Haustafel CoverThe modern Christian is often instructed to consult their Bibles for instruction regarding how to best lead their families and raise their children. When it comes to instruction on how to lead a family and raise children no one has contributed more material to the canon of Scripture than the apostle Paul. One of the most controversial of his letters is the portion of material contained in Colossians 3:18-4:1. These “household codes,” or haustafel, are the teachings on how families should interact, concerning mainly the relationships between wives and husbands, parents and children, and slaves and masters.

Because the Christian church has included Colossians in its canon, the need to understand the demands the author makes on his readers is of vital importance. Despite being written in the first century, the epistleʼs haustafel are not the first household codes to be implemented. There are even older huastafel in existence and it has been accused that Paulʼs Colossian haustafel are not original, but are inspired by the Greek and Jewish manuscripts that came before. It is important to know the true sources of these codes of conduct; to know if the author extracted this parenesis from these ancient codes and shoehorned it into his letter. If these were indeed taken from ancient codes, one must understand how they were edited and changed before they were presented to the original hearers, the infant church. This paper will not only focus on what the Colossian haustafel could have meant to itʼs original hearers, but how these ancient codes impact the modern family, and the modern ecclesiastical understandings as a whole.

Although I believe that Paulʼs haustafel are indeed patterned off of pre-existing codes and did not remove the distinctions between the different social and gender structures, he did rework those codes to be informed by the idea that we are all the same in salvation, despite the distinctions remaining. Now all are under God instead of being all under man.

The History Of Ancient Household Codes

luther“Household Codes,” or Haustafel (a term coined by Martin Luther), is a term originally coined by Martin Luther in the sixteenth century.1 The word means “house-table,” and describes how members of a household should interact together. These codes existed long before Martin Luther named them- pre-existing Luther in Greek, Stoic, and Hellenistic Jewish societies.

To better understand the Colossian household codes a clear understanding of what haustafel proceeded the writing of Colossians 3:18-4:1. The Greeks and the Stoics were some of the first to use household codes to guide their society.2 The Stoic codes were adaptations of the ancient Greek codes, guiding adherents to have “fear of the gods, honor toward parents, proper care of the dead, love of friends and fidelity toward country.”3 PaulA customary practice among Hellensitic street-philosophers was ʻto formulate compact ethical topoi that were easy to remember or set in writing in a brief formulation, so that they could be expanded for practical use.”4 Undergirding the Stoic “haustafeln” lay a “schema”, which was visible in the way such philosophers organized their discussions of what was “fitting” (kathekon) “towards the gods, oneʼs parents, oneʼs brothers, oneʼs country, and towards foreigners” (Epict. 2.17.31)5 One such Stoic passage is from Stobaeusʼ Anthology – “Every man should love his wife who lawfully belongs to him and beget children with her. He should not waste his seed on any other.”6 Stobaeusʼ writing is prescriptive for itʼs time, giving a “rule of thumb” for society to follow. These ancient Greek codes had little reciprocity and the movement toward actually addressing individual social classes besides the male head of household was a later Jewish-hellenistic idea.7 When the Hellenistic Judaic community formed their codes they used the greek “schema” and that schema is possibly the milieu from which the Christians formulated theirs.8 The first Christian church would often draw from voluntary associations and Greco-Roman households, “…but the nature of the churches was not fundamentally changed as a result.9 As the codes moved from Greek, to Stoic, and then to Jewish communities, the codes began to develop a a reciprocity that is evident in the Colossian codes. It is argued that the Colossian codes had have no roots in the ancient codes,10 but due to the far-reaching impact of Greek philosophy, I find this hard to believe. The Colossian codes, although influenced by Greek and Stoic understandings, did morph into something much different to their Greek counterparts. Roger Gehring, in his book House Church and Mission, argues that the codes had evolved into something that should not be called haustafel at all, but instead be “categorized differently than the Oikonomic [of the Greeks], a term classified as “topos.” The Pauline haustafel, or topos, because the reciprocal form is not a characteristic of Greek or Stoic haustafel.

The connective tissue between the Jewish reciprocal topos, and the Christian household codes is harder to pinpoint. There is much theological debate as to wether there is indeed any connection between the Jewish codes, and their Christian counterparts. Hellenistic Judaism had used the Greek “schema”, and it is thought by some authors that it was possibly the milieu from which the Christians got it. Some scholars have made accusations that the first church “…merely christianized the code by adding “in the Lord” at suitable places.”11   This is highly debated.12

The original Greek and Stoic codes began to change forms as they progressed through the years, but the original codes allowed flexibility within the belief “…which permit[s] [the] claim that the Christian Haustafel [are] an adaptation of the [Greek] schema.”13

Comparison of the Colossian Household Code with Ancient Codes

When Paul wrote his version of the haustafel in Colossians 3:18-4:1 there were changes made between the Colossian household codes and the ancient codes that may seem subtle to an untrained eye, but are devastating in their understanding. Through these changes Paul begins to form a new understanding of not only a new dynamic of proper oikonos in family and civic life, but of the larger family of God. Paulʼs haustafel decentralizes the codes from the Stoic understandings of the “superior male,” connecting the new codes in the light of a new understanding of soteriology.

