This article looks at the concept of house and household throughout Luke and Acts. Luke uses this concept to describe how the gospel changes social structures. The author discusses the kingdom and the organization of the early church.

Source: Lux Mundi, 2013. 5 pages.

How Did the Strangers and Sojourners Live? Oikos in Luke: notes on a core Lucan concept

In our time, the ‘home’ or ‘house’ is primarily a matter that relates to one’s personal circumstances. The continuing process of individualization touches almost every sphere of life and every social relationship. This article consists mostly of a Biblical and theological reflection on the sociological and theological significance of the concept of oikos: house(hold), as Luke uses it. In this way, I would like to contribute to further reflection on this concept as it was then, and as it is now.

Lexicographic background🔗

It is important to understand the Old Testament and classical background of the terms oikos and oikia, for example as they are used in the LXX. Already at an early stage, there was a clear connection between oikos as a house and as a temple, the house of God, the treasury, the palace, the king’s house. It is frequently used in a religious sense, as a place of worship.

At the same time, there is a strong and frequent reference to those who share the home, and (family) possessions. In addition, we should note its religious sense as a ‘house of prayer’.

In the New Testament, the term ‘house’ is linked to the Kingdom of God. Just as strongly, ‘house’ is linked to the assembly of believers in the early church. Much of the instruction found in the epistles addresses ‘households’; clearly they are of great importance.

In classical Greek, oikos refers not only to the building, the dwelling, but also to the persons living in it: the household, the family. Oikos is also used to describe ‘belongings’ in the broadest sense of the word, the house and all the goods and possessions found in it.

It is striking how often Luke uses the term oikos. In the gospel of Luke (ch 19:5, 9) and in the Acts (ch 10:2, 22, 30; 11:12-14), he sometimes uses it, in one and the same context, to mean both ‘house’ and ‘family’.

Social and community aspects🔗

A sociological approach can be used to explore the relevance of ‘oikos’ as Luke uses it. The political context – Roman rule – and the bond God has with the ‘land’ both come into play.

Sociologically speaking, Luke profoundly challenges the commonly-held codes and knowledge of his day by combining them with alternative structures. That has a significant bearing on Luke’s use of the concept of oikos in his time.

Kingdom and well-being in Luke 4🔗

Luke 4:16-43 is essential and programmatic for the understanding of the Kingdom, as Jesus proclaims it. For Luke, this concerns especially the poor of the land. Central to the social and economic relationships of the time was the question: to whom does the land belong? Leviticus 25:23 (ESV) reads:

“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me.”

For the household especially, it is important that land is available to sustain life; this is a basic and salutary institution.

The Kingdom and changes in the meaning of ‘household’🔗

Jesus’ coming had an effect on social structures also. In Luke 12:49-53 we read that Jesus had not come to bring peace on earth. For Jesus’ disciples, social relationships and responsibilities have changed. Service in His house is not a matter of family relationships; rather, it comes from knowing His revelation, and from being shaped by it. In Luke’s time, the confession of Christ often led to the break-up of social relationships. Jesus’ actions in regard to his family in Luke 8:19-21 are very instructive: it is no longer biological criteria that determine relationships (see also Luke 11:27ff).

The Kingdom and the table for the poor🔗

Within a household, sharing the table was highly significant. Hence, Jesus’ forgiveness finds visible expression especially in fellowship around the table. Luke 15:2 and Mark 2:15 show that this provoked strong resistance. By eating a piece of the broken bread, each person partaking of the meal shares in the blessing that the head of the household has pronounced over it. Luke portrays the oikos as an open house. The table is no longer closed, but open, with all the social consequences that follow. At that time, social structures were based on reciprocity, on maintaining the status quo. As such, they reinforced the great contrast between rich and poor. Within a culture of honour and shame, a restricted circle of the (mutually supporting) wealthy exploited the great mass of the poor. Within the overall structure of society, everyone’s place and position was firmly fixed.

By contrast, within Luke’s depiction of the oikos, the poor are no longer oppressed. Instead, they receive space and find joy. It is very striking that in Luke 1:46­-55 and 6:20-26, social relationships are overturned. This thought also returns in Luke 14:12-14. With royal generosity, Jesus teaches a liberal and open-handed invitation to share in His bounty. In this way, the open table has become a visible proclamation of the Kingdom. The oikos has a social impact also.

