Would you consider yourself naturally drawn to structure and order in your personal life, career, family, or church? Or would you think of yourself as more attracted to a life that doesn’t seem so formalized and rigid?

I think we all have preferences one way or the other. These depend in part on how God has chosen to wire us and what type of environment we grew up in. Structure, though, is impossible to avoid. It is woven into the very fabric of creation and into how relationships work together. This is true in society, the household, and even in the church.

As the gospel was bearing fruit and spreading rapidly through the whole world (Col. 1:6), Paul instructed new Christians to demonstrate proper conduct in their respective roles. These are commonly referred to as “household codes.” Though similar types of exhortations existed in the ancient world, Paul adopts these relationships and demonstrates how the gospel should transform them from a more traditional understanding. Let’s see how this looks in Ephesians 5:21-6:9 with these notes from the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (NIV).

Household Codes

5:21–6:9 Starting at least as early as the fourth-century BC Greek philosopher Aristotle, many thinkers used “household codes” to instruct the male heads of elite homes how to rule their household, specifically their wives, minor children and slaves. (This was the sequence in which Aristotle addressed them.) Male householders ruled these subordinates in different ways; boys, in particular, achieved a different status when they entered manhood.

Because of past incidents, Romans were suspicious that eastern cults (such as the cult of Dionysus, and more recently Judaism and the cult of Isis) undermined Roman family values. Some of these groups therefore emphasized that they did not undermine such values.

Paul, writing from Roman custody, is well aware of Roman suspicions. His instructions offer a lifestyle apologetic, upholding the best in traditional ancient values. At the same time, he adapts these codes. Whereas household codes normally instructed the male householder how to rule, Paul begins and ends with mutual submission (5:21; 6:9), calls for gentleness with children (6:4), and instructs husbands not how to rule their wives but how to love them sacrificially (5:25).

Mutual Submission

5:21 Submit to one another. Household codes instructed male heads of households how to rule wives, children and slaves; while continuing to uphold the call for subordinates to submit, Paul here goes beyond traditional expectations in calling for mutual submission (cf. general Christian servanthood to one another in Mk 10:42–45; Jn 13:14–15; Gal 5:13). This places Paul among the small proportion of ancient thinkers who valued mutual concern and sensitivity. Although Paul specifies only the husband’s love (v. 25), he also values mutual love (4:32–5:2); in the same way, although specifying the wife’s submission in v. 22, he grounds it grammatically in the mutual submission of v. 21.

Wives and Husbands

5:22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands. Paul maintains the conventional expectation that wives should submit, but grounds it in more specifically Christian submission (in Greek, the verb “submit” is actually borrowed from v. 21). It should go without saying that this is a general principle not applicable to situations of abuse or participation in sin (cf. e.g., 1Sa 25:18–19; Ac 5:2).

5:25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ. Traditional household codes instructed male heads of households how to rule; Paul instructs husbands here only how to love self-sacrificially (vv. 25–31). Thus, although Paul upholds some values in his culture (see note on 5:21–6:9), he also goes beyond them (here; see note on v. 21).

5:26 to make her holy … washing with water through the word. Paul might cite ancient customs here. Some relate the “washing” to the bride’s normal washing before being perfumed, anointed and arrayed in wedding clothes in preparation for the wedding. Perhaps relevant to “make her holy,” later Jewish teachers spoke of betrothal as “the sanctification of the bride,” meaning setting her apart for her husband.

5:28 husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. Whereas v. 23 invited the wife to view her husband as “head,” perhaps in the sense of authority (v. 22; see note on 1Co 11:3,4), Paul defines headship for the husband in terms of loving and caring for his wife as he would for his own body.

5:30 members of his body. On being members of Jesus’ body (also in 4:4), see note on Ro 12:4–5. Here, however, Paul also connects the image to Scripture (v. 31; cf. also 1Co 6:17).

5:31 become one flesh. Paul can speak of the wife in terms of the husband’s body in vv. 28–30 because of “one flesh” in Ge 2:24, where the language entails a new family unit. Paul’s point here is the unity of husband and wife (cf. 1Co 7:4).

5:33 love … respect. Speakers and writers often concluded material with a summary of what they had stated. Here Paul sums up his main point in vv. 22–32 in terms of husbands loving and wives respecting.

Children and Fathers

6:1 Children, obey your parents. Household codes (see note on 5:21–6:9) instructed fathers (see note on v. 4) how to govern their minor children, but did not normally address the children themselves. Nevertheless, Jewish and Greco-Roman writers unanimously agreed that children needed to honor their parents, and, at least till they grew up, needed to obey them as well. Many Jewish teachers considered the Biblical injunction to honor parents (Ex 20:12; Dt 5:16) the greatest commandment. They also felt this meant not shaming them by one’s behavior (cf. Dt 21:18–21). It should go without saying that obedience to parents is a general principle not applicable to participation in sin (cf., e.g., Nu 26:9–11; 1Sa 19:11; 20:32).

6:4 Fathers, do not exasperate your children. Household codes instructed fathers how to govern their minor children. Fathers were responsible for their children’s education, but this could include beatings (both from the father and from teachers). A minority of teachers, however, warned against beatings and excessive discipline, and Paul here would likely agree. exasperate. May suggest deliberate provocation. bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. Certainly Paul would also share the unanimous sentiments of ancient Jews, Christians and Egyptians against the widespread Greek practices of abandoning babies, aborting them in the womb, or, sometimes when malformed, killing them. Abandoned babies who were not retrieved by others — usually to be reared as slaves — were often eaten by vultures or dogs.

Slaves and Masters

6:5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters. Given Christians’ tenuous social situation (cf. 1Ti 5:14; 6:1), Paul urges Christian slaves, like wives (see Eph 5:22–24), to submit to the head of the household as if to Christ.

6:7 Serve wholeheartedly. The slaveholding class had various stereotypes of slaves, e.g., that they were lazy, especially when no one was looking. In Roman custody, Paul was in no position to liberate slaves physically, and he encourages hard work; yet he also gives slaves a new hope and a different motive for their labor.

6:9 masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Paul does invite those in subordinate positions in his culture, including wives and slaves, normally to submit to those in higher positions, but he goes beyond the culture by enjoining mutual submission (5:21) — all of Christ’s followers must be servants (Mk 10:43–45). Aristotle complained about those who believed that slaves were in theory their masters’ spiritual equals. Paul goes so far as to suggest that in practice masters treat their slaves in the same way — i.e., serve them (see vv. 5–8). No one in Paul’s day was suggesting slavery be abolished, so there was no reason to address it in a series of practical instructions. If the question had been put to Paul, however, v. 9 clearly points more in the direction of its abolitionist interpreters than those who quoted vv. 5–8 out of context to support slavery.

The NIV Cultural Background Study Bible

This is one example of how the gospel transforms people, the roles they have in their relationships, and ultimately society as a whole. The NIV Cultural Background Study Bible is also available in the NKJV and NRSV translation. Check out the store for more information on this amazing resource!

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