The Fullness: Colossians 3:18-4:1

Household Code – 3:18-4:1

18 Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

19 Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.

20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.

21 Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.

22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. 25 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.

1 Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

In these verses, Paul supplies the Colossian church with a Christian version of a Roman household code. A household code is a set of rules meant to govern the affairs of the home. In Rome, the household codes followed the teaching of Aristotle, who instructed men to rule over their wives and children, particularly noting that the inequality of the sexes is permanent. The man ought to be the pater familias, governing the home with absolute authority. But is this what we find in Christian teaching?

Though not explicitly stated in this epistle, Paul’s words in 3:11 echo what he triumphantly declared in Galatians 3:28: In Christ, there is neither male nor female. This does not mean that there is no gender differentiation in Christianity. Rather, it forces us to examine the ways that we consider ourselves better than others. In Christ, men are not more important than women, just as masters are not more important than slaves or Jews more important than Gentiles. The social revolution of the Gospel is that all are one in Christ, for Christ is all and is in all.

The social revolution of the Gospel is that all are one in Christ, for Christ is all and is in all.
Therefore, when Paul opens his household code by commanding wives to submit to their husbands, he is not operating from a belief that women are of less worth than men. On the contrary, the biblical teaching of the submission of wives assumes the equality of the sexes in the eyes of God. God does not, in Christ, elevate women from their culturally lowly estate to a position just below that of men. In fact, God assumes the equality of the sexes because that is how he created humanity (Genesis 1:27), and it is this equality (and not merely of the sexes, but between all people everywhere) that is a part of the restoration project begun in the resurrection of Jesus. In commanding wives to submit to their husbands, he is inviting women to participate in the faithful obedience and humility of Christ. Biblical submission assumes equality because it is a volitional act of humility in letting another lead. Like love, submission can never be forced upon or demanded of. Submission is a gift freely given to another in humility, not the humiliation extracted by force from a weaker person. (For more on this topic, please see my post on Biblical Submission.)

Unlike in Aristotle, husbands are not the sovereign ruler of their homes. That role, as we see at the end of this chapter, belongs to God. Husbands must love their wives in a way that echoes the love God has for the world. This love is agape, the love that lays down its life, surrenders its rights, forgives every offense, and brings life where there was death. It is the love most clearly demonstrated at the cross of Jesus Christ. This call to love rules out any kind of harsh treatment of another, especially of your wife. Wiersbe states it plainly when he writes, “A husband who truly loves his wife will not behave harshly or try to throw his weight around in the home.”[i] In Christ, husbands must relinquish their role as the pater familias, instead taking up the mantle of Christ himself in self-giving love (Ephesians 5:25-33).

In regard to children, Paul reaffirms the sixth commandment. Obeying one’s parents is perhaps the highest form of showing them honor. We need look no further than the life of Jesus himself, who in his entire ministry exercised the fullness of obedience to the Father. But at the same time, Paul warns fathers against embittering their children, because this will discourage them. A discouraged child believes that he doesn’t have what it takes, that she’ll never measure up, or that he’ll always be a disappointment. The children of Christian parents should never believe such lies! Fathers must raise their children in such a way that they understand who they are in Christ, that all things are possible with God, and that nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

The possibility of corruption resides equally in each sex, therefore the need for the power of the Holy Spirit is equally significant for each parent.
Why no special mention, here, of mothers? Any answer would be pure speculation. But let us not assume from biblical silence that mothers tend to get things right at home more than fathers. The charge against embitterment and discouragement can, and does, equally apply to mothers and fathers. The possibility of corruption resides equally in each sex, therefore the need for the power of the Holy Spirit is equally significant for each parent. “The parents’ duty is…to live out the gospel to the child: that is, to assure their children that they are loved and accepted and valued for who they are, not for who they ought to be, should have been, or might become.”[ii]

Paul now turns to address slaves, who would have been considered important members of the home. As we peer back across history upon the institution of slavery, seeing it through the lens of the horrific African slave trade, we would wish that Paul had said plainly, “All slavery is abolished in Christ.” In fact, he set the groundwork for this by stating plainly that slaves and masters are equal, and united, in Christ.

Roman slavery was not centered around race like American slavery. More often than not, a slave was in that state as a result of war, and anyone – even a Roman senator – could find themselves in the position of slavery should the wrong battle be lost. For Paul to advocate the upheaval of the economic system of Rome would have been, for him, an abandonment of the Gospel. It would have turned him into a political and economic revolutionary, rather than the apostle of the risen Lord he truly was. And of all people, Paul knew that there were far better ways to change society than legislation or revolution. A world where everyone is truly one can only come about because everyone understands that they are one in Christ.

Therefore, Christian slaves must imitate Christ, just like everyone else. (Here we can begin to draw some parallels to our situation as employees in a capitalistic economy.) Don’t do what your boss asks only when he’s watching. Instead, obey him or her with a sincere heart. This kind of workplace obedience shows respect for those in authority and also demonstrates reverence for Jesus himself. After all, Jesus is the Great Master, the Lord of the cosmos, the coming King and Judge. Whatever job you have, whether it is your dream job or sheer drudgery, work at it as though you were reporting directly to Jesus. He is the one who will give you your eschatological inheritance, which is resurrection into eternal life. Wherever you are working, you are serving Jesus.

Finally, Paul commands masters to give their slaves justice. Do not exploit those under your supervision. Treat them with the respect that every image-bearer of God deserves. What is “right and fair,” not what is “fair market value,” should be the economic principle which guides Christians. The righteousness of God demands economic integrity, and God, who is the Master of all, will be our judge.

Wherever you are working, you are serving Jesus.
The Takeaway

Perhaps the greatest application we can bring into our homes from this text is that Jesus, not the pater familias, is the Center and Sovereign of our families. Paul refers Jesus seven times in this short passage! Christ belongs in the home, and not merely in the home, but at the head of the household! All of our familial roles are a reflection of the character and passion of Jesus. It was Christ who submitted far beyond any of us are capable of submitting. It was Christ who loved far greater than any of us are capable of loving. His humility and love are the model for our roles as husbands, wives, children, parents, employees, and employers. The family is the foundation of society. A Christ-centered family both demonstrates and institutes the rule of Christ into the wider society. If we are concerned that our society is crumbling, it is because our families have already crumbled. The only way to repair our broken culture is to invite Jesus to be the center of your family, to model his humility and love, and to take seriously how counter-cultural this is, and always has been.

[i] Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 2, p. 142). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
[ii] Wright, N.T. (1986). Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Colossians and Philemon (p.153). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

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