Living Together in the Household of God

Living Together in the Household of God

This paper analyzes the Biblical and theological insights into the characteristics of ‘the household of God’ in order to understand how its use helps us come to grips with the new perspective implied in the theme for the 14th General Assembly of the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) held in Jakarta, Indonesia in May 2015.  It may be of great importance that this perspective is emerging in the Asian context, as this Biblical and theological analysis will suggest.  This suggestion is in keeping with my earlier work with CCA, where I was responsible for a program to re-read scripture with fresh eyes.  The context in which we are reading the scriptures cannot be ignored, especially as we discover the barriers to our Christian experience of desiring to live together in the household of God arising from post-colonial interpretations of faith and life.

The word ‘oikos’ meaning house or household has come more to the fore in theological reflection on the church’s mission since the World Council of Churches (WCC) former general secretary Konrad Raiser used the term “household of the world” or oikoumene in 1991 to suggest that the word ‘οίκος’ connotes “community, webs of relationships, belonging, and with life together”[1] He called it a “keyword” in his proposal for “Ecumenism in Transition.”  It lies at the heart of what he calls “A Paradigm Shift in the Ecumenical Movement.”  This may be a Euro-centric view of God’s household, because this paper suggests the Biblical concern for living together addresses a larger horizon of concerns.

But earlier, W. Bauer, W. F. Arndt, F. W. Gingrich, and F. Danker, said ‘oikos’ can, in some cases, simply be translated as “family”[2].  In fact, neither Hebrew nor Greek has Biblical words for family that exactly denotes the word in English.  The closest word could be translated “house” or “household”: bayit in Hebrew and οίκος or oikia in Greek, where the term focuses on the household as a social and economic unit.  The Greek word for ‘the household’ is oikeioi (which is an adjective).  While Oikeios is householder, Oikeioi means one’s own household or family, excluding the possibility of another’s household or family.

The household of God in the Hebrew Scriptures

In the Hebrew Bible the expression “house of Israel”(Ex. 16:31; Lev. 10:6; Num. 20:29; Joshua 21:45; Isa 5:7; Jer. 2:4) is a common expression.  Originally it referred to the immediate family and those associated with the compound of Israel [Jacob] and where it was physically located.  Later it became the name of the entire people who God had chosen to be his ‘nation of priests’ (Ex. 19, cf. Rev. 1).   It might be said that the term could apply to the house(hold) that lived with Israel, its patriarch, and equally to the house(hold) that as history went on, collectively identified with Israel their ancestor.  More than biological descent, however, the house of Israel was called “God’s possession” (Ex. 19:5), and the prophets refer to Israel as the “house of Yahweh” (Hosea 8:1; 9:8, 15; Jer. 12:7; Zech. 9:8).

In a socio-exegetical analysis on the concept of community as οίκος, it is evident that the meaning ranges from the people of Israel to families; a royal court; a place of God’s abode, and the whole creation.  In the Biblical story of creation, it clearly shows that God is responsible for the household of Israel, the household of the nations, and the household of everything that God has brought into being and all that God has made, which God found to be good (Gen. 1:1-31).

It is the first thrust of the creation story: God created humanity in relationship.  The concrete person is a web of interactions, a network of operative relationships.   A person is fashioned by historical, cultural, genetic, biological, social and economic infrastructure.  These relationships are not mechanical ones, they do not allow for a competitive individualization which would damage the dignity of the human being.   The dignity of human beings emanates from the network of relationships, from being in community.  Brueggemann argues this theological vision emerged as Torah after the disruption of 587, when Jews ‘understood themselves to be exposed, vulnerable, and at risk without the visible supports of a stable homeland. … displaced people needed a place from which to validate a theologically informed, peculiar sense of identity and practice of life.’[3]

From this we can see the Greek terms οίκος/οίκία and the Hebrew term bǎyit are wide ranging in their meaning and use in scripture.

In both languages the terms are used for both the building (part or whole) in which people live and the human members or material contents that make up the household.  Bayit and οίκος may thus designate physical locations such as a house, palace, and temple, or rooms or halls within these, and also human groups ranging in scope from the immediate or extended family to the clan, dynasty, tribe, or tribal league.   This understanding is supported by Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon, which states that οίκος has three primary meanings viz., “a house”, which may mean “an inhabited house”, “any building whatever”, or “any dwelling place”; “the inmates of a house, all the persons forming one family, a household”; and “stock, race, descendants of one.”

