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Aristotle and the Household Codes


One of the puzzles about the ending of some of the letters in the New Testament is knowing how to read the ‘household management codes’ in Ephesians 5:21-6:9, Colossians 3:12-4:6 and 1 Peter 2:11-3:22. Most of Paul’s letters, once the theological argument is done, have specific instructions on practical living  (‘the indicative followed by the imperative’), but in these examples there appears to be a structured engagement with domestic issues.

The significance of these ‘codes’ has been recognised as far back as Luther, who included a similar Haustafel in his Smaller Catechism. But there has been continuing debate about how these codes in theNew Testament related to equivalent household codes in first-century, whether they owe more to Graeco-Roman ideas or Jewish ones, and what is the ethical trajectory that they set up.

For the modern reader, one of the most striking things about the household codes is how socially conservative they appear to be. After Paul’s declaration that ‘In Christ there is no slave or free…’ (Gal 3.28) and that wives exercise authority over their husbands’ bodies in marital sexual relations (1 Cor 7.4), the apparent preservation of the existing social order looks very much like a loss of nerve. Similarly, Peter’s radical extension of the promises to God’s Old Testament people to be made a ‘kingdom of priests’ (1 Peter 2.9) to the mixed group of Jew and Gentile strikes a strange contrast with the affirmation of social order mixed in with it.

But as Peter Enns notes, we cannot read any passage of Scripture in isolation from its historical context; Jesus wants us to take historical criticism seriously. This is not to suggest that in some way the text of Scripture is inadequate to tell us truth; it is making a basic observation about how words communicate. Any word or passage removed from its historical, social and cultural context loses its ability to carry meaning. Taking this to be true of Scripture (as it is of all human communication) is to note that, in using human words to communicate, God the Trinity is choosing to be subject to the same kind of limitation inherent in God’s self-expression as the Word made flesh.

Enns cites Mark Smith, who comments suggestively:

In our study of the Scriptures, God awaits both within and without, and perhaps notably in the encounter between the two [my emphasis]. This viewpoint, it seems to me, is hardly a modern or secular one. It informs Israel’s earliest glimpses of God, as identified by historical criticism.

In relation to the household codes, then, we need to put them alongside their contemporary parallels. Perhaps the most influential of these was that written by Aristotle in his Politics. It is worth a read:

Of household management we have seen that there are three parts–one is the rule of a master over slaves, which has been discussed already, another of a father, and the third of a husband. A husband and father, we saw, rules over wife and children, both free, but the rule differs, the rule over his children being a royal, over his wife a constitutional rule. For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the elder and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature. But in most constitutional states the citizens rule and are ruled by turns, for the idea of a constitutional state implies that the natures of the citizens are equal, and do not differ at all. Nevertheless, when one rules and the other is ruled we endeavor to create a difference of outward forms and names and titles of respect, which may be illustrated by the saying of Amasis about his foot-pan. The relation of the male to the female is of this kind, but there the inequality is permanent. The rule of a father over his children is royal, for he rules by virtue both of love and of the respect due to age, exercising a kind of royal power. And therefore Homer has appropriately called Zeus ‘father of Gods and men,’ because he is the king of them all. For a king is the natural superior of his subjects, but he should be of the same kin or kind with them, and such is the relation of elder and younger, of father and son. (Politics, Book 1, XII)

Now, it is obvious that the same principle applies generally, and therefore almost all things rule and are ruled according to nature. But the kind of rule differs; the freeman rules over the slave after another manner from that in which the male rules over the female, or the man over the child; although the parts of the soul are present in an of them, they are present in different degrees. For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature. So it must necessarily be supposed to be with the moral virtues also; all should partake of them, but only in such manner and degree as is required by each for the fulfillment of his duty. Hence the ruler ought to have moral virtue in perfection, for his function, taken absolutely, demands a master artificer, and rational principle is such an artificer; the subjects, oil the other hand, require only that measure of virtue which is proper to each of them. Clearly, then, moral virtue belongs to all of them; but the temperance of a man and of a woman, or the courage and justice of a man and of a woman, are not, as Socrates maintained, the same; the courage of a man is shown in commanding, of a woman in obeying. And this holds of all other virtues, as will be more clearly seen if we look at them in detail, for those who say generally that virtue consists in a good disposition of the soul, or in doing rightly, or the like, only deceive themselves. Far better than such definitions is their mode of speaking, who, like Gorgias, enumerate the virtues. All classes must be deemed to have their special attributes; as the poet says of women,

Silence is a woman’s glory,

but this is not equally the glory of man. (from Politics, Book 1, XIII)

Before I offer my comments, consider your own. What strikes you about Aristotle’s view, and in particular how it contrasts with Paul?

Done that?

Then here are my observations. First, it is notable that Aristotle sees the function of men ‘ruling’ over women as part of their nature—this is the way that men and women has been made, so it is nonnegotiable. Second, the nature of the rule over women, men and slaves varies in its qualities, but the three ‘rules’ are part and parcel of a single ordering of things. Thirdly, this ‘rule’ is an expression of a fundamental inequality between the different groups. It is also interesting to note that Aristotle does not make much use of the language of ‘head[ship]’, and not at all in connection with the activity of ruling. This is in line with Philip Payne’s argument in his book Man and Woman: One in Christ that ‘head’ is associated with prominence, or with life-giving, and not with ‘ruling’ or authority in Greek and Roman culture.

By contrast, in the household codes, it is notable that the language of ‘ruling’ is never used, and (as I have pointed out elsewhere) the commands in the NT never include the injunction on women to ‘obey’ their husbands, though slaves and children are to ‘obey’. This both sets the marital relationship apart from the other two (a contrast to Aristotle) and locates this relationship in the command to mutual ‘submission’ of all to others within the body of Christ.

