This morning we’re going to continue our consideration of Christian household behavior from Paul’s letter to the Colossians. As we noted last week, in this section Paul is applying his previous teaching in addressing three groups of relationships: 1) Wives and husbands, which we looked at last week; 2) Children and fathers—or perhaps parents; and 3) Slaves and masters. And, again, what Paul appears to be doing is taking the general admonitions of new creature behavior to which all Christians are called— showing compassion, kindness, humility gentleness, patience, and forgiveness—and applying these more specifically to behavior that ought to characterize Christian households. Too, it’s important to remember that prior to coming to faith in Christ the Colossians were Gentiles, not Jewish, so they wouldn’t have had the benefit of receiving or learning any teaching from the Scriptures—the Hebrew Bible or our Old Testament—so now they must be taught what appropriate behavior looks like for those who profess to be Christians.
In terms of Christian children, Paul tells them that they are to—“obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.” This is in keeping with the teaching the Lord gave Moses in the Old Testament. In fact, in the parallel passage in Ephesians 6:1–3, this connection is made explicitly as Paul paraphrases Deuteronomy 5:16: “1Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.”—And here’s the Deuteronomy quotation—2“’Honor your father and mother’”—which is the first commandment with a promise— 3 ‘so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.’” Since God has placed parents in the role of raising their children, children are to trust their parents’ authority and listen to them, doing as they ask.
Next, as Paul did with the earlier wives–husbands coupling, having addressed children, in verse 21 Paul now turns to Christian parents. The word translated as “fathers” here might also be translated as “parents” so if you notice a footnote in your Bibles, that’s the reason why. At this time mothers would have been the primary teachers of children when they were little and fathers would have taken over as they got older. Either translation makes sense here. Whether fathers or parents, they should keep from “embittering” their children so as not to discourage them. Again, in the parallel passage in Ephesians 6:2 Paul tells fathers (or parents) “4 …do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” Being a good parent means finding the balance between teaching children the right thing and doing so in a way that helps them realize their responsibility to God and that doesn’t cause them to be discouraged. So as was the case with wives and husbands, both sides in a parent-child relationship have a responsibility to the other and for both sides the bar is high. They are to carry out their responsibility as children and parents as they would treat God himself. Again, to love others properly is akin to expressing our love for God, our Lord.
Next Paul turns to slaves and masters which, given our history with slavery in the United States, needs a bit of explanation. Slavery in 19th c. United States was not like slavery in the ancient world of the 1st c. So before turning to the passage let me first address some of the ancient background and context:
1) Slavery would have been taken for granted at this time. The whole structure of Roman society was based on it. Slaves made up as much as one-third of the Roman Empire—as many as 60,000,000 slaves. Slaves usually became slaves due to having been conquered in war but by the time of the New Testament, most slaves were born into it;
2) Slaves would have been viewed not as people but as chattel—as possessions or property—and they would have little to no recourse if they were being mistreated. They could be sold, exchanged, given away, or seized in order to pay their master’s debt. Further, they weren’t allowed to marry and their cohabitation with other slaves was regulated by their masters. Any children born of such a partnership were the property of the master, not the parents, just as lambs born to sheep belonged to the owner of the flock, and not the sheep.
3) During this period, it was possible for slaves to gain their freedom. Although not legally recognized as persons, they began to acquire some legal rights. They were assured of food, clothing, and shelter. Further, slaves didn’t just perform menial tasks but were also doctors, teachers, musicians, actors, artists, librarians, secretaries, accountants, stewards. The reason for this was because Romans viewed slaves as being there to do their work for them and so freeing up their time to other pursuits and this work included a number of trades. Therefore slaves had opportunities for education and training in almost all disciplines.
4) By the time of the New Testament era, another way that this institution was changing was that treatment of slaves was improving in some quarters part because masters came to realize that contented slaves worked better. Owners often held out the hope of freedom to inspire their slaves to work better. Too, masters often designated in their wills that their slaves were to be freed or receive part of their estate after the master’s death. So manumission—the release of slaves—was widespread. One study indicated that in the period between 81–49 BC, five hundred thousand slaves were freed (Rupprecht, 5:458). By the time of Augustus Caesar (63 BC–19 AD), so many slaves were being freed upon the death of their owners that a law had to be passed restricting that practice (Rupprecht, 5:459). Estimates of the average length of time a slave had to wait for his freedom range from seven to twenty years.
