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. Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly 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 bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.
Colossians 3:18-4:1 ESV
Because all the verse and chapter numbers were assigned to the Bible many centuries after the it was written, there can be times when we might find ourselves questioning the choice of chapter divisions. This section of text is one such example. All of chapter three is really one big idea broken down into different parts. Part one was the thesis of the section. Paul claimed that because Jesus is our life we should live lives are the pleasing to Him. The second part focused upon how we should NOT live, by listing many sinful actions and mentalities that followers of Christ should seek to avoid. Part three of the chapter centered on how a Christian should live. Paul cites many fruits of the Holy Spirit and encourages that only grace can keep the church together.
Now we arrive at the conclusion of chapter three, which actually extends into chapter four. In this section, Paul takes the ideas that he has presented so far and shows how they are applied to specific and common everyday roles. The apostle covers three of the most common institutions within society: marriage, parenthood, and employment. Also, it is worth noting that in discussing these institutions Paul addresses the party that had little to no voice in society followed by addressing the party who had all of the authority in first century society. Thus, the gospel extends to everyone in every situation without exception.
SUBMIT TO YOUR HUSBANDS // VERSE 18
It is significant that the first institution that Paul discusses is marriage. This is likely because of the importance that marriage is to society as a whole. After all, marriage was the first institution that God established (Gen. 2:18-25). The status of marriage is a great indicator of the status of a society. Paul begins his brief discussion of marriage by urging wives to submit to their husbands. In sections of Scripture like this, it is important that we first look at the cultural context that Paul originally spoke to (which was the first century church) and then apply accordingly to our present-day lives (being the twenty-first century church). Thus, in our day, this command is one of the most controversial within all of the Bible. Our society places a high emphasis upon female liberation and equality; whereas, Paul’s time considered women to be property, owned and commanded by their husbands with no rights of their own. Therefore, this command places a certain degree of strain upon both cultures.
Let us first look at the first century. Wives in Paul’s day were required to obey their husbands. They were little more than glorified slaves. So given the context, it would seem to be reasonable for Paul to urge wives to obey their husbands. However, that is not what Paul commands. He encourages submission. Submitting is not the same as obedience. One commentator describes submission as a military term that means “to arrange under rank.” Thus, a colonel ranks differently than a private, but neither man is less equal (Wiersbe, 142). So it is within marriage. The headship of the husband does not devalue the wife or make the two any less equal. In fact, by addressing the wives directly, Paul is acknowledging their equality. Most ancient writings would address the husbands when giving commands for the wives. Therefore, by speaking to wives directly and urging submission instead of obedience, Paul challenged the archetypical values of his time.
Next, we must examine how this command impacts us in the twenty-first century. As previously stated, our present society, being predominately egalitarian, is disgusted by the idea of wives submitting to their husbands. In order to have the proper understanding of this command, let me make a few points to remember. First, Paul urges wives to submit to their own husbands (Eph. 5:22-6:9). This is not a blanket command for women to submit to men. Second, submission is not a command exclusively for wives. In Ephesians, Paul preludes his discussion of marriage by saying that all Christians should be “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). The default attitude of Christians in general should be humility. We should always be looking for a means of serving one another. As Paul says elsewhere, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4). Thus, wives should respectfully submit to their husbands as the head of the household, but this does not make them inferior in anyway.
LOVE YOUR WIVES // VERSE 19
For the first century society to whom Paul originally wrote, these words would have been quite astounding. As noted, husbands two thousand years ago owned their wives and held absolute authority over them. This meant that a man was free to be away from home whenever he pleased, doing whatever he wished (which would often include marital infidelity), while his wife attended to keeping his house in order. If he ever became displeased with his wife, he could divorce her on a whim. The wife, of course, was not allowed to file for a divorce except under quite extreme circumstances that were incredibly difficult to prove. This meant that love was not required for a husband to have for his wife or possibly even common.
