Colossians 3 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Virtue Illustrated by the Christian Family

God's grace also results in changes within the home. Martin Luther referred to the Bible's instructions on family life as Haustafeln (literally, "household tables")--codes or "tables" of rules that guided behavior in the home. In Luther's day, as in our own, meals were a family's focal point. Meals are occasions for gathering family members together, perhaps for the only time during the day, for conversation and celebration. In such close quarters relationships are set in bold relief and are either nurtured or undone because of things said or actions taken. Most of what is said around a meal is not rehearsed. Questions raised are often unstudied and expressed with passion. So if a sense of order is to be maintained, family members must be guided by overarching principles of conduct. Without rules, family conversation can erupt into angry arguments that produce hard feelings and broken fellowship.

In Paul's world, codes of household rules were commonplace. Both religious and nonreligious populations realized the importance of familial relations for the well-being of the whole society. For Christians, who believe that every person is created with the image of the Lord Christ in mind (see 1:15-18), the similarity between scriptural and secular codes is not surprising (see 3:9-10). Whether pagan or Christian, reasonable people observe that a certain order to social relationships, especially within the family, contributes to the common good of humankind. In Western countries, nearly every week some national magazine publishes yet another report that makes this point, typically stated negatively: the decline of the family is the surest barometer of the decline of the culture. So it makes sense that comparisons of the various Haustafeln in the New Testament (such as Eph 5:21--6:9; 1 Pet 2:13--3:7) with those found in other ancient works show that the early church's teaching about the family generally conformed to its social world.

With closer scrutiny, however, we should find critical differences between the secular and Christian worlds and between their codes for family conduct. For example, Paul calls his readers to observe his code for reasons that are both christological (3:18: as is fitting in the Lord) and eschatological (3:24: you will receive an inheritance from the Lord). That is, his reasons are religious and not societal. Further, the egalitarian sociology of God's people (see 3:11) is radically different from the hierarchy and patriarchy of the Jewish and Roman worlds. Where the new age has dawned in Christ, people are valued as equals regardless of their station or role. The believer's way of seeing has been transformed by divine grace, and this renewal of the mind has resulted in a new sense of being and a new capacity for doing. In this sense, then, calls to submit to or love another mean something very different for the believer than for the nonbeliever. In fact, Paul, who teaches that God's grace works within the community to produce a distinctively virtuous life (3:12-17), would no doubt argue that without our participation with Christ in God's saving work the intent of such household rules is corrupted so that they produce only vice (see 3:5-9).

Tragically, our churches provide numerous examples of dysfunctional families in which abuse has been justified by a distorted interpretation of Paul's household codes. Wifely submission is taken to mean the subjugation of the woman's whole being to the man; husbandly love is taken to mean the man's condescending care of the woman. The abuse promoted by such interpretations has led many believers to disregard Paul's teaching as irrelevant and too misogynistic for today's liberated environment.

Part of the problem with this perspective is exegetical: what plain meaning does this text have within the context of the whole composition and its point of origin? In the case of Colossians, we must assume that the household code it contains has an integral role in Paul's composition and expresses his concern for the readers--that is, he uses this household code to address the crisis in Colosse. With this in mind, two exegetical questions face us: First, what has Paul said to this point in his argument against his Colossian opponents that prepares us to understand this household code? And second, why does Paul include it in his description of the Christian life?

Paul's general concern stems from the deeper logic of his gospel, introduced in the opening thanksgiving: ideas about God are embodied in action toward others, and only the truth about God's grace can produce holiness and peace in human lives. In this light, Paul has made three critical points in his description of the Christian life.

First, Christian morality is properly motivated by mindfulness of the "things above," where the enthroned Christ is found (3:1-4). When people confess Christ's lordship over all creation (1:15-20), they will resist the separation of morality into compartments, one spiritual and the other material. The values of God and the norms of God's reign, which Jesus incarnated during his messianic mission, inform all spheres of the church's conduct. In this sense, the believer's public conduct, whether in word or deed, will be at odds with the values of the secular order, whether at work or at home.

Second, Christian morality is set within the new creation (3:9-10), an egalitarian community (3:11), which has "put to death" by God's grace all vices that result in death rather than life and therefore undermine God's purposes for creation.

Third, the new life that characterizes the faith community now hidden with Christ in God (3:1-4) bears witness to God through Christ by word and deed (3:12-17).

