Epic Fam, in our passage for today we are going to read one of the more difficult verses that there is in the entire Bible. Now, I say that a little bit tongue-in-cheek because it’s not difficult theologically – we’re not talking about the resurrection, or miracles, or anything like that. It’s just a verse that’s hard for many of us to swallow in our modern day context. It goes against our cultural sensitivities. People have rejected the Bible and labeled it archaic because of verses like the one we are looking at today.
So, I’m going to spare you the suspense and just give it to you up front. You ready?! Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands… (Colossians 3:18a)
I don’t know how I ended up teaching on this Sunday – but here we go. (Not true. Pastor Ben gave me a way out.)
Some of you (male and female) may have no issues with this verse. But it really is a sore spot for some people. One time I was asked to officiate a wedding and the bride-to-be wanted to make sure that I didn’t include anything about submitting or obedience; and she wanted to go first when it came to the vows and with everything else. (Had I not known the couple I would have been concerned; but she had some really bad experiences with male authority figures in her past. So I knew where these requests were coming from.)
Now, up to that point I never had a line like that in my ceremonies. So I reassured her that there would be no mention of it. But since then, here’s something I say to every couple when officiating their wedding – because I really believe it: My encouragement and challenge to the two of you is to put the other first; it’s to make your relationship a SUBMISSION competition--a race to the back of the line. This is what Jesus did for us as he gave his life for us; and he has called us to do it for one another. And you get no better practice than in marriage.
When you look at submission from that perspective, it changes everything. I believe the happiest couples – those who have a healthy, thriving, and loving relationship – submit to one another. But if you look at submission from the culture’s perspective, only the worst examples come to mind.
Now some of you may be thinking: Hold up, Will, you are applying an instruction given to women to men as well. Yes, because it’s not only given to women in the Bible. In Ephesians 5, where the Apostle Paul also tells wives to submit to their husbands, he writes immediately before that: Submit to one another… (Ephesians 5:21a). He’s talking to men and women there.
If you take Colossians 3:18 (or any other challenging verse) in isolation and out of context, yes it’s going to seem like the Apostle Paul is setting women’s rights back at least a hundred years. But when you look at the entire biblical narrative, and you look at what Christ has done for us and how he practiced submission (in the Garden he said, "not my will, but your will"), and if you look at the fact that he has called us to follow in his footsteps, if you do that it will give you a completely different appreciation for this verse and so many others like it.
And that’s what I’m hoping that we will see today. Today’s message is all about relationships. God cares about your relationships. He cares about how you show up in your relationships (regardless of your gender, regardless of the power dynamic that is present, he cares how you and I show up).
Paul’s aim in our passage for today is to transform how we relate to one another – especially in the context of the home and the workplace. So let’s dive in.
Colossians 3:18-4:1 - Instructions for Christian Households
18 Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
19 Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.
20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.
21 Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.
22 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. 23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. 25 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.
4:1 Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.
The Apostle Paul is not making it easy on me today. I forgot to tell you that not only does he tell wives to submit, but he tells slaves to obey their masters in everything. (Come on, Paul!) And less shocking, but still might cause offense, he tells children to obey their parents in everything. (Some of you are wondering, At what age does that no longer apply? Parents are like, 40. Kids are like, 18. Some of you are 40 and still feel that pressure to obey your parents in everything.)
Listen, I understand how this looks and sounds. Not good. So before I get into each instruction and share some practical ways that we can apply them, let me relieve some of the tension that we might have with some of the challenging aspects of this passage. So I just formulated a question that we might have, and I’m going to try to address it as best as possible in a short amount of time.
Why does Paul make demands of individuals in ‘weaker positions’ that seem to keep them in a subjugated position? Great question. Here are a few thoughts.
You’re right, absolute obedience to the ‘man of the house’ (if I can use that phrase) was a societal norm and expectation. But here’s where Paul diverts from the culture. For starters, he doesn’t tell wives to obey, but to submit. If you look at the original Greek in which this letter was written, the grammatical tense and voice that is used for each word creates a distinction between the two. Obey is an active imperative, which is more like a command. Whereas submit is a verb in the middle voice which implies a voluntary submission. Big difference. The wife is elevated and willing chooses to submit to her husband; she’s not commanded.
