156. What does oikonomia mean? (Ephesians 3:2)

Writers in the New Testament (NT) employed a number of cognate terms formed from the verb oikonomeō which means to “manage, administer or plan” but more specifically to “manage a household.” Luke is the only NT writer to employ this verb (16:2) and he does so within one of Jesus’ parables, “the parable of the shrewd manager (16:1-9).” The wealthy owner accuses his “manager” (oikonomos, v. 1) of wasteful “management” or inappropriate use of his managerial office” (oikonomia, v. 2) and announces that he is about to fire him from his position. The result will be that he no longer “is able any longer to serve as manager/manage the estate” (oikonomein, v. 2). It is difficult in various NT contexts to distinguish between oikonomia as an office of management and the activities associated with that office.

Philo links oikonomia closely with household management (Ebrietate 91-92), “economic, with the management of the house.” A similar meaning occurs in Joseph 38 where Joseph’s appointment by Potiphar as steward of his household is repeatedly described as oikonomia. “The future statesman needed first to be trained and practised in house management (oikonomian); for a house is a city compressed into small dimensions, and household management may be called a kind of state management,…” In his essay Somnis I.205 he uses this term to describe one of the features of good rhetoric, namely arrangement and organization.

Luke also used this terminology at 12:42 where he defines a “wise and faithful manager (oikonomos), whom the master puts in charge of his servants” to care for them. Peter also used the term oikonomos (1 Peter 4:10) to urge believers to be “good managers of God’s diverse grace,” referring to stewarding of spiritual gifts provided by God. All of the other uses occur in Paul’s letters (oikonomia 1 Corinthians 9:17; Ephesians 1:10: 3:2, 9; Colossians 1:25; 1 Timothy 1:4; oikonomos Romans 16:23; 1 Corinthians 4:1, 2; Galatians 4:2; Titus 1:7).

When you compare the account of Jesus’ parable in Luke 12:42 with its parallel in Matthew 24:45, it is clear that an oikonomos often served as a doulos (slave) in a household. The management  (oikonomia) of an estate usually involved administration of the finances as well. However, in many contexts the oikonomos was a free person (e.g. Luke 16:1, 8). Erastus in Romans 16:23 is the oikonomos of the city of Corinth. We also find the term epitropos used similarly to describe the “manager of Herod’s household” (Luke 8:2; cf. Matthew 20:8). It is evident from inscriptions around the time of the New Testament that an oikonomos could be rather young, i.e., in his twenties, and occasionally a woman functioned in this role.

The scope of oikonomia, however, extends far beyond the household. In Paul’s case he employs this term several times to describe the specific responsibility that the Messiah gave him. For example, in 1 Corinthians 9:17 he claims that “I have been entrusted with an administrative office (oikonomian).” This occurs in a context where he is defending his apostolic role and rights. According to Colossians 1:25 God has given him an oikonomian that includes “presenting the word of God” to the Colossians. NIV translates oikonomian here as “commission” but it equally could be rendered as “administrative office/position.” In the same verse he describes himself as the diakonos of the church. Similar language occurs in Ephesians 3:2. Because of this divine commission Paul claims that he is an oikonomos mustēriōn theou (“steward of the mysteries of God” 1 Corinthians 4:2).

The only two uses of oikonomia in the Greek Old Testament (Isaiah 22:19-21) carry this significance of office. Yahweh warns Somnas, the treasurer, that he will remove him from his office (oikonomia) and give it to Eliakim (tēn oikonomian sou dōsō eis tas xeiras autou “I will give your office into his hands”). Similarly Josephus describes Pharaoh’s appointment of Joseph as his second in command employed this term (autōi tēn oikonomian paradidōsin “committed to him this office” Antiquities 2.89; a paraphrase of Genesis 41:39-40).

This term also seems to convey the idea of arrangement, order, plan or strategy.  In the Testament of Abraham B.7.17 Michael, the angel of the Lord, explains that through Isaac’s dream Abraham teleiōs gar ēkousas tēn oikonomian sou (“you have heard perfectly the plan concerning you”). The plan is God’s plan for Abraham’s family. Within the papyri it defines many different kinds of actions, particularly legal or judicial. For example in BGU 361, col. III.2 a legal expert is described as ho nomikos ho tēn oikonomian grapsas (“the legal expert who wrote the agreement/contract/arrangement”). Twice in Ephesians 1:10 and 3:9 it probably has this sense.Paul affirms in Ephesians 3:9 that God, the creator, has acted graciously through Paul in order to enable everyone to discern hē oikonomia tou mustēriou (“the administration/arrangement/plan of this mystery”). It is related to the expression kata prothesin tōn aiōnōn (“according to his eternal purpose” 3:11). However, God’s “plan” involves the church (3:10).

In Ephesians 1:9-10 we discover the same terms that Paul employed in 3:9-11, namely mustērion, the verb protithēmi which is cognate with prothesis, and gnōrizō (make known). It is difficult to know for sure what the prepositional phrase eis oikonomian tou plērōmatos tōn kairōn (NIV renders it as “to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment”). Hoehner (Ephesians. An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mi.: BakerAcademic, 2002, 216) renders it as “in the administration of the fullness of the times,..,” and argues that it modifies the immediately preceding verb proetheto, i.e., “which he purposed…in the administration of the fullness of times, to unite under one head all things.” He regards the temporal sense of the preposition eis as the most probable meaning in this context. If this is correct then in Ephesians 1:9 Paul is explaining that God intends to unite all things under Christ and he will accomplish this as he executes his plans in the fullness of time.  

Alternatively, Markus Barth in Ephesians 1-3 (Anchor Bible 34; Garden City, NY.: Doubleday, 1974, 86-88, 127-28) argues that eis oikonomian is a reference to the role of the Messiah who administers or stewards the implementation of God’s plan and exercises God’s rule as his oikonomos over all other powers. He translates vv. 9-10 as “He has made known to us the secret of his decision — for he has set his favor first upon Christ that he should administer the days of fulfillment — ‘All things are to be comprehended under one head, the Messiah, those in heaven and upon earth — under him.'”

There is one other context where oikonomia occurs in Paul’s writings and that is 1 Timothy 1:4 (mallon ē oikonomian theou tēn en pistei ). Its meaning in this context is contested. Danker (BDAG 698, 3) suggests the sense “program of instruction, training (in the way of salvation).” Dibelius-Conzelmann (The Pastoral Epistles, Fortress Press, 1972, 18) indicate that such a meaning “is late and attested in a limited circle of literature” and so prefers the second meaning noted by Danker, namely “the realization of God’s purpose which has to do with faith.” NIV adopts the second sense by translating “rather than advancing God’s work–which is by faith.”

This cluster of terminology is sometimes interpreted as a significant metaphor which compares God’s management of his kingdom with human management of cities or households. Just as rulers or owners of households appoint an oikonomos to manage their affairs so God appoints Paul and others to similar roles, giving them an oikonomia related to the accomplishment of his plans.