Household Behavior (in 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus)

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Household codes in the Greco-Roman world originated with Aristotle (Politics 1.2.1-2; Great Ethics 1:33.15-18; Nicomachean Ethics 8.10.4-6). Aristotle described a female as a deformed male and concluded that women are inferior to men (Generation of Animals 737a.28). In his writing about politics, Aristotle talked about the way the city is governed. In Aristotle’s view, household management is a microcosm of the city and therefore has established a hierarchy for the larger household. Households consisted of a husband, a wife, children, slaves, and sometimes members of the extended family. The head of the household ruled over all other household members. Aristotle taught that some ethnic groups were by nature suited to be slaves (Politics 1.1255a.20; Bell: 193). He went so far as to define a slave as a living tool or living property (Nicomachean Ethics 8.11; de Silva: 142, 672). Slaves lived entirely under the authority of their master. Aristotle addressed four subtopics in his treatment of the household: master-slave relationships, husband-wife relationships, father-child relationships, and the art of acquiring wealth. These relationships were understood as the relationships of ruler and ruled, of superior and subordinate (Verner: 84). According to Aristotle, slaves and women were fit by nature to be ruled, not to rule (Osiek, MacDonald, and Tulloch: 95). Based on the premise that men are more rational and women less rational, children prerational (immature) and slaves irrational, these codes established an order of authority and submission for each of the classes (Achtemeier: 52).

Though Stoics encouraged more humane treatment, especially of slaves, the order of family life changed little from the time of Aristotle until the first century. Such Hellenistic Jewish writers as Philo (Hypothetica 7.14) and Josephus (Against Apion 2.23-29 [§§190-210]) used Aristotle’s classic teaching on household codes to talk about household management. When Christianity arose, the Greco-Roman household was guided largely by this classical Greek teaching on household behavior.

Christianity changed household behavior. The Christian confession “Jesus is Lord” brought a new dimension to it. A complicating factor for women and slaves was the ancestral gods of the Roman world. When a woman married, she was supposed to accept the gods of her husband. And when one became a slave, one also accepted the master’s gods. Female slaves were treated as property, and the master sometimes used them for sexual satisfaction. When slaves and women became Christians in the Roman household, they turned away from their husband’s or master’s gods and committed themselves to the lordship of Christ. When female slaves became Christians, they no longer offered their bodies to the sexual desires of their masters. New life and freedom in Christ (Gal 3:27-28) clashed with the household practices of the first-century world.

How did the NT church find its way between new life in Christ and the household codes of the Greco-Roman world? Since the church comprised God’s household (1 Tim 3:15), how did Christian believers relate to their ruler within the household as understood in first-century Roman culture? David L. Balch suggests that the household behavior passage in 1 Peter 2:13–3:7 reflects the Aristotelian view and was adopted to defend the Christian com- munity against accusations of improper household relationships (1981: 80-109). More recent study has questioned Balch’s interpretation (cf., e.g., Bauman-Martin: 263). Feminist critics see a hidden agenda in the household behavior texts in the letters to Timothy and Titus, an agenda that wrongfully justifies men ruling over women in the church.

Schroeder argues that the household codes in the NT address how the new life in Jesus Christ is applied in the new Christian community (1959). Yoder follows Schroeder and interprets the household codes according to the suffering servant motif of Jesus. Yoder calls for “revolutionary subordination” (Yoder 1994: 163-92). Schroeder and Yoder note major differences between the prevailing Roman practice and the NT household behavior texts. First, the NT texts see a reciprocal relationship between husbands and wives, masters and slaves, fathers and children. Second, the NT texts address the customarily inferior person in the relationship first, thus giving them moral dignity. Third, the customarily superior person is also addressed and asked to treat the other person in the relationship in a Christlike manner. Thus, Christ is the model and motivator for a new understanding of relationships within the household (Yoder Neufeld: 276).

In the household codes, Christ models behavior for the husband and master. Christ is repeatedly appealed to as model with phrases “to the Lord,” “just as Christ,” “as you obey Christ.” Christ is not only a model for the subordinates (wives, children, slaves); he is also a model especially for the superordinates (husbands, fathers, masters), according to Yoder Neufeld (281). Husbands are to reject the domineering style of their culturally accepted authority, and to love their wife as Christ loved the church. To carry out one’s duty in mutual submission with the wife, sharing authority, indicates a radical departure from the traditional practice of household behavior in Paul’s day. Likewise, the authority of the master changes, since both master and slave are accountable to Jesus Christ. As this new behavior takes place in the household, the rights of master over slave are greatly altered.

As members of the Roman household became Christians, revolutionary change took place. No longer did Christians serve the pagan gods of the head of the house. No longer did female slaves give in to the sexual advances of their male masters. No longer did the head of the house rule over the inferior ones. Surely there were conflicts along the way, especially when one or two of the household members became Christian and not the other members—especially the head of the house (Osiek, MacDonald, and Tulloch: 117). In Christ, household members found new freedom to love and serve each other. To a watching world, this was revolutionary—a cause for concern for those in power, and a cause for joy and liberation for those suffering abuse. In a society of honor and shame, such a drastic change in household behavior likely brought scorn upon the church. So Titus 2:1-10 calls for a balanced approach between the new freedom in Christ and a desire that the church not be thought of as a threat to the Roman state and culture. By briefly limiting freedom in Christ to contextualize mission efforts, the church was able to grow and promote equality and justice.


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Paul M. Zehr