January 27, 2021

The NT Haustafeln (House-Tables)

Members of Roman Family, Relief from the Ara Pacis

By Chaplain Mike

We would be remiss if we did not include some consideration of Biblical teaching about family relationships during this week on Internet Monk when we are talking about them. In this post we will look at one way the apostles taught the early church to live out their faith in the home.

Some of the primary instructional passages in the New Testament regarding family life are the “haustafeln”. This is the German word for house-tables or household codes; a word used since Luther’s time to describe Biblical passages detailing family duties.

For example,

  • Ephesians 5:22-6:9
  • Colossians 3:18-4:1
  • 1Peter 2:18-3:12

P.H. Towner gives an overview of these household codes and related NT texts:

Colossians 3:18-4:1 and Ephesians 5:22-33 represent teaching addressed to the various members of the household. What distinguishes these blocks of teaching as a special form is the tendency to address church members according to household role and status (wives/husbands, children/parents, slaves/masters), reciprocity (each member being addressed), the delineation of appropriate behavior with a verb enjoining subordination (hypotasso) or obedience (hypakouo). These two passages represent the fullest expression of the NT household code. But 1Timothy 2:1-15; 5:1-2; 6:1-2, 17-19; Titus 2:1-3:8 and 1Peter 2:13-3:7 also contain teaching very similar in tone and form. And shorter sections of related teaching in 1Corinthians 14:33-35 (cf. 1Corinthians 11:3-16) about men and women…and in Romans 13:1-7 about the church’s posture toward the government appear to come from the same basic source.

• From Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Hawthorne/Martin/Reid, eds.

These forms of ethical and relational instruction can teach us a great deal about how to think and teach about family matters in the church.

First, teaching about family matters is done in the context of congregational instruction.

Household relationships are not viewed as a separate category to be dealt with through specialized teaching. Relationships within the family are treated by appealing to the same motivations and moral instructions that should guide all Christians in their behavior. In a very real sense, there is nothing different about the family — little additional instruction is required beyond the Gospel.

What is expected of Christians in their households is that they will behave like Christians!

For example, in Ephesians, the household code follows and grows out of this context:

Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil. So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ. (Eph 5:15-21, NASB)

And in Colossians, the following congregational exhortations precede and lay the groundwork for Paul’s household instruction:

So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father. (Col 3:12-17, NASB)

The apostles did not “focus on the family,” they focused on the church, the community of believers. What they taught wives, husbands, children, parents, and other members of the household to do was of a piece with their moral counsel to the entire congregation.

We also see this within the codes themselves. Members of the household are exhorted to behave toward one another “as is fitting in the Lord,” in a manner that is “well-pleasing to the Lord,” and that exemplifies “fearing the Lord” (Colossians). In Ephesians, the motivations are similar: wives, husbands, children, parents, slaves and masters are to relate to one another “as to the Lord,” and to practice love “as Christ…loved,” etc. In the Ephesian household code, in fact, Paul goes so far as to say that what he is saying to husbands and wives isn’t really even about them — it is about Christ and the Church! (5:32)

Second, NT instruction for the family is designed to enhance the reputation and witness of Christians in their society.

I will not go into depth regarding the background of these household codes except to say that this form of instruction did not originate with the apostles; it was common in the Greco-Roman culture of their day. Though there is disagreement and many questions as to the exact sources of the apostolic haustafeln, it is clear that they were building on cultural models readily available to them (see the Towner article for more discussion of this).

That they both used and went beyond these codes is also clear. These NT house-tables present a fascinating example of Christianity both conforming to and transforming cultural norms for various purposes.

In terms of form, the apostles take a conservative approach here. The haustafeln portray role patterns that would have been recognized and considered status quo by most non-Christians in their society. As Towner writes, “What can be said is that through them the NT writers reflect sensitivity to the expectations of society at large and seem to encourage Christians to live according to patterns that were widely accepted as respectable.”

There is no radical departure from the family patterns of the Greco-Roman/Hellenistic Jewish world — husbands were head of the home, children were subject to their parents, masters ruled over their slaves. Christians are exhorted to conform generally to the ethos of their society.

However, the apostles also added enough Christian innovations to plant seeds of transformation in the family and society.

For example, in the standard instructions of the day, only those in authority were addressed and treated as responsible agents, whereas in the apostolic house tables, those in subordinate positions are addressed as equal and capable human beings, brothers and sisters in Christ, who share the calling to live in love as Christ did.

In addition, the instructions given to those in positions of authority are not what one might expect — directions about leading, making decisions, and keeping order in the household. Instead, they are called to follow Jesus’ example of willing subjection and self-emptying love as they relate to those society considered lower in rank.

These examples show that the house-tables are not about reinforcing particular roles in the family! Instead, they emphasize how members of families may show each other the kind of Christ-like love and respect that will prove redemptive and spiritually beneficial to fellow members of the household.

The haustafeln thus represent a “seed-planting” or “salt and light” approach that lay the groundwork not only for the transformation of households but also the broader society.

Third, each generation must exercise wisdom in applying the teaching of these household codes so that Christians may gain the respect of their own societies and serve as salt and light.

I do not believe that the NT haustafeln represent a supra-cultural “Biblical model for the family” (in terms of roles) that is meant to apply to all Christians in all generations and in all cultures. Rather, these household codes are given to increase the wisdom of Christians as they live among their neighbors, so that believers will (1) win their respect by fitting in with patterns of society that may be lawfully employed, and (2) get their attention by demonstrating an extraordinary love that goes beyond anything society has to offer.

