Text: Colossians 3:18-4:1
Well, it’s not looking too good for wives, children and slaves, is it? Nor is it looking too good for the preacher who’s got to try to explain all this.
So I decided I needed a bit of extra help from the bloke who wrote this stuff:-
Dear Paul. We’re studying your letter to the Colossians at our church, and we’ve reached 3:18-4:1 – the bit about wives, children and slaves. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?
Dear Jonathan. Yes, I well remember dictating that letter. I always meant it to be read in other churches, so I’m pleased to hear that it’s being studied in your church today. Fire away with your questions.
Dear Paul. Thanks very much. Can we get straight down to business, then.
‘Wives, submit to your husbands’
‘Children, obey your parents’
‘Slaves, obey your earthly masters’
I’m afraid this is all sounds dreadfully conservative, old-fashioned and repressive. ‘Slaves obey your masters’? Do you really mean to condone slavery, of all things?
Dear Jonathan. I’m interested that you start with a question about slavery. I doubt there’s anyone in your church who is either a slave or a master. On the other hand, there are plenty of people there who are husbands, wives, parents or children. Or, they will be some day, or at least they know people who are. I hope we will get round to discussing these roles before too long.
As for slavery, well, you need to understand that slavery in the Roman Empire – at least, in the eastern part – was not about chain-gangs and beatings and half-starved human skeletons. Slaves in my day were often well-educated, trusted and respected members of society. It would be quite misleading to compare household slaves in Colossae with, for example, the more recent treatment of Afro-american slaves. Nor should they be compared with your modern forms of slavery, such as child labour and forced prostitution.
Dear Paul. I see. However, I still don’t understand why you didn’t try to blow slavery out of the water. It’s all very well to say that slaves in your day were usually well treated. But slavery is the ownership of one person by another, and that can’t be right.
Dear Jonathan. Think about it. Half the Roman empire was in slavery to the other half. I could no more have banned the owning of slaves than you could ban the owning of motor-cars. And in any case, outright rebellion would have been a disaster for all concerned – especially the slaves themselves. It had been tried before. Spartacus had led an uprising of slaves in the Western part of the Empire, and this led to terrible recriminations on slaves for years afterwards.
Dear Paul. OK, that’s helpful. But surely the gospel should make some difference?
Dear Jonathan. Well actually, it does make a huge difference. For example, at the same time that I wrote this letter to the Colossians, I wrote a little note to Philemon, sending his slave Onesimus back to him and asking Philemon to accept him no longer as a slave, but as a dear brother. And the same kind of thing happened all over the Christian world. It led to Christians giving freedom to countless numbers of slaves. And eventually, of course, it led to Christians being in the forefront of the abolution of the slave trade.
Dear Paul. Well, I can see that the gospel does undermine slavery after all, but in a peaceful way. But I guess that isn’t your main point in this part of your letter?
Dear Jonathan. You’re quite right. Remember, I wasn’t writing to the Roman emperor. I was writing to Christian families in the town of Colossae.
I wanted them to see how our faith in Christ should affect every aspect of life and every relationship. Including the home. It is in the home that we are most truly ourselves, where people know who we really are, and where it is pointless to try to seem something we are not.
So I gave them this little set of house rules. There was nothing new about this. People in my day often wrote up lists of ‘house rules’ for families, telling wives and children and slaves about their responsibilities and duties.
Dear Paul. Yes. But you have included instructions to husbands, parents, and masters.
Dear Jonathan. That’s right. The world in my day was a very one-sided place. It still is, in many ways. And the stronger ones must realise that they have responsibilities towards the weaker members. That would have come as a big surprise to many people.
Dear Paul. When you say that a wife is to be ‘subject’ to her husband, that makes her sound a bit like a doormat.
Dear Jonathan. Not at all. I have written to the Ephesian church saying that the relationship between the wife and the husband is like that between Christ and the church. There is leadership there, of course. But it has got nothing to do with stifling self-expression, laying down the law, barking out orders, insisting on getting your own way.
And, of course, if the gospel places a responsibility on the wife to be subject to her husband, it places an even more demanding responsibility on the husband to love his wife.
Dear Paul. Why, of all the things you could have said about how husbands treat their wives, do you say, “Do not be harsh with them?”
Dear Jonathan. ‘Harshness’ is one of the besetting faults of husbands. How many men are cheerful, polite and respectful towards friends, colleagues, the grocer and the bloke next door, but carelessly insensitive towards their wives? I’ve heard you joke about it.