Paul, however, makes it clear that Christian husbands should be marked by their love for their wives. In Ephesians, the apostle further explains his meaning by stating that marriage is an image of Christ and the church. Just as Christ is the head of the church, the husband is the head of his wife, and just as Christ loved the church enough to die for us, husbands are called to love their wives to the same degree. A husband’s love for his wife should reflect Christ’s love for us. Furthermore, Paul urges husbands to not be harsh toward their wives. Many take this verse to mean that husbands should not act tyrannically toward their wives. Certainly that is true. A loving husband will not be a brutal husband. However, because the verb is passive, many commentators suggest that a better translation would be “do not become embittered.” Bitterness is the great killer of relationships. Since men are more likely to hold their emotions inward, one can easily understand why Paul would be concerned with men becoming embittered against their wives.
To be fair, there was a great debate within the Jewish world in the early part of the first century regarding divorce. There were two renown rabbis named Shammai and Hillel, who argued opposite points of view. Shammai held the conservative position that divorce was only to be used for the most serious of offenses, while Hillel argued that a man could divorce his wife for just about any reason. Of course, when sinful humans have to choose between strick restrictions or basically doing whatever we want, Hillel’s stance became highly popular, while Shummai was supported by a vocal minority.
Most in the ancient world did not expect a marriage to be grounded in love. It was considered to be an accord, albeit an unequal one, between a man and a woman to produce legitimate heirs. Soranus contended, “Since women are married for the sake of bearing children and heirs, and not for pleasure and enjoyment, it is totally absurd to inquire about the quality or rank of the family line or about the abundance of their wealth, but not to inquire about their ability to conceive children.” Veyne observes that “love in marriage was a stroke of good fortune; it was not the basis of the institution.” The many epitaphs recording the husband’s affection for his “very dear wife” attest that loving relationships developed, but just as many others simply say that the wife “never gave me any reason to complain.
In a Christian marriage, the husband knows himself to be dearly loved by God (3:12) and is commanded to love his wife in the same way. He is not to exercise his rights over his wife but his love, which means he never thinks in terms of rights and is always willing to forego them. Caird states it well: “If a wife is asked to submit, it is to the husband’s love, not to his tyranny.” Love in the New Testament context means more than having affection or romantic feelings for a wife (see the fuller explanation in Eph. 5:25–33, where Christ is the model).Garland, 244-245.
OBEY YOUR PARENTS // VERSE 20
Similar to wives, children had virtually no rights within the ancient societies. Kids were, for all practical purposes, the property of their fathers. Should their father think it best for them to be sold as a slave, it was completely within his right to do so. If we thought that his child committed an error worthy of death, he could condemn his son or daughter to death and perform the execution (which is still practiced today in the form of “honor killings”). Because of this mentality, the children would treat everything that they possessed as being possessed by their father, until his death came. Thus, Paul’s command for children to obey their parents is quite normal for the society around him. However, also like with wives, it was rather odd for anyone to address children directly. By doing so, Paul was treating children as individuals.
Of course, Paul also understands that obedience does not always come easily. Often, especially in our day, there are parents who do not seem worthy of being obeyed. To answer this objection, Paul states that parental obedience pleases the Lord. Ultimately, God is our Father, and all other fathers are shadows of His fatherhood. So by obeying our earthly parents even when they do not deserve to be obeyed, we are honoring both our parents and God. At times, it is like the military saying, “Salute the uniform, not the man.”
DO NOT PROVOKE YOUR CHILDREN // VERSE 21
I believe that Paul did not include mothers in this verse for two reasons. First, fathers had the authority over their children, not the mothers. Second, it is not often that children become discouraged because of their mothers.
In modern day, one can easily find a number of individuals who attribute their less than ideal lifestyles to having “daddy issues.” In fact, there are numerous research studies showing the tragic effects of either abusive fathers or absent fathers. The author of the hymn Amazing Grace is often quoted as saying, “I know that my father loved, but he did not seem to wish me to see it.” Even the great reformer Martin Luther was known to have struggled calling God “Father” because of the severity with which his father raised him. Of course, the whole concept of discipline makes this issue much more complex. Too much or too little discipline can each have drastic effects, and what qualifies as too much or too little often varies between any two children. Thus, fatherhood requires the grace of God and the love of the Father. Luther gives advice to fathers concerning this issue by saying, “Spare the rod and spoil the child. It is true. But beside the rod, keep an apple to give him when he does well” (Barclay, 163).
