I wrote this paper for my New Testament class this semester. It is an academic look at the “Household Code” of Colossians. If you are interested in the academic side of things read through it, otherwise, skim down to the end where I talk about what this means in the context of Evangelical Friends and propose some queries to help us grapple with faithful living in the 21st century. In parts of the paper I intentionally use the words “slave” and “master” to refer to the original understanding of the hearers of Paul’s letter to the Colossians.
My almost three-year-old daughter walked up to me as I was typing for a class assignment and said “Read on the couch?” while holding my least favorite children’s book, which of course is her favorite book. As I got up from the chair I had the words “Fathers do not stir up your children” running through my head and decided not to hide the book and to read it to her with enthusiasm. During my daughter’s nap time, I wondered what the men who first heard Colossians when it was read to them might have been thinking when they heard those words. I pondered long, and through the process of research have come to the conclusion that the author of Colossians is proposing in Col 3:18-4:1 not just a household code to fit in with the culture, but a household code calling all to submit to Christ as the new paterfamilias over every household. The question that arose from this insight was a very simple one: “How do I implement this code in our culture?” A Pacific Northwestern culture which values the individual and not the household as the basic building block of society extending rights and privileges on an egalitarian basis, and in which even the word slavery is anathema.
To attempt an answer to the question of how to apply this teaching to my present context of an Evangelical Quaker setting, I will begin by examining the social and spiritual context of the household code in Colossians. I will then examine a few similarities and differences between the household code in Colossians and other contemporary household codes, paying attention to some of the possible implications for the Colossians of those similarities and differences. A brief examination of the key cultural differences of individualism, egalitarianism, and abolitionism will then lead into a final examination of what it may look like in the Quaker context for the household code of Colossians 3:18-4:1 to be lived out under the Lordship of Christ.
The Colossian Context
Colossae was a city in decline at the time of Paul. Even though Colossae sat along an important trade route, the city of Laodicea had a much more strategic location and Colossae became more of a rest stop than a destination for trade. The people of Colossae were mostly Phrygian and Greek with a significant Jewish population. There were more than 10,000 Jews in the Lycus river valley region at the time. First century Colossae was a cosmopolitan city in which different cultures interacted on a daily basis. This mixture, of course, led to some frictions especially since the Jews (for reasons of religious purity) did not participate in many of the social events used to promote civic unity in the Roman Empire. Since Christianity still considered itself to be following the YHWH of the Bible, there was some confusion and friction directed towards the church as well.
The church at Colossae, though not directly evangelized by Paul, was most likely formed during the time Paul was directing missionary efforts throughout Asia Minor from Ephesus. It is by inference from the text of Colossians that leads us to theorize Epaphras (a native of Colossae) as the planter of the Colossian church. The structure of the church very much mirrored that of civil society. F.F. Bruce tells us: “As in society in general, so in the Christian community the household appears to have been the base unit or the cell.” The household of the Greco-Roman world was much wider in scope than what modern Western society considers the norm. While a household can consist of a single individual in the United States, the typical household in the first-century included a head of the household, typically male, under whose authority was the spouse (if married), children, other relatives, and slaves. It is important to emphasize that the term paterfamilias was typically used as a reference to these male authorities not primarily as a family title. Richard P. Saller writes in his word study on the legal and literary evidences of the usage of the term paterfamilias: “the most common meaning of pater familias is ‘estate owner’ without reference to familial relations.” This implies a legal power over the members of the household completely disconnected from any form of familial relationship that is unthinkable in our egalitarian culture, but must be acknowledged as we grapple with the meaning of the Colossians household code.
There were many household codes at the time of Paul’s writings. These codes ranged from Stoic philosophical treatises on household management to Hellenistic Jewish “Noachian Laws” for non-Jews to travelling philosophers’ popularization of more formal philosophical works. The purpose of the various codes was to engender order within the household or oikos which made up the building blocks of the state or polis. The target audience for these contemporary codes was the paterfamilias as a way of both bolstering authority and, in many cases, to engender an ethical dialogue around the responsibilities towards those under authority. Standhartinger quotes an example of an ethical corrective from the Ps.-Charondas text:
62.30 Every man should love his wife who lawfully belongs to him and beget children with her. He should not waste his seed on any other. He may not squander or mistreat that which is his natural and lawful glory. For nature produces seed for bearing children and not for licentiousness.
