“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:31)
One of the basic beliefs of Christianity is that each human being will stand before God and give an account for his/her existence. That truth holds for each and every one of us, individually.
Recently I was reminded that some promote the idea “that salvation can come to each person by proxy”. This is usually spoken of in relation to family. The argument follows, “when the head of the household is converted each member of the family is also saved based on his faith.” I cannot agree.
I decided to go to the texts that are usually shown to prove this point. Namely, Acts 11:14, 16:31– and sometimes 16:15, 18:8; or 1 Corinthians 16:15.
On of the first principles of Bible interpretation (hermeneutics) we can refer to as “reading the text in their town.” We must begin with an affirmation, while Biblical texts are applicable to all people in all times, God spoke through the biblical writers while they lived in specific culture and context. This helps us understand what the Bible actually means. How can knowledge of “households” in this period help us understand these texts?
First, the basic unit of the ancient city was the household. It was through individual households that Christianity initially spread. It is important to remember that the Greek word for “household” (oikos) has broader perspective than our idea of family.
In the ancient world the family was not defined so much by kinship, but by the relationship of dependence and subordination. The head of the household was responsible not only for his immediate family, but also for his slaves, former slaves, hired laborers, and sometimes business associates and tenants. The head of the household, by normal expectations of the society, would exercise some authority over the group but mainly have legal responsibility for it. Therefore, it was expected that the “head” look out for the well being of those in his household.
Second, the household was a network. It was under this structure that the early church thrived. While it is commonly assumed that each Greco-Roman “household” shared in the same faith of its “head”, it is important to note that “not every” member of a household became a Christian when the head of the house did, as the case of Onesimus shows (read Philemon). Certainly, we understand that faith, not association, is necessary for salvation.
I think it is safe to say that once the “head of the household” heard and believed the gospel one of two things happened;
1. The missionaries were invited to come and share this message with those in his “household” (or network). It was through this process that the whole household would hear the Gospel, and those who believed were saved. (Acts 16:32-34)
2. The “head of the household” would share the Gospel message with those who were associated under his authority.
While those in a household were sometimes expected to follow the religion of its “head” the conversion was not automatic. But, it could be expected that all in the household would hear the gospel if the “head” was converted.
Either way, I do not think there are grounds to argue that all those under the care of “head” were granted salvation by proxy.
Remember, in the ancient world the “household” was a tight knit group. Privacy was rare, even among those out side the household. Much of life was lived in close proximity to those around you. Not much that happened in a neighborhood would escape the eyes of the neighbors. News traveled rapidly.
This, if anything, shows our modern individualistic conception of evangelism a bit off. The fact that “whole households” came to faith shows the power of the gospel message when it is proclaimed and witnessed to through the power of the Holy Spirit.
When the “head of a household” was converted this news was certainly shared with those under his care. It was through this structure that the Spirit used individuals (“heads of households”) to spread this message through close knit household networks, the most intimate form of evangelism!
4 thoughts on “Faith by Proxy and the Salvation of Households?”
To see the family members being saved just because of the conversion of the family’s head does not make much sense really.
But do you think there could be a possibility that certain christian schools of thought have different opinion in this regard?
My knowledge of religion is quite limited. At least, Islam does not advocate such a concept of salvation (as far as I know of it being a Muslim).
Thanks for the comment. In some ways this is a question of what the teachers actually mean. In this blog post I was hoping to establish that there are certain rules that help us accurately interpret Bible texts. There are many teachers who have national audiences who do not follow these guidelines. This is why it is important to use hermeneutic principles when seeking to understand what the Biblical writers actually mean.
If we believe that the Bible is truly God’s word, we should seek to interpret the texts with the utmost care. In the Bible we have the revelation of God to humanity, the story of God’s beautiful plan of redemption, the gospel of Jesus Christ
Any teaching that is not in accord with this message does more harm than good.
nice… I stumbled across your blog. Nice work i’m excited to keep reading. I’m a pastor in DC. area… I was in Indonesia a few weeks ago.. I was with a new convert that lived in an area where there were virtually no Christians. … He was newly regenerated and he had only read the bible…No discipleship. So we are out witnessing and he launches out with acts 16:31 and tells a guy that if he repents his whole house will be redeemed…. it shocked me, i graciously corrected his theological blunder… and he was thankful for the explanation… Im… gunna send your post to him so that he can sharpen up. Thanks!
Are you Reformed in the sense you believe in infant baptism due to covenantal inclusion of children?
This is one of the texts being used for that view.