time (though clearly to speak of “social structures” in this way is anachronistic.) It seems that the outcome during the plagues was precisely what the New Testament writers envisioned.
It is impossible to be certain about what exactly was in the mind of the New Testament authors as they implemented this strategy of conforming to societal structures with a radical new identity and mission. Some have claimed that New Testament writers were expecting an immediate return of Christ and were therefore uninterested in structural reform. I’m doubtful about this. I suspect that they understood social structures to emanate from the people within them. Change the people and the structures will conform themselves to the people. I would be like yeast working its way through the dough and leavening the bread. (Matthew 13:33)
What I’m sure could not be seen by New Testament writers was the freedom that would rise within democratic societies in recent centuries and the opportunities to collectively make decisions about social institutions. However, I suspect that they would have seen this opportunity as a wonderful adjunct to, not a replacement of, deep personal transformation in the lives individuals and small communities who become the yeast in the dough of social institutions. It is important that we work to create the best institutions we can. But it is essential that we have people living in transformational and missional communities giving witness to the coming New Creation and to the Household of God.