Relationships in the Lord

Colossians 3:18-4:1


Families have been in the news a lot lately, mostly due to the redefinition of family to include homosexual couples and treating transgender celebrities as heroes. I’m not sure those issues threaten the future of marriage and family as much as the cheapening and flippancy with which heterosexual couples treat their marriages. The skyrocketing statistics showing that cohabitation on the front end (or instead of) and divorce on the tail end are eclipsing marriage – even the Pope announced this week that the Catholic Church is loosening its rules on annulment making it easier for couples to get out of inconvenient marriages.  Hollywood couples jumping in and out of marriage faster than rides at Disneyworld.  No, it’s not the homosexuals that are destroying marriage – we’re doing a pretty good job of it ourselves.


And lest you think our modern American culture invented marital dysfunction, the apostle Paul wrote concerning marriage and family two thousand years ago to a culture that treated marriage with at least as much disrespect as ours does today. And his words aren’t to the world, they are to Christians. He isn’t writing to commend them for what they’re doing right, but to correct what they’re doing wrong.


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. (Col. 3:18 – 4:1)


At first glance, this passage might confirm some people’s suspicions that the Bible is hopelessly out of date and irrelevant.  After all, families have changed a lot in 2000 years.  We have outgrown talk about wives being submissive, children obeying their parents, and commands to slaves and masters.  That’s oppressive language and some would vote to rid the Bible of language that encourages any inequality in relationships (it’s called liberation theology and feminist theology).


But if there is something in this passage that feels out of sync with the times, may I suggest that our problem lies not with what Paul was writing, but in our understanding of what he was writing, or just as likely, with the modern culture in which we live. 


Paul has had to endure a bum rap for a lot of years from folks who think he was the original male chauvinist, or some kind of autocratic, patriarchal demagogue.  The truth is that Paul was centuries ahead of his contemporaries in his attitudes toward women, treating them as equal and integral to the Lord’s work, and his own writings became the impetus for abolishing slavery in society after society.


Fitting in with culture was never a major concern of Paul’s.  Much of what he wrote cut right across the grain of social standards and mores of his day.  And if his writings and commands cut across the grain of our modern cultural standards and constantly changing mores, it is not because he is culture-bound to the 1st century and out of date and irrelevant in the 21st.  He tunes his writings, not to fit in with any culture, but to God’s unchanging will.  We are tempted to try and explain away what Paul meant when he wrote, for instance, about women’s role in the church, so that it fits with our 21st century culture.  What Paul wrote didn’t even fit with 1st century culture, so we need to be careful about reinterpreting Paul to fit our contemporary cultural norms.


Let me preface our study of this text by saying that the brief comments Paul makes here on family and social relationships aren’t intended to be a comprehensive textbook on how to treat everyone in every relationship.  I wish it were that cut and dried – it would make everything so much easier.  But he didn’t, and relationships have never been easy or simple.


Vs. 17 gives us a pretty clear idea of Paul’s rule of living in any area of life – the lordship of Jesus Christ in our lives must determine and rule every aspect of life – and that includes our relationships.  “Whatever you do in word or deed” covers all of life, but Paul gives some very practical, daily applications of some of these “whatevers” where we are called to surrender everything to Jesus.


Listen for a recurring theme in the next nine verses that is going to be central to what Paul has to say:


Vs. 18 – Wives

Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

A young husband came rushing into my office dragging his new wife in tow.  “You have to straighten her out!” I asked what was wrong and he said, “She’s not submitting to me.” I asked him what he meant by that and he replied, “She’s not doing what I tell her to do.” I said, “So kind of like you’re the boss and she’s your employee?” “Exactly!” he said. I told him, “I think I see what the problem is – you don’t understand what submission means.”


Our problem with what Paul writes is that we have mis-defined “submission” – it is willingly yielding your will and your rights to those of another.  It is not an act of weakness or inferiority, but the greatest kind of strength.


Jesus submitted to the authorities who crucified him.  We are all called on to submit to others in a variety of relationships.  In human relationships, submission does not imply a superior/inferior distinction – it signifies role and function.  I choose to submit for the good of the relationship.


And in Ephesians 5 Paul prefaces this same command for wives to submit to their husbands with his admonition for husbands and wives to submit to one another.


A wife’s submission has its roots in the divine relationship and in the order of creation –

Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God…. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head. In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. (1 Cor. 11:3, 8-12)

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. (1 Tim. 2:11-14)   


I’m still wrestling with what exactly all that means and how it should be applied, but it tells me that the reasoning for submission transcends cultural norms and has a foundation in God’s eternal plan. It has nothing to do with what 1st century culture said, or 21st century culture. It wasn’t patriarchal or matriarchal, but what God’s intention for marriage is.


And I had some news for that young husband.  I asked him what it meant for him to be a leader in his home.  A husband is a true leader in his home when he sacrifices himself for the good of his family – when he lays down his life for them and models for them what a servant is – not to rule over them with an iron fist.


Paul defines this submission “as is fitting in the Lord.”