In order to better understand how dramatically Paul changes the structure of family and civic life, one must have a proper understanding of how men, women, children, and slaves valued before the Colossian haustafel taught a new way. Stoic and Greek understand men as the most important members of society, and the codes were consistently structured to maintain the male-dominated power structure. One such example is the text in Aristotleʼs Politics:

“The male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle of necessity extends to all mankind… of household management we have seen that there are three parts – one is the rule of a master over slaves,… another of father, and the third of a husband. A husband and father 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. …The relation of the male to the female is of this kind, but there the inequality is permanent. The rule of the father over his children is royal, for he receives both love and respect due to age, exercising a kind of royal power. 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 all of them, they are present in different degrees.”14

ThroneIt is easy to see that the ancient Greek codes placed the male father and husband as not only the leader, but as ruler of his household. This rule needed to be maintained, because “Aristotle had already developed this subject philosophically by examining the home in antiquity (the οἶκος) as the smallest unit of the state; this analysis included the established domestic relationships of authority that existed between master and slave, husband and wife, and father and children, as well as the managing of financial affairs in the home (from the time of Xenophon onwards).15 In other words, the stability of the state was hinged upon the obedience of those under the male paterfamilias. In fact, obedience to that paterfamilias head was the basis of the laws on divine order.16 These codes usually were addressed to the head of the household only. Women, children, and slaves normally were addressed in the third person.”17

Before Paulʼs Colossian haustafel, women were expected to give respect to their husbands, but were to ask of nothing in return. They should not expect anything in return because women were seen more as property than as human beings that needed to be loved, as Paul requests in verse 3:19. Women were not only seen as property, but were viewed as so weak they needed a man. Aristotle propagated this understanding when he said that “…the husbandʼs rule over the wife is like an aristocracy, because he is more capable to rule and thus superior to her…”18 Women were classified by their sexual function. A Neo-Pythagorean text of the third-century BC states,“…We have courtesans for pleasure, concubines to look after the day-to-day needs of the body, wives that we may breed legitimate children and have a trusty warden of what we have in the house.”19 Sexual intercourse had little to nothing to do with whether or not the husband or the wife loved each other, and the womanʼs desire to bear their paterfamilias any offspring was of little to no importance. Because of all of this, there is literary evidence that suggests that these sequestered women tended to be depressed, bitter and malicious.20 Whether or not a woman felt loved or cared for my her husband or master was of little regard, because “…the underlying theme everywhere [was] that the health of the family and the stability of society [depended] upon the submission of those who are under the authority of husbands, fathers, and masters. Wives, children, slaves: in every host-culture of the NT world, their primary virtue was obedience.”21



Children and slaves were also the paterfamiliasʼ property, with little to no intrinsic value of their own. “The modern understanding of a child and childhood as a special class of society with distinctive cultural worth and values stems from the Renaissance onward.”22 Under the Greek ideals of oikos, Children were seen as naive and uncontrolled, much like an untrained animal. Plato writes, “Of all the wild beasts, the child is the most intractable…the child must be strapped up, as it were, with many bridles.”23 In every way, the children were owned by the paterfamilias, and even at birth, if the father did not approve of the infantʼs development they would be left “exposed,” an ancient form of infanticide.24 “…the compelling legal focus is the fatherʼs interest in the fruit of his wifeʼs womb. The father “owned” his children, both after and before they were born.”25 It is obvious that since the children were seen as property of their father, the paying of respect was carried out in a one-way transaction. Children respected and obeyed their fathers, and nothing more. The importance of obedience was paramount, because the oikos structure of the family was a reflection of the oikos structure of the state. “…the male head of the household is intended by nature to rule as husband, rather and master, and that not to adhere to his proper hierarchy is detrimental not only to the household but also to the life of the state.26

As it has been discussed before, wives and children were seen as possessions of the the paterfamilias, and slaves that the family had acquired were even more so.