The Christian family is the proving ground for life in Christ. If the gospel about Christ has been accepted and the truth about God's grace affirmed, relationships within the home will be transformed. There, where intimacy is sought and goodness expected behind doors closed to the pressures of the secular order, our truthfulness in public confession will be found out. Paul no doubt realizes that what happens in the home validates what has happened in the heart.

Paul adapts a traditional moral code of family life for a Christian congregation and so implies that the empowering grace found in Christ also is found in the Christian home. Family members who are in Christ continue to live with each other but in new ways.

Paul's description, however, remains somewhat selective and idealistic. For him, morality expresses God's grace; and he never speaks of grace to excuse sin but always to describe victory over sin. He doesn't list all the exceptions, nor does he describe the difficulties facing the Christian family in an anti-God world. Further, his understanding of the home is shaped by a culture that devalued women and children and often treated household servants no better than animals. The unqualified demand for wives, children and servants to obey reflects in part the social realities of Paul's world.

Some say that he did not seek to reverse these social arrangements because he thought the end of the age was imminent; others say that he was simply too conservative--too much a Roman citizen--to threaten Rome's social institutions. That may be. However, I prefer to understand Paul's moral teaching as visional. For him, the transformation of the mind by God's purposes disclosed in Christ produces a new way of looking at social and spiritual realities. Thus, while he retains the current social institution (that is, the "family unit"), he replaces its secular focus with a recognition of the lordship of Christ and the hope of God's coming triumph in him. What is central to this passage is Paul's call for an intellectual reorientation (repentance is exactly that!) toward relationships within the home such that the way family members treat one another is transformed.

For example, if a wife sees herself as subservient to her husband, she will allow him to dominate and even abuse her. If, however, she views herself as Christ's disciple and her husband's equal in Christ, her under standing of submission will be changed: she will submit herself to her husband in the same way that Christ submitted himself to God. The result is that God's salvation will have its full effect (see 3:10; Eph 4:12-16). Being made equal in Christ will radically alter the way two disciples relate to each other as husband and wife. The result will be the woman's elevation within the Christian home and the end of her abuse there (see commentary under 3:18-19), and this in turn will be a witness to a misogynistic world.

The student of this passage should not think that Paul is responding to abusive relationships within the Christian homes of Colosse; there is no evidence whatever to support this conjecture. Rather, this household code is another important example of Paul's desire to make the gospel practical for life. If the Colossian philosophy moved the congregation toward intellectualism and asceticism, Paul may have included this Haustafel in Colossians to check the drift toward irrelevancy. The Christian gospel has to do with the way we live our daily lives; to embrace its truths is to bear its fruit "in every good work" (1:10). For most of us, truth comes closest to home in the family; here is where the fruit of the gospel is most vividly and vitally known.Wives and Husbands (3:18-19)

The first two rules of Paul's household code, Wives, submit to your husbands and Husbands, love your wives, are joined with the command to act toward each other in ways that are fitting in the Lord. The "careful balance" between wife and husband envisioned by Wright (1987:147) assumes the woman's equal value within the community that belongs to Christ. The issue at stake is not gender but how disciples, whether male or female, are oriented toward the Lord. Thus, secular notions of submission, whether feminist or patriarchal, must be set aside and replaced by notions of how Christ submitted himself to God. Likewise, condescending notions of love must be replaced by a love like Christ's for his neighbors.

According to Colossians, whatever else we may suppose about Christ's submission to God, we cannot think of Christ as God's inferior. He is, after all, "the image of the invisible God" (1:15), "the fullness of the Deity . . . in bodily form" (2:9). Moreover, Christ's devotion for the church is expressed as an intimate union between the two: Christ is "in" every disciple (1:27; 3:11). So the female disciple participates with Christ in God's salvation to the very same extent that the male disciple does. Whatever the social hierarchies being promoted by the spiritual umpire in the Colossian congregation, they do not accord with the nature of human relationships between those believers in Christ (see 3:11).

More important to our exposition of this controversial passage is the meaning of the Christian phrase as is fitting in the Lord that Paul adds to the code. The verb fitting (anekei) refers to any act considered "proper" or suitable for its subjects. That is, the propriety of the wife's submission to her husband or of the husband's love for his wife is gauged by the new realities found in the Lord.