Yesterday, I went to a paper which argued that we need to distinguish between the different codes, and look at their relationship with the ‘undisputed’ Pauline letters and the Pastorals. As is common in academic circles, the speaker assumed that Corinthians, Romans, and Galatians were written by Paul, but that Colossians, Ephesians, and the Pastorals were not. She then argued that Colossians and the Pastorals reflected the principles of Aristotle, but that Ephesians had an egalitarian approach which reflected Paul’s genuine teaching, for example in 1 Corinthians 7.4, where husband and wife exercise mutual authority over each other’s bodies. Such a division is unconvincing; properly understood, I think that the Pauline writings are actually consistent. In Colossians, we see exactly the gender blind encouragement to mutual teaching that we find elsewhere:

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. (Col 3.16)

A different approach is that of Tim Gombis, who has argued in a paper in the Journal of the Evangelical Theology Society, that the New Testament household codes do focus on relationships in the new humanity which is created in Christ, but that they retain a kind of Aristotelian hierarchy. But when you read Aristotle, then you can see that this cannot be possible. Paul (and Peter) are not in a position to propose that Christians in the first century simply disregard their cultural context and form some sort of detached communal life. Or rather, their readers are not in a position to do this. They have to work out what this radical new understanding means lived out in their current context.

However, the key thing to note is that the  NT household codes fundamentally undermine Aristotle’s rationale for such hierarchy in relationships.

Ben Witherington, in his commentary on Ephesians, comments that Eph 5 cannot be used to ‘repristinize’ the idea of hierarchy in domestic relationships. What he means by this is that you cannot simple ‘clean up’ Aristotle, remove the bits you don’t like, but leave the hierarchical conclusion intact. The fundamental understanding of humanity has changed. If Paul agreed with Aristotle about hierarchy, it would have been impossible for him to write 1 Cor 7.4. Instead, he offers a radical alternative of an egalitarian community, where we serve one another not out of being placed in a particular position in a hierarchy because of our nature, but where we are servants of one another out of reverence for Christ. So neither Paul nor Peter ‘lose their nerve’; when we read these texts against their historical background, we can begin to see how radical they actually are.

For a slight variation on this approach, see Rachel Held Evans’ analysis on her blog.

Additional note

You can read some more about Aristotle’s view of women at the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Additionally, the Wikipedia article on Aristotle’s views on women is quite helpful.

Wikipedia also has an article on the household codes.


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8 Responses to Aristotle and the Household Codes

  1. Richard Moy November 24, 2013 at 7:05 pm #

    Did this originally have a final paragraph / conclusion that sums it all up for skip reading noddies like me!

    Did Paul lose his nerve… And the conclusion is…

  2. Ian Paul November 24, 2013 at 9:02 pm #

    Well, there are two responses to this question. The first is…don’t do the skip reading! I think it is really worth reading Aristotle for yourself and feeling the impact of it.

    BUT because I am nice and you are a friend…I have reworded the end, fleshed it out a bit, and even put the summary sentence in bold for you so you can pick it out without reading anything else!

  3. Philip Whitehead November 25, 2013 at 1:55 pm #

    It’s absolutely fascinating to read the passage from Aristotle as context for Paul’s ‘household codes’. I suppose the counterargument to your claim that Paul undermines the rationale of Aristotle’s hierarchy, and so we cannot use the residual hierarchy in Pauline ‘household codes’ to promote any kind of hierarchy in contemporary households (complementarianism?), would be that Paul could be working with a different rationale for hierarchy. I can see how Paul explodes Aristotelean ways of figuring domestic relationships, and I agree that is something he would see the gospel as challenging. It’s easy to see Paul as a ‘social conservative’ who might fail (for whatever reason) to push this refiguration all the way to egalitarianism. But I do wonder if that’s the only way to see it; another possibility is that Paul has a different rationale for hierarchy – either one sourced from Judaism, or a specifically Christian one (based on Jesus’ submission to the Father, perhaps?).

  4. Ian Paul November 25, 2013 at 7:30 pm #

    thanks, Philip. Several things to say in response. First, most people read the HC with their own culture as the template. For people in the West, this makes the HC look very conservative. But when you read the historical context as a template, then it looks very radical. I think this is the problem most ordinary readers have.

  5. Ian Paul November 25, 2013 at 7:30 pm #

    Secondly, yes, Paul could be proposing a hierarchy based on the subordination of the son…except that he singularly fails to mention this. The reason he gives for submission is not the relation of the son to the father, but our submission to Christ, something we are all bound to. In fact, in clear contrast to aristotle, Paul applies to men and women separately terms which elsewhere (and even in the immediate context) he applies to both men and women together. Loving others as Christ loves us is something enjoined on the whole community, as is submission of one to another. I think the only plausible way of understanding this is NOT that we have *different* roles, but that different groups need reminding of particular aspects of these general commands.

  6. Ian Paul November 25, 2013 at 11:37 pm #

    Thirdly, I am not persuaded by Gombis’ argument, because I don’t think he offers a clear case for seeing Paul as reinstituting hierarchy having undermined all Aristotle’s reasons for having it in the first place.

  7. Judy January 16, 2014 at 12:44 pm #

    Hi Ian, I’m just interested to hear your thoughts on this comment in your blog: By contrast, in the household codes, it is notable that the language of ‘ruling’ is never used, and (as I have pointed out elsewhere) the commands in the NT never include the injunction on women to ‘obey’ their husbands, though slaves and children are to ‘obey’

    I’m just interested in what you make of 1 Peter 3:5-6 where it mentions Sarah obeying Abraham, and some good exegesis. I couldn’t see where this was mentioned elsewhere sorry. I’d be interested in your comments.

    Thank you very much for your time.


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