Abandoning Power

It’s interesting to read the books of the Bible and notice certain passages that mirror or resemble others. This happens with something known as the household codes (haustafeln). We find them in places like Ephesians 5:21-6:9, Colossians 3:18-4:1, and 1 Peter 2:18-3:7. What is even more interesting is to discover that these household codes were not unique to the New Testament. There are texts in Graeco-Roman literature that are very similar to the ones we find in the writings of Peter and Paul. They all contain instructions regarding the household and follow a similar threefold pattern: husbands and wives, fathers and children, masters and servants. The focus of these codes is on the head of the household (paterfamilias). The husband, father, and master is the same person.

Although the household codes of the New Testament follow a similar pattern that is found in earlier Graeco-Roman texts, the intent behind the codes is quite different. The secular texts are are all about power. They speak of the superiority of the head of the household and they sometimes refer to the other human beings as property. In his work Politics, Aristotle writes, “The male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle of necessity extends to all mankind.” Demosthenes, a Greek statesman, writes, “Mistresses we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of our persons, but wives to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households.” If a slave murdered his master, then according to Roman law all the other slaves living within the household were to be put to death along with the guilty party. A father had the right to expose an unwanted child. The Graeco-Roman household codes are all about the power that the head of the house possesses.

Paul and Peter use the same categories that Aristotle and others used. Some of the commands found within the household codes in the New Testament are similar to the ones found in Graeco-Roman texts, but the intent behind them is completely different. Instead of mandating that the head of the household operate from a position of power, the New Testament texts instruct the him to follow the example of Jesus and sacrifice himself for others. This is most obvious in Ephesians 5:25.

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

In the Graeco-Roman texts the husband has the power to take away life, but in the New Testament texts the husband is expected to lay down his life for the people under his care.

This principle of sacrifice is not limited to the head of the household. Peter begins his discourse by giving instructions to servants (1 Pet. 2:18). He then explains why it is necessary to follow these instructions (1 Pet. 2:19-25). It is because Jesus suffered and died for us.

“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” (1 Pet. 2:21)

What example are we to follow? It is the example of sacrifice. Husbands, fathers, masters, wives, children, and servants are all expected to act this way toward one another. No one is superior or inferior in the family of God (Col. 3:11). Wives are to submit to husbands who are ready to lay down their lives for their wives. Servants are to be subject to masters who remember they serve a Master in heaven. Children are to obey parents who love them and do nothing to discourage or anger them. Everyone is to submit to one another (Eph. 5:21). Why? Because this is the example we have been given (Philippians 2:5-9). This is the way of Jesus.

We are called to operate from a place of sacrifice, not power. We are called to give rather than take. This is the way of Jesus. This is love. Becoming a Christian means we begin a journey to look like Jesus. He is our model. His life is a perfect example of what humanity can become. Sin robs us of our humanity. Jesus lived a life without sin. He came to teach us how to live. We cannot be like Jesus if we are using power to manipulate and use others. We cannot be like Jesus if we are using power to get our way. We are like Jesus when we give up any power we might have and give ourselves to God and others. The footsteps of Jesus lead to the cross. At the cross we lose our life, but we also find it. We give up on the ways of the world and we embrace the ways of Jesus.

“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’” (Matthew 16:24-25)


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Scott Elliott is a graduate of Oklahoma State University and Austin Graduate School of Theology. He lives in La Grange, TX and is the minister for the La Grange Church of Christ. He is married and has two sons. He enjoys writing about the Christian faith and posting the occasional film review. His articles and reviews have appeared in RELEVANT magazine, Englewood Review of Books, and other publications.

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