“Household codes” are Paul’s teachings about how the Christian household should relate. Wives should submit to their husbands. Husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church. Children should obey their parents. Slaves should serve their masters as if their masters were the Lord, and masters should treat their slaves as if they were the Lord (Ephesians 5:22-6:9).
To some churches these “codes” are embarrassing. So they explain them as cultural relativism–relevant in the first century, no more in the twenty-first.
True? We’ve already unpacked Paul’s instructions for husband and wife (Ephesians 5:22-33). He calls for conduct that he compares to Christ. In other words, the husband-wife relation flows out of the Christ-church relationship. In fact, it images it. Doesn’t sound like cultural relativism, does it!
Let’s unpack the last of Paul’s “household codes” here (Ephesians 6:1-9).
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’– which is the first commandment with a promise— ‘that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.’ Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:1-4).
Paul began his “household code” in 5:21. Household members should submit to one another. Wives to husband, husbands to wives (by loving them) (5:22-32). Now children to parents (by obeying them), fathers to children (by rearing them in the training and instruction of the Lord), slaves to masters (by obeying them), and masters to slaves (by treating them as if they were the Lord). Submit “out of fear (awe, reverence) for Christ”. To not submit is to rebel against Christ, who himself submitted to the Father to the death for us. As in husband-wife instructions relationships within the Christian family are defined by Christ.
For added clout, Paul cites the fifth Commandment. Obedience honors, attributes worth to parents. Honoring is an attitude, but it must issue forth in obedience.
Quoting the promise of Deuteronomy 5:26, Paul asserts that if a child honors his parent it will “go well” with him and he will “enjoy long life on the earth”. How are we to understand this? We’ve all seen a good life cut short. But the principle holds. Think of it like this. Father says, “Don’t hang out with thieves who try to steal someone’s credit cards. You may lose your life. Avoid a prostitute who may give you a disease. Work to provide for yourself, so you won’t suffer want”. In each case, obedience will cause “things” to go better with the son and probably give him longer life.
Father is the household authority. In Roman households, absolute authority. He could imprison his child, beat him, keep him working long in the fields, or kill him. Against that cultural backdrop, Paul’s instruction rings loud and clear. Fathers must not abuse their authority by provoking their children to anger. Instead, they are responsible to teach them the basics of the Christian faith.
“ . . . obey your parents in the Lord”. Not all parents are Christians. If they call children to do something contrary to God’s revealed will, they’re not “in the Lord” and not to be obeyed. John Calvin said, “If our parents spur us to transgress the law, we have a perfect right to regard them not as parents, but as strangers who are trying to lead us away from obedience to our true Father”.
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him” Ephesians 6:5-9).
More radical Christian conduct can hardly be called for! Christian slaves are to obey their masters “with respect and fear” and “with sincerity . . . just as you would obey Christ . . . not only when their eye is on you . . . Serve wholeheartedly as if you were serving the Lord . . . ” We apply this to Christian employees, and it sounds extreme! How must it have sounded to slaves?
Why didn’t Paul condemn slavery instead of just calling for masters to treat their slaves “in the same way”? One factor: Paul is not addressing race-based slavery, as that in pre-Civil War America. Anyone who tries to justify race-based slavery from Scripture is a heretic. African-American slave-holders argued that their slaves weren’t fully human. Black-skin meant one was a descendant of Ham, and thus under God’s curse. Paul would have seen race-based slavery as a moral outrage.
When Greece and later Rome conquered other people, they often brought back the conquered as slaves. Some were made laborers on Rome’s massive and continuing civil engineering projects. Others became household servants, often treated as family members. Paul’s instructions for Christian masters are far kinder.
As with husbands and wives, Paul says the child-parent relationship and the slave-master relationship connect to the Christ-church relationship. The issue is not cultural relativism but gospel theology.
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Most of us have authority over someone–parents over children, employers over employees, for instance. Here’s a take-away from our text: treat them as Jesus would. Or in Paul’s words, with respect and fear, with sincerity of heart, serve them, do what is good to them, don’t threaten them or show favoritism. And parents, we must bring our children up in the training and instruction of the Lord. Pray with them and teach them and show them Jesus in how we live with them. Make our home “a little church”. For our children, it’s the most important church in the world.