We have been studying the letter to the
Colossians for the last five weeks, and we come to one of the
most problematic passages of this letter, if not the entire
Bible. A text which has been terribly misunderstood and misused
with disastrous results for a very large segment of the human
population, and thereby grossly distorting the Christian
message. In other words, it's the kind of text I love :). It
makes for an inspiring, uplifting sermon, I just hope it doesn't
inspire people in the wrong way :).
So, then, Colossians 3:17 through 4:1:
And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
18 Wives [here comes the fun part :)], be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.
20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord. 21Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart. 22Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. 23Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, 24since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ. 25For the wrongdoer will be paid back for whatever wrong has been done, and there is no partiality.
41Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.
So, what do you do with a text like
this? Throw it out? If it's in the Bible, it's good enough for
me. God said it, I believe it, any questions?
Yeah, I have a few. Pretty much the universal response I got
when I told people what I was going to preach on this Sunday was
'Well, this should be interesