Updated: Dec 6, 2022
In our study of Colossians, we come to a section of Paul's letter where he teaches about Christian households in a first-century Greco-Roman culture, which was highly authoritarian. How are we to understand Paul's words in our culture today?
Before we explore Paul's words, it is helpful to remember the context of his words. We are studying an ancient letter of Paul written to the church in Colossae, which existed in a first-century Roman-dominated world. Paul is thankful for their faithfulness and love for God's people (Col. 1:3). Paul is also writing to encourage them to remain faithful amid cultural pressures that would shift their focus away from Christ and the gospel's message (Col. 2). Continuing in (Col. 3), Paul begins to show what it looks like to live as God's new creation in the middle of a fallen world.
Colossians 3:1–3 (NIV)
“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”
As God's new creation, we live by a different sexual ethic (Col. 3:5-7). Our speech and language are to be different as those who have been raised with Christ (Col. 3:8-9). As new creation or new humans in Christ, we are to be one. We are one body (Col. 3:11-17).
Paul's words have context, and it is important to recognize the context as we seek to understand and apply his words to our lives today. First, there is the context of the letter. Then, also, there is the context of the culture Paul is writing in and to. Without acknowledging the context, we can often draw inappropriate conclusions.
We can understand this in our modern context. A soundbite from the news or a quick tweet can often lead to misunderstandings because the words are taken out of context or, at best, lack the full context.
With Biblical texts, this is made more difficult. Because these are ancient texts, understanding the full context can be quite complicated. For these reasons and others, we approach the study of God's word with care and caution. The study of God's word is not something we should take lightly.
What does living as God's new creation look like in a highly authoritarian Roman culture and household?
Colossians 3:18–4:1 (NIV)
“Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.
Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.
Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged. Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism. Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.”
The text here in Colossians and in other passages such as (Eph. 5; 1 Peter 2) can be challenging to hear. The language may sound harsh to modern readers. Some have used passages such as these to suppress or even abuse others. Some have taken such passages as a cause to reject Paul and the Scriptures. Any number of feelings and thoughts are triggered when we read texts such as these in the Scriptures. So how do we understand Paul's words?
Aristotle & Pax Romana
Many scholars recognize Paul's words as adopting well-known Greco-Roman household codes. Paul and Peter (see: Eph. 5; 1 Peter 2) are not creating an entirely new system for Christian households. Perhaps one of the better-known household codes of the ancient world was Aristotle's Politics.
Other Philosophers adopted and adapted such codes. As a result, these codes became a vital part of preserving the fabric of Greco-Roman households and became essential to sustaining peace in Greco-Roman society.
I believe Paul is adding a new ingredient to these well-known household codes. He is applying Jesus and the gospel to Christian households.
New Humans In Our Homes
Paul desires to see the message of Christ, as well as the church, flourish and grow. But how does living as a new creation in a Greco-Roman household look? Paul is walking a very fine line. Not wanting to draw the attention of the Roman government to Christians, who could be seen as undermining what was considered for a peaceful society while simultaneously demonstrating how Christians should live in the current culture as new humans.
In Greco-Roman culture, the patriarch held all the power—even the power of life and death. In Christian homes, Jesus is Lord of the household.
In the Lord, wives surrender and allow their husbands to be responsible for them. Husbands are to love their wives. Children are not objects to possess but are called to maturity and respect as an expression of Christ. Enslaved Christians should work with their whole heart as working for the Lord. In the Lord, masters are to be just and fair, understanding that this person is not their property but a fellow member of God's household and a brother or sister in Christ.
What Paul does is reshape Christian homes around Jesus. Mutual respect, love, and surrender are expressions of a Christian household. Households are to follow the example of Christ as he is Lord over the home.
Today, we may see Paul's words as something other than radical or not much of a departure from standard Greco-Roman codes. However, Paul is reframing Christian homes around the exalted Messiah who rules through self-giving love and sacrifice.
Paul, shaped by Christ, has a radical vision of the gospel's transforming power. In Paul's conclusion to the letter, we see this most clearly.
Tychicus (ref. Col. 4:7) delivers this letter of Paul and Onesimus accompanies him. Paul encourages the church to receive Onesimus as a faithful and dear brother (Col. 4:9). In Paul's letter to Philemon, we learn that Onesimus is an escaped enslaved person of a Colossian Christian named Philemon. In this letter, Paul says that Philemon should receive Onesimus no longer as an enslaved person but as a dear brother (Phil. 1:17). Paul's vision for the church and Christian homes is a radical vision when set against the context of a Greco-Roman world in the first century. Power dynamics are dissolved as we come together as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Bridging The Context
Passages such as in Colossians, Ephesians, and 1 Peter can spark many different emotions and reactions. Given the context, they can be challenging to understand. However, if we understand Paul as promoting power structures or abusive authoritarian relationships, we are misreading Paul and misunderstanding the gospel of Christ. Instead, Paul is placing all authority in Christ and reshaping Christian homes around him. Homes where love, sacrifice, respect, and surrender are modeled as they follow Christ.
Question To Consider
How am I following and showing the example of Christ in my home?
Unless otherwise noted; Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by Permission. All rights reserved worldwide. The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011).
(video) Baker Publishing Group: Household Codes (Chapter 26, Introducing the New Testament)
Psephizo: Aristotle and the Household Codes
Rachel Held Evans: Aristotle vs. Jesus: What Makes the New Testament Household Codes Different