The so-called household codes in Ephesians chapters 5–6 and Colossians chapters 3–4 are often used to support the idea of “gender roles.” These gender roles usually boil down to “the submission of all women to male-only authority.” But these codes were not primarily about gender roles or even gender. They were about power.
Household codes by pagan authors, such as Aristotle and Xenophon, were written in order to uphold the rights of the powerful and to keep the less powerful in their place. The power differential between husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves was thought to be necessary for social stability. The purpose of Paul’s codes in the New Testament, however, was somewhat different.
One of the aims of the Ephesians and Colossians household codes was to mitigate and minimise any harsh treatment by the people with greater power in Greco-Roman households—husbands, parents, and male and female slave owners—towards people with less power.
Despite this aim, the New Testament codes stopped short of calling for a social revolution. Christian teaching that blatantly undermined or openly subverted the social structures of the day could have been disastrous for the new Jesus movement. The Romans were suspicious of new groups, movements, and religions that threatened social stability. They did not tolerate what they saw as subversive teachers or disruptive groups.
Wives, Children, and Slaves
Unlike the household codes by pagan writers, in his codes, Paul first addressed the people with less power: the wives, children (including grown children), and slaves. And he framed the submission of wives and the obedience of children and slaves in Christian terms. For example, “Christ,” or the “Lord,” is referenced in Ephesians 5:22–24 cf. 5:21; 6:1–2, 5–8; and in Colossians 3:18, 20, 22–24. I believe Paul framed the codes as service to the Lord Jesus to make the household hierarchies bearable for Jesus-followers, among whom there should be, ideally, no hierarchies or castes. We are all siblings, brothers and sisters (cf. Phlm. 1:16).
Despite their lower position in the Roman world, these “weaker” people still had a degree of agency. Society afforded them less power, but Paul knew they had power over their consciences, their motives, and their devotion to the Lord Jesus. In fact, he gave the weakest group, the slaves, more instructions than either the wives or the children, especially in the household code in Colossians. Was Paul especially concerned with instructing the slaves or with encouraging them?
Husbands, Parents, and Slave Masters
After addressing the people with less power, Paul addressed the people with more: husbands, parents, and male and female slave masters. The senior male of a family, the paterfamilias, and slave masters could have considerable power over those below them in the highly stratified Roman world. (Note that a husband who was not the senior male in an extended household had less power than the paterfamilias but more power than his own wife.)
In some verses, Paul also framed the behaviour of husbands and slave masters in Christian terms, and he warned the husbands and masters, as well as the fathers, not to be harsh with their wives, children, and slaves. Paul wanted the more powerful people to treat their weaker counterparts well, and he said nothing to them about leading or exercising authority.
Paul’s instruction to Christian husbands in Colossians 3 was simply, “Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them” (Col. 3:19). His directive, “love your wives,” is elaborated on in Ephesians 5:25, 28–31, 33, and would have sounded extraordinary to most first-century couples. The self-sacrificing, yielding, and unifying love that Paul describes in Ephesians chapter 5 was not an expectation in typical first-century marriages. Far from it.
What may also have sounded extraordinary was Paul’s statement, “Masters, grant to your slaves what is “right, just” (dikaios) and “fair, equal” (isotēs), knowing that you too have a Master in heaven” (Col. 4:1; cf. Eph. 6:7–9). Paul wanted male and female masters to treat their slaves with justice and equity (cf. Phlm. 1:16).
The Ethics of Hierarchies in the Home
Paul did not comment on the ethics, the right or wrong, of the hierarchies in average Greco-Roman households, except in the case of children obeying their parents, their fathers and mothers. In Ephesians 6:1, Paul adds an affirming phrase: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is ‘right, just’ (dikaios)”(Eph. 6:1). In Colossians 3:20 he adds, “… for this pleases the Lord.” Furthermore, it is only in the case of children obeying their parents that Paul draws on Old Testament scripture for support (Eph. 6:2–3).
