The first time I heard about the Codes was after I'd begun questioning some of the presuppostions of a patriarchal interpretation of Scripture. I was shocked and, admittedly, felt I'd been lied to. Why are so many unaware of what seems to be a rather important "cultural norm" during the time the Epistles were penned?
When it comes to interpreting the instructions to wives, slaves and children in Ephesians and Colossians, the Household Codes are an incredibly important piece of background information. The Codes don't necessarily prove or disprove any side's position, but I'd say they are a necessary parcel of cultural information for all who study these areas, in the same way that it's helpful to know what leprousy is in order to better understand why it was meaningful for Jesus to heal lepers (much less touch them).
Michael Kruse of Kruse Kronicle writes,
Writing instructions for the proper household management was a common
practice of Greek social philosophers. These “household codes” usually
instructed the father in the household to “rule” over his household wisely.
Instructions were not given to the wife, children, and slaves. The
husband/father/master was exhorted to bring his wife, children and slaves into
submission as his duty in preserving the social order. (1)
The Roman household (familia) structure was very similar to the Greek
household structure. The ruler of the Roman household was called the
paterfamilias. His wife, children and slaves were subject to him until his
death. It is important to understand that the household code in Ephesians is not
referring to three separate sets of relationships. (husband and wife, father and
children, master and slaves) It is referring to the relationship of one person,
the paterfamilias, to the rest of the household. (2)
[Molly adds: Please read the full post (very recommended) here, an insightful and informative article on the Household Codes and how understanding them helps us understand what Paul may have been communicating to his audience. Peter Kirk also comments on this subject and provides more articles Kruse has written on the Household Codes here.
Primal Subversion muses here on the impact the Household Code must have on the way we view Ephesians and Colossians, and I appreciate their questions. Why do we assume that Paul was being subversive about slavery, but yet making foundational arguments for the continuation of patriarchy? Isn't that an inconsistant hermeneutic?
Whatever the case, the Household Code needs to be addressed by both complementarian and egalitarians alike. It is an important piece of the puzzle, particularly if our goal is to understand the words as they would have been read by the original recipients of the letters, as that probably remains our best shot for obtaining an accurate interpretation.
The complementarian handbook, "Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood," responds to the Household Codes thusly (1995, p.204):
"As for the "household codes," there were lists of expected behavior for
husbands and wives, parents and children, and servants and masters in the
ancient world, but close comparison of ancient lists with those in the New
Testament shows very few exact parallels except that these various
groups are named. The form (if the New Testament authors were even
conscious of using such a form) was extensively "Christianized," so that few
similarities remain. And at any rate, what we have in Scripture now is the
morally binding authority of God's own words. If we say that no unique
authority or leadership for husbands in marriage was the ideal, but that Peter
gave in to cultural expectations and failed to teach that ideal, this would
seem to impugn Peter's courage and integrety, because it implies that Peter (and
Paul, too!) to command Christians to follow a sinful, sub-Christian pattern of
behavior in their homes---a most unlikely course of action for those accustomed
to running against the tide! Moreover, it implies that God would command
Christians to follow a sinful pattern of marriage just to attract unbelievers to
the gospel--something inconsistent with God's won pattern of telling His people
to use morally righteous means to achieve righteous ends. We may
conclude that both of these attempts to avoid the force of Peter's directions
today fail to be persuasive.
A few immediate questions popped into my mind as I read this. If we follow the complementarian hermeneutic above, it appears we must conclude that Peter and Paul were advocating slavery as God's design for living in a fallen world. Why? Because we're now required, if we submit to the complementarian explanation, to believe that if slavery is not God's design, then Peter and Paul were cowards for not openly condemning slavery. I mean, the above argument declares that it is only godly to openly buck the tide, whereas only cowards are quietly subversive, doesn't it?
So we must conclude that slavery is currently blessed by God. After all, since it was written down and canonized, it's now a "morally binding authority," right?
While I am sure that many complementarians will not agree with this sort of argument, it appears the complementarian handbook is using the "morally binding authority" argument as a way of shutting down the validity of considering the Household Codes as a helpful means toward interpreting the meaning and intent of Paul's words.
Isn't the complementarian argument above essentially saying that we must take Scripture literally as a command-for-all-time, no matter what the context is (so who cares about a thing called Household Codes? It has no bearing on interpretation).
If not, what else is meant by the statement, "And at any rate, what we have in Scripture is now the morally binding authority...?"
I appreciate the complementarian attempt to address the Household Codes, but I think the Codes deserve more thought and attention than they've been given. (Perhaps that level of attention has been given to them, and I'm just not aware of it yet. If so, I'm very interested to hear a complementarian response).