OBEY YOUR EARTHLY MASTERS // VERSE 22
Let us be clear about what Paul is writing about in these verses: slavery. From our present (and correctly so) abhorring of the notion of slavery, it is difficult for us to imagine Paul discussing the topic so casually. However, it is important to note that slavery was quite common throughout most of human history, including Paul’s day. Also, we should know that Paul likely spends much more time discussing this relationship because Onesimus (a runaway slave of Philemon that became a Christian) was traveling back to Colossae with both this letter to the Colossians and Paul’s letter to Philemon. As with the wives and children, Paul’s command to the slaves is not shocking. They were already expected to obey everything from their masters; however, by commanding them to obey moral commands, Paul was treating slaves as more than property, as human beings.
For the purpose of application, it seems fitting that we should apply these verses to being an employee. It stands to reason that if Paul urged slaves to work with a sincere heart, not just when others are watching, then how much more should we as employees work well. Slave received no wage for their work other than the food and shelter provided by their master. Today, we receive reasonable compensation for our time and effort. Therefore, this command should apply to us all the more.
WHATEVER YOU DO // VERSES 23-25
Ah, here is the great heart from which Paul urged slaves to work. They were to serve their masters as if they were serving the Lord Jesus. However, it is easier said than done. I can only imagine how difficult it would be to work heartily when the conditions were likely brutal and the compensation was nothing. Yet Paul encourages them by giving them a great promise: they have an inheritance in the Lord. For people that were destined for nothing, the pledge of a future hope and glory was like honey on the tongue. In fact, Paul finally blatantly states that they are serving Christ; thus, Jesus would also reward them for their service.
Once more, let us put this in modern terms. It can often be difficult for us to work “as for the Lord” because we do receive compensation for our work. We do not cling to the promise of our heavenly inheritance with Christ because we are focused upon each paycheck now. However, we must remind ourselves that we do not work primarily for our employer or for a paycheck; rather, we work for Christ. Thus, whatever our job or profession, we serve Christ, and we work as though we are working for Him. It is worth stating that the promise of a future reward can be comforting to anyone whose work has not been recognized by their employer.
But the promised inheritance with Christ also has an opposite, as we see in verse 25. If the good will be rewarded at the end of time, the wrongdoer will be punished. Paul likely means this verse in two ways. First, wrongdoing slaves would be punished by God for their actions. Second, wicked masters would not escape God’s justice. Paul emphasizes that God shows no partiality to emphasize that a slave’s master has no greater position before God than a slave. Both the mightiest and lowest man will stand before God all the same, and only the blood of Christ will save them from their sins. For the Christian, this is a verse of great comfort. God will not let any offense go unpunished.
TREAT YOUR BONDSERVANTS JUSTLY & FAIRLY // VERSE 1
Finally, Paul turns his attention to the slaves’ masters (or in our society: employers). Paul urges them to treat their servants correctly because Jesus is the master of all believers. As believers, we are all slaves of Christ. If Jude, Jesus’ brother, was willing to call himself a slave of Christ, then all Christians are slaves of Jesus.
Of course, our bondage to Christ will mean a few things for us. First, it means that we are no longer our own. Jesus bought us for the price of His own blood; we, therefore, belong exclusively to Christ (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Second, because our life is Christ, we represent Christ. Though we may be slaves of Jesus, slavery to Christ is a higher status than being without Him. Paul is clear in Romans that we truly only have two options: slavery to Christ or to sin (Rom. 6:16). Therefore, it is a benefit to be able to represent Christ as His servants. Though this matter applies to all Christians at all times, employers should take special note of our servitude to Christ. Because employers have employees serving under them, they should be careful to reflect the grace and love of Christ in their on the job leadership.
It is important to emphasize once more that this passage of Scripture is by no means exhaustive. Paul only covered three of life’s institutions, and he did not even cover them in great depth. Thus, we must remember that the point of this text is to show specific examples of how the gospel transforms our everyday life. There is no sphere of our daily living that is not impacted by the good news of Jesus Christ. May we as followers of Christ display our Lord in all that we do and say.