There is no verse in the Old Testament where God (or Moses) commands the submission of wives to their husbands, or the obedience of slaves to their masters, as a general principle. And Paul nowhere stated that wifely submission or slavery is right or just, or that it pleases the Lord.
The purpose of the household codes in Ephesians 5–6 and Colossians 3–4 was not to endorse or reinforce the power structures of Greco-Roman households. As mentioned, one purpose was to lessen the potential for abuse that often came with unequal power in ancient households. So Paul gave directions about love and equity because you do not abuse or mistreat the person you love, and you do not abuse or mistreat the person you treat with equity.
Furthermore, the household code in Ephesians follows on from teaching on Spirit-led living, which includes mutual participation in worship and mutual submission in relationships (Eph. 5:18–21; cf. Col. 3:16–17). Spirit-led people love generously and mutually submit to others; they are not mean or unkind to others.
The New Testament household codes were not primarily about gender or gender roles. After all, what part did gender play in the socially-sanctioned power of a female master over her male and female slaves? And what part does gender play in the obedience of a son or daughter towards their mother? The codes were about power and were a concession to the prevailing culture.
And let’s be clear: in regards to marriage, the most intimate of relationships, the directive for wives to be submissive to their own husbands did not, and does not, refer to male-female relations more broadly. Furthermore, one-sided submission from wives, which was the cultural norm in pagan Greco-Roman society, has little bearing in many marriages today where unequal power has been replaced with mutual submission and reciprocal love and respect. Paul would be pleased.
 Paul’s frequent beatings and imprisonments are testimony to Rome’s intolerance of people who taught new and potentially disruptive ideas. But Paul did not want to cause social disturbances unnecessarily. He did not want antisocial behaviour to give the church or the word of God a bad name (e.g., Tit. 2:5; 8, 9–10).
 Even today, grown children are expected to honour and obey their parents in some societies (cf. Mark 7:10).
 Note that nowhere in the New Testament in the original language, Koine Greek, are wives directly instructed to “obey” (hupakouō) their husbands. That is, there is no verse, correctly translated, that says something like, “Wives obey your husbands.”
In 1 Peter 3:5–6, Sarah’s obedience to Abraham and the way she addresses him are used as examples of wifely submission in the face of frightening situations: “You have become [Sarah’s] children when you do what is good and do not fear any intimidation” (1 Peter 3:6 CSB). The background to 1 Peter is Christians being slandered and persecuted by unbelievers, and this includes the wives in 1 Peter 3:1–6 who are married to men who have yet to be won for Christ. (We need to understand this context which is different from the context of Paul’s household codes.) Still, we know that Sarah did not always obey Abraham, and that Abraham obeyed Sarah on occasion. (More on this here.) Furthermore, when speaking to husbands, Peter begins with “in the same way” (1 Pet. 3:7) What precisely are husbands to do in the same way as their wives? I discuss this here.
 And also note that it was not unusual for a woman, usually a widow or divorcee, to be the leader, or materfamilias, of a household (e.g., Lydia in Acts 16:14ff). The household codes do not cover every kind of first-century household. Furthermore, the power of the paterfamilias was declining in the first century CE.
 Children are told to obey their parents (i.e. their mother and father), but only fathers are cautioned not to provoke and exasperate their children (Eph 6:4; Col. 3:21). Paul may have observed that fathers were more likely to do this than mothers. Fathers are further told that, instead of exasperating their children, they are to “nourish, nurture, rear” (ektrephō) their children “with the Lord’s kind of discipline and guidance” (Eph. 6:4 Complete Jewish Bible). (Ektrephō occurs only in Ephesians 5:29 and 6:4 in the New Testament.) This doesn’t mean that capable, educated mothers should not also rear and train their children, even their grown sons (e.g., Prov. 31:1).
 Paul includes “disobedient to parents” in his lists of vices in Romans 1:29–31 and in 2 Timothy 3:1–5. He does not mention or allude to the behaviour of wives or slaves in any of his vice lists.