The οίκος is thus a space for living that enables relationships, evoking neighborliness.   It has an ecological structure that displays boundaries and openness, independence and relationship, rest and movement.  It embraces the familiar and the alien in the “one household.”  The metaphor of the οίκος in the Old Testament reminds us that the social reality of human history for displaced and vulnerable people is bound up with their deeply human need for community, webs of relationships, belonging, and with life together in the context of a material world of physical spaces and structures.

The household of God in the New Testament

The New Testament equally breathes the centrality of this keyword.  It opens with the claim that in Jesus Christ, God dwells among the people (cf. John’s Gospel).  Where the Spirit is, there the group becomes a household.  In the οίκος the participants in the household receive a new status as the children of God: from being slaves to being free persons, sons and daughters.   They eat a common meal in the οίκος.  They pray together for that common meal.  The first church is depicted as a household of life, sharing, and cooperation.  In the gospels and Paul’s letters especially, the violence of Imperial Rome, the claims to divinity by the Emperor and the demand for obedience are always in the background.  Here again, the oikos is the place where deep human need for life-giving relationships and identity is located. And again, the weakest, the exploited, the poorest are preciously protected within the household (cf. Luke 14).  And they all say: Abba! Father!

Understanding the household of God causes us to think in wider terms than a nuclear family, for it embraces a reality of family that might extend over multiple generations, have definite structures, and have multiple shades of meaning.  David Feddes, citing Wayne Meeks,[4] broadens the definition of the Graeco-Roman household to include immediate family plus “slaves, former slaves who were now clients, hired laborers, and sometimes business associates or tenants”.  He observes that to be part of a household was to be “part of a larger network of relations.”

The οίκος concept is not only key to the Bible, it is also a central concept in Africa, namely, ubuntu, a term difficult to translate into occidental languages.  But it is the essence of being human.  It declares that my humanity is caught up and inextricably bound up in yours . . . I am because I belong.  The human being is not only a personality, but also a sociality.   Being human is relational and cooperative.

Community is a gift of God in creation, guaranteed in the power of God’s presence.  The chief foundation for human rights arises from the idea of persons being created in the image of God, which implies creation in relation to God the creator and to one another.  Thus, the Biblical view of community is that it first and foremost means being in community with the Creator and with creation in a world dominated by the Empires of Pharaohs, Kings and Emperors from Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Rome and their gods.

Christians in the New Testament era have a dual household identity as well.  They might be called members of the household of some, such as of Stephanas (1 Cor. 1:16, ton Stephanaoikon); of Philemon (Philemon 2); of Cornelius (Acts 11:14); of Lydia (Acts 16:15) and of Crispus (Acts 18:8).  Due to the close association of gatherings of believers and a person’s house, they might also be called the “church that meets at the house of ‘someone’” (Col 4:15).

The New Testament uses the household metaphor of the church much more broadly, as it moves beyond identification with only a single dwelling.  Paul describes the Galatian Christians as “those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10, malista de pros tous oikeious tēs pisteous).  He addresses the Christians at Ephesus as “members of God’s household” (Eph. 2:19, oikeioi tou theou) and “his family in heaven and on earth” (Eph 3:15), and calls the church the “household of God, en oikō theou” (1 Tim 3:15).  Two other NT epistles addressed to members under pressure to dissociate with their brothers and sisters in the faith also refer to the church as the “the household of God, ton oikon tou theou” (Heb10:21; 1 Pet 4:17).

Thus, the NT church has a dual identification that is similar to “the house of Israel”.   It identifies with its physical location denoted by the head of the house where they happen to meet.   Much more, however, it identifies with the Master of the house of whom it is the Master’s possession.   Thus we read in 2 Tim 2:20–21 that God is the ‘despotes’ [=master, ruler, one possessing supreme authority] of the great house, which is his church [Compare this with the concept of the ‘master of the house’ oikodespótēs (Mat 10:25; 13:27, 52; 20:1, 11; 21:33; 24:43; Mark 14:14; Luke 12:39; 13:25; 14:21; 22:11)].  It is the household that belongs to Him.   As with Israel, the idea of possession and separateness moves in a straight line to the concept of the church as the temple of the Holy Spirit; His place of dwelling.