The King claims the household🔗

Jesus took a critical position in regard to the relationship between patrons and their subordinates in His time. This had consequences for His view of power and control over others. Among Jesus’ disciples, fathers are conspicuous by their absence. James and John, members of the ‘intermediate generation’ of a larger household, are counted among His followers, but their father Zebedee is not. The coming of the Kingdom changes their position within the household, and that sets up tensions. Luke 18:28-30 is telling, in that it explicitly mentions the leaving of house and home, parents and family, etc. In Luke 8:1-3, a number of women, acting as ‘heads of households’, follow Jesus. And what are the implications of Luke 12:33 and 14:33 for men and their households? For Jesus and His disciples (after all, they have left everything for the Kingdom), a hospitable welcome into the homes of believers is essential for missionary growth.

Is the Kingdom egalitarian?🔗

Some have argued that the ‘Jesus movement’ of the first centuries set aside patriarchal family structures and replaced them with an ‘association of equals’.1 By contrast, others have pointed to the continuing importance of hierarchical structures within the oikos of the church.2 Slaves remain slaves, and masters remain masters. Oikos as a model has not been overthrown but redefined. In Mark and Luke, oikos and everything that comes with it ‘remain the basic ecclesial metaphor’.3 And that is entirely in line with the vision and actions of Jesus.

Theological significance🔗

The Kingdom or basileia is fundamental for the new ‘household’. What does Luke base that on, theologically? The reign of God has been revealed in Jesus Christ. In principle, that has changed everything, including the house(hold). Increasingly, oikos becomes the expression of the ideal fellowship, a social unity with a theological foundation. Here, all share in the labour, all are fed, and all protect the other.

The reign of the Father (of the house)🔗

In Luke, the dominion of God is especially accented in the person of the Father. For Luke, the Fatherhood of God is very important (see Luke 11:2-13, and 12:32). In particular, the parable of the lost son (Luke 15) throws light on this Fatherhood. In a very special way, Jesus shows us the nearness of the reign of God. Right at its core, we see the love of God and the goodness of the Father.

The proclamation of the love of God and the goodness of the Father.

The reign of God has become tangible in the evident rescue of the lost, and the joy over their salvation, the gift of the Father’s love. Seeking the lost (Luke 19:10) is the core of the Saviour’s work, and that is the Father’s will (Luke 10:21). The three parables of Luke 15 culminate in the Father’s joy over the return of His lost children. The Kingdom is opened to them. Luke 15:20 portrays the primacy of the fatherly love of God. Such a portrayal would have strongly challenged the social norms of the day. Luke, however, values it positively, and in so doing creates conditions for return and confession of guilt. In this way, repentance becomes a gift, worked by the Father’s love.

The Father of Luke 15, seen through Eastern eyes🔗

Luke’s attention for the role of the pater familias is significant, in view of its social and historical context. Oikos was largely understood as a synonym for power, possessions and privilege. The pater familias of Luke 15 determines the nature of the relationship. Seen against the background of his time and culture, Luke’s portrayal of the father is all the more challenging, because he refrains from dictating or fully exercising his fatherly power and authority. For the father to act as he does, in this situation, is actually quite shocking. What will become of the family name, which the young son has so grossly dishonoured?

Within the social structures of the day, oikos stood for the control and management of the household’s possessions. As Luke portrays it, this father creates within his household a place for its members to live. This provision transcends relationships between individuals. It is determined by real needs, and by true fellowship under the grace and mercy of God.

The Son of Man in Zacchaeus’ house, the Friend of tax collectors and sinners🔗

In Luke 19:1-10, Jesus invites Himself, as it were, to be a guest in Zacchaeus’ house, and Zacchaeus receives Him joyfully (vv. 5, 6). This joy is expressed in a radical change of life (v.8). Jesus’ words show just how far-reaching, how liberating, how life-giving this encounter is; how it brings salvation, not just for Zacchaeus, but for his whole family and household. It goes to the very heart of the mission Jesus was given by His Father. The salvation of the Kingdom is proclaimed in all its breadth, no matter how fiercely such a proclamation might be resisted (see Luke 7:34 and Matthew 11:19).

Oikos in the Acts🔗

The basic threads of Luke 10 and 19 are seen to return in the book of Acts. In Acts 10:22, the household of Cornelius has a prominent role. Peter is invited to come into the house, and there the centurion and all his household are instructed in the gospel (Acts 10: 24b, 27 and 33; see also Acts 11:14). Other significant instances occur in Acts 16, with the conversion of Lydia and of the prison keeper in Philippi. When Lydia is baptized (Acts 16:15), those of her household are explicitly included. Further, she opens her house to the apostles. Similarly, we read in Acts 16:31 and 34 of the changes that take place within the prison keeper’s household.

