October 30 – Colossians 3:18-4:1

Main focus: Putting on the life of Jesus changes the way we relate to others, especially in our families and close relationships.

Our passage for this week is certainly not without controversy. However, taking into account both the possible landmines and the many ways the church has failed in these areas, the passage nevertheless presents a vision for how “walking in Jesus” (2:6) radically changes our familial and close relationships for the better.Before we get too much further, here’s some terminology—this passage is one of three household codes that occur in the Bible; the other two are Ephesians 5:21-6:9 and 1 Peter 2:11-3:7, and I’d encourage you to go read those in your prep this week. Household codes were common in Paul’s day, and many philosophers like Aristotle and Philo had handed down their own. For further reading (which you can also send your CG to enrich your discussion), here’s an excellent article by Rachel Held Evans that compares the household codes of the New Testament with contemporary, non-Christian ones. As Evans points out, when we read this passage, we need to take into account that Paul is using a communication format with which his audience would have been highly familiar. However, because of our lack of familiarity with them today, we might miss where he deviates from the pattern to make a point.  

Now, this is the kind of passage that certainly might lead your group down several offshoots in discussion. What does Paul mean by submit? Or in the other household codes, what about Eph 5:24 where Paul tells women to “submit in everything”? What does Peter mean in 1 Pet 3:7 when he calls women “the weaker vessel”? Is complementarianism (the belief that men and women are created equal in value but different and complementary in nature) just an excuse for men to hold onto authority? Etc. etc. To offer a bit of advice, feel free to take these offshoots rather than trying to railroad the conversation, since these are important and weighty topics. However, do so with three points of guidance: 1. Feel the freedom to say, “I don’t know.” As the CG leader you aren’t the one with all the answers, and whole bookshelves have been written on these topics, so a heavy dose of humility will help us all out here. 2. Try to be sensitive to when the conversation has turned more into a venting session for the many wrongs the church has committed in these areas. These wrongs are real, and we can certainly talk about them, but when our criticisms of others help us hide from the call that this passage has on our lives we should redirect things back to the discussion at hand. Finally, 3. Stay close to the core of this passage, which is how the lordship of Jesus turns earthly power structures on their heads and disrupts our fleshly categories. Note, it disrupts—this is always unsettling and perennially countercultural; as we’ll hit in discussion, it was in Paul’s day, and it still is today. 

Back to how Paul deviates from the pattern, the household codes of the Bible were incredibly countercultural in Paul’s time period. For instance, all the household codes of Paul’s day were addressed only to men, whereas Paul pointedly speaks to women, children, and slaves directly. For another example, Aristotle had declared that a wife should obey her husband in all things, a declaration that centers on her husband’s authority because, according to Aristotle, “the male is by nature fitter for command than the female.” But here Paul counsels wives to “submit…as is fitting in the Lord,” a command that centers instead on Jesus’s authority, to which husbands must likewise submit. The entire household code is rooted not in the superiority of the male household head, the Roman pater familias, but in the supremacy of King Jesus, which turns earthly power structures on their heads and disrupts our fleshly categories. 

 As a brief aside, we must be extremely careful about what we mean by “submit” in this passage, since that language has been used by self-professed Christians to cause all manner of harm. We have to consider this command, and the responsibility it conveys to husbands, within its immediate context in Colossians; ex. “put on love” (3:14) and “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (3:15). We also have to consider it in the broader application of the gospel in lives of believers, like “[submit] to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21), “in humility count others as more significant than yourselves” (Phil 2:3), etc. In summary, a husband “walking in Jesus” (Col 2:6) will create a marriage environment where his wife submitting, though likely still an exercise in the laying down of self, will never be at her expense or exploitation. 

For a third example of Paul’s deviation from the norm, and one that’s easier to miss, simply look at Paul’s address to children in verse 30. In the ancient Mediterranean, children were simply tolerated, regularly treated harshly and subject to the whims of the adults in their lives. According to Imperial Law, a father could neglect, abuse, and even kill his own child without any legal ramifications (and though child murder was admitedly rare, its legal protection still communicates an overall low valuation of child life). For Paul to speak directly to children is a rare move, but what he says is even more profound. By telling children that obeying their parents “pleases the Lord,” he assures them that, though they often go unseen in their world, Jesus is paying attention to them and delights in their following him.

Finally, in his household code Paul also addresses slaves and their masters. Slaves were considered members of the Roman familia, explaining their address here, but yet again the lordship of King Jesus turns earthly power structures on their heads. 4:1 contains just such a disrupting conclusion: “Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.” The equalizing effect of Jesus’s lordship, by which he calls everyone from the Emperor to the lowliest slave his subject, openly undermined the Roman assumption that slaves were a lesser class of human. Just look at the letter to Philemon, written roughly the same time as the letter to the Colossians, which urged Philemon, a member of the church at Colossae, to welcome back his runaway slave Onesimus not merely as a slave but as a brother (Philemon 16).

You’ll see an optional discussion question on the topic of slavery, again, if that’s an offshoot folks would like to travel down. With the horrors of American slavery in the back of our mind, it can be hard to read a passage like this and not conclude that the Bible condoned such brutality. On the one hand, slavery in the New Testament era was not quite the same as the racialized, indefinite enslavement of African Americans. On the other, passages like this one were used to justify that exact practice, so we should take inventory of the disrupting effect of King Jesus’s rule that should have stopped such justification. In that alternate discussion question you can turn to Eph 6, which is just a bit clearer on the lack of partiality before God between master and slave. The equalizing effect of Jesus’s lordship, coupled with the growth of love, peace, and humility in the life of a Christian, should have put an end to the practice of slavery far sooner than it did, but in short, the liberation offered by the gospel was ignored, not absent.

To wrap up this longer-than-normal introduction, the goal of our discussion should be to not merely wade into difficult theological and sociological waters, but to do so asking what this passage means for our lives. Jesus’s vision for our human relationships will always simultaneously affirm human value and challenge cultural assumptions, whether “traditional” or “progressive,” which means that doing so may certainly ruffle our feathers and leave us with more questions than we started. However, our guiding light, and ultimately our highest hope, isn’t in having all the answers, but in Jesus’s lordship.

Questions for Discussion

• Could someone read Colossians 3:18-4:1 for us?

• What stood out to you from the passage?

• How do you think this passage connects back to 3:12-17?

• Where do you see Jesus’s lordship or authority referenced here?

• According to this passage, how does Jesus’s authority change the way we relate to others?

• What is challenging about this passage to you?

• This passage was countercultural in Paul’s day; how do you think it’s countercultural today? 

• Practically speaking, how can 3:18-21 help us understand how to relate to one another within families? 

• How do you think 3:22-4:1 can help direct the way we work? (for more on what Paul is saying about slavery, have someone read Ephesians 6:5-9 and discuss: How do you think the lordship of Jesus could have changed the way masters related to their slaves in this era?)