Dear Paul. O yes:- The one about the husband and wife who had just got back from their honeymoon. On the first morning the husband went downstairs while his wife was still in bed, and after a while he came back up with breakfast on a tray. “There,” he said, “What do you think of that?”
She looked at the tray, which had eggs and bacon, toast and marmalade, orange juice and tea, the post and the newspaper all beautifully set out, and said, “It looks fantastic.”
“Great,” he answered. “That’s how I want you to do it for me every morning.”
Dear Jonathan. Ha Ha. But many of you husbands need to be more careful, more thoughtful, and more sensitive. Don’t worry too much about making sure your wives are subject to you. You leave them to work that out for themselves. You concentrate on loving them. Cherish, treasure, respect, guard and protect her. Put her needs first. Think of Christ and the church. No wife should have a problem accepting her husband’s leadership when he loves her as Christ loved the church, giving himself up for her.
Dear Paul. You call for complete obedience of children to parents. Are you serious?
Dear Jonathan. Yes, I am serious. Of course, if parent were to tell a child to cheat in their exams, or heave a brick through their neighbour’s greenhouse, or pinch a ten pound note out of the newsagents till, then of course they should refuse. But that isn’t the norm, especially not in Christian families. Obedience should be thorough. No ‘if and buts’. So many times when a child has not been taught to be obedient to parents it grows up disobedient to all authority, and that spells disaster. Teenagers, keep your parents informed. Tell them where you’re going and what time you’ll be home. Such considerateness towards parents can work miracles even when the parent isn’t a Christian.
Dear Paul. Yes, I think know what you mean. I heard recently of a youngster who moved away from home to do Christian work. But he still wrote every week to his dad, giving him all the news and telling him what he was doing. His dad was not a believer. Actually, he was an alcoholic. And he never read those letters. He never even opened them. But then his alcoholism got so bad that he was admitted to hospital. It was there that he opened the letters and started reading them. And he was so impressed by what his son was doing, and the fact that his son wanted him to know what he was doing, that he ended up coming to Christ himself.
Think Christ. He was obedient to his heavenly Father. He came down from heaven not to do his own will but to do the will of him who sent him. But, even more remarkably, he was obedient to his earthly parents. Luke 2:51 – ‘Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them’
Dear Jonathan. That’s great. But fathers – especially Christian fathers – have responsibilities too.
Dear Paul. Yes, I was going to ask you about that. Of all the things you could have said to fathers about raising children, why did you say, “Do not embitter them?”
Dear Jonathan. Most of you parents spend more time and energy preparing for your driving test than for preparing to raise your children. No surprise then that you spend the first three years teaching your children to walk and talk, and the next 12 telling them to sit down and shut up. There are so many ways in which parents – fathers especially – embitter or provoke or discourage their children. By harsh punishments, endless criticism, constant nagging, fault-finding, belittling, expecting the child to be a carbon copy of themselves, or the fulfilment of all their dreams. Some of you are in danger of becoming ‘helicopter parents’ You’re constantly hovering over your children, watching their every move, correcting their every mistake, making their every decision. Don’t stifle them. Don’t discourage them. Even if for the time being they don’t share your faith in Jesus Christ, don’t close off all the channels of communication by embittering them.
Dear Paul. I get the point. Thanks for all your help.
It’s time for a summary. Looking back over this passage, we see that it’s all about the Lord Jesus.
v18 – Wives submit to your husbands, because this is fitting in the Lord.
v20 – Children obey your parents, because this pleases the Lord.
v22 – Let those who serve do so with reverence to the Lord.
v23 – Whatever work we do, do it as working for the Lord, for it is the Lord Christ we’re serving.
v24 – Let those who have no earthly inheritance be assured that they will receive an inheritance from the Lord
v25 – Let those who do wrong know that will be repaid by the Lord, regardless of their status
4:1 – Let those who are in authority do what is right and fair, for they too have a Master in heaven.
Yes, it’s all about him.
I heard recently of a Christian lady who in her younger life had memorised a number of Bible verses. As she grew older her mind began to fail, and she could only remember one of them:-
2 Tim 1:12 I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.
After a while, her memory of even that one verse faded, and all she recall was:-
“…that which I have committed unto him against that day.”
Then, in the last weeks of her life, even those words slipped away, apart from just one. She had nothing left of her Bible except one word, which she repeated over and over again:-
“Him, him, him.”
So let us learn how to serve,
and in our lives enthrone him
each other’s needs to prefer
for it is Christ we’re serving
Acknowledgements: in addition to the usual commentaries (those by Wright and Lucas in particular), I have been helped in my preparation by listening to an excellent sermon recently preached by David Turner at All Souls, Langham Place, and available on their website.