Paul said it clearly,“You are fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household [‘οίκος’] of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, in whom Jesus Christ is the head of the corner; in him you are built up to be a dwelling-place of God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:19–22).  Here,in a ‘tour de force’ Paul uses no less than six words derivative of the word ‘oikos’ to interlink the growth in faith and purposes of the faith community with the sources of their faith.  The spiritual community is referred to ‘paroikos’ (vs 19, stranger, hence: foreign), oikeios (vs 19, members of the household; cf. Gal 6:10), epoikodomeo (vs 20, build on; cf. 1 Cor 3:10, 12, 14; 1 Pet 2:5; Acts 20:32; Col. 2:7; Jude 20), oikodome (vs 21, building, structure; cf. 4:12, 16, 29; see oikodomeo below), synoikodomeo(vs 22, build together), and katoiketerion (vs 22, dwelling-place; cf. Jer 9:10; Rev 18. “House”).

Paul continues to tie together architectural images and church order in 1 Tim 3:15: “In case my coming is delayed, you should know what should be the order in the house [‘οίκος] of God, that is, in the church of the living God, which is the pillar and bulwark of truth.”Order, affirmation of the institution of the church and foundations of truth conveyed through God’s instruments appear in these two passages.

The Westminster Confession similarly affirms: The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of:

  • all those throughout the world that profess the true faith(1 Cor. 1:2, 1 Cor. 12:12–13, Ps 2:8, Rev 7:9, Rom 15:9–12)
  • and of their children: (1 Cor. 7:14, Acts 2:39, Ezek. 16:20–21, Rom. 11:16, Gen. 3:15, Gen. 17:7)
  • and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, (Matt. 13:47, Isa 9:7)
  • the house and family of God, (Eph. 2:19, 3:15) out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation (Acts 2:47).[5]

To summarize

The Old Testament antecedents could not be clearer. God demanded that Pharaoh “Let my people go so that they may worship me in the desert” (Ex. 7:16b) as a specific gathering for worship called a ‘feast unto me’, i.e. to YHWH (Ex. 5:1).  It was God’s choosing, his liberation, his gathering, and his affirmation of Israel as a nation set apart for his worship that created the ‘assembly in the desert’ (Acts 7:38).

This one people of God now is gathered in the New Testament to be God’s house where his glory dwells, and that those who are outsiders to it might declare, “God is with you indeed!’ (1 Cor. 14:25; cf. Isa. 45:14; Zech. 8:22, 23).  Now it is the crucified Christ who is the foundation of God’s household, and in whom God’s liberative solidarity with those who have suffered injustice is the source of praise to God.

The political implication of the household of God as a counter cultural challenge to the Roman household could not be clearer.  To be a member of a Roman household ‘meant refuge and protection, at least as much as the master was able to provide.  It also meant identity and gave the security that comes with a sense of belonging.’[6]  This is the assurance Paul wishes to evoke when he tells the Ephesians they are members of God’s household. “Come to him (Christ), the living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, and build up yourselves as living stones to be a spiritually wrought house for a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices which are acceptable to God, through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:3 ff.).  “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pet 2:9).

Does the ‘household of God’ model do justice to the multi-faceted dimensions of the scriptural portrayal of church and what it means ‘to be church’?

The metaphors or images used for the church in the New Testament are “flock”, “living stones”, “temple of the Holy Spirit”, “the bride of Christ”, “the called out ones”, “the assembly”, “’a chosen people, a royal priesthood , a holy nation, a people belonging to God”, “a city on a hill”, “disciples of Christ”, “vine”, “saints”, “holy brothers/sisters”, and “field.”  To do justice to a theology of church, one must consider the images as facets of a diamond and their Old Testament antecedents must be examined.

The model has a skewed emphasis: “Paroikos’ – “…therefore as aliens and strangers”

