I quoted Hoener’s excuses on the household codes (or the Haustafel) several years ago, but it came up again in this semester’s reading on interpreting the new Testament. I think the authors’ point here is exactly right:
Numerous ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman sources contain sections of instruction for individuals in a relationship of authority or submission.. Often these instructions focused on relationships within the extended household: husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves. Scholars thus refer to these materials as “domestic” or “household” codes, following Luther’s use of the German term Haustafeln. Eph 5:22, Col 3:18-41, and 2 Pet 2:13-3:7 form three clear examples of this form. Probably the most significant discovery that emerges from a comparison of canonical and extra-canonical Haustafeln concerns the radical nature of the value the Christians placed on the subordinate partner in each relationship. Modern readers should still submit to those people and institutions traditionally seen as authorities over them. but few if any ancient readers would have concentrated on this. They took submission fro granted but were probably shocked to read of the strict limitations imposed on the authority of husbands, parents, and masters. perhaps if the Church today paid more attention to obeying these latter commands, the former ones would not seem to oppressive. (p. 456)
This is an essential, historical perspective. Far too many people think, “The New Testament supports slavery because it says, ‘Slaves obey your masters.'” When he’s actually specifying how they should be treated and he tells the “masters” that they have a master in heaven and should following the golden rule accordingly. That’s radical. We can have a fuller discussion some other time (and for an incredible interesting overview of Christians debating slavery around the period of the Civil War, check our Mark Noll’s book The Civil War As Theological Crisis), but the principle being highlighted here is bedrock: historical and sociological context matters.