Two integral aspects of Paul's Christology that are emphasized within Colossians provide content to this added phrase. First is the exaltation of Christ as Lord "over all things"--the universal effect of God's triumph over sin and death through him. To worship Christ as Lord is to acknowledge that God's promised salvation has already been fulfilled for those "hidden with Christ in God." Second, however, is the community's participation with Christ in the real results of God's triumph over sin and death. Not only is God's triumph demonstrated in the death and resurrection of the Lord Christ, but in him God's people now experience transformation from vice to virtue and from death to life. In this sense, then, actions "proper" for those who live in the Lord Christ must bear witness to God's triumph. Specifically, actions between husband and wife must show forth the new creation that has begun with Christ. In the larger context of Paul's moral exhortation, then, both the wife's submission and the husband's love are characterized by the virtues of 3:12-14, while marital relationships that belong to the fallen world are characterized by the vices listed in 3:5-9.

Paul's exhortation to Christian husbands not to be harsh with their wives recalls their conversion from vice to virtue. Surely the verb rendered "harsh" (pikraino; literally, "to embitter") is the opposite of a "binding love" (3:14; see O'Brien 1982:224) and, like all vice, results in broken relationships (see Heb 12:15). Perhaps Paul's phrase recalls the Deuteronomic code (Deut 29:18), where "bitter poison" within the community is said to result from idolatry; Paul lists idolatry with the vices of the old order (see 3:5). However the wife submits and the husband loves, both actions must bear witness to the new life they share as codisciples in Christ.

Why then does Paul retain the rhetoric of the old order, which seems to place wives in a hierarchical relationship to their husbands? This question carries an even greater force given the egalitarian character of relationships within the church (see 3:11). In recent years some Christian feminists have questioned Paul's resolve in these matters; he seems to equivocate on matters female. Perhaps his apparent ambiguity on male-female relations stems from his missiological praxis: the preaching of the gospel must accommodate its audience if it is to be heard and responded to (1 Cor 9:19-23). Paul's use of hierarchical language may well be rhetorical rather than sociological; his desire is to convey a new pattern for family relationships which is best communicated in "old wineskins." By so doing, the theologian Paul is not commending the old or even suggesting that old and new patterns for marriage can possibly coexist in God's kingdom. Clearly, he views the church as the new social order within the old fallen world. However, as a missionary he knows that social conflict, which is inevitable when the new and old clash (see Rom 12:14-21), constitutes a crisis for the hearing of the gospel.

Crosscultural communication is a missiological imperative! What would have been the missiological result of asking husbands to submit to their wives, when both the religious and secular establishments of Paul's day agreed that wives should submit to husbands to maintain the "proper" (and natural) order of things? I speculate the practical result would have been unfavorable, with the ministry of the church shoved out toward the margins of the cultural mainstream. Then the gospel would simply not have been heard.

Naturally, Paul wants the relationship between Christian wives and their Christian husbands to embody the lordship of Christ for all to see. Obviously, this is impossible when marriages are abusive, or when one spouse is prevented by the other from realizing God's good intentions in the Lord Christ (as in 3:5-11). Should a Christian wife continue to submit uncritically to her husband if it results in personal abuse (the vices of 3:5-9) rather than in spiritual maturity (the virtues of 3:12-15)? I think not. Should the measure of a husband's love for his wife be whether her devotion to the Lord Christ is strengthened and God's interests (rather than her husband's) for her life achieved? I think so. In Christ, God shows no favorites; God is for both husband and wife, and in equal measure (see Wall 1987:276-85).Parents and Children (3:20-21)

The Greek word Paul uses for "children" is tekna, which refers to young children living at home. While it is certainly not unusual to find instructions for dependent children in ancient household codes, Paul's version is quite extraordinary because he treats even dependent children as Christ's disciples. This is clearly the intent of the incentive clause for this pleases the Lord, which I think applies equally to fathers. The relationship between parent and child is centered on their common devotion to the Lord. The word translated "pleases" (euarestos) is always used in the New Testament of conduct that accords with God's will (even though outside the New Testament it often identified socially aware behavior). Perhaps Paul brings together both meanings and adds the object the Lord to press the point that social propriety within the Christian family is determined by the Lord, not by the dominant values and typical behaviors of the surrounding secular order.

If Jesus Christ is Lord over all things (1:15-20), and if the believing community has already triumphed with him over the powers of darkness (1:13-14), then what is "proper" between the child and parent is finally construed on the Lord Christ's terms rather than on society's. Neither the child nor the parent should hold the other hostage to society's values and expectations. Neither should seek self-justification in terms of what is "pleasing" to or expected of their own peers. Parents often project their ambitions or those of their friends on their children, trying to remake them in the image of their personal failures. But parenting is a sacred task; as disciples of Christ, Christian parents seek to raise up children in the image of the One who is "Deity . . . in bodily form."