For those who would only stress, the ‘at-homeness’ of the ‘οίκος’ model, there is another word derived from ‘οίκος’ which plays an important role in the entirety of Scriptural revelation.  It is the word ‘paroikos’ which derives from the word para– alongside of – and οίκος, house.  It has the idea of someone who lives alongside of the people who belong. King David (1 Chron. 29:15; Ps 39:12) and Peter (1 Pet. 2:11) talk about these kinds of people as aliens and strangers.[7]  They simply do not belong. Abraham, the said father of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, himself is said to be a “stranger and a sojourner” (Gen. 23:4; Heb. 11:9, 13) – someone with no rights, no full citizenship, a foreigner in a land not their own, someone who is passing through.  The notion of parokoi is useful in underscoring that the followers of Christ can only be strangers in a world that rejects them.  Perhaps the concept of paroikos has a stronger resonance for Asian Christians who live as a minority in countries such as Sri Lanka, while the oikos concept resonates more with western Christians living as members of the majority ethnic, cultural and religious groups in their countries. This “unnatural” ‘paroikos’ concept must temper the strong push toward “natural relational networks” that comes with the ‘οίκος’ model.  It was these aliens who received the highest commendation in the Book of Hebrews, namely that the world was not even worthy of them (Heb. 11:38).  Abraham and Moses were shown to be their chief earthly exemplars, with Jesus being the chief God-Man exemplar.

Searching for belonging: “A new creation, the old has past…”

Inadvertently the ‘οίκος’ model could be on a search to make the world to esteem one to be worthy, especially one’s family and those in one’s orbit of influence.  It was the appeal to this sub-standard “court of opinion” that the author of the Book of Hebrews attempted to correct.  He directed them to a surrounding cloud of witnesses (12:1-2), and to the example of the Son whose humiliation led to exaltation.

In Christ a person’s citizenship is no longer on earth (Phil. 3.20).  Their permanent residence is no longer on earth (Heb. 13:14).  Their ultimate affection no longer is attached to their biological family, but to the new family into which they are adopted (Mark 3:35; Rom. 7.4).  The equal status of members of Christian households as children of God was a radical challenge to the biologically inherited status of Roman families, and as such, was a threat to Roman civil order. Peter goes as far as to say that prior to their conversion his audience was a “non-people” (1 Pet. 2:10), but now their sense of belonging and identity comes not from their physical kin, but from their spiritual kin, and this especially from the Master of the new house to which they belong.  Their provision and protection are assured by the new Master of the household, and not by their former.  Their honor is tied up in the honor of the Householder, which in turn is conferred on the Householder by God in Christ, according to the honor (glory) given by the Householder to Christ as Lord and Saviour.

But contrary to the horizon of these affirmations about the Christian life the οίκος model seems to have a subtext that reads, ‘belonging is everything’.   In a natural sense to be a member of a household suggests that within the capacity of the master of the household, one is assured protection and provision.  It also provides a sense of security, identity and belonging.

This may have been a hindrance in the early introduction of Christianity into clan life.  But as increasing numbers of individuals made Christ-ward decisions the momentum shifted toward Christianity motivating others to consider the Christian faith in order to maintain and enhance clan unity.  Clan members do not want to be left behind and endanger solidarity.  These are all very strong appeals. Any system would be wise to use some continuity from these realities, but there are also strong discontinuities in the New Testament.

While Israel remembered its history as slaves in Egypt, the concept of paroikos continued to have a strong influence on social and economic policy and practice in Israel.  One must ask if the lines between biological family and this new family of God have not been excessively blurred by the οίκος model, and the extent to which this blurring may be due to the churches’ incorporation into the globalised economy and its forgetfulness of its history as paroikos.  Perhaps then the church’s relationship to its economic context takes on an idolatrous character that narrows the οίκος model and sentimentalizes the biological family.  Whatever the case, the narrowing of the οίκοςmodel is to the detriment of the church’s self-understanding.

The reality of two houses

When it is all said and done people are either “in Christ” or “outside of Christ”; “covenant keepers” or “covenant breakers”; “the seed of the woman” or the “seed of the serpent” and “children of God” or “children of the devil.”  In short they belong either to the household of God the Father, or the household of Satan [For example: “your father the devil” (John 8.44); “children of the devil” (I John 3.10)]. It appears that the antithesis between the two houses has been blurred at times.  This does lead to the question about the potential for a divided house.  Luke 11:17 states, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls.”  A household pitted against it will certainly self-destruct.  Jesus saw the potential for division.  Might the ‘οίκος’ model as some propose it, be an attempt to mix water and gasoline in the same house?

New common community and common interests

The Book of Hebrews was a call to mobilize a group with the potential for disintegration, under a call to galvanize themselves with a “positive identity as a community of outsiders.” In this new economy (Gk. oikonome) individuals are now part of the universal collective people of God, the Body of Christ as the clan of the redeemed and the Temple of the Holy Spirit which is the dwelling place of the Jealous God.  For Paul, this was given concrete expression in the collection he raised through his churches for the ‘mother’ church in Jerusalem.