But secondly, what makes Paul’s instructions unique is that he doesn’t point to the culture or the government, but he points to Jesus as the motivating factor for how we show up in relationships. Seven times in nine verses (Col. 3:18-4: 1) Paul roots his instructions in a phrase like "in the Lord". (Wives, submit as is fitting in the Lord. Children, obey, for this pleases the Lord. And so on.) As I mentioned earlier, Jesus submitted throughout his life (specifically in the Garden of Gethsemane). He also was obedient to his parents. (Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. -Luke 2:51a) In our society we see things like obedience and submission as weakness; but in the Kingdom of God weakness is actually strength.
Last thing I’ll say about Paul’s instructions to the ‘weaker members’ of society. The fact that Paul is even addressing the women, children, and slaves directly is massively significant. And not only is he addressing them directly, but he addresses each of them first in their respective sections. By doing so he is showing them dignity. By doing so he is sending a message to the ‘man of the house’ that in a home where Christ is the head, the whole structure changes. The man is not the head, Christ is the head, and wives, children, and slaves are equal with the man. That’s huge! Remember, Paul in his letters writes (as he does in Colossians 3:11) that in Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female; but we are all one in Christ Jesus. Paul is leveling the playing field in a society where it was really uneven.
Check out this quote, which I believe brings out this point: The instructions show a special concern for the weaker or powerless members of the pair: wives, children, and slaves. The rules cited do not simply reinforce the prerogatives of husbands, parents, and masters, for the stronger parties are given duties in addition to rights. In turn, those who are expected to submit or obey are given rights as well as duties. The commands therefore recognize that reciprocity exists, so that the entitlements are not all on one side and the obligations on the other. Comparable instructions from other literature usually address only the male, adult, and free person. The idea that women, children and slaves could also act in an ethically responsible way is scarcely considered.
As archaic as Paul’s instructions may still seem to some of us, they are groundbreaking – especially in the time they were written. And I believe they are still applicable and helpful today. So let me make a few comments about each of them.
I thought about opening this section by asking, Wives, are you ready to learn how to submit to your husbands? But I didn’t think that would go over well.
So, let me just share with you the best illustration I have of what it means to submit in the context of a marriage or family. And I’m actually going to use a workplace example. In my role here at Epic I have significant responsibilities. I have the privilege of being able to teach, lead, and oversee major aspects of our church. AND, with all of that, I also submit to the position of the Lead Pastor. Now that’s not in my job description or anything like that. That doesn’t mean I’m bringing him coffee and cleaning his shoes with my toothbrush. But when there’s a major decision that needs to be made, and the room is split, and the lead pastor decides we are heading in this direction, submitting is biting my tongue (I have already shared my opinion) and giving full support to that decision.
In order for any organization to work well, submission has to happen. Can you imagine if I resisted Ben at every turn? What would be the state of our staff team and church? The same is true for families. In order for a family to work well, there has to be a point leader and submission has to happen. Again, that doesn’t mean that everyone else is subservient.
In fact, I asked my wife what she thought and felt about this verse. And in essence, she was in agreement. And she didn’t use this word. But what she described was a deference – a ‘giving way’ to my leadership or decision. Now, that’s not in all things. My wife leads just as much, if not more, in our home. But when she was talking I could recall moments where I noticed her humbly agreeing and supporting me in what I had to say.
Another thing that she said that is important. She said, "You also make it easy for me to submit." (And I’m like, Tell me more.) "You’re not this alpha male that is domineering and demanding me to submit. In essence, I respect you and your leadership." And fellas, that is key. Check out this quote: “If a wife is asked to submit, it is to the husband’s love, not to his tyranny.”
I love that. And that leads us to our next instruction: Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. (v.19) Many of the commentators that I read made it a point to stress that the more demanding requests or instructions were given to the ‘man of the house’. Now you may or may not agree with that. But when you think about it from the standpoint that the ‘men of the house’ in those days actually held the power of life and death of not only his slaves, but also of his wife and children – these commands are a big deal. It was typical to expect obedience regardless of one’s behavior.
But in a Christian household, husbands are instructed to love their wives. I want to quickly turn to Ephesians 5 where Paul fleshes that out a little bit more. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:25-27) The type of love that Paul is describing here is a sacrificial and intentional type of love – one in which the husband is taking responsibility for and great care to help his wife grow and develop.
One author writes that many of the terms used in this passage are agricultural terms. Even the word ‘husband’ (husbandman) is agricultural. And so he asks this question: Related to marriage, are you a gardener or a consumer? If you are a consumer, you are most likely impatient and frustrated with your spouse’s problems. You take no responsibility to do what you can to nurture your spouse or redeem the situation. You probably think you might have made a mistake (with regard to the person you married).
