Before getting into this post, a few comments are in order.
First, I haven’t posted very much on here in recent months. That has to do with a restructuring of ministry priorities as I’ve settled into my new call at Bellefield. I haven’t found the time to put together what I would consider to be meaningful posts, so the blog has fallen by the wayside somewhat. I do hope, however, to get back to more regular posting soon.
Second, the reason that this post is my first re-entry post is perhaps not what you’d expect. I’ve been preaching through the book of Colossians the past few months, and had a pretty well-planned sermon schedule that would allow me to finish the letter in time to address some new texts for Palm Sunday and Easter. After laying out the schedule, we worked with our university ministry to plan for a University Sunday when our students would lead worship. Since one of our students preached from a different text the day I would have done this one, that left me with the option of skipping this passage entirely or re-working the preaching calendar. Posting some thoughts about it here offers something of a middle road between those two. (University Sunday, by the way, was a real blessing–thanks to all from Cornerstone who helped lead that day!)
So I’m not offering this because I think I have something profoundly unique to say about this text, but simply because I’ve had a number of people say something like, “Are you just going to skip those verses? We’ve covered every other verse in the letter, and I’m curious to hear what you would have said about those if you had preached on them.” This is an attempt to answer those queries.
Third, I’m fully aware that this passage is a minefield. If you get two people together to discuss it, you’ll probably hear four different opinions. That’s why (to honestly confess for a moment) part of me was glad that our students picked the date they did to lead worship. I had already been anticipating the post-sermon comments that would come from left, right, and middle, regardless of what I actually ending up saying. But I do think this passage is important–it’s in Scripture, after all–and I do think that if I’m attempting to preach through a book then that means dealing with the easy passages as well as the sensitive ones.
Enough prefatory disclaimers. The passage that I would have preached on last Sunday is Colossians 3:18-4:1, and I was planning to call it “Relational Reciprocity”. What follows is not a sermon, for I’ve not gone into great depth with some of the points, nor have I included various illustrations as I typically would have. Nor do I labor under the misconception that it is a comprehensive or definitive statement on such very nuanced issues as family theory, gender roles, or slavery in either the ancient or modern world. It is, instead, just a brief set of reflections on the passage and the way in which it relates to the major themes of the letter, i.e. the supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus Christ.
The passage is this:
“Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthy masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.” (Colossians 3:18-4:1, ESV)
This passage is one of the New Testament sections of “household codes”, and it is typically compared to the similar passages in Ephesians 5:22-33 and 1 Peter 3:1-7. While there are common themes among these texts, each one also has a particular emphasis. In Ephesians, the intent is to show how the marital relationship between a husband and wife is to reflect the self-giving, self-denying, other-perfecting love that Jesus Christ has for his Church. In 1 Peter, the intent is to encourage a Christian husband and wife to present themselves in ways that reflect their holy calling as “exiles” during their sojourn here on earth (1 Peter 1:1,17). Each of these passages, therefore, builds upon the unique themes found woven throughout the rest of those letters.
What, then, can be said about Paul’s words to the church in Colossae?
Paul’s burden in this letter is to lift high the supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus Christ. The Colossians, as best we can infer from the letter, were being led astray by those who sought to minimize these things. They were being told that Jesus Christ was a fine starting point, but that the Colossians needed to then move on to the deeper and more profound mysteries of the faith. Paul, therefore, writes to bring them to “full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2:2-3). Jesus Christ is the one in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (1:19), and whose work “to reconcile to himself all things” (1:20) is entirely sufficient to save us. [If you want to hear more on these themes, check out all the sermon podcasts.]
After laying that groundwork, the letter shifts to discussing how those realities serve to reshape and refocus our lives as believers. Most recently, the focus was on how these realities transform the ways in which we live together (3:12-17). This passage falls into that same stream of thought. So it’s not just an untethered set of instructions, but a call to live lives of faithful discipleship in community that reflect the character and values of “the kingdom of [God’s] beloved Son” (1:13). Being remade into the image of Jesus Christ is something that shows itself in who we are as individuals, but also–and perhaps even more importantly–in who we are as individuals living in relation to others.
That’s some of the context for these verses, and one of the striking things in this passage is the reciprocity and balance to what Paul has to say. He addresses three relational pairs: husbands and wives, fathers and children, and slaves and masters. Clearly this is where the soil for the minefield is found, though the most egregious misreadings of these verses occur when statements about only one half of the three pairings are held in view.
Perhaps the first thing to note is that the three groups that would have been socially and culturally devalued (women, children, and slaves) are not only given equal footing but also addressed first. This is not an insignificant point, though there is more to be said.
Here are some brief observations about each of those three pairs, after which I’ll offer a summary thought on the overall import of this passage.
On the husband/wife verses:
- Paul could have used the word ‘obey’ when referring to wives, which would have been much more culturally expected, but is also much more unilaterally harsh–which husbands are specifically told not to be. Instead, he appeals to them to ‘submit’, which should not be heard as a corollary to ‘dominate’, but as an echo of the self-giving, self-denying love described in Ephesians and modeled by Jesus Christ himself, who came “not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
- Husbands are to love their wives in a grace-filled and Christ-reflecting way. One of the pervasive, deforming, and destructive effects of sin in nearly every culture–and certainly in the ancient Roman world–is for husbands to mistreat their wives through verbal, physical, or emotional abuse. These things have no place in Christian relationships–especially the covenantal union of a husband and wife. Thus, Paul does not condone, tacitly or explicitly, any hint of degrading or intimidating treatment from husbands to their wives: “Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.” The intentional balance of v. 19 does not allow for v. 18 to be wielded in isolation.