AristotleThe roots of the tyranical control a paterfamilias had over his family can be traced all the way to Aristotle, who wrote, “…the masterʼs rule over a slave is like a tyranny, since the purpose of the relationship is strictly the benefit of the master.” (Nicomachaean Ethics 8.10). He also wrote “a slave is a living possession.” (Politics 1.4)

Slaves were seen as being at the bottom of the oikos structure in the state and family. How slaves were viewed was not only negative, but a necessary evil. Diodorus Siculus encapsulated the disgust for slaves when he wrote that “…every slave we own is an enemy we harbor.”27 Sexual abuse directed toward slaves was frequent, and “..was rooted in the notion of slaves as property.” (cf. Aristotle Politics I.1254a7)28

It would appear that the ancient household codes not only promulgated the chauvinism that guided the oikos of the first century. Paul seems to only make minor changes to the already-existing household codes. For example, In the Ps. Charondas text transmitted by Stobaeus, almost all the groups represented in the epistle to the Colossians are admonished… [and] bases his laws on divine order (60.10-16) from the outset and correlates his oikos-management with the welfare of the city. In both these law-codes, the socially inferior groups are addressed and exhorted first, before those who rule over them.”29 “Studies of the household codes commonly observe Aristotleʼs threefold division – husbands and wives, fathers and children, masters and slaves…”30 It should be agreed that the format is very similar between Paulʼs huastafel, and the ancient haustafel that proceeded it. What is dramatically different is the content of Paulʼs guidance to the Christian oikos he was writing to.

The biggest change is a shift in hierarchy away from the man as paterfamilias toward God as paterfamilias in the new oikos structure. For example, Standhartinger notes that, “[t]he paraenetic material in Col 4:1 is often rendered: ʻMasters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heavenʼ (NRSV). Embedded in the translation of the term ʻfairlyʼ is the notion of equality.”31 Prior to Paul, there is no equality between the paterfamilias and anyone else in the oikos.Paul2 Because the focus is no longer on the man, because it has been placed on God, there can now exist a measure of equality between all of the members within Godʼs new oikos. Within this new oikos there is now the possibility for reciprocal obligations between all of the members, which is a radical shift away from the both the Stoic and Hellenistic Jewish oikos. Standhartinger writes of another example of this noting, “Apart from the hosuehold code there is no mention of masters again, only ʻfellow servantsʼ (1:17, 4:7, 12). In the congregation, which according to the letter is made up of spiritually renewed people, any differentiations between Jews and Gentiles, foreigners and indigenous, slaves and free persons are abolished. Thus it is likely that when the authors speak of ʻfellow servantsʼ they envisage not merely slaves but all members of the congregation.”32

Paulʼs request for women and children to be submissive to their husbands and fathers does not originate in the Stoic ideas of inequality because under Paulʼs new oikos structure they are on equal footing. Kleinig writes that “The moral philosophers in antiquity did not call on wives, children and slaves to be subordinate, because they had no choice but to submit to their superiors. In contrast, the call for subordination by Paul and Peter arises from their equality before God.33 “The proper practice of subordination, as taught in the New Testament, contributes much more to our experience of love, joy, contentment and peace than we realize… [s]ubordination supplies the context for self- giving love to flourish in our families and our church, without the abuse of power.”34

It has been noted that there was rampant sexual misconduct on the part of slave owners toward their slaves in this era. It also has been insinuated35 that by admonishing the slaves to obey their masters in “all things,” Paul is, in effect, binding their hands and allowing an immoral and corrupt practice to continue and even be sanctioned within the Church. But this does not seem to fit with the model of the “new man” Paul talks about36 in verses 5-10. While the bulk of the admonition falls on the slaves, Paul clearly states that that masters should treat them with fairness and justness. It is not a far leap within the context of verses one through seventeen to assume that Paul would expect the same level of purity and dignity to be displayed within the master-slave relationship. Paul goes to great lengths to remind his hearers that they are not serving human masters, but rather the Lord Himself. It is reminiscent of the admonition to the wife to submit “as is fitting to the Lord” in verse 18, it is obvious that Paul would not view sexual misconduct on the part of masters toward their slaves as “fitting in the Lord.” Gehring writes:

“…all Christians are exhorted to practice heart-felt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience in interpersonal relationships. This prohibits the Christian husband, even as the head of the household, from mistreating any person much less his wife… it is that which is fitting “in the Lord.” These two words change nearly everything. They indicate that the members of a Christian household, and with that the Christian church as well, are supposed to live “according to the will of Christ.” With that in particular a new dimension is introduced, a dimension that is missing in the corresponding stoic recommendation to live this way because nature demands it. However, it also needs to be added here that according to Col 1:15-20 Christ the Lord is mediator of creation and salvation. As such [it] has ramifications for all of natural order (as creation).”37

