Meaning ‘house-tables’, Haustafelen refers to the household codes that were a matter of law in Greco-Roman times. We do not actually know the exact laws, as the stone tablets upon which they were written were destroyed long ago. However, we do have some idea as to their content because of a few sources that wrote about them.
Aristotle, for one, wrote:
“Seeing then that the state is made up of households, before speaking of the state we must speak of the management of the household. The parts of hosehold management correspond to the persons who compose the household, and a complete household consists of slaves and freemen. Now we should begin by examining everything in its fewest possible elements; and the first and fewest possible parts of a family are master and slave, husband and wife, father and children. We have therefore to consider what each of these three relations is and ought to be: I mean the relation of master and servant, the marriage relation (the conjunction of man and wife has no name of its own), and thirdly, the procreative relation (this also has no proper name).”
Master and slave. Husband and wife. Father and Children.
Take a look at Ephesians 5:21-6:9
One another. Wife and husband. Husband and wife. Children and parents. Fathers and children. Slaves and masters. Masters and slaves. These are the relationships that are writen about and discussed in that order. Did you notice that it’s backward? Master, Husband, and Father and assumed to be the greater part and Slave, Wife, and Children the lesser party in Aristotle’s discourse. He talkes to the greater party first. Yet when you look at the household tables in Scripture, the ‘lesser’ party is given the respect of the greater and addressed first.
Take a look at Colossians 3:18-4:1
Wife and husband. Husband and wife. Children and parents. Fathers and children. Slaves and masters. Masters and slaves. Yet again, it’s backwards.
Take a look at 1 Peter 2:11-3:7
Everybody obey human authorities. Slaves and masters. Wives and husbands. Husbands and wives.
Aristotle wrote: “Hence we see what is the nature and office of a slave; he who is by nature not his own but another’s man, is by nature a slave; and he may be said to be another’s man who, being a human being, is also a possession. And a posession may be defined as an instrument of action, separable from the possessor.”
“But is there any one this intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature? There is no difficulty in answering this question, on the grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.”
“The rule of a household is a monarchy, for every house is under one head: whereas constitutional rule is a government of freemen and equals. The master is not called a master because he has science, but because he is of a certain character, and the same remark applies to the slave and freeman. Still, there may be a science for the master and science for the slave.”
That’s markedly different from the thoughts in Scripture: masters are reminded that they too are God’s slaves and that they ought to treat their own slaves with respect. Slaves are taught to respect their master and obey them as if they were serving the Lord, not by begrudingly or half-heartedly doing their work. Aristotle sees slaves as little more than instruments – tools; not people and certainly not equals. Truly, in God’s household things are nothing like the roman Roman-Greco world. Today’s household are also very different, we’ve done away with the idea that some people are born to rule and some people are born to be ruled. Some pepole use these verses to explain that bosses shouldn’t be harsh to the employees and that employees should do their jobs well. Whether or not it’s an accurate interpretation – I don’t know.
The second relationship that Aristotle draws his reader to is to that of husband and wife: “Of household management we have seen that there are three parts — one is the ruler 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 equals, 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 of both love and of the respect due to age, exercising a kind of royal power… 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.”
Aristitle has reduced household management to forms of government: monarchy, constitutional, and royal. But he has a problem: if constitutional government implies that there is equality but he’s just said that men and women are permanently inequal so much so that men are just ‘more fit’ to lead their houses. Granted, there may be exceptions, but they ought not be the norm, but they would be so few and so far in-between that they don’t really matter.
“So in general we may ask about the natural ruler and the natural subject, whether they have the same or different virtues. For if a noble nature is equally required in both, why should one of them always rule, and the other always be ruled? … Here the very nature of the soul has shown us the way; in it one part naturally rules, and the other is subject, and the virtue of the ruler we in maintain to be different from that of the subject; the one being the virtue of the rational; and the other of the irrational part. 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 sould are present in and 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.
Aristotle was a secular complementarian: it was the duty of the men to rule over their households, their wives, their children, and their slaves. He believed in gender roles, his was defined by his understanding of the nature of government and the observable nature of humanity. Roman men had life or death authority over all their household. They were the head of the household, the boss of the family business, the lawyer in all legal matters, and the priest in all religious matters.
Christian complementarianism says that men are the head (authority) of their family. They are to lead. The wives are follow. The children are to obey. These are gender roles, defined by Bible verses on the basis of insight from God. They are a response to a popular secular teaching. Today, these ideas remain, but the household tables that were a matter of law are long gone. Our secular ideas as to the management of the household are very different. Yet as Christians, we hold to the Scriptural household codes that are a response to an ancient system that no longer exists.
I guess what really bothers me is that in essence, nothing is different. Men always lead. Women never do. Children just fall in line. We’ve changed our thoughts on slavery, but nothing else has in all this time. Some say that the mention of slavery in Scripture was a concession to their time. Perhaps also was the necessity of leadership being a masculine trait. I think that God knew that there would be a time when all slaves would be set free. Perhaps he also knew that there would be a time when leaders were all sorts of people, men and women, old and young, rich and poor, of every tribe, nation, and tongue. We know that many of Aristotle’s ideas are outdated; he was a man that was a product of his time. Scripture was written as a product of it’s time; so too are it’s household codes. We live in a new and different time, it is only fitting that we manage our households in new and different ways – not as extensions of the state, but a reflection of the upside-down way of Jesus’ kingdom: the leaders are servants, the greatest are the least, and humility being our defining trait.