On the fathers/children verses:
- Children are enjoined to “obey their parents in everything”, which is a restatement of the fifth commandment, and therefore “pleases the Lord”. (I’ve written more about this here.) The immediate question is often, “But what of those parents who are delinquent/abusive/ungodly/etc?” With regard to the fifth commandment, the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us that in addition to showing “love and fidelity” to our parents, we are to “also patiently bear with their weaknesses and infirmities” (Q. 104). There are, however, limits to that if and when it comes to parents calling upon or leading their children into doing something ethically or morally wrong. Here may also be a place where Peter’s defense–“We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29)–can be something of a litmus test.
- Children are to obey their parents, though the corresponding expectation is that parents act in godly and loving ways. Fathers are singled out perhaps because they are more prone to “provoke” and “discourage” their children. This can happen passively, though abandonment or emotional neglect, or it may happen actively, though belittling and physical/emotional chastisement–but it should not happen. Parents, and especially fathers in Scripture, are called to lead their children in the ways of the Lord and to do so in ways that are encouraging and edifying and reflective of Christ’s grace.
On the slaves/masters verses:
- Many commentators note that while the first two pairs (husbands/wives and parents/children) are grounded in God’s creational intentions and are covenantally ordained, the same is not true for this last pair. Slavery is a human construct, and a patently sinful one at that. While the ancient Roman institution was far different than what was found in, say, colonial American history, it was still an unjust institution. By acknowledging its existence and seeking to regulate its conduct, Paul is not condoning its practice. In fact, he condemns it elsewhere (1 Tim 1:10), as do other biblical writers (Revelation 18:11-13). This approach–seeking to regulate and minimize the evil of an institution without condoning it–is found elsewhere in Scripture. [Philemon, incidentally, was a slaveholder who lived in Colossae, and Paul wrote him with explicit instructions to receive his runaway slave Onesimus “as a beloved brother” (Philemon 1:16).]
- The slaves to whom he speaks are called upon to serve their earthly masters as if they were serving the Lord Christ himself, while trusting that “the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done” (v. 25). Suffering for the sake of the gospel should not be seen “as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12), which is true for all Christians, and certainly not least those who were enslaved. As Peter goes on to say, “let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:19). They are even specifically promised a reward and inheritance–astounding claims for those who had no legal standing or status and something not promised (but not necessarily denied) to the masters. Those who are enslaved are not being told to ‘just grin and bear it’, but to recognize that through their witness they may reflect the love and justice of Christ to their masters, knowing that their ultimate vindication and reward will come from Christ.
- Masters are likewise called to “treat your slaves justly and fairly” (4:1), a profoundly different posture than Roman society would have expected or endorsed. The reminder that they “also have a Master in heaven” is not as innocuous as it may sound. Our Master is Christ, the one who will judge with final and perfect authority: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10). This ought to have provided a sobering corrective to those who will have to give account for the ways in which they treated those who served them.
It’s not uncommon to hear people use a passage like this to trumpet the idea that Paul personally or, by extension, Scripture as a whole promotes misogynistic, patriarchal, or colonialist/imperialist social paradigms. That argument, however, ignores two things: First, there is a balance that involves addressing both relational parties equally and giving inherent dignity and worth to those whom Roman culture would deem the “lesser” party. Second, in that same vein, these relational models would have been profoundly countercultural at that time, and would serve to clearly reflect the values of the kingdom over which Jesus Christ reigns.
The striking thing, once again, about this particular set of “household codes” is the degree of relational reciprocity for which Paul advocates and the reason for that reciprocity. As Clinton Arnold notes, “Seven times in these nine verses Paul roots his instructions in ‘the Lord’ or an equivalent term, thus stressing the importance of evaluating everything in light of Christ and his teaching.” Being ‘in Christ’ is a major theme of this letter, and that new source of identity positively alters the framework for our relationships. Paul does not eliminate any sense of distinction between the respective parties (wives are still wives and husbands are still husbands, for instance), but he does call both sides to relate to one another in ways that reflect the nature and character of the Lord with whom they have been raised, in whom their lives are now hidden, and with whom they will one day appear in glory (3:1-4).
God’s intention in redemptive history, and Paul’s desire for the life of every believer, is that Jesus Christ be preeminent in all things (1:18). This extends to the farthest reaches of the cosmos and the deepest reaches of our relationships. Dead to our old ways of life and buried with Christ in baptism (2:12), we have been raised with Christ and now walk in ways that reflect his “kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (3:12-13). By mutually reflecting the risen Lord through a reciprocity of grace, forbearance, and esteem, Christians in relationship bear witness to the new life that is ours in Christ. Husbands and wives, parents and children, even slaves and masters–all are enabled by the Spirit to cultivate relationships that testify to the wonderful truth that God has indeed reconciled all things to himself through the supreme and sufficient Savior, who is Christ Jesus the Lord.