The ancient haustafel and its Biblical counterparts resonate with the church today. The western church no longer exists under an oikos structure where it is expected that the husband, father and master will have complete authority and control over his family. Gehring notes that the oikos had already been long established by the time that Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians. He gives a new perspective and understanding of the nature of the relationships in the new oikos, but by no means intends to destabilize and dismantle the existing structure or the society that it is founded upon.38 So even though the nature of modern interpersonal relationships is quite different than that of the Colossian haustafel, it is still possible to gain insight and understanding in how to interact within the family, the church and the world at large. It is still certainly true that Christians should express agape love for each other and view each other as equals and co-workers, even if the surrounding society stratifies people differently. We should all strive to adhere to proper relationships as is fitting to the Lord. The nature of the relationships may have changed, but the ideas of mutual submission, obedience, love and mutual work for the Lord rather than man remain and we can follow them to our benefit.

It has been demonstrated that Paulʼs Colossian haustafel had its roots in Greek and Stoic household codes, but Paul introduced drastic changes in understanding of the new nature of relationships with Christ as Lord and paterfamilias in the new oikos. The past abuses and lopsided power structures are to be done away with and replaced with mutual respect and love and submission. Modern western structure and culture recoils against some of the ideas found within the haustafel, nevertheless, the ideals and admonitions contained within it are still resounding today.


  1. (accessed April 2, 2011. []
  2. Gehring, Roger W. House Church and Mission: The Importance of Household Structures in Early Christianity (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004) 229. Gehring later argues that the Stoic influence was negligible in comparison to that of ancient Jewish values, but the influence still exist. []
  3. Crouch, James E. The Origin and Intention of the Colossian Haustafel (Göttingen, Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1972) 19. []
  4. Standhartinger, Angela. “The Origin and Intention of the Household Code in the Letter to the Colossians” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 79 (September 2000) 119. []
  5. Hartman, Lars, and Gerald F. Hawthorne ED., “Code and Context: A Few Reflections on the Parensis of Col 3:6-4:1” Tradition and Interpretation in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1987) 237. []
  6. Standhartinger, 121 []
  7. Crouch, 19 []
  8. Hartman, 237 []
  9. Jeffers, James. The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-varsity Press 1999) 87. []
  10. Gehring, 229 []
  11. Hartman, 237 []
  12. Crouch, 20 quoting Fest-Schrift O. Schmitzʼs Die Neutestamentlichen Mahnungen an die Frau, sich dem Manne Unterzuordnen., “…the sufficient differences exist between the Christian Haustafeln and their Hellenistic and Jewish parallels to prevent the simple conclusion that they are lightly Christianized versions of a non-Christian paraenetic topos.” []
  13. Couch, 28 []
  14. Dudrey, Ross. “Submit Yourselves To One Another: A Socio-Historical Look at the Household Code of Ephesians 5:15-6:9” Restoration Quarterly 41, no. 1 (January 1999) 27-28. []
  15. Standhartiniger, 118 []
  16. Ps. -Charondas text transmitted by Stobaeus 61.16-22; Ps.-Zaleukos 228.13-14. []
  17. Jeffers, 86 []
  18. Jeffers, 86 quoting Nicomachaean Ethics 8.10. []
  19. Lacey, W.K. The Family in Classical Greece (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1968) quoting Demosthenes 59. 118-22. []
  20. Dictionary of New Testament Background, 1227 []
  21. 29; Atlanta: Scholars, 1981 []
  22. Women In Greco-Roman World and Judaism.” Dictionary of NewTestament Background (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000) 197. []
  23. Ibid., 197 []
  24. Ibid., 199 []
  25. Dudrey, 38 []
  26. Lincoln, Andrew T. “The Household Code and Wisdom Mode Of Colossians” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 21, no 79 (October 1999) 100. []
  27. Naphtali Lewis Roman Civilization: A Sourcebook (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966) 319 quoting Diodorus Siculus, 34. []
  28. Macdonald, Margaret Y. “Slavery, Sexuality and House Churches: A Reassessment of Colossians 3.18-4.1 in LIght of New Research on the Roman Family” New Testament Study 53 (2007) 95 []
  29. Ps.-Charondas 61.16-22; Ps.-Zaleukos 228.13-14. []
  30. Dudrey, 28 []
  31. Standhartinger, 128 []
  32. Ibid., 129 []
  33. Kleinig, John W. “Ordered Community: Order and Subordination in the New Testament” Lutheran Theological Journal 39 no 2 (August-December 2005) 205. []
  34. Kleinig, 196-197 []
  35. Macdonald, 96 []
  36. Hartman, 240 “As a contrast, 3:10-4:1 presents the life of the New man. The description of this New Man begins with the characteristic “neither greek nor Jew.” []
  37. Gehring, 7 []
  38. Gehring, 8 []