The Haustafeln (Household Codes) in Ephesians and the Potential for Child Abuse

[1] I recently had a conversation with my friend, Rachel, who is in the midst of parenting three small children. Her oldest son is especially rambunctious; at 7 years old, he is full of questions, ideas, feelings and most especially, energy! My friend loves her son and sees all his many gifts. He is a warm and generous friend; he is interested in the world around him. Both children and adults are drawn to his fun-loving energy. He can also be a handful. When he is upset, it is a loud affair. He is not always interested in quiet, independent play. He is sometimes reckless with breakable household items. But the thing that Rachel struggles with the most is the reaction of other adults, especially her own parents. Because he does not immediately comply with an adult’s instruction, the grandparents see their grandson as disobedient. This, they think, is because Rachel is not heavy-handed enough with her parental discipline.

[2] In this family dynamic, we see several factors at work. The one I will highlight here is the expectation that the primary marker of a child’s worth is their ability to be obedient. And a primary marker of good parenting is the parent’s ability to discipline their children into obedience. In many families, of course, an emphasis on obedience and discipline does not lead to abuse. But it is clear from studies of abusive parenting that a high value on obedience and the use of forceful, corporal punishment is correlated with harmful parent-child relationships.[1] Although there are other sources for this expectation, at least one key source is the biblical injunction for children to obey their parents and for parents to discipline their children effectively. Here, I will consider the household codes in Ephesians, since it is a key biblical text that connects parenting to discipline and childhood to obedience.

[3] The Letter to the Ephesians is attributed to Paul of Tarsus, although most New Testament scholars see it as a pseudonymous letter written by a follower of Paul. It was likely written after Paul’s death, perhaps several decades after he died. While the letter contains other themes, I will focus here on a set of instructions about the structure and maintenance of a household in 5:21-6:9.[2]  Here, the author relies on conventional wisdom about the constituent parts of a Greco-Roman household and their relationships. Building on Aristotle’s discussion of the household (see Politics 1253b-1254b), the author addresses wives and husbands, children and fathers, and slaves and masters. In each case, the subordinate party is addressed first: wives, children, and slaves are all given essentially the same instruction to obey or be subject to the paterfamilias. Then, the paterfamilias is told to “love” their wives, not to “provoke” their children to anger, and not to “threaten” the people they enslave. Even though Aristotle presents three separate relationships as the building blocks of a household, what we actually see is the paterfamilias addressed three times in his role as husband, father, and slaveholder. Interestingly, his subordinates are addressed first.[3]

[4] Modern biblical interpreters have rightly rejected the idea that enslaved people should submit to their enslavers. Most modern readers agree with this assessment; there is general social consensus that slavery is an obvious evil and that telling enslaved people to obey their masters would do incredible harm. This is thanks to the work of Womanist, Black feminist, and African American scholars.[4] Biblical scholars have likewise contextualized the command for wives to obey their husbands; again, many modern readers of the Bible would hold up a loving, egalitarian, mutual marriage as a model instead of a hierarchical one. Again, there is general consensus that patriarchal marriages do harm in women’s lives.[5]

[5] My question, then, is whether we would relativize the force of the instruction for children and parents in the same way that we have relativized the instructions for slaves, masters, wives, and husbands. I think we should. If we have seen that other hierarchical relationships have produced violence, abuse, and pain, then why would we keep this model for parent-child relationships? We assume that there is a power differential between parents and children, thus, for some period of their lives, obedience should be an important value for children vis-à-vis their parents. Is that necessary? Could we acknowledge the existence of a power differential (because of course there is one), yet have other values for children and their relationships with their parents?

[6] Considering the work of childist biblical interpretation here may help us reframe and reinterpret the instructions for children and parents in the Household Codes. Although it is a relatively new subfield in biblical studies, childist or child-centered biblical interpretation has been a vibrant and lively scholarly conversation that is poised to help us rethink many aspects of the Bible. Scholars have engaged child characters of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the role of children in ancient households and communities, archaeological data, and more.[6] Building on the work of feminist and Womanist scholars in religion, childist scholars attempt to center the wellbeing of children in their interpretive work.[7] A childist interpretation of Ephesians may help us work towards communities where children are safe and valued.

[7] As a place to begin, the standard translations of Ephesians 6 obscure some of the interpretive options present in the Greek: some key words in these four verses could be translated in ways that allow a different model of parenting. Ephesians 6:1 is regularly translated as instructing children to “obey” their parents; this is a standard translation of upakouō. But as any beginning Greek student might recognize, this word has at its root the verb meaning “to hear.” So, we could think of this sense of “obey” as connected to hearing, heeding, listening to or paying attention to one’s parents, not mindless obedience. Likewise, we could expand our sense of what fathers are instructed to do in verse 4: “do not provoke your children to anger but raise them in the paideia and nouthesia of the Lord.” Here, most translations have something like “discipline and instruction” (NRSV and NASB), “training and instruction” (NIV), or “training and admonition” (NKJV). Already we see a range of ways to understand these words that are not tied to strict discipline, but rather to training, teaching, and guiding. Both Greek words are related to the educational process of formation of the young person and the instruction of the mind. And the presence of this verse, warning parents not to unnecessarily anger their children, should already preempt any notion of overly authoritarian parenting.

