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The all-sufficient Christ sanctifies our family relationships
Colossians, Chapter 3, verses 18-25 and Chapter 4, verse 1
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 embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism.
Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.
Whether in the public eye or in the privacy of their homes, Christians are to do everything “in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Here Paul applies that general principle to believers’ family relationships. Later on, in verses 5 and 6, he applies it to their relationships to their unbelieving neighbors. The result is a kind of house table, or table of duties. In the writings of some non-Christian philosophers, we also find codes of behavior and suggestions of duties for human society, but only in the Scriptures do Christians find “Do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus” written above all our daily duties. Only in Jesus, who stands at the heart of Scripture, do we find the source of love and spiritual strength that will give us the desire and the ability to faithfully fulfill those duties.
The apostle begins his table of Christian family duties by discussing the first and most basic family relationship, the relationship between husband and wife. Marriage, of course, is not limited to Christians. It is God’s answer to a basic and universal human need. Through marriage God graciously provides the special, intimate companionship that human beings need. He likewise provides for the chastity of man and woman and for the continuation of the human race through the blessing of children.
Marriage is not the same for everyone; the apostle’s command to “do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus” raises Christian marriage to a higher level. Nor is the contrast between Christian and non-Christian marriage only an external one. It is not just a matter of less quarreling, bickering, or unfaithfulness, though it should certainly include those things. Doing everything in Jesus’ name affects the whole relationship between husband and wife, as their Christian values and attitudes are continually reflected in the way they speak to each other and treat each other.
With remarkable brevity Paul describes the roles that God has assigned to husbands and wives in a Christian marriage. “Wives,” he says, “submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” Modern feminism protests the word submit. Feminists often label the apostle Paul a chauvinist and denounce his words as a throwback to a less enlightened age. Words like submit and obey, they tell us, must be removed from the marriage ceremony, and what these words imply must be removed from the marriage. The feminist movement, however, cannot eliminate this passage from Scripture. It cannot eliminate what Scripture consistently teaches about this subject. Nor does it take the time to try to understand what Scripture is really saying here.
As we consider this passage, we would do well to remember that it is not only the apostle Paul who is speaking here; it is the Lord. We should not forget either that what the apostle says here to wives is only half of a total picture. All the apostle’s instructions in this section are reciprocal, and the full significance of what Paul is saying here to wives emerges only after we study his corresponding instructions to husbands. Most important of all, we must never forget that all the instructions in this section are given in the spirit of genuine love.
So what does the apostle mean when he urges Christian wives to be submissive to their husbands? He does not mean that the woman is inferior. In heathen cultures women have been, and in some places still are, regarded as inferior, but Christianity gives dignity to women. This same apostle Paul tells us in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ, that is, with regard to salvation, there are no distinctions between male and female. Paul’s call for Christian wives to be submissive, however, reminds us that insofar as this life is concerned, God created man and woman to be different, both biologically and emotionally.
God created the man first and then created the woman to complement the man, to be a “helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18). This order of creation is reflected in the family relationship when the husband is recognized as the head, the leader of the family. If you try to create something with two heads, or with no head, you end up with a monster. God makes it clear that in a marriage relationship, the greatest blessings occur when the Christian wife willingly acknowledges her husband’s leadership, acknowledging it for the best possible reason: because it is “fitting in the Lord.”
As we have already stated, all of the apostle’s instructions in this family duties section are reciprocal. We cannot understand the full significance of what he is teaching unless we study both parts of his instructions. The counterpart to “wives, submit to your husbands” is not “husbands, lord it over your wives” but rather “husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.” To no husband does the Lord give the right to be a tyrant or dictator in the home.
A Christian husband’s treatment of his wife is to reflect kindness, consideration, gentleness, dignity, and a steady, unwavering love—a love similar to the Savior’s love for his believers. This love—true Christian love—willingly gives and sacrifices without expecting anything in return. It is strange, is it not, that some husbands seem to take it for granted that their wives will help them with their work but then refuse to lift a finger to lighten their wives’ domestic load? The love the Lord calls for in Christian husbands does not take that attitude. It is always gentle and considerate, never demanding or harsh.
Nor does the fact that the husband is the God-appointed head of the family mean that he will make the family decisions in an arbitrary or one-sided manner. The husband who seeks to be an effective head of his family will take time to communicate with his wife. He will seek out her counsel, try to understand her feelings, and seek to discuss family issues and problems in a reasonable, open, and loving way. Together husband and wife will go to God’s Word for its advice regarding decisions that confront them and affect their family life. Together they will pray for wisdom and sound Christian judgment in matters not directly addressed by God’s Word. And the whole vile matter of a husband’s physical abuse of his wife should not even have to be mentioned in relation to Christians.