If you are a gardener, you see the problems in your spouse but view them much differently from a consumer. You are optimistic about them getting better because you are proactive and positive. Your caring behavior gives your spouse the encouragement and loving atmosphere needed to get better. Also, your prayers and obedience become God’s tools for redeeming your spouse and making him or her into the person God intended. --Jimmy Evans
We have too many people getting married with a consumer mindset – all they think about is having their needs met rather than asking, "How can I help you meet your needs?" When both in a marriage are doing that, that is a lasting marriage. And fellas, that is how you love your wife.
Now, for the second half of verse 19: Husbands, do not be harsh with your wife. We all know what that means, right? Don’t be overbearing; or overly demanding; or rude; or especially, intimidating – none of that. Now that’s a straightforward translation of what it means not to be harsh.
But the word can also be translated to mean: “Do not become embittered [or resentful] toward your wife.” Anyone can refrain from harsh treatment; but Christians are called to more than that. Fellas, when our needs aren’t being met how quickly we grow in resentment, right? But one commentator writes, This directive addresses the eventuality that the wife might not always be properly submissive… but any defiance or insolence on the wife’s part does not cancel the husband’s absolute obligation to love her. So the challenge, men, is to keep leaning in by loving and serving your wife, regardless of what’s coming at you. You do not realize the power your initiation holds.
Moving along. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. (v.20) Here’s what I’ll say about this. This command assumes that parents will not demand anything immoral from their children. It also assumes that the parents have the best interest of their children at heart.
But someone might ask, What if that’s not the case? You obey where you can and where it is morally right, for that pleases the Lord.
A similar question comes up when it comes to honor. In the ten commandments we are called to honor our fathers and mothers. But what if our parents aren’t worthy of honor? You should still show them honor and respect because of their role/position in your life. Now again, this may seem outdated. But this is the way of Jesus. We don’t treat people the way we believe they deserve to be treated, but we treat them the way we want to be treated and the way our Lord has treated us – even when we didn’t deserve it.
Now this next one says fathers but it applies to both parents. Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged. (v.21) Have you ever seen a child wilt (or deflate) before your eyes? When does that usually happen? When we are on them. And there’s moments when we need to be on them. But boy do we know how to wear them out.
I don’t know where I got this from, but I love it. You will never be able to nag your kids into the adults they are called to be.Nagging is one of the lowest forms of parenting. Nagging creates an emotional field that repels our kids away from us. So we must change our approach.
● Less lectures, more vision.
● Less bothering, more modeling.
● Less telling, more showing.
● Less demands, more invitations.
Parents, do not embitter, aggravate, or nag at your kids, or they will become discouraged. Your job – and you have a limited amount of years to do this – is to put courage in them and send them off to make a difference in this world for Christ.
Ok. This last section addressing slaves and masters, I don’t have time to get into – in a major way – the challenges that this section presents. I’ll just say:
1. Paul is not affirming the establishment of slavery. We have to keep in mind that Christianity was still a small minority that had no power.
2. Despite that, Paul is demanding changes to the institution with respect to how slaves are treated.
3. He, again, shows them respect and dignity by addressing them directly and assigning them moral responsibility – which was not common in any point of history.
4. And lastly, as mentioned with the children, Paul’s command assumes that the master’s demands were reasonable and appropriate.
So, very short Cliffs Notes to address the challenges. And let me give you one take away – because I do believe these instructions can be applied to employees and employers. You tech workers are not slaves, but tell me if this doesn’t apply: Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters… (v.23) Let me ask you, at your job, do you give it your all? Or as Paul says, do you only do that when your supervisor is walking by or in order to gain favor – in order to get something you want?
Charles Spurgeon, a British pastor from the 1800s, was once talking to a cleaner who had recently become a Christian. Spurgeon asked her what difference Jesus had made. She replied, ‘Well Sir, I now sweep under the doormats.’ I love that. She knew that in her job she was now ultimately serving and worshiping Jesus.
In all of our relationships, we are ultimately loving and serving Jesus. So let me ask you, How are you showing up in your relationships? Are you withholding love, and obedience, and submission, for whatever reason? Or you showing those closest to you the love and service that Christ has shown you, even when you didn’t deserve it.
I’m going to invite the band up and I want you to ponder this question: What is one relationship that requires me to show up differently than I have? And make a commitment to make some changes this week.