So in turning to Colossians, what is perhaps striking is, one, that Christians owned slaves, and two, that these slaves were part of the Christian household and as such were living with their masters. Given how slaves were viewed in that culture, as property rather than people, it’s remarkable, too, that Paul addresses slaves at all. In doing so, he is acknowledging their personhood. He is addressing slaves not as possessions but as people.
As was the case with wives, husbands, children, and parents, Christian slaves are to serve their masters out of love for the Lord. Paul begins by telling them to “obey [their] earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor.” The letter of the law isn’t what should guide slaves, but the spirit—the heart and intent—of the law. Slaves shouldn’t be that worker who only works hard when their boss is watching them in order to impress them. They should rather serve their masters out of their reverence for God—with sincerity of heart. Basketball player and coach John Wooden (1910–2010)—and yes, not being a sports enthusiast I had to google the source!—is credited with having said: “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” This quotation catches the spirit of what Paul is saying here. This principle of working conscientiously at all times and not just when the boss or others we may be trying to impress are watching is one that can apply to all of us.
In verses 23–24 Paul goes on to state: “23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.” So Paul is teaching these slaves that, ultimately, they are working for the Lord, not human masters. Because followers of Christ belong to Christ, they should do what they do out of love for and obedience to him. And the inheritance being spoken of here is that of the joy of spending eternity with God (I Peter 1:4, Heb. 9:15). As we studied a few weeks ago when considering Colossians 1:5, the reality of heaven appropriated by Jesus Christ on the cross is the basis for the hope and faith in Christ that is shared by all believers. And, in case they missed it, Paul adds “It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” Do you see what a providential view of life can do for us? It can help us handle the present moment or trial by reminding us that all of our life is about serving Christ. We might even go so far as saying that we shouldn’t curry the favor of other people but rather should curry Christ’s favor because he is our true and eternal and loving Master.
Paul ends by reminding slaves that “25 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.” Yet fear of punishment or the desire for a reward is not the primary motivation. Paul wants slaves to work well because it’s the right thing to do. And as one commentator put it, even an abusive system isn’t able to rob slaves of the dignity of their work, because their dignity is conferred on them by God himself.
Our passage for this morning ends with Paul addressing masters. Now though the New Testament nowhere attacks slavery directly, Christianity sowed the seeds for its destruction. We see hints of this in the first verse of chapter 4: “1Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.” So, contra what much of the slave-culture mentality was in the first century—with masters treating slaves as they desired with no fear of repercussion since they were property as much as sheep were property—Paul tells these Christian masters to do what is right and fair. And the reason is because their Master—capital “M”—in other words, Christ Jesus their God—is just and fair. Believers should ever seek to emulate God in the way we interact with others.
Our social status makes no difference.
Our gender makes no difference.
Our age makes no difference.
Our roles make no difference.
Everyone who claims the name of Christ is to treat all believers as they would treat Christ himself. As we’ve noted before, God in Christ associates with us so strongly that to treat Christians badly is presented in Scripture as equivalent to treating Christ badly. So when Saul—before he was Paul—was persecuting Christians out of zeal and obedience for what he believed God wanted, Jesus Christ, already dead, crucified, and risen met him on the Damascus Road, and asked Paul the wrong question. He didn’t ask: “Saul, why are you persecuting Christians?” No, he asked, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4) Again, this is how intricately God in Christ identifies with those who have responded to his call of salvation and to the most intimate relationship we could ever imagine with him, and with our Father in heaven, by means of his Holy Spirit’s indwelling us. So when we interact with other believers, we should always seek to treat them as we would treat Jesus himself. And this is true not only of other believers, but Jesus tells us that we are even to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44)—but that’s a sermon for another day.
The seed that Christianity sowed for the destruction of slavery is especially evident in the short, one-chapter New Testament letter from Paul to Philemon, a slave-holder who was a believer and whose run-away slave, Onesimus, also became a believer through Paul’s influence. Listen to what Paul tells Philemon about how he should now treat Onesimus as Paul sends him back to his master:
“15 Perhaps the reason [Onesimus] was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord. 21”—And then listen to Paul’s admonition a few verses later—“Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.”
Paul’s admonition to masters in Philemon and Colossians removed the possibility of the abuse of slaves, at least in Christian households. And some have speculated that perhaps part of the reason Colossians has such a long section on appropriate behavior for slaves is because Onesimus, this run-away slave who is now a brother in Christ, is going along with Tychicus to deliver this letter to the Colossians as well the letter to Philemon, Onesimus’ master, who also lived in Colossae.