Whereas those who are not in Christ are described as walking in the futility of their minds (Rom. 1:21; Eph. 4:17) and living in passions of lust and sensuality (1 Thess. 4:5; 1 Pet. 4:3) and according to the flesh, the new household has a new raison d’être.  It exists to sanctify Christ in its heart, to do all to the glory of God, to set its mind on the things that are above, to be holy and perfect as the Father in Heaven is perfect and holy, to collectively run the race with endurance, and to see the edification (Gk. oikodomein) of the saints.

Sacred trust

Those who are entrusted with the mysteries of the gospel are called stewards (oikonomos) or managers over the house (1 Cor. 4:1).  They neither own the house nor are its architect.   This should temper any overzealous tinkering with how to extend the household, while having a weighty knowledge that each steward carries delegated responsibility and will need to make an accounting to the Master of the house who is both King and Judge.   Yet in the context of international ecumenical relationships, the experience of many in Asia is that this is not a shared understanding of our churches living together in the household of God.  The reality of neo-colonialism seems to shift the accounting of aid-receiving churches from the Master to the treasurer of the one who holds the purse-strings.  Faithfulness is the concept that links the stewards of Jesus’ parables and the idea in Paul (Luke 12:42; 16:10 f.; Matt. 25:21, 23).  In 1 Tim. 1:4, Paul contrasts faithful stewardship and false teaching.  How may we who live together in Asia be faithful stewards when there is only limited trust from risk-averse grant-making ‘partners’?

The Householder’s definite plan

The plan of salvation (oikonomia) is mentioned in Eph. 1:10 and 3:9 as something in the mind of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  There is no doubt as well that God worked through family units in salvation history, with examples like Noah, Abraham, David, Lydia and the jailer, and will continue to so in history.

Coming again to Raiser, Raiser cites the many ways in which the Hebrew Bible is underpinned by this keyword.  It is given in creation, and it unfolds in Israel as the “oikos of God.”  Jews receive God’s house rules (oikonomia), which aim at sustaining their relationships, their co-existence, their grounds for cooperation, and their humanity as such within the household.  Above all else these house rules are meant to protect the humanity and the livelihood of the weakest and poorest in the oikos.  In the more than twenty years since Raiser wrote, it is difficult to see how the oikumene has become a new paradigm for the international ecumenical movement.  Perhaps the emergence of this theme has the character of God’s judgment.  Perhaps it is creating a space for Asian churches to demand an accounting of how well we are living together globally in God’s household.  And if the house rules are clear to us, and I believe they are, then perhaps part of that accounting needs to examine the failures of our churches to uphold the vibrant vision our theme puts before us.

Conclusion

The strength of the ‘οίκος model’ is its rediscovery of the corporate, relational and organic aspects of Christianity, and its location of that model household in a world characterized by idolatry, violence and injustice. Yet it is but one model in scripture for what it means to be ‘church’, and perhaps it is these other models that remind us that our ultimate choice is to discern the Master’s purposes, rather than choosing a model for being church that suits our human preferences.

Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house (LXX ‘oikia’), we will serve the Lord (Joshua 4.15).

xxxxxxx

[1]K. Raiser, Ecumenism in Transition: A paradigm Shift in the Ecumenical Movement? Geneva: WCC, 1991, pp. 87-88

[2]Bauer, Walter, William Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature: A Translation and Adaptation of Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-DeutschesWörterbuchZu Den Schriften Des Neuen Testaments Und Der ÜbrigenUrchristlichenLiteratur, 4th Rev. and Augm. Ed., 1952 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), pp. 560-561.

[3] W. Brueggemann,  An Introduction to the Old Testament: the Canon and Christian Imagination Louiseville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2003, p.22

[4]D. Feddes, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983, pp. 29-30.

[5]The Westminster Confession of Faith (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996), Chapter XXV, p. 2.

[6] P. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Wiliam B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999, p. 212.

[7]Moses Chin, “A Heavenly Home for the Homeless: Aliens and Strangers in 1 Peter”, in Tyndale Bulletin 42.1 (May 1991), pp. 96-112.

by
the Rt. Rev. Dr Daniel S. Thiagarajah PhD.
bishopthiagarajah@gmail.com