[8] There may be times where an alternative model fails; I vividly remember taking my, now-teenage, son to get yearly vaccinations when he was four years old and holding him tight so the nurse could give him shots. We had always taught him about bodily autonomy, so this action violated those principles. In fact, he told us this: while I held him, he yelled, “It is my body and I do not want to do this! You said it is my body!” While this story now makes him laugh, it was not funny at the time. We had never told him that obedience was the most important thing, yet here we were insisting on obedience (and for good reason: his health and well-being). So, I am not saying that alternative models of parent-children relationships that eschew obedience will always work or always produce harmonious family scenes. But I am challenging us to consider that a heavy emphasis on obedience, discipline, and punishment is part and parcel of an abusive view of parenting. And of course, the current model of using force to produce an obedient child does not always work either. So, perhaps a childist reading of Ephesians 6 can encourage us to be more creative in thinking about our parenting models so that we do not simply rely on force and fear in parent-child relationships.

[9] As a postscript, I note that this also raises challenging theological questions. If one of the primary metaphors that we use for God and humans is that of a parent and a child (the idea that we are all children of a loving Father), then does this call into question the idea that we should be obedient children? Here I am inspired by the models of Abraham and of Job, neither of whom are portrayed as purely obedient. In different ways, Abraham and Job raise the possibility of arguing with God as a faithful way to love God. When God lets Abraham in on the plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham bargains with God for the inhabitants of those cities, saying, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?” (Genesis 18:25). Eventually, Abraham haggles God down to relent if there can be found 10 righteous in the city. When Job suffers unimaginable loss, he does not quietly accept those losses. He spends dozens of chapters challenging God and demanding an answer from God. Rather than quietly obeying, both Abraham and Job wrestle with and challenge God.[8]

[10] Although many of us may be parents who do not necessarily want to be on the receiving end of challenges and arguments from our children, it may be a model that promotes more active engagement from and a closer relationship with our children. Instead of “because I said so,” we would have to have good reasons for our rules or instructions. And we would have to model those rules and instructions in our own lives. In doing so, we may find a better, more just relationship with our children that is not based on obedience, but on love.


[1] Classic studies of these issues related to Christian theology include Donald Capps, The Child’s Song: The Religious Abuse of Children (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995); Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002).

[2] See parallels in Colossians 3:18-4:1 and 1 Peter 2:18-3:9. Other letters like 1 Timothy and Titus have different forms of these instructions, but Ephesians and Colossians share the most similarities. 1 Peter does not address children and parents.

[3] Margaret Y. MacDonald has analyzed the household codes in several of her works; see Carolyn Osiek and Margaret Y. MacDonald, A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2006); Margaret Y MacDonald, “Beyond Identification of the Topos of Household Management: Reading the Household Codes in Light of Recent Methodologies and Theoretical Perspectives in the Study of the New Testament,” New Testament Studies 57, no. 1 (January 2011): 65–90; Margaret Y. MacDonald, “Reading the New Testament Household Codes in Light of New Research on Children and Childhood in the Roman World,” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 41, no. 3 (September 1, 2012): 376–87; and especially Margaret Y. MacDonald, The Power of Children: The Construction of Christian Families in the Greco-Roman World (Waco, Tx.: Baylor University Press, 2014).

[4] See especially Clarice J. Martin, “The Haustafeln (Household Codes) in African American Biblical Interpretation: ‘Free Slaves’ And ‘Subordinate Women,’” in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary (Thirtieth Anniversary Expanded Edition), ed. Cain Hope Felder (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021), 229–56.

[5] Of course, not every Bible reader thinks this way. See, for example, Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (New York, NY: Liveright, 2021).

[6] See, among others, O. M. Bakke, When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2005); Marcia J. Bunge, Terence E. Fretheim, and Beverly Roberts Gaventa, eds., The Child in the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2008); Kristine Henriksen Garroway, Children in the Ancient Near Eastern Household, Explorations in Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations 3 (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2014); Sharon Betsworth, Children in Early Christian Narratives (New York, N.Y.: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015); Kathleen Gallagher Elkins and Julie Faith Parker, “Children in Biblical Narrative and Childist Interpretation,” in The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Narrative, ed. Danna Nolan Fewell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 422–33; Shawn W. Flynn, Children in Ancient Israel: The Hebrew Bible and Mesopotamia in Comparative Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018); Sharon Betsworth and Julie Faith Parker, eds., T&T Clark Handbook of Children in the Bible and the Biblical World (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2019); Shawn W. Flynn, ed., Children in the Bible and the Ancient World: Comparative and Historical Methods in Reading Ancient Children (New York: Routledge, 2019); John W. Martens Kristine Henriksen Garroway, Children and Methods Listening To and Learning From Children in the Biblical World (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2020).

[7] Kathleen Gallagher Elkins, “Feminist Studies as the Mother of Childist Approaches to the Bible,” in Children and Methods: Listening To and Learning From Children in the Biblical World, ed. Kristine Henriksen Garroway and John W. Martens, Brill’s Series on Jewish Studies 67 (Boston: Brill, 2020), 19–34.

[8] J. Richard Middleton, Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021).

Kathleen Gallagher Elkins

Kathleen Gallagher Elkins is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at St. Norbert College and the author of Mary, Mother of Martyrs: How Motherhood Became Self-Sacrifice in Early Christianity (Wipf and Stock, 2020).