After someone has called upon the Lord, and has been baptized, he blinks and looks around, and one of the things he sees is all the same people. He is forgiven, which is exhilarating, and he is in fellowship with God, which is a novelty to him, but when he goes back to work, he runs into all the same people. What are we supposed to do? We have to make particular decisions.
“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them. Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord. Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged. Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God: And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men; Knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ. But he that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong which he hath done: and there is no respect of persons. Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven” (Col. 3:18–4:1).
Summary of the Text
So remember that the entire congregation has been exhorted to put sins to death, whether sins of the flesh or sins of the mouth. All the congregation has been urged to take off the old man, and to put on their Jesus coat. When the apostle comes to particular social relations, he is assuming that everyone he is talking to is behaving as a Christian already. This means a godly Christian can do what Paul tells husbands to do, the same with wives, and so on.
Wives are told to be submissive to their husbands, which is proper in the Lord (v. 18). Husbands are told to love their wives, and not to be bitter or resentful against them (v. 19). Children (meaning dependent children) are to be obedient to their parents in everything, which pleases the Lord (v. 20). Fathers are told not to be provocative (v. 21), and Paul warns against discouraging the kids. Slaves are commanded to do the same thing, obeying their masters in the fear of God (v. 22). Whatever task you are given, act as though the Lord Himself gave it to you, and do it heartily (v. 23). You can do this because you know that the Lord is your actual master, and His rewards will be a just inheritance (v. 24). But if a slave misbehaves in some way, then he will have to suffer the consequences (v. 25). And men in the congregation who owned slaves are commanded to remember that they too are under authority, they also have a master (4:1), and they are told to render to their slaves what is “just and equal.”
Let Onesimus Help Us Out
It is quite striking that slave owners are told to render equity to their slaves here, and Paul does not appear to intend immediate manumission by this. But liberty is very much in view, as we will see. But what Paul is doing is liberating slaves by means of the logic of the gospel, and not by means of fiery revolution.
Remember that Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon were all written at the same time, and were delivered by Tychicus (Eph. 6:21; Col. 4:7) and Onesimus (Col. 4:9). Onesimus also (presumably) delivered the letter of Philemon to his master Philemon, which means that Philemon lived in the area of Colossae, and was part of that church. The general instructions to all were particularly applicable to him, and the particular exhortations.
So remember that Paul has just finished saying that in Christ there is neither slave nor free (Col. 3:11). Here he tells the masters, Philemon included, to treat his slaves with justice and equity (Col. 4:1). At the end of the letter Paul commends Onesimus as a “faithful and beloved brother” (Col. 4:9), and he does the same thing to Philemon in that letter, urging Philemon to receive him as more than a slave, but also as a beloved brother (Phil. 9). He as much as asks for the freedom of Onesimus (Phil 13), but makes a point of saying that it is up to Philemon. In addition, if Onesimus pilfered anything, Paul said he would pay it back.
Christ and Hierarchical Relationships
In the first chapter of Colossians, we learned that Christ has been given the place of all preeminence. Recall that there are three governments among men, all of them supported and sustained by the reality of self-government. They are civil government, the Ministry of Justice, the family government, the Ministry of Health, Education and Welfare, and church government, the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. The enthronement of Christ over all principalities and powers is transformative and necessarily means a qualitative change. When Christ takes precedence over Caesar, Caesar isn’t really Caesar anymore.
In the same way, the coming of Christ transformed the role of the paterfamilias, the head of the Roman household, into that of a Christian husband. This did not eliminate the lines of authority, but it certainly altered how that authority was exercised.
Remember that everyone was to put on the Jesus coat. This meant that you would see Christ in your parents, in your husband, in your wife, in your children, in your slaves, and in your master. And the slaves are explicitly told to consider their work as being done for the Lord (3:24). The principle can and must be extended.
When it comes to our current debates over all this, we have different names for our positions. There is egalitarianism, there is soft complementarianism, there is hard complementarianism, there is soft patriarchy, and hard patriarchy, and with some areas of overlap.
The Font of All True Authority
The world is hierarchical, but the world is also busted. This means that men maintain their positions of authority through a straight right-handed authority.
“And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:42–43, ESV).
This is not servant leadership. It is like Christ—which makes it servant lordship.