Growing up, you probably had household rules (however explicit or implicit they may have been). Even now if you’re a parent, you have household rules. “Do this … don’t do this …”
Paul, after unpacking the glories of Jesus and what it means for their life as a church, concludes his letter to the church in Colossae by giving final ethical guidelines.
After his extensive exposition of their new life in Christ (see Why Are You Subjecting Yourselves (Colossians 2:20-3:4)), Paul begins to demonstrate what this new life together looks like practically in their familial and working relationships because Jesus exercises his reign over these spheres, too.
Wives, obey your husbands as it is proper in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives and do not make them bitter.
Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is pleasing in the Lord.
Fathers, do not provoke your children, so that they might not lose heart.
Servants, obey in everything your masters according to the flesh, not in eye-service as people-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart fearing the Lord. Whatever you all do, do it from your soul as to the Lord and not to men, seeing that from the Lord you received the reward of inheritance. Serve the Lord Christ for one who does wrong will receive what he did wrong, and there is no partiality.
Masters, grant your servants righteousness and fairness, seeing that you also have the Lord in heaven.Colossians 3:18-4:1, my translation
The first structure of life that Paul devotes ethical instruction to is the family life.
The first group Paul addresses are the wives. They are to obey their husbands as they would to the Lord (Ephesians 5:22-24).
Paul draws on Jesus’ headship to the church and makes the husband-wife relationship analogous it. This structure is rooted in God’s creation. God, who created all things, rules over all things. Creation has not escaped his rule, even with the fall. Therefore, God’s dominion extends even to the church today because his reign does not end.
God’s rule over the church is further confirmed in her redemption. The saved do not get to tell their Savior “Thanks, but no thanks, I’m going to go off and do my own thing after that miraculous work.” Jesus, in his work of redemption, has redeemed God’s people from his enemy—they are now bound to another more gracious Master and need to obey him accordingly.
Therefore wives submit to their husbands just as the church submits to Jesus.
Before husbands think they can get off easy, Paul writes an equally important command: love your wives and do not make them bitter.
Love is devoting his whole life to see his wife grow, looking to Jesus and his love for the church as the ultimate example (Ephesians 5:25-30). Jesus gave his life so that his wife (that is, the church), could be sanctified. Therefore husbands in the same way should love their wives by nurturing their sanctification. If a husband loves his wife properly, she will grow in her sanctification more and more rather than being bitter against her husband and her faith.
While some may find the command to submit is not comparable to the command to love, they are both equally difficult and needed in marriage.
Not only that, but Paul issues a further command to those who are fathers to not provoke their children.
By provoking, Paul does not want fathers to create an unwarranted emotional response in their children that creates a conflict. There are times when conflicts are needed because their discipline and instruction are that important. There are times when the father needs to reassert his authority in his house when it is challenged. However, what Paul is writing against is the unnecessary provocation of their children.
If fathers provoke their children unnecessarily, they may loose their motivation to grow in their sanctification.
Obedience is honoring your parents (Ephesians 6:1-4).
The first ground for this obedience is for their discipline. Part of growing up is being trained and learning. This responsibility chiefly falls to the parents.
The second ground for this obedience is their instruction. Children (as we all know, no matter how smart we think we were …) do not know what is best for them. That is why the parents need to correct wrong behavior and help prevent it.
The direct purpose of this discipline and instruction is for the flourishing of the child. Children do not know what they don’t know, therefore parents spend years pouring into the lives of their children so that they do not depart from the way of the Lord especially.
Therefore children should honor their parents through obedience because the instruction they are providing is for their benefit.
The second structure of life that Paul gives ethical guidance to are economic relationships.
Clarification is in order about “servants” (doulous).
Servants in this case are those economically bound to another master. This is also known as indentured servitude—where one works for someone they are in debt to in order to pay off their debt and achieve freedom. Servants are not slaves in the American history sense. Nor are servants those who are employed (though the principles can be extrapolated to apply to this situation). Therefore, any interpretation of this passage that promotes the slavery of people should be disregarded immediately.
Obedience is sincere and not eye-service (Ephesians 6:5-8).
If you work long and hard hours, you want to receive recognition for your work and appropriate compensation for it. Paul encourages these servants to work hard, not to merely receive recognition, praise, and reward. For ultimately, their reward, though they may not achieve economic freedom in this life, is found in the Lord.
Masters are to treat those who work under them with equity (Ephesians 6:9).
While masters are in charge—lords—over some people, this does not mean they are able to exercise their authority however they desire. Masters must treat their servants the same—rewarding good, hard work and correcting poor work. Masters can temper their authority and treat their servants equitably by remembering that even though they are masters (kurios), they have an ultimate Master (kurios) over them.
What about Me?
Most notable are the people Paul doesn’t cover in this passage:
- Battered spouses
- Abandoned spouses
All of these exceptions are the result of the Fall in creation though notably not singles. Though Paul does not address singles here, he does give treatment on singleness in 1 Corinthians 7:7-9.
However, even in these contexts, Paul’s familial and economic codes still apply although their applications may look different.
Living as Exiles
The main point Paul is getting at with highlighting these familial and working relationships is how the Colossian Christians should conduct their lives in community under Jesus’s reign.
Because Jesus reigns over all things and we have a new identity in his finished work, the entirety of our lives—even down to our family and economic relationships—are transformed to conform to God’s ethical standards.
Note: You probably thought that this passage came from Ephesians. Although I failed to highlight this connection in Grace & Peace (Colossians 1:1-12), Colossians and Ephesians are synonymous letters. Scholars believe that Colossians is Paul’s contextual letter and Ephesians is the least contextual, making it easier to circulate through the church. Since the household code in Colossians is brief, I’ll pull in heavily from Ephesians in this post while not overriding Colossians contribution to household ethics.