In Ephesians, which in many respects is a companion epistle to Colossians, Paul compares the relationship that ought to exist between a Christian husband and wife to that which exists between the Lord and his church. As unthinkable as it would be for Christ to turn against the church, to be harsh with it or mistreat it in any way, so unthinkable should it be for a Christian husband to mistreat his wife or be harsh with her. As the church joyfully responds to Christ’s love with willing service, so wives should willingly submit to their husbands’ leadership as it is fitting in the Lord. A Christian husband’s love should make his wife’s submissive role be not a galling or distasteful thing but a reciprocal expression of self-giving Christian love.
The American family is in trouble today. Each year close to a million families are broken up. Who of us has gone through a year in the last decade without observing the breakup of a family somewhere in the circle of our relatives and friends? Is there a reader of this book who has not felt strains in one form or another on his own family relationships?
Our society lacks respect for the institution of marriage and disregards the role that God assigns to husbands, wives, and children. This has contributed greatly to the sad condition of family life in our nation. There are, of course, no perfect marriages here on earth, because there are no perfect people. But as Christ’s love fills the hearts of Christian husbands and wives and as they follow his direction, as each one seeks to love and serve the other, they will build marriages and homes that will better stem society’s tide, finding marriages that can last and homes in which peace and happiness can prevail as God’s blessing rests on them.
Next, the apostle speaks about the relationship between children and parents. Children are to obey their parents in everything. God gives parents responsibility for their children and authority over them. Under God, parents are responsible for the physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual development of their children. As they carry out their responsibilities, parents dare not let their children do just as they please. That would be a grave disservice to them. Rather, parents are to require obedience of their children, and children are to render that obedience, not just when parents ask them to do what is easy and pleasant but also in those things that are difficult or tedious. Christian children are to obey, not grudgingly or with a grumbling spirit but willingly, knowing that, in the final analysis, they are obeying not just their parents but also the Lord.
Such willing obedience pleases the Lord. That is why in both the Old Testament and the New Testament he attaches to the Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and mother,” the encouraging promise “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” One of the best ways children can show their love for God is by obeying their parents. To parents who require obedience and to children who give it, God promises the blessings of a quiet, peaceful, and happy home.
God wants parents to require obedience of their children, but Scripture and experience teach that obedience does not come naturally. Obedience has to be taught. At times it has to be insisted upon through correction and discipline, even with the rod of corporal punishment, but God has a word for parents here too. Parents are not to discourage their children or make it difficult for them to obey. Rather, they are to prove themselves worthy of their children’s respect and obedience. As they teach their children obedience, parents must not be inconsistent, dictatorial, unreasonable, or harsh.
God does not want parents to be permissive and give their children everything their children want, nor does he want parents to be so harsh with their children that their children become bitter or get the feeling that they cannot do anything right or pleasing to their parents. Children’s spirits are fragile and can easily be broken. Discipline should never be a parent’s way of taking frustration and anger out on the child. It should always be the result of the parent’s loving desire to teach the child to avoid wrong and follow the right way. God wants parents to love their children, and both fathers and mothers should not be ashamed to verbalize and display that love. There’s much to be said for the sentiment expressed by the bumper sticker slogan “Have you hugged your kid today?”
What a beautiful thing it is when Christian parents create in their homes a warm and loving atmosphere in which children find joy in obedience. On the other hand, what untold tragedies have resulted when parents, even though they may have truly loved their children, have embittered their children through lack of proper direction and discipline, excessive harshness, or failure to properly and effectively communicate their love.
Parents who love their children will also take care to nourish their children’s spiritual lives. Not just mothers but fathers too will take a personal interest in their children’s spiritual training. In families where fathers, as well as mothers, attend worship services with their children, the children are much more likely to worship regularly when they are on their own. Above all, Christian parents will provide an example that will make God’s Word live for their children.
Child-rearing in our society is a difficult and often discouraging task. The sinful natures of both children and parents, as well as the multitude of temptations with which the devil seeks to lead children and adolescents away from the path of loving obedience, at times threaten to overwhelm Christian parents. But if both parents and children seek the Lord’s help and follow his instructions, they can become more obedient children and more understanding parents. Nor should parents, even in the most discouraging moments of their childrearing experiences, stop trusting in the Lord’s encouraging promise in Proverbs 22:6, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”
In Paul’s day slaves also were part of the family relationship. The mighty Roman Empire ran on slave power. It is estimated that at one time perhaps a third of the empire’s population consisted of slaves. Convicts and prisoners of war were made slaves. Others were kidnapped by slave traders and forced into slavery; some became slaves because they could not pay their debts. Children of slaves, of course, were also considered slaves.
Paul here speaks of slaves as belonging to their masters’ households, because many slaves lived and worked in their masters’ homes. Light manufacturing was often done in homes. The master or the lady of the household would supervise anywhere from two or three to several dozen slaves in producing textiles, pottery, jewels, shoes, and other sellable items.
