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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Virtue Illustrated by the Christian Family (3:18—4:1)
Virtue Illustrated by the Christian Family (3:18—4:1)

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.

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