18A wife must put her husband first. This is her duty as a follower of the Lord. 19A husband must love his wife and not abuse her. 20Children must always obey their parents. This pleases the Lord. 21Parents, don’t be hard on your children. If you are, they might give up. 22Slaves, you must always obey your earthly masters. Try to please them at all times, and not just when you think they are watching. Honor the Lord and serve your masters with your whole heart. 23Do your work willingly, as though you were serving the Lord himself, and not just your earthly master. 24In fact, the Lord Christ is the one you are really serving, and you know that he will reward you. 25But Christ has no favorites! He will punish evil people, just as they deserve. 1Slave owners, be fair and honest with your slaves. Don’t forget that you have a Master in heaven. 2Never give up praying. And when you pray, keep alert and be thankful. 5When you are with unbelievers, always make good use of the time. 6Be pleasant and hold their interest when you speak the message. Choose your words carefully and be ready to give answers to anyone who asks questions.
–Colossians 3.18-4.2, 5-6 (CEV)
There has been a tremendous amount of ink spilled over this particular passage from Paul today, much of which completely misses the context of these instructions and therefore Paul’s point. The context in which we must read today’s passage is Colossians 3.1-17 in which Paul talks about what being transformed by the power and Presence of Christ looks like. The verses above are simply a practical application of what Paul has just talked about. We must also remember that Colossians was written to and for Christians. In other words, Paul is giving instructions to Christian households. He is not writing for everyone as verses 5-6 above make clear.
(I do not have the time or space to address the slavery issue here. Suffice it to say that Paul was not endorsing slavery, but rather proposing to end the practice from within through Christ’s ability to change people. The principles I talk about below concerning family relationships are broadly generalizable to the matter of relationships between slaves and their masters).
When we give ourselves to Christ and allow him to live in us, he changes us from being selfish people to people who have a real heart and passion for others. Relationships become hugely important, both with God and each other, and we understand what we must do to maintain those relationships. In the context of the Christian family, Paul reminds us that each family member has his or her role. Wives should acknowledge that the husband is the spiritual head of the household and hold him accountable for that (keeping in mind that Jesus is the ultimate head of any Christian household because both husbands and wives must submit to his authority and obey him).
Being the spiritual head of the Christian home is a tremendous responsibility because it requires that the husband makes sure to provide an environment in which all family members honor Christ in the way they treat one another and that they are all growing in their knowledge of him. So, for example, we would expect the husband to insist that the family worship together, pray together, read Scripture together, and talk about what it means to live the Christian life together. The key word, of course, is together because Paul never envisioned a privatized and isolated form of Christianity. This doesn’t mean that we cannot read Scripture alone or pray alone, but rather that we live out our faith together. It’s not an either-or proposition.
Moreover, when Paul enjoins husbands to love their wives, he has in mind, as Ephesians 5.21-33 makes clear, the kind of self-giving love that Christ demonstrated by going to the cross to redeem a sinful and alienated humanity. This is not easy stuff for either husband or wife, but especially the husband, because this kind of love is hard for naturally sinful humans to do. Read properly, no one can possibly interpret this passage as giving Christian husbands a carte blanche invitation to abuse their status, let alone their wife and children, so husbands can satisfy their selfish desires and make the family all about them. That just isn’t being Christlike and Christian husbands (along with everybody else) need to understand this.
Keeping in mind that Paul expects all Christian communities, households included, to behave differently than non-Christians so that they could be Christ’s salt and light to those who need it most, Paul goes on to remind children that they should submit to the authority of their parents because that is God’s intent for the proper ordering of families, which produces God’s peace (because God is the God of peace, not disorder, cf. 1 Corinthians 14, especially v. 33).
But just as he did in discussing the roles of Christian husbands and wives, so Paul balances out the duties of Christian children by reminding parents, especially the Christian father who is the spiritual head of the house, not to abuse this ordering. Christian parents are never to treat their children harshly or abuse them because of the potential to cause disorder, both personal and familial, on so many different levels. Christian parents are never to interpret Paul’s instructions to children here as a license to do whatever they please because children are not given to parents to be objects for their personal disposal. Christian parents are charged with the sobering responsibility of raising their children to become Christian adults, and this is no trifling matter. That is why Christian fathers (and mothers) must take their responsibilities seriously and holistically. The Christian life cannot be compartmentalized. It is to be lived as a whole.
Do you see what is going on here? Paul is showing us how obedience to Christ plays itself out in the context of the family. There is no license to abuse. There is only the solemn command to look out for the needs of others before looking out for our own needs. How much more stable would our families be today if Christians took Paul’s instructions seriously! But alas, it is rare that passages like today’s are even read anymore out of fear over how it will be perceived, especially by outsiders and non-Christians. It seems we would rather bow and worship the god of political correctness than to pay attention to the wisdom and good will of the Living God. Sadly, many of us have decided that we cannot trust God’s authority expressed through Scripture in the matters of family relationships and have taken matters into our own hands.
A quick look at the divorce rate and the dysfunctional nature of many families will give us a clue as to how that’s working out for us.
And as Paul reminds us, as Christians we should always be prepared to give an account of our behaviors, to explain to others why we do what we do. We can’t do that if we don’t know ourselves. That is why it is so important for Christians to engage Scripture and prayer together and to be prepared to share honest differences of opinion rationally and with charity.
This then is a practical application of what it means to be agents of God’s New Creation, to be obedient to God in Jesus, and to demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit and your faith. None of what Paul writes about here is easy because we naturally want to have things our own way and we are usually prepared to do what we must to obtain that which we want. But that is not what it means to be Jesus’ salt and light to his broken and hurting world.
If you want to have the kind of life-giving relationship with Jesus, you must be prepared to demonstrate your willingness to do so, and a good place to start is in your home. You won’t be able to do this by yourself or by your own power, however. You will only be able to be the kind of Christian husband, wife, or child that you are called to be by the help of the Spirit living in and through you.
But here’s the cool thing. If you see that you are starting to live as the family member (and together as a unit) God calls you to be, you have tangible proof that you (singular and plural) are being seasoned by God’s love and grace, and you can take that as a sign that he is commissioning you to start sharing the seasoning, not by haughty self-righteousness and flowery words, but by humble and self-giving love and service to those who need it most in the context of your very life.
Are you ready to be Jesus’ salt and light by the help of his Spirit? May God bless you with the grace, power, and privilege to answer in the affirmative!
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!