For as long as there have been households to belong to, there have been rules to direct household life. Most who are able to recall their teenage years will remember the words "As long as you live in this house, you'll abide by the rules!" As one of six boys under the same roof, I certainly heard them spoken on one or two occasions.
Naturally, the head of the household has the privilege of establishing those rules. Though they may seem arbitrary to other, less-privileged members, in principle the rules are meant to provide the household with some semblance of order.
In Paul's day the concepts of household and order in society were inseparable. One could not think of household without immediately thinking of such things as authority structure, rules of propriety and responsibilities. Orderliness and efficiency began with the authority of the master. But the degree to which success in these things could be achieved depended on the household members' response to the master.
It was particularly with the ideas of responsibility and order in mind that Paul drew on the household analogy to describe life in the church (3:15; 2 Tim 2:20-21). Christians have a common Lord and are related to him as to a father. Moreover, they are brothers and sisters in Christ. But there is more to the analogy. Just as the earthly household has a human authority structure and different classes of people, so God's household has officers, men and women, parents and children, different generations, masters and slaves, who must all relate to one another in proper ways and carry out certain responsibilities. Paul reminds his readers that the Master establishes the rules, and that believers' responsibility in obeying them is directly related to the accomplishment of the Master's goals.
The main theme of 2:1--3:16 is summed up in 3:15: proper conduct within God's household. Paul treats three issues, each of which can be seen to relate more or less directly to the disturbance caused by the false teaching in Ephesus. His first concern was to encourage the church to pray. Second, he gives instructions that pertain to men and women, in which he particularly addresses the matter of women teaching men in the church. Finally, the apostle lays down some guidelines for selecting church officers.
Ethical instruction in the New Testament exhibits certain recurring patterns which suggest that the early church held a common view of what constituted "Christian" social conduct. This agreement is perhaps best seen in teaching on marriage (Eph 5; 1 Pet 3), the relationship of men and women (1 Cor 14; 1 Tim 2; Tit 2), the relationship between slaves and masters (Eph 6; Col 3; 1 Tim 6; Tit 2; 1 Pet 2) and the posture of the church toward the state (Rom 13; 1 Tim 2; Tit 3; 1 Pet 2). The characteristic verbs are submit and obey. Although there is certainly variation from one passage to the next, both the content and the form of the teaching suggest a set teaching device. Because of the interest in rules of behavior for members of a Greco-Roman household (husband-wife, parent-child, master-slave, citizen-state), scholars have come to call this device a household code.
Many have argued that the New Testament household codes were borrowed or adapted from Greek or Hellenistic Jewish ethical thought. But there are no exact parallels to substantiate this. What we do find as the nonbiblical and biblical writers are compared is a shared interest in the behavior of members of a household and adherence to a patriarchal structure. But the biblical teaching differs from the secular by grounding the given relationships and appropriate behavior within them upon a Christian foundation. Furthermore, the New Testament household codes reveal development toward a Christian understanding of the traditional household relationships (as manifested in the church) which might best be described as "reformation" (Witherington 1988:42-61). Still, the biblical teaching reflects a sensitivity to ideas about respectability current outside of the church. This teaching tool enabled the church to start with the social structure as it existed, affirm much of it and at the same time introduce changes demanded by the new status "in Christ." In this way, the church might keep open the lines of communication with the world it was meant to be reaching. The likelihood that the household codes were drawn upon to stabilize situations in which traditional rules of relationships were being discarded (for theological reasons) suggests that sensitivity to the surrounding culture was an important feature of early Christian ethical teaching. To threaten institutions that the secular ethicists held to be essential to protecting the status quo would have been to equate Christianity with revolution. The message of the resurrection was revolutionary enough.
When Paul heard that women were forging ahead toward emancipation, he drew on what had become accepted teaching about men and women to call them back to appropriate conduct. When he addresses the church concerning its prayer, he includes teaching about the church's respect for the state. And the rules he issues governing the selection of leaders emphasize dignified behavior of a standard that would also meet with outsiders' approval.