Understanding the Household Codes (5:21-6:9)
Welcome to Week 9 of your Ephesians Bible Study.
This week we’ll be studying the important “household codes” of Ephesians (5:21-6:9).
There are few sections of the New Testament that have been prone to more misinterpretation, misapplication or outright abuse than Paul’s commands to wives, husbands, slaves and masters.
The Importance of Cultural Context
Before beginning our study of this crucial passage we would do well to pay attention to two critical elements of the household codes in Ephesians (and in other parts of the New Testament).
- Paul’s cultural context when he wrote these codes
- Paul’s missional purpose
In the first place , the Mediterranean world of Paul’s day was a male dominated society. Male governance and rule over women and family were the accepted cultural patterns.
Women were generally secluded in the home and were admonished to practice chastity, silence and full submission to their husbands.
Likewise, slavery was part and parcel of the Mediterranean world.
Given these pervasive cultural patterns, it is not surprising to see New Testament writers such as Paul (and Peter) admonishing Christians (women and slaves for example) to conform their behavior to honor these cultural codes.
Paul’s Missional Purpose
Secondly, in many cases, the New Testament writers appeal to the church’s mission of reaching non-Christians as the motivation for continuing to uphold these social patterns (See 1 Pet 2:12; 14-15; 3:1; 1 Tim 6:1).
In other words, the New Testament writers did not want to upset certain social patterns for fear of impeding the spread of the gospel (whether we agree with this stance or not).
In summary then: The New Testament writers 1) uphold conventional social patterns in their admonitions and 2) in some cases uphold those patterns for the sake of being a Christian witness.
Applying the Household Codes to Our Modern Context
These cultural insights should be the starting point for any modern application of these verses in Ephesians.
- Women in modern democratic societies are leaders of companies, universities, political bodies and even entire nations. They are fully functioning and equal members of society (though discrimination and various inequalities still exist).
- To insist that these culturally specific commands have universal and virtually identical applications as they did in 1st century Palestine is to violate the rules of proper interpretation.
- We no longer live in a patriarchal society (though once again, many patriarchal attitudes still remain in place).
- Furthermore, to apply these household codes consistent with 1st century Palestine is to actually betray the spirit in which some of these commands were given.
Our Christian witness is NOT enhanced, but rather imperiled when we insist that women must be subjugated to their husbands IN THE SAME WAY as they were in Paul’s day.
Finally, in terms of slavery, it is not appropriate to apply Paul’s admonitions to a modern employee-employer relationship.
Employees are not slaves and the slave-master relationship is an improper description of a salaried employee and his contractual obligations toward a modern corporation or entity.
We can speak of respect and fairness in a modern work context, but submission of an employee to a boss would make the Scriptures say something they never intended to say to our modern context.
With these caveats in mind, let us proceed to this section of our Ephesians Bible study (5:21-6:9).
Read Ephesians 5:21-6:9
Questions to Reflect on the Passage
- Who are the different groups addressed in these verses? List them out one by one. Don’t forget the “group” mentioned in 5:20.
- Next to each group, except the husbands, list out Paul’s command for that particular group and the additional details that Paul provides for each command. In some cases it may be a reason for the command, or an amplification of the command.
- What is Paul’s advice for husbands? How does Paul substantiate his advice? Make sure you touch on the various aspects (See 5:25-33).
Questions to Reflect on Your Life
- There is only one general question in this section which should generate its fair share of discussion / debate.
- What is the modern day application for Paul’s commands to each of the groups that are addressed?
This question should be answered in light of whether you agree or disagree with the discussion on culture at the beginning of the lesson.