In effect what we see Paul attempting to do here is to recalibrate the scales of both slaves and masters so that each side weighs things with the recognition of God’s sovereignty and presence in their lives. Again, it’s a high bar for both. And the general principles Paul puts forward concerning slaves and masters might also be applied to present day bosses and employers, provided we adjust for the significant differences between our situation now and theirs then.
In general, notice the common thread in all of these couplings:
Wives are to submit to their husbands as to the Lord;
Husbands are to love their wives as to the Lord;
Children are to obey their parents as to the Lord;
Fathers (or parents) are to treat their children rightly as to the Lord;
Slaves are to obey their masters as to the Lord;
Masters are to treat their slaves as to the Lord.
The fact that all of these behaviors are to be done as to the Lord is important because a question that must arise for us is this: But what if a husband—or a parent—or a master (or boss, as the case may be) asks us to do something that goes contrary to what the Scriptures allow? Are we still required to obey?
In short the answer is “no.” Are you familiar with the account of Corrie ten Boom (1892–1983), the Dutch Christian whose family helped many Jews escape the Nazi Holocaust—or Shoah—during World War II? Knowing that German soldiers were coming, Corrie and her sister, Betsie, had a Jewish family they were hiding step through a trap door that was situated beneath a rug under their dining room table which had a table cloth covering it. When the soldiers arrived they asked if they were hiding any Jews in their home. To Corrie’s horror, Betsie answered “Yes.” When the soldiers asked her where, she smiled, pointed, and said “Under the table.” When the soldiers looked beneath the tablecloth and found nothing, they angrily left, thinking that Betsie was mocking them. Corrie offers this story as an example of how God protected all of them despite Betsie’s truth-telling.
The reason that Christians shouldn’t do what our spouse, parents, or boss are asking us if it clearly goes against to what the Scriptures teach is because Christians are citizens of two realms. They are both earthly citizens and heavenly citizens and our greater loyalty ought to be to the heavenly. We see this in an interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees in Matthew 22. The Pharisees sought to trick Jesus by asking him whether or not an imperial tax should be paid. This wouldn’t have been an easy question to answer because the empire’s heavy taxation was a volatile issue with some saying it was wrong to pay taxes even though not paying them could be viewed as insurrection. So if Jesus answered taxes should be paid, he would be viewed as siding with an oppressive government against those in need; if he said they shouldn’t be paid, he would be viewed as a law-breaker. After calling the Pharisees hypocrites Jesus asked them to show him the coin—the denarius—that would be used to pay the tax. He took the coin and asked them whose image and inscription was on it. When they answered it was Caesar’s, Jesus said “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:15–22). This answer is ingenious. It highlights Scripture’s teaching that because all humans are made in God’s image God is owed our entire life for we all bear his image. By contrast Caesar was merely owed their money for his image was found only on a coin.
Because the highest loyalty of believers should be to God, our greatest obedience should be to him. Therefore we are called to obey earthly leaders only if what they are asking us to doesn’t go against what Scripture teaches. And this is true in all three pairings of relationships—of husbands and wives, children and parents, and slaves and their masters. If there is a conflict between Scripture and an earthly leader, our loyalty to God trumps all earthly authorities.
Another component to keep in mind here is to remember that godly behavior may win over one who doesn’t yet know God. So, for example, in I Corinthians 7, Paul encourages a wife or husband who has come to faith to stay with an unbelieving spouse if that spouse is willing to stay. Paul asks, “16 How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” You may be familiar with the name Juliet Thomas. She is a prominent evangelical leader and speaker from India and I once heard her share her testimony which basically lived out the truth of I Corinthians 7, Ephesians 5, and Colossians 3. After converting to Christianity, she began attending a Bible study despite her unbelieving husband’s objections. One day while reading Ephesians 5, she felt convicted by her complete disregard for her husband’s objections so she began asking him each week if she could go. Time and again his answer was “no” and she complied. Over time, her husband felt convicted and eventually came to a saving faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ. As she relayed this account Juliet lamented that though now she would prefer not to have as many speaking engagements as she did, she was once again doing so out of submitting to her husband. He recognized her gifts as an evangelist and speaker and encouraged her to use them to reach as many people as possible. God works in mysterious ways, doesn’t he? We should remember that the godly behavior of a believing spouse—child—parent—slave—master—or boss may, in the end, win over a non-believer to the truth of who Christ is.
Brothers and sisters, as we turn to our loving and heavenly Father, let us seek his wisdom as we attempt to love and serve him, and those whom he places in our lives, in all that we do. Please pray with me.