The elevated value of children within the faith community is also evident in Paul's admonition to fathers that they are not to embitter their children, or they will become discouraged. Parenting within the Christian home requires a balance: maintaining the children's obedience without alienating them from the faith. Paul does not deny that young children require parental guidance. In fact, O'Brien notes two important differences between Paul's exhortations that a wife submit to her husband and that a child obey the same person. First is the change of the verbal idea from submission (hypotasso), which only sometimes means obedience, to the more explicit word for obedience (hypakouo). Second is the change of verbal voice from middle, which implies that the wife's submission is voluntary, to an active imperative, which implies the child's unquestioning obedience (O'Brien 1982:224).

However, Paul is no doubt aware of the potential for child abuse in communities that require strict compliance to parental authority, where the rod is not spared lest the child be "spoiled." What often results is not redemption but the obliteration of a child's self-esteem (which quite possibly is one meaning of the word discouraged; see Wright 1987:148-49) and bitterness toward the parent and the parent's faith. Demanding obedience without love, or conditioning love upon obedience, imperils the child's formation, because it alienates him or her from all nurturing relationships with God, family and community (see 3:14).

While children are to obey both parents, only the father is admonished against harsh treatment of his children. Why not the mother too? Rather than a normative statement about God's order (so Wright 1987:148), it probably is better viewed as an accommodation to the Roman world (so O'Brien 1982:225), where the father was vested with primary authority over the household. No doubt Paul realizes that personal authority in any sphere--even his apostolic authority within the Gentile church--is easily corrupted into coercive and abusive authoritarianism. It is always tempting for the one whose word is final to speak that word in self-serving ways. In this sense, then, the incentive clause to do what pleases the Lord bids fathers to reverse the Roman notion of power. Rather than defining the parent-child relationship in terms of his power over the child, the father who is first of all Christ's disciple is to become servant of his children (so Mk 10:42-45). Paul's exhortation to fathers, then, envisions Christian discipleship in two ways: Christian fathers consider the tragic consequences of overly harsh discipline, and they replace coercive power with empowering service of their children.Slaves (3:22-25)

Let me begin my commentary on this particular unit of the Colossian Haustafel with a caveat, especially for American readers: Do not read Paul's instructions to Roman slaves as though their status and experience were the same as those of antebellum American slaves. While they share the general similarity that all slaves are mastered by their owner, to link these two slave institutions without regard for their vast dissimilarities will lead to distorted interpretation (see my introduction to Philemon; "Slavery in the First Century").

Scholars are sometimes puzzled that Paul devotes so much of the Colossian code to slaves. Two different times, surrounded by five different reasons, Paul exhorts slaves to obey their masters. Why this emphasis? Two general solutions to this exegetical puzzle are often advanced. One is that Paul is responding here to the social world of the Colossians. Commentators who prefer this option suppose that Paul is responding to a congregation made up of slaves and slave owners, both of whom have been shaped by a society that promotes slavery in order to maintain Rome's economic and military viability. Another explanation is that Paul emphasizes the slave-master motif in this letter to illustrate his core ethical proposal to "set your minds on things above, not on earthly things" (3:2). In this second explanation, Christian slaves are viewed as representatives of God's people; they represent every believer's vocation, which is to serve God.

On closer scrutiny, however, we see that Paul's expansion of the code primarily concerns the Christian slave's essential moral dilemma, especially in the workplace: What does it mean to serve two masters, one on earth (that is, the company or the boss) and another in heaven (that is, the Lord Christ)? In my opinion, this is exactly the dilemma that continues to face all workers who serve the Lord: Who is it that reigns where we live and work? Especially in the workplace, is our primary ambition to have a career and to move ahead in competition with other workers? Like Jesus, who posed the dilemma of "two masters" (see Mt 6:24; par.), Paul presents a clear exhortation: the true disciple, who might have both earthly and heavenly "masters," must follow the lead of a mind set on "things above."

The central challenge for slaves, which Paul repeats, is to obey your earthly masters in everything. Again, Paul's admonition conforms to traditional moral teaching in the ancient world, which demanded that household slaves utterly obey their employers. Such hierarchies were viewed as critical to the social and economic order. So whatever you do, work at it with all your heart. Again, however, Paul retains the form of the prevailing social institution but changes the reason for it: to bear witness to the Lord Christ. In fact, Paul is convinced that a christological orientation will transform even our ordinary tasks into acts of worship, moving us to do our work even better.