One clear indication of the culturally dependent nature of these house-tables is their inclusion of instruction to masters and slaves.

Let’s think about this for a moment. When preaching and teaching on Ephesians 6:5-9 or Colossians 3:22-4:1, how should one approach the following texts? —

Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free. And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.

Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve. For he who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, and that without partiality. Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven.

The answer is, in our culture (at least here in the United States where I live), we should recognize at the outset that these passages do not address us. At all. They speak to a cultural situation that does not exist in our society. We should handle these instructions the same way we might a passage like Paul’s advice to Timothy, “No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” (1Tim 5:23, NASB) In preaching on that text, I would explain why Paul might give such practical counsel in his day, and leave it at that. Paul is not our doctor! We’ve made a few medicinal advances since the first century! These words no longer apply to us.

Nor do Paul’s household instructions to slaves and masters. The apostle’s teaching reflects issues that his society faced, not ours. It is therefore problematic, for example, to apply these passages to contemporary employer/employee relationships, as many do. Paul is writing about acting as a Christian within ancient household arrangements that involved ownership of people as legal property, with rules and obligations that pertained to those arrangements. The context bears no resemblance to the free marketplace in which employers hire workers who are able to choose and apply for jobs, and in which employees as well as employers have rights and legal protections. Paul is addressing those involved in an official system that was profoundly contrary to Christian ethics, not only because of the cruelty of its practices but in the very nature of its existence. Thankfully, though slavery in various forms still wreaks far too much havoc in today’s world, it is no longer institutionalized as the status quo and is universally recognized as evil.

My point is that we cannot simply take these ancient household codes and interpret them simplistically as supra-cultural models for family roles in all times and places. Whole sections of them don’t even apply anymore!

This leads me to suggest that the other role descriptions in the haustafeln should be read with wisdom and discernment in the light of our current cultural norms as well.

For example, how do we apply apostolic instructions about husbands and wives in societies where men and women are not viewed in terms of “rank” and “subordination,” which was the view in the Roman empire, reflected in the language of these passages?

Or, how do we apply teaching about parents and children that reflects societies which did not have the category “teenager,” and in which there were entirely different rites of passage from childhood to adulthood?

It is not the purpose of this post to answer such questions. However, my goal is to encourage us to be better, more thoughtful, wiser readers and practitioners of Biblical teaching, that our reputation and witness in our world may be enhanced.

What is clear from these house-tables is that Christians are to be people of love, in their homes as well as in the church and world, and that this marks the primary difference between us and the way the world works. Our families may resemble and function in patterns that are similar to those of our unbelieving neighbors, but with regard to Christ-like love, self-emptying, and mutual service, we are called to excel the world’s ways at every turn.

Our lives, families, and churches are to be shaped, ultimately, by the Gospel — by Jesus.


  1. This very much speaks to me. I do not have a family of my own (yet – I hope…), but if ever I have, I hope I can apply what you wrote.

    Though I kind of get the “if I ever found a man so Christ-like as this, I would willingly accept him as head of the household”-argument (and I probably would be glad to shove the hard decision-making on a husband, in practice!) – the idea that in my marriage there would need to be a designated “the buck always stops here-person” has never sat well with me.

  2. David Cornwell says

    This post gets us away from a lot nonsense that’s been said about Christian family and into biblical application that conforms us to Christ in our cultural context. This is an excellent post and something that needs to be heard. Thanks.

  3. I was just thinking about this the other day. This is a fairly broad speculation, but I’ve always heard that marrying for “love” was extremely rare up until the last few centuries. So Paul’s commands to husbands to truly love their wives, with gentleness, could have easily sounded provocative to first century ears. It turns out that a lot of what we take literally, and apply bluntly, has a much fuller context that deserves careful study.

    The pattern of “conforming” and “transforming”. Yes. Moving through our daily life with respect and awareness of the culture around us — but setting ourselves apart by our love.

  4. Harvey Cooper says

    So on the gay issue, I guess it would depend on how tolerant the society you live in is.

    • These texts have nothing pertinent to say on the gay issue. It is simply not in view here.

      • Harvey Cooper says

        I’m just drawing out the implications of your theology as sketched above. One possible response to biblical homophobia is to declare, as you do for slavery, that “these passages do not address us. At all.” Another is to follow the quoted section from Towner and say that gay Christians ought to defer to the “expectations of society at large” and “live according to patterns that [are] widely accepted as respectable” (whatever this may mean in a pluralistic society in which people disagree about homosexuality).

        Interestingly, Christian churches are more likely to lag behind the moral evolution of the society at large, than to number in the vanguard. Of course there are progressive voices as well, but the overall thrust of the religion is retrograde. Perhaps this is inherent within the authoritarian nature of religion.

        • It’s not that the Bible as a whole has nothing to say with regard to the issue. Just not this passage. Paul lived in a pluralistic society too, in which people disagreed about homosexuality. However, this passage is addressed to the basic unit of Greco-Roman society, the household, in which homosexuality did not play a part.

          As for the “moral evolution of society,” well there are a few who might question that interpretation of the facts on the ground.

  5. Bravo! *applauds*

    We as Christians have over the generations let go of the concept of the divine right of kings to rule peasants, the divine right of aristocrats to rule their fiefdoms, and the divine right of the white race to be supreme over the other races. Though this was often worded in terms of responsibility (ie., “nobless oblige” or “the white man’s burden”), it was still all about divine right.

    So why do we hang onto the “God-given responsibility of husbands to lead their households” — in other words, the divine right of males?

    If in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, no male and female, and if the rich are to consider themselves poor– then it’s time for all manifestations of divine right to go away.

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