Household Codes by Carolyn Osiek

We perhaps think that “the family” is timeless and always the same. On the contrary, many cultures have very different ideas of family than what we are used to. In the New Testament world, “family” could mean all those related by blood and marriage, or those who lived in the same household, including slaves, or something like what we would call nuclear family or ancestry.

What is a “household code”?

Some New Testament texts, especially the Epistles to the Colossians (Col 3:18-4:1) and Ephesians (Eph 5:21-6:9) as well as 1Tim 6:1-2 as well as 1Pet 2:18-3:7, contain descriptions of the ideal family according to societal expectations of the time. These so-called “household codes,” already begun by Aristotle, depict relationships of the male head of household with his wife, children, and slaves—an integral part of the affluent household in Roman society. Similar texts appear in the writings of Cato, Xenophon, and Seneca as well as Philo (De Decalogo 165-67; De Hypothetica 7:1-14) and Josephus (Contra Apion 2.1990-208). They also appear in other early Christian literature, including the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, and the Doctrina Apostolorum. Seen today as patriarchal and perhaps abusive, these descriptions assume a social world in which dominant males control all women, children, and other men, in which women are essentially inferior to men, and in which slavery is pervasive and seldom questioned. Those who consider the subordinate relationships that these texts describe to be authoritative today must be prepared to legitimize not only male dominance over women but slavery as well.

Why do New Testament writers write about this?

Earlier and contemporaneous writers were convinced that the stable household under firm patriarchal rule was the basic unit of a stable patriarchal society, reflected in the husband-wife, parent-child, and master-slave relationships. New Testament writers wanted to give assurance that the Christian household contributed just as much to a stable society.

However, there is a noticeable difference between the New Testament and these other texts. Usually the codes focus on the male figure as husband, father, and master and advise him how to act toward his subordinates. In the New Testament codes, both parties are addressed, and the subordinate person is addressed first in each pair: wife and husband, child and parent, slave and master. This recognition of the important role of the subordinate figure is significant. Although the authors could not in their context imagine a fully equal and mutual relationship, they nevertheless intended to convey full access to salvation in Christ to everyone. Ephesians also restricts male privilege in stating that while the wife should “respect” the husband, the husband must “love his wife as himself” (Eph 5:33). Moreover, the passage in Ephesians begins with a general exhortation to submission for everyone (Eph 5:21), that is, not to insist on one’s own prerogatives over against the rights of others.

While today we may hear the “submission” language as antiquated and recognize that assigning this role based on gender or social status is unacceptable, it is nevertheless worth remembering that the authors promote a mutual relationship of all, subordinated to the heavenly Master.

Carolyn Osiek, "Household Codes", n.p. [cited 25 Sep 2022]. Online:


Carolyn Osiek

Carolyn Osiek
Professor emirita, Brite Divinity School

Carolyn Osiek is Charles Fischer Catholic Professor of New Testament (emerita) at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University. She is author or editor of twelve books and many articles and a past president of the Society of Biblical Literature (2005).

Sets of instructions, most prominent in Ephesians and Colossians, that gave guidelines for behavior at home to different groups of people (e.g. husbands, wives, slaves, and masters).

the people from whom an individual is descended

fourth century BCE Greek philosopher

Trustworthy; reliable; of texts, the best or most primary edition.

A very early composite Christian text about church rules and Christian discipline.

A detailed letter, written in formal prose. Most of the New Testament books beyond the gospels are epistles (letters written to early Christians).

A Jewish historian from the first century C.E. His works document the Jewish rebellions against Rome, giving background for early Jewish and Christian practices.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

A social hierarchy based on men and paternity.

A Jewish philosopher who lived from roughly 20 B.C.E. to 50 C.E. whose writings bridge Greek culture and Jewish thought.

placing oneself under the authority or control of another

of lower social class or status

The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.

Col 3:18-4:1

Rules for Christian Households
18Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.19Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.20Childr ... View more

Eph 5:21-6:9

The Christian Household
21Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.22Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.23For the husband is ... View more

1Tim 6:1-2

1Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed.2Those wh ... View more

1Pet 2:18-3:7

The Example of Christ's Suffering
18Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who a ... View more

Eph 5:33

33Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.

Eph 5:21

The Christian Household
21Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.

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