The moral issue at stake is what motivates a person to work well. Most of us bunch our reasons under two general headings: either we enjoy a good working relationship with our boss or company, or we expect to derive some personal benefit from our work. Paul comments on both reasons. On the one hand, the daily chores of household slaves, often difficult and sometimes dehumanizing, are motivated by reverence for the Lord; Christian slaves work as though working for the Lord. Paul's instruction does not go as far as 1 Timothy 6:1, which makes the master the object of the slave's respect; nor does he suggest, as does 1 Peter 2:18, that masters can sometimes be harsh (but see 3:19). Rather, Paul's concern is to mind the "things above" rather than "earthly things"; thus Christian workers are not motivated by their earthly masters, whether to win their favor or to work for men (compare Eph 6:5-8).

Whether we punch in and out on time or whether we appear competent to our coworkers and bosses is not at stake for those who think of work as an act of worship. To work in order to bring pleasure to God is sufficient motivation to be faithful stewards of our talents and opportunities.

Workers are also motivated by the prospect of payment for their labor. In this case, Paul says faithful slaves know that [they] will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. The inclusion of this eschatological motif in the code is unique among New Testament Haustafeln and is therefore exegetically significant. Most slaves in the Roman world received meager rewards: by law they could own little and inherit nothing. Therefore, Paul is speaking ironically here, perhaps to call attention to an earlier claim made about the gospel. In introducing his commentary on the false teaching in Colosse, Paul notes that the gospel (1:27-28) produces the "fruit" (1:6; compare 3:1-4) of "hope" (1:5) for a heavenly "inheritance" (1:12). Heavenly profit is based on faith, not social class; it is paid to those who serve Jesus Christ, whether the servant is powerful master or powerless slave.

James Hal Cone, an important African-American theologian, has said that black spirituals celebrated visions of heavenly reward to affirm what it means to be fully human in an earthly context where love, justice and liberation were rarely realized. From the gospel stories the slaves knew about God's love and justice; they spoke of their heavenly home as the place where they would finally and fully experience these truths. To mind the "things above" is to hope for an inheritance that reverses socioeconomic conditions on earth, where many people are oppressed and denied humanity. Significantly, the spiritual songs of American slaves were mostly composed in the fields of hard labor rather than in the churches of earnest worship. They expressed the real reason slaves continued to work well in spite of terrible treatment: they minded the One above in the confident hope that he realized their true value and would one day give them back their humanity. In this limited but profound sense, they shared a rich koinonia with their Christian counterparts in ancient Colosse.And Masters (4:1)

Paul completes the Colossian Haustafel by turning his attention to slave masters. Already he has described the sociology of the community located by God's grace in Christ, which makes "slave and free" equal because they are both in Christ and he in them (3:11). It should not surprise the reader, then, that Paul promotes an alternative understanding of the Roman institution of slavery. The gospel does not necessarily seek to reverse the social arrangements between slave and master; in this case, Paul does not exhort the master to emancipate the slaves (however, see Philemon). Rather, his instruction is for the master to provide slaves with what is right and fair--something any virtuous person would do (compare 3:12). Although other codes in the ancient world also encouraged the humane treatment of slaves (see O'Brien 1982:232), the issue for Paul is where one finds the moral competency to do what the code outlines. The requisite virtue to do what is right and fair belongs to the "new creatures" found in Christ.

However, Paul's teaching also presses the christological incentive behind such behavior: you know that you also have a Master in heaven--mind the "things above"! The relationship between earthly masters and the heavenly Master provides the moral impetus for just treatment of household workers. Further, if the phrase "Master in heaven" alludes to 3:1-4, as most commentators suppose, then it conveys an eschatological meaning as well. According to the Jewish moral tradition, inhumane treatment of slaves would bring down the Lord Almighty's wrath on Judgment Day (compare Jas 5:1-5). According to Paul's teaching, a relationship with Christ transforms all earthly relationships, including those between masters and slaves. So the Christian master, transformed by God's grace, will naturally treat slaves fairly and will therefore "appear with [Christ] in glory" (3:4).

Previous commentary:
The Community's Conversion to Virtue

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.

Bible Gateway Recommendations

Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible
Retail: $25.99
Our Price: $15.97
Save: $10.02 (39%)
5.0 of 5.0 stars
The Secret of Communion with God
Retail: $12.99
Our Price: $11.69
Save: $1.30 (10%)
View more titles