“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.
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!