Acts 18 recounts how Crispus, the synagogue ruler in Corinth, comes to faith in the Lord. Again, we see how his whole household is included (v.8). And the effect of this conversion on the surrounding community is explicitly mentioned.

Oikos in the early church🔗

In addition to its sociological and theological dimensions, it is worth paying attention to the significance of oikos for the ecclesiology of the early Christian church.

The house of God as a house of prayer🔗

The Old Testament background of the use of oikos as ‘house of God’ and ‘house of prayer’ should be noted. The Christian church is the temple of God, the oikos of God, if you like, a spiritual house. This is part of the Christian proclamation of the gospel. Father’s house (Luke 2:49) and the Kingdom of God cannot be separated. In this context, John 8:35 and 14:2 also have much to tell us.

Oikos and oikia as descriptors for the Christian congregation🔗

The relationship between oikos as the congregation and as the place of assembly is also important. Studies in archaeology and social history show that in the first centuries of the church, the family home was often the place of worship for the congregation, and its base of operations for missionary activity. Acts 2:46, 5:42 and 12:12 point in this direction. It seems reasonable to conclude that many early Christian communities in Palestine had the financial means and access to larger and more spacious dwellings typical of Greco-Roman architecture.

Oikos and Pauls’ missionary activity🔗

Here, we see links between the Book of Acts and the letters of Paul. Where the owner of a house came to faith, this had strategic effects for further missionary activity, and provided the needed financial support. Acts 18:7-8 provides a striking example of such a situation in Corinth. The role that Aquila and Priscilla played is another such example (see 1 Corinthians 16:19 and Romans 16:3-5).

Recent studies🔗

In recent times there has been more explicit attention for interdisciplinary work in sociology, archaeology and theology, to come to a sharper and more detailed picture of the early Christian church and its meeting places. In addition to larger family dwellings, evidence shows that such meetings also took place in ‘non-elite taverns,’ usually with a courtyard or similar that was open to the public.4 In addition, more research is being done into the role of the pater/mater familias in shaping the religious practice of the entire household. Further investigation into the complex structure of households of the time is also taking place.5

Summary and conclusions🔗

Especially in the two works of Luke, oikos is a core concept with a number of different aspects. Its linguistic and lexical roots already point to a diversity of meanings.

From the perspectives of both sociology and economics, oikos is of key significance for the livelihood of the household, and for peace and joy within it.

Luke sounds critical notes concerning practices of his day around oikos and oikonomia. He singles out institutionalized forms of patronage, reciprocity and exploitation, critically exposing them to the light of the dominion of God.

The theological significance of oikos is chiefly to be found in the Fatherhood of the King, and the room that is created within the house and the heart of the Father for those who are lost.

Jesus gives expression to this by making the oikos an open house, a table fellowship to which all are welcomed. In this way, the oikos gains an eschatological perspective.

The structure of the early Christian church was largely shaped by the way it assembled as house fellowships. Oikos became the place where salvation was preached and celebrated, a place where the konoinia of the Lord was practised. For this countercultural community, oikos also became a point of departure for missionary activity. As a result, Luke increasingly brings out the contours of the fulfilment of Genesis 12:3.

Paying careful attention to the house(hold) as Luke describes it will help us understand more clearly how early Christians lived. Having an eye and a heart for oikos as a core concept will lead us, as children of the Kingdom, to make room for ‘displaced persons’, especially in our time. And that will create a perspective of hope in a world full of the threat of exclusion and disintegration.

1 This translation by Aart Plug, by arrangement with the author, February 2013. Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations and references are taken from the New International Version of the Bible, (NIV), 1984 edition.


  1. ^ I think here of the views of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza
  2. ^ John H. Elliott, ‘The Jesus Movement Was Not Egalitarian but Family-Oriented’, Biblical Interpretation, A Journal of Contemporary Approaches, Vol. XI, no. 2, Leiden 2003, pp.173-210.
  3. ^ John H. Elliott, ‘The Jesus Movement’, p.200.
  4. ^ David L. Balch, ‘The Church Sitting in a Garden’, in David L. Balch & Annette Weissenrieder, (eds.), Contested Spaces. Houses and Temples in Roman Antiquity and the New Testament, (WUNT 285), Tübingen 2012, pp.201-235.
  5. ^ Beryl Rawson, ‘“The Roman Family” in Recent Research. State of the Question’, Biblical Interpretation, A Journal of Contemporary Approaches, Vol. XI, no.2, Leiden 2003, pp.119-138.

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