What Is Household Conversion?
by Jacob Hudgins
“And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household’”(Acts 16:31).
The New Testament stories of conversion often include little snippets like this that hint at the tremendous influence a father or family leader could have. Very often when a man converted to Christianity, his “household” would follow suit.
When Households Convert
Before converting, Cornelius was “a devout man who feared God with all his household”(Acts 10:2). This implies that, though a Gentile, Cornelius taught his family and servants about the true God and encouraged them to fear him too. In a vision, an angel tells Cornelius that Peter would “declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household”(Acts 11:14). After Cornelius and his household hear the gospel and receive the Holy Spirit, they are baptized (Acts 10:44-48). Cornelius is saved—and all his household.
Lydia is an apparently wealthy (and perhaps single) “seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God”(Acts 16:14). “And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay’”(Acts 16:15). Not only does Lydia believe, but her household also is baptized.
The Philippian jailer returns home in the middle of the night with Paul and Silas. Paul tells him to “believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household”(Acts 16:31). Notably, Luke points out that “they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house”(Acts 16:32). The jailer is then “baptized at once, he and all his family”(Acts 16:33), after which “he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God”(Acts 16:34). The whole household hears the message of Jesus, believes it, and is baptized.
Other examples offer little supplemental information. “Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household”(Acts 18:8). Paul remembers baptizing the household of Stephanas (1 Cor 1:16). There are numerous references to the “church in their house”(Rom 16:5, 1 Cor 16:19, Col 4:15, Philemon 2) which can mean either the house (building) or the family.
These household conversions raise some questions.
Do household conversions imply force? Abraham forces his servants to be circumcised (Gen 17:23-27) as a sign of his covenant with God. It is easy to view Christian conversions this way. Family members and servants simply must follow the religious leanings of their master.
Yet the evidence argues against this. It is ruled out, first, by principle. Christianity is contingent on personal faith and repentance. No one can force us into it and it cannot be done by proxy. “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned”(Mark 16:16). John writes “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name”(John 20:31). While faith has certain accompanying behaviors, it is fundamentally a matter of mind and will.
So it is not surprising that many of the phrases above imply a household convinced and willingly following a master/husband/father/mistress. Cornelius “feared God with all his household”(Acts 10:2), meaning that they joined him in his fear. The jailer’s family hears the word about Jesus and responds just the way he does (Acts 16:32-33). They all together believe in God (Acts 16:34). Crispus’ household “believed in the Lord”(Acts 18:8), which strongly implies more than simply outward obedience. These households are taught and convinced, not forced.
Do household conversions imply children or infants? The term “household” is sufficiently broad to encompass wives, children, servants, and seemingly even friends (compare Acts 10:24 and 11:14). Much like the word “family” in modern times, it can refer to a couple without implying children, but would include them if they exist. Since Lydia is treated as the head of her household, it is not clear whether she has a husband, is a widow, or has any children. She may simply have servants.
All of this is relevant to modern debates about infant baptism. Advocates of infant baptism appeal to household conversions as evidence. However, these passages do not specify children being baptized (without understanding and believing the gospel). In fact, quite the opposite: these households “believed in the Lord”(Acts 18:8) and “feared God”(Acts 10:2) and “believed in God”(Acts 16:34). Infants are not capable of such belief.
The best explanation is also the simplest: All those who were capable of understanding and responding to this new message did so. While young children and infants would certainly be influenced by these decisions (especially in later life), it does not imply that they were urged to be baptized.
What Do We Learn?
The gospel is inclusive. God does not just want convert Cornelius. He wants his household too. “He will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household”(Acts 16:14). This emphasis on converting the households means that the gospel will involve blending lots of social classes. It explains the need Paul has to instruct husbands, wives, parents, children, slaves and masters (Eph 5:22-6:9, Col 3:18-4:1). It also means that influential men and ordinary servants are equal before God in a way that they are not in the world (Gal 3:28). Our duty is to maintain the inclusivity of the gospel—and the church—by welcoming people from all nations, races, social classes, and genders.
Family members influence one another. These conversions are not forced, but they are related. People influence one another and the closer we are to people, the more their influence is felt. Cornelius “feared God”—and it is not surprising that seeing his example of devout living, his household joins him. Lydia is personally “faithful to the Lord”(Acts 16:15)—and it is not surprising that her household follows her example.
Paul wants Timothy to look for an overseer who can “manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?”(1 Tim 3:4-5). This man’s faith is shown in how he raises his children and teaches them submission. He influences them toward proper living—including faith in Jesus—because family members influence one another.
This means that each of us must take seriously the need we have to live the gospel purely before our families. Our family well knows the true sincerity and intensity of our faith. They know our humility or pride. They can see our growth. How will we influence our families? We must strive to be the next generation to be described as believing in Jesus “together with his entire household.”