Be subject to one another. 3:18-4:1


Paul now gets down to the practical business of behaving in a way that is honoring to the Lord. In particular, he looks at family life. The family was the center of ancient society and many literary treatments on household ethics, duties and administration, were produced for general consumption. In fact, their form is very similar to Paul's summary of behavior in the Christian family. As can be seen from Paul's list, the family is wider than our Western nuclear family, and this because it includes slaves.

The passage

v18. In Christ there is neither male nor female. We are all one. Yet, this heavenly reality does not supersede the reality of created human existence. Not only did God create kinds, but ordered the hierarchy of created kinds. This order allows society to function in peace and so gives us the space to search out the living God. Yet, the heavenly reality should, where possible, emancipate the practical necessities of life. So, a wife should "submit" to her husband, but only as "is fitting in the Lord." The principle of oneness in Christ will humanize the relationship between a husband and a wife, moving it toward a partnership of mutual submission rather than subjection.

v19. In the ancient world, a wife had little redress under the law. A husband could mistreat his wife with impunity. Yet, such behavior is not acceptable in the Christian fellowship. A husband, because of his position of power, is not to harm his wife. A husband is to love his wife. The word "love" is used here in the sense of compassion, not sexual affection.

v20. Ancient household rules required children to obey their parents and Paul affirms that this rule also stands in the Christian home. It is assumed, of course, that believing parents will only ask their children to act in a way that is acceptable to God.

v21. If children are to obey, parents are not to be harsh. Parents must not be unreasonable in their demands such that their children loose heart. Such discipline makes sense, for as an old saying puts it, "a father who is always threatening does not receive much reverence." In Ephesians, Paul gives the positive side when he writes, "bring them up in the nurture and instruction of the Lord", Eph.6:4.

v22-24. For some reason, Paul has quite a bit to say to slaves. He calls on believing slaves not to be men-pleases, but rather to work with all their heart. They are to work with the thought that they are working for Jesus. Although slavery is not within God's design for society, Paul accepts its social framework, and this because a believer's eternal reward transcends the limitations they may face in this life. None-the-less, elsewhere Paul encourages slaves to seek freedom (legally), where possible. Ultimately, all believers are freedmen in Christ, 1Cor.7:21-22.

v25. This warning is directed particularly to the Christian slaves at Colossae. They are reminded that just because they are believers, even possibly working for a Christian master, they are not immune from a master's punishment. This, in itself, is a good reason to be obedient, but let their obedience come from the heart.



4:1. As slaves have duties, so alos masters. Masters should treat their slaves with the same consideration they desire from their Master in heaven. In writing to Philemon, Paul suggests he should actually consider freeing his slave Onesimus, v12-14.

Order and ideal

Paul doesn't seek to reshape the social structure of Roman society in the first century, but he certainly wants to Christianize the way believers function within it. This means that Paul gives us some ethical principles for the development of personal relationships that can be applied while living in a society whose social structure is less than the heavenly ideal. With our eyes set on the heavenly ideal of all one in Christ, while at the same time accepting the limitations of the secular given, the scriptures encourage us to strive toward that heavenly reality in our day-to-day life, both in the Christian fellowship and in the wider secular community.

When we look back and consider the evil of slavery, it is encouraging to know that Christians led the charge to outlaw what was clearly an evil human activity. Yet, those changes were only made in recent history. Christians did not quickly move from humanizing (Christianizing) the institution to outlawing the institution. Thankfully, a recognition of the injustice of slavery prompted a wider concern for the exploitation of the poor in workhouse or factory, such that today, the notion of "a fair day's pay for a fair day's work" is the norm, not the exception. Sadly, there has been some retreat given the stagnation in the pay of workers as against the excessive increases in executive remuneration, and also the undermining of the principle of 8 hours work, 8 hours play, 8 hours sleep.

The process of humanizing (Christianizing) marriage has similarly been a slow one. Most people today see marriage as a partnership of compatible equals, each sharing their particular natural abilities for the development of their family. In western societies today, the notion of a wife's "submission" is increasingly a foreign one. Few women are willing to answer yes to the words "will you ... obey him ..?" The obey is out! If "submission" is but for societal peace and order, an order of creation for "the hardness of your hearts", then it is indeed "fitting in the Lord" to move toward the heavenly ideal of all one in Christ.

Believers are not called on to be social revolutionaries. For most of the time it is when in Rome do what the Romans do. Humanize, yes! where possible, but above all do it for the Lord.


1. Ethics are relative. Discuss.

2. Support the contention: a fair day's work for a fair day's pay. Relate the issue to executive remuneration.

3. Discuss the view that men have tended to understand Paul's instruction to husbands as "husbands, rule your wives lovingly and not harshly." What was Paul actually saying?

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