Since these codes were very much a part of Greco-Roman society and the dialogue between heads of households, the form of the household code finding its way into the writings of the early church should come as no surprise to us. The Colossian household code forms an ethical teaching fully in line with the main theme of Colossians: Jesus is Lord/Master over everyone, everything, and every area of life.
The various household codes had many commonalities since their main purpose was to promote orderly and ethical living within the structure of the society. The codes also had many differences of content and direction and by no means were unified in the behaviors they advocated. It is important to note none of the household codes questioned the societal structure. The order of society was a given and was beyond question in Greco-Roman society. The question the philosophical household codes were attempting to answer was how to live ethically as an “estate manager” in a way promoting order within the estate and the long-term health of the society. There is significant disagreement among scholars about whether the household code in Colossians challenges the structure of the society to which it is addressed. Margaret MacDonald points out the Colossians code did not “abolish slavery, but created a vision where slave and free were presented as living harmoniously while united by the same moral standards.” I disagree with her conclusion of living in harmonious unity not challenging the societal order, because this approach does not take into account the larger context of the letter to the Colossians. By promoting the submission of both slave and master to the rule of Christ as master and the earlier use of “slave of Christ” language to speak of community leaders, “This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant. [(1) Gk slave] He is a faithful minister of Christ,” (Colossians 1:7a NRSV) the dynamics of what it means to have power or authority are challenged. This ethical challenge then becomes understandable because it is couched in a cultural format the hearers would have been familiar with. In addition to these underlying ethical differences, Angela Standhartinger points out a key difference between other household codes and the household code of Colossians is one of universal address vs. specific address. The written forms of the first-century codes “are tracts that concern the proper method of maintaining a household; they are not paraenesis directed at particular groups which participate in the oikos.” The implication of this difference is the Colossians code being targeted specifically at the operation of a Christian oikos within a society it is no longer allied with. The values of the Christian oikos, while being framed in a common cultural idiom, are significantly different because the Christians are no longer under the polis of Caesar but are instead slaves under the paterfamilias Christ in the polis of God.
To understand the implications of the household code as heard by the Colossians, we must first look at what preceded the code in the letter. One of the interesting themes we find throughout the letters of the New Testament is the idea of Christians in authority describing themselves as slaves of Christ. This attitude pervades Paul’s writings (Col 1:10, 13-20) and Paul calls himself, and other leaders’ slaves (Col 1:7, 23, 25) in the first chapter of the letter to the Colossians and describes the sufferings (Col 1:20, 24) of Jesus as the basis for Lordship (Col 1:10, 13-20) of the church. In the end of the first and beginning of the second chapters, Paul connects his struggle and toil with his call to leadership under Christ. In other words Paul is saying mature leadership in the church is slavery to the gospel of the Mastership of the suffering slave Jesus Christ. Paul continues the second chapter with a call to submit to the knowledge and understandings given through Christ and not the traditions and philosophies of the culture. Through our process of demonstrated faith we become one with Christ who has dethroned the rulers and authorities of the world and who calls us to be slaves to his mind. In Christ’s mind we are not to concern ourselves with regulations of individual personal control but with following the Lordship of our Master for the good of the body of the church.
The third chapter of Colossians begins with the injunction to align our minds with the things above with Christ, reminding us we have died to the glories of this world and our lives are within the headship of Christ. Under his headship we are dead to the ways of the world: the lusts, impurities, passions, and coveting which lead us to serve other masters. Paul then begins teaching what all members’ submission to the head of the body, Christ, looks like in the life of the community. Paul restates that we are to get rid of “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another,” (Col 3:8-9a) and to be new creatures with eyes searching out the image of God in others. In the renewed image of the creator “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (Col 3:11b) Paul continues addressing the entire community in what is to underlie their actions by instructing the Colossians in the manner Christ has called them: to be slaves of each other. The household code that follows cannot be understood outside of the context of the preceding verses.