There is an appropriate attitude and action that goes into submission.  There is a right and a wrong in a certain context.  Now what is that context?  Because of the husband’s natural superiority?  Because she is incapable of doing things as well as a man?  No – but because it is “fitting in the Lord.”  It’s not a mindless, passive surrender because you can’t stand up for yourself, it is an intentional, godly response to God’s command. It is a standard higher and more absolute than human standards.


Vs. 19  -- Husbands

Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.

What is it that allows women to submit themselves to their husbands?  When they see their husbands demonstrating true love toward them.  Husbands – do you have trouble with your wife not being submissive to you?  You’d better check in on what kind of an environment you are giving her to be submissive in – do you act in Christ-like love toward her – do you demonstrate servant leadership?


“Do not be harsh with them”

I think this gives us some insight into what was going on in homes in 1st century Colossae.  Husbands who thought they were the kings in their castles – demanding obedience and doling out punishment.  They ruled with iron fists, because that’s just how households are run. The Roman rule of “Pater familias” meant that the husband and father, by law, had absolute control over his family – even to the point of life and death. They could treat their wife and children however they wanted.  And it seems that even Christian husbands were harsh with their wives and needed to have their thinking and their behavior transformed by the Lord’s presence in their family.


When a wife submits to her husband and when a husband gives godly leadership to his wife, then you see a relationship that is God-glorifying, and fulfilling to both.


Vs. 20 – Children

“Children, obey your parents in everything for this pleases the Lord.”

I think it’s interesting that Paul writes to children – not to children through their parents – but straight to children.  This isn’t a club for parents to use to beat their children into obedience.   Paul sees children as responsible and accountable – and he writes this admonition directly to them to instruct them on their responsibility in a home that belongs to the Lord.


Vs. 21 – Fathers

Paul comes back to the men – this time in their role as fathers.  And the same attitude he challenges in their dealings with their wives characterizes how they deal with their children.  Their behavior is harsh and provoking.


“Do not embitter your children”

Many a father has realized too late that the wall they have built during their children’s childhoods can’t be broken down later.  Bitterness is a horrible quality in a home, and fathers are responsible for keeping it from developing.


“Or they will become discouraged”

The danger in bitterness is not just in how it affects the relationship between children and fathers, but in how it affects those children in later years.  Discouragement always keeps children from being all they can become.  When we as parents are always crushing our children’s dreams and knocking them down for their failures, we are creating a pattern for their lives.  It is encouragement and positive affirmation and unconditional love our children need in mega-doses.


Fathers, our children need two things from us – they need roots and they need wings.  They need to have their lives fully grounded in the Lord, and they need to know that home is always a safe place where they can fully be themselves.  And then, they need us to let go so they can fully become everything that God created them to be.


Vs. 22-24 – Slaves

Paul next addresses slaves, not as property, but as people who were brothers and sisters in the Lord. And it’s interesting that it’s still in the context of family that Paul writes this, because in Roman society, family was more than mom, dad and the kids – it was all the extended relationships in a household including slaves.


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.

Paul writes more here to slaves than to all the other groups combined, perhaps because more than half the population of any major Roman city was made up of slaves, and the early church was filled with slaves.  And slaves were not just uneducated, menial servants – the doctors, teachers and professionals were slaves as well.  Despite our sense of social injustice, Paul commands these slaves to be obedient to their masters in everything – to give sincere, ungrudging service, rooted in “reverence for the Lord.”  They were to understand that their service was really to the Lord, not their masters and that their reward would ultimately be from Him.


And while we no longer have the social structure of slavery, there are enduring principles that apply to any relationship based in serving and following.  In our own working lives we should give our employers honest, faithful, ungrudging work in return for the pay we receive.  And like those slaves, we should understand that the one we ultimately serve is our Lord.


Vs. 4:1 – Masters

Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.


In the ancient world, slaves had no rights and were considered mere property.  In this verse, Paul plants the seed of transformation.  Masters also have obligations to their slaves to treat them fairly and provide for their needs.  And like their slaves, the relationship now hinges on their relationship with God.  Treat your slaves fairly because you also have a Master in heaven.


And implanted in this admonition is this transformative three word phrase: “In the Lord”  This is the recurring theme, this is the central focus of the passage.  “Whatever you do… do it all in the name of the Lord” – wives submit to your husbands  in the Lord / children obey your parents for this pleases the Lord / slaves obey you masters with reverence for the Lord / working for the Lord / inheritance from the Lord / Masters provide for your slaves… because you have a Lord in heaven.


The presence of the Lord in a home should transform those relationships.  When the Lord rules in the lives of the individual members of a family there is no reason why those individuals can’t live together in love and harmony.  And when there is strife and conflict in a family, it is always because someone is refusing to let Christ rule in their life completely.



The Psalmist wrote, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.” (Ps 127:1)  Our only hope for families that are strong enough to weather the storms of life is if our homes have the Lord as their foundation. If we want to change and transform our society’s views of marriage and family, we need to begin with our own relationships, showing what it looks like when Jesus is the Lord over our homes.