There must have been an expectation of cooperation and loyalty from wives and from slaves in Old Testament times, but it was not legislated. The Old Testament regulations concerning wives and slaves were addressed to the husbands and slave owners and were mostly designed to minimise injustice. For example, Israelites were required to release their fellow Israelite slaves after six years of service (Exod. 21:1–11). And in Deuteronomy 23:15–16 NIV it says, “If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them.” The Old Testament frequently warns against oppressing the people with less power. Slavery in the Greco-Roman world of New Testament times had its own regulations and customs, and there was much less concern about oppressing the weak and disadvantaged.
© Margaret Mowczko 2019
All Rights Reserved
Postscript: February 17, 2023
Paul’s household codes make concessions for Greco-Roman culture. However, I’ve heard it suggested that Paul deliberately included some traditional Greco-Roman ideas to get his letters, which were written in prison, past “letter guards.” I don’t think this was the case. I don’t think Paul worded Ephesians 5-6 or Colossians 3–4 to get his letters past these presumed “letter guards.”
Paul doesn’t pull his punches, for example, in Ephesians 6:12: “our struggle … is against powers and authorities …” Or in other verses that sound potentially anti-imperial (e.g., Eph. 1:21–23; 3:14–15). The “kingdom” message in Colossians could be considered as even more anti-imperial.
The letters to the Ephesians and Colossians may have been written during his Roman imprisonment. And Paul had special privileges during this imprisonment.
“For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28:30–31 NIV).
These privileges were probably secured by some of his powerful friends.
We know that Paul had rich, powerful, and elite friends in Ephesus, Asiarchs (Acts 19:31). And he had relatively rich and powerful friends in Corinth, namely Phoebe (Rom. 16:1–2) and Erastus (Rom. 16:23). (Phoebe and Erastus also connections with Rome.) Paul knew other rich and powerful people too. In Athens, there was Dionysius and also Damaris (Acts 17:34). And in some Macedonian cities there were women from elite families (Acts 17:4, 12 cf. Acts 16:14).
As the scope of his ministry increased in terms of geography and the number of people he reached, Paul won over people from all echelons of society, including, more and more, people from the upper classes. Paul may have had such friends in Rome also, or perhaps he had letters of recommendation from such friends which he showed to officials when he was in Rome. These people seemed to have used their influence, and probably bribery too, to provide relatively comfortable conditions for Paul in Rome. The conditions of his imprisonment in Rome were comfortable enough that his ministry was not impeded too much.
When writing his household codes, Paul was concerned about potentially anti-Roman behaviour in Christian households in Asia Minor. He was aware that informants might give negative reports about the behaviour of Christians that might affect the reputation of the church. But I doubt his main concern was a “letter guard.” I believe Paul said what he wanted to say in his letters to the Ephesians and Colossians.
Nevertheless, writing from prison could be dangerous. Angela Standhartinger has written about this with Paul’s letters to the Philippians and to Philemon in mind, here. Most of Paul’s prison experiences were much worse than his experience in Rome recorded in Acts 28.
Wives, mothers, and female masters in the NT household codes
Ephesians 5:22–33 in a Nutshell
All my articles on Ephesians 5:22–33 are here.
What does submission “in everything” mean?
A Close Look at Colossians 3:18 (Wives)
A Close Look at Colossians 3:19 (Husbands)
A Weaker Vessel and Gender Justice (1 Peter 3:7)
Submission and Respect from Wives (1 Peter 3:1–6)
Ezer kenegdo does not mean “a helper subordinate to him”
“Equality” in Paul’s Letters
Tertullian on Equality and Mutuality in Marriage
The Early Church and Slavery
Wealthy Women in the First-Century Roman World and in the Church
Extra Honour for Underdogs (1 Cor. 12:12–31)
Household Codes by Carolyn Osiek (Bible Odyssey)