Verse seventeen transitions us into, and sets the context for, the household code: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”(Col 3:17) The Greek word for name (onoma) implies delegated authority, and this section may also be understood as “do everything under the authority of the Lord Jesus.” Paul then uses a cultural form familiar to the heads of households to teach “This is what it means for you to live in the household of your master Jesus Christ.” It must have come as a bit of a shock for Paul to begin by addressing wives rather than the male authority figure. Suzanne Henderson points out Paul honoring the “weaker” persons in relationships in each of the pairings by addressing them first: wives submit then husbands love, children obey then fathers do not incite to anger and finally slaves serve as though their service is to God and masters are to be just, fair and remember they have a master in heaven. In the choice of order and the calls Paul places on the paterfamilias he is reminding the community of Colossae and us the way we exercise authority and the ways we respond to authority must find their source in our master Jesus.
How Do We Apply First-Century Codes Now?
The three major cultural obstacles to applying the household codes directly into our time and place are individualism, egalitarianism, and the anathema of the language of slavery. These thought patterns affect both the conscious and unconscious pre-suppositions we bring to the task of understanding how to carry this text forward into Quaker practice. As Christians, the Evangelical Quakers have emphasized every person’s possibility of direct relationship with Christ. The understanding of everyone’s access to Christ led to an egalitarianism that has been part of the Quaker makeup since its very beginning. One of the most thorough biblical justifications for women’s leadership in the church was written by Margaret Fell in 1666. Quaker egalitarianism then led to its divestiture of slaves and the founding of the Abolitionist movement in North America and England.
Western individualism is a lens very difficult to set aside. In order for us to grasp the text well it is important for us to remember that Colossians was not addressed to individuals who acted as free agents, but to the body of believers in Colossae who were under the agency of Christ in the community of the church. In most conversations I have had when discussing how to apply the Bible, the question asked is “How does this apply to me?” I would propose the Colossian culture asked a slightly different question: “How does this apply to us?” In seeking to apply scriptures strictly on a personal level we lose sight of our connection to others and risk interpreting the text in self-serving ways. Individualism at its best however promotes honest self-examination and an understanding of how valuable each individual is. As we heighten the value of individual self-direction we do become removed from the culture of ancient Colossae and in looking for ways to apply the text must let the scripture illumine the best and worst of our individualistic outlook.
The egalitarianism in Quaker tradition stems from an attempt to fully live into the teaching of an earlier part of Colossians 3: “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” Since every renewed person has access to Christ, how could it be possible to have status differentiations based on minor external circumstances like race or gender? In its Faith and Practice the Northwest Yearly Meeting affirms “Because all persons have equal value and are created in the image of God, we must treat others with respect and dignity, regardless of human measures of merit or value.” While we take this perspective for granted, it is important to understand that Paul’s contention of all being equal before God was shocking to the sensibilities of his time and could not be lived out fully in the culture as it was. If we are honest it still isn’t lived out, but it is not as shocking.
In North American society the word “slavery” connotes the kidnapping of Africans for the purposes of forced labor. Roman slavery was a harsh life, but it does not have the same impact on us who live with the effects of the more recent enslavement of Africans. While the Quakers were in the forefront of the abolition movement, we also held slaves and needed a prophetic voice to call us to live into our egalitarian theology. It is not possible in our context to speak positively of slavery, even slavery to Christ, because of our guilt over the mistreatment of our brothers and sisters. In English scripture translation we have chosen to translate the word slave as servant, while this may not always do justice to the text, we must acknowledge the barriers that past sin can put in bringing concepts into the present.
Keeping in mind the extreme differences of culture, we can now formulate some queries about applying this text. The base query from which any application flows is about what the Lordship of Christ looks like in our lives.
- Are my relationships characterized by my submission to Christ’s authority?
- If I am married do I lay aside my preferences in order to build up my spouse?
- If I am a child do I submit to the loving authority of my parents?
- If I have children am I modeling the grace Christ has shown me and building them up in the use of their spiritual gifts or am I putting too heavy a burden on them?
- If I am an employee am I doing my job as if all I did was for Christ or am I gaming the system and trying to get away with doing as little as possible for my paycheck?
- If I am an employer am I ensuring my employees are justly compensated and am I interacting with them in ways that affirm their callings or am I using authoritarian means to fill my pockets at the expense of my employees’ well-being?
Paul’s intent is not to set up another law for us to follow, but to make us examine our daily lives to discern the degree of our conformity to the example of Christ for the glory of God and the building up of the family of God.
 Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 599.