As the Christian gospel proceeded throughout the empire, many slaves became Christians. Occasionally their masters did too. In either case, it posed a question: How could the child of God, master or slave, relate his new religious status to his social standing? Paul addresses that question in what some might consider to be a surprising way. Although in 1st Timothy 1:9,10 he condemns slave traders as immoral, he does not advocate, here or elsewhere, the immediate abolition of slavery. He does not call on masters to free their slaves or on slaves to revolt against their masters. Immediate abolition of slavery would bring chaos to the empire, and it would cause much human suffering, especially to those who were slaves. The violent overthrow of society’s institutions is not the Christian way. Many social reformers today miss a key point that the apostle makes here, namely, that the gospel aims primarily not at changing social patterns but at changing hearts. The apostle took social structures as he found them and spoke with the gospel to those who lived in them. If changes in the structures and institutions of society resulted from changes worked by the gospel in human hearts, those changes evolved quietly and peacefully. The apostle’s instructions to slaves and masters, if followed, would eliminate the evils and brutality associated with slavery and would dignify the labors of Christian slaves, both in their own eyes and in the eyes of their masters.
To Christian slaves Paul simply says, “Obey your earthly masters in everything.” The only exception to such obedience would be a master’s command that was contrary to God’s will. Christian slaves were not to be obedient simply to catch the master’s eye or impress him when he happened to be watching. They were to obey with genuine sincerity. If those who served would only remember that, ultimately, they were serving Christ, then they would find dignity and nobility in even the lowliest task. Laziness, dishonesty, and ill will toward their masters would be replaced by integrity, honesty, and willing service.
By wholehearted cooperation and full obedience to their masters, Christian slaves would also be promoting the cause of Christ. Their masters would see what transforming power the gospel has in hearts and lives. Even though those dutiful Christian slaves might never be properly rewarded for their efforts here on earth, the Lord himself assures them that, in the eternal inheritance that he has prepared for them, he will recognize and graciously reward the service they rendered to their earthly masters as part of what they did for him. On the other hand, both slaves and masters are reminded that the Lord sees how they treat each other. Those who deliberately do evil, no matter what kind of excuse they might think they have, will find that the Lord will not lightly overlook their misdeeds.
Paul’s directions to masters likewise emphasize mutual kindness and love. According to Roman law, a slave was a piece of property without any rights. A master could buy, sell, and even kill a slave legally. There were grotesque evils associated with slavery. Paul calls on Christian masters to exercise their lordship in the name of Jesus. Christian masters were to treat their slaves humanely, never forgetting that they too were answerable to a master, one much greater than themselves. They were answerable to the heavenly master, who died to save both slaves and free. The souls of all, no matter what their social standing, are precious in his sight, and he can fill the hearts of both slaves and free people with his love and enable both to live their lives to his glory. In an application of Jesus’ golden rule to the slave-master relationship, the apostle urges Christian masters in Colosse to treat their slaves in exactly the way they would want to be treated by the heavenly master.
In these verses Paul has more to say about the slavemaster relationship than about any of the other family relationships. This was only natural, because with this letter and the epistle to Philemon, the apostle was sending a runaway slave, Onesimus, back to his master, Philemon, in Colosse. Onesimus is mentioned in verse 9 of chapter 4, and the entire epistle to Philemon, also included in this book, is addressed to this situation.
The Christian principles that Paul sets forth for the relationship between Christian slaves and masters can provide guidelines for modern Christians in employer-employee relationships. Through these words of the apostle, the Lord gives dignity to our work. As Christians, we serve the Lord with our faithful and diligent labor in our various earthly callings. Our daily labors are the fruits of our faith and ought to be carried out in the spirit of serving the Lord. Throw yourself into your work, the apostle would urge today’s Christian laborers, as if your employer were the Lord.
Here on earth the employee who works diligently at his task may never be rewarded or earn any more than fellow employees who just “put in their time.” He may, at times, even become the object of his peers’ ridicule. But the Lord sees the fruitful labor of all his believers. Above all, he sees the attitude of their hearts, and he will graciously acknowledge and reward their faithfulness when they enter their heavenly home.
The Lord would likewise have employers deal fairly with their employees. Employers also have a master in heaven. If employers and employees followed these simple guidelines and respected each other in unselfish Christian love, many of today’s difficulties between labor and management would disappear. As a blessed by-product, the nation’s economy, based not on greed but on mutual consideration, would flourish. May each Christian employer and employee who reads Paul’s inspired directives to the Colossians remember that, though we may not be able to change the world, we can, with the Lord’s help, begin to change our little corner of it as we carry out all our tasks diligently and faithfully, doing them all in the name of Jesus.