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A few weeks back, I was studying the Greek text of The Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matthew 21:33-46). I stumbled across the word for landowner, and I chuckled to myself. The word was οἰκοδεσπότης (oikodespotes), from the word oikos, meaning household, and the word despotes, which is the root word for the English word “despot.” The landowner in the parable was a symbol for God, the one who planted the vineyard, constructed a fence around it, dug out the wine press, and built a watchtower. Everything in the vineyard belonged to the landowner, and despite his authority, the landowner suffered the loss of his own son at the hands of the wicked tenants.

As I dug more deeply into the Greek, I noticed my lexicon pointed out that the word oikodespotes (albeit in verb form) was also found in 1 Timothy 5:14. I was puzzled by that, and I decided to check it out.

In the NRSV, 1 Timothy 5:14 reads, “So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, and manage their households” (emphasis mine).

The New Living Translation renders the word in this verse “take care of their own homes.”

The New American Standard translates it as “keep house.”

Most translations use the word “manage,” but a few (such as the American Standard Version) use the word “rule.”

“Keep house” sounds like cleaning. But “rule” sounds like leadership.

So, how are we to understand this word in the context of a woman’s role in the home?

With such a wide variety of possible translations for this word, perhaps it would be helpful to consider all of the other ways this word (oikodespotes) has been used in the New Testament.

Oikodespotes in the New Testament

The word oikodespotes (and the verb form oikodespoteo) occurs almost exclusively in the Gospels, except for the one usage in 1 Timothy 5:14. Six times it is translated “owner of the house” (Matthew 24:43; Mark 14:14; Luke 12:39, 13:25, 14:21, 22:11). Three times it is translated “landowner” (Matthew 20:1, 11; Matthew 21:33).   It is also translated once as “master of the house” (Matthew 10:25), once as “householder” (Matthew 13:27), once as “master of the household” (Matthew 13:52), and once translated in verb form as “manage their households” (1 Timothy 5:14).

In the Gospels, nearly every usage of this word is in the context of a parable, but twice Jesus uses this word to talk about the person who owned the house with the upper room. Once, Jesus uses it in a way that makes reference to himself (or to God, Matthew 10:25). In the parables, three times the word refers to some, unknown owner of a house (Matt. 24:43, Matthew 13:52, Matthew 12:39). In the rest of the parables, the word refers to a landowner, or master of the house, as a reference to God (Matthew 13:27; Matthew 20: 1, 11; Matthew 21:33; Luke 13:25; Luke 14:21).

In the rest of the New Testament, this word occurs only once (as a verb), and it is in reference to the way Paul calls younger, remarried widows to function in their households.

Every single time the word is used in the Gospels, it is used to refer to someone with authority. It is a term of leadership and status. The oikodespotes was one to be respected and honored. And, in the case of God as oikodespotes, the parables make it clear that God has ultimate authority.

In 1 Timothy 5, Paul urges the community to take care of their widows. Widows were to be treated with respect, and they were to be people devoted to prayer. Younger widows were in a strange position, though. They were still in childbearing years, and many still desired to be married. But, because remarriage was frowned upon, and widows were urged to remain single, many of the younger widows were having a hard time remaining unmarried, and it seems as though some of them had taken to lazily mooching off of the generosity of other people.

Paul says they ought to remarry rather than allow their “sensual desires [to] alienate them from Christ,” and he urges them to have children and manage their households. Rather than being consumed with lives of laziness and sinfulness, Paul gives them the lofty task of household management.

Given the way this word is used throughout the rest of Scripture, I don’t think it is accurate to translate this word “keep house.” This word is one of leadership. Leadership that seeks to emulate God’s perfect, self-giving leadership. Paul gives them authority in the home.

But, even though authority is a large part of this word, I do not think it is appropriate to translate this word “rule.” Earlier in 1 Timothy 3, Paul gives instructions to church bishops. He says a bishop must, “manage his own household well”(1 Timothy 3:4). The word here is proistamenon, a word which can also mean “to rule.” But this word is not license for domination. It is a word that also values showing concern, care, and giving assistance. [1] The NRSV latches onto the nuanced leadership of both oikodespotes and proistamenon and translates them both as “manage the household.”

This is an important exegetical move. Management of the household for a woman does not mean she is only to fill her moments with cooking, cleaning, and changing diapers. Management of the household for a man is not one of tyrannical authority, nor avoidance of all “domestic” responsibilities. Here in 1 Timothy we see a call for mutuality, a kind of management of the household that models the self-giving love of God.

Paul’s call for younger widows to “marry, bear children, and manage their households,” isn’t a call to so-called “domestic duties” only. Paul gives them authority, and then tells them to use it well. He calls them to authority that models the way God loves us. He calls them to step up and lead with the gifts he has given them. He issues the same call to husbands as well.

And although Paul’s words here were originally written to younger widows, his words contain truth for all women, too. His instructions to widows regarding remarriage would largely have been seen as a concession, and it is difficult to imagine that Paul would give these women more authority as a concession than he gave to women who were marrying for the first time. God has given women and mothers authority to lead in the family, but it is not to be authoritarian or lop-sided leadership. In short, men and women must lead together for the good of their households.

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[1] A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (BDAG), revised and edited by Frederick William Danker

Scripture References Using Oikodespotes/Oikodespoteo (NRSV)

Matthew 10:25 – “…it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!”

Matthew 13:27 – “And the slaves of the householder ca,e and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?'”

Matthew 13:52 – “And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.'”

Matthew 20:1 – “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.”

Matthew 20:11 – “And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner…”

Matthew 21:33 – “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower.”

Matthew 24:43 – “But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.”

Mark 14:14 – “…and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?'”

Luke 12:39 – “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.”

Luke 13:25 – “When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then in reply he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you come from.'”

Luke 14:21 – “So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.'”

Luke 22:11 – “…and say to the owner of the house, ‘The teacher asks you, Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?'”

1 Timothy 5:14 – “So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, and manage their households, so as to give the adversary no occasion to revile us.”