 Peter T. O’Brien, “Colossians, Letter to the,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 147.
 F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984), 161.
 Richard P. Saller, “Pater Familias, Mater Familias, and the Gendered Semantics of the Roman Household,” Classical Philology 94, no. 2 (April 1999): 182.
 O’Brien, Peter T, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. Ralph P. Martin, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker, Colossians, Philemon (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982), 215-217.
 Joannes Stobaeus, Anthology (Stobi: , early to mid 5th century C.E), Ps.-Charondas 62.30; quoted in Angela Standhartinger and Brian McNeil, The Origin and Intention of the Household Code in the Letter to the Colossians, vol. 79 (: September, 2000), 121.
 This point is disputed by some scholars who theorize that the household code is a later addition. I will expand on how the household code connects with the context of the larger writing of Colossians later in this paper.
 Margaret Y. MacDonald, “Slavery, Sexuality and House Churches: A Reassessment of Colossians 3.18–4.1 in Light of New Research on the Roman Family,” New Testament Studies, no. 53 (2007): 113.
 Bible Works 7.0.012g, BibleWorks, LLC, Norfolk, VA, 2006. Text in brackets is from the verse notes. All scripture referencesw are from the NRSV unless noted otherwise.
 Angela Standhartinger and Brian McNeil, “The Origin and Intention of the Household Code in the Letter to the Colossians,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, no. 79 (September 2000): 118.
 Bible Works 7.0.012g, BibleWorks, LLC, Norfolk, VA, 2006.
 Ibid. Strong’s Data for “in the name” <3686>
 Suzanne Watts Henderson, “Taking liberties with the text: the Colossians household code as hermeneutical paradigm,” Interpretation 60, no. 4 (October 2006): 424.
 Ibid. 425
 Womens Speaking Justified, Proved and Allowed of by the Scriptures, All such as speak by the Spirit and Power of the Lord JESUS. And how WOMEN were the first that preached the Tidings of the Resurrection of JESUS, and were sent by Christ’s Own Command, before He ascended to the Father, John 20. 17 http://dqc.esr.earlham.edu:8080 This is a database that does not permit direct links.
 Colossians 3:11 NRSV, Bible Works 7.0.012g, BibleWorks, LLC, Norfolk, VA, 2006.
 Faith and Practice Revision Committee of the Nortwest Yearly Meeting of Friends Church, Faith and Practice A Book of Christian Discipline (Newberg, OR: privately printed, 2009), 4, pdf http://nwfriends.org/wp-content/uploads/2007/04/Faith-and-Practice-2009.pdf. (accessed 4/3/2011).
Bible Works 7.0.012g. BibleWorks, LLC, Norfolk, VA, 2006.
Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.
Bruce, F. F. The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984.
Faith and Practice Revision Committee of the Nortwest Yearly Meeting of Friends Church. Faith and Practice A Book of Christian Discipline. Newberg, OR: privately printed, 2009. pdf, http://nwfriends.org/wp-content/uploads/2007/04/Faith-and-Practice-2009.pdf. (accessed 4/3/2011).
Henderson, Suzanne Watts. “Taking liberties with the text: the Colossians household code as hermeneutical paradigm.” Interpretation 60, no. 4 (October 2006): 420-432.
MacDonald, Margaret Y. “Slavery, Sexuality and House Churches: A Reassessment of Colossians 3.18–4.1 in Light of New Research on the Roman Family.” New Testament Studies, no. 53 (2007): 94-113.
O’Brien, Peter T. Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin and Daniel G. Reid. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
O’Brien, Peter T. Word Biblical Commentary. Edited by Ralph P. Martin, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker. Colossians, Philemon. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982.
Saller, Richard P. “Pater Familias, Mater Familias, and the Gendered Semantics of the Roman Household.” Classical Philology 94, no. 2 (April 1999): 182-197.
Standhartinger, Angela, and Brian McNeil. “The Origin and Intention of the Household Code in the Letter to the Colossians.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, no. 79 (September 2000): 117-130.
Stobaeus, Joannes. Anthology. Stobi, early to mid 5th century C.E., Ps.-Charondas 62.30. Quoted in Angela Standhartinger and Brian McNeil, The Origin and Intention of the Household Code in the Letter to the Colossians, vol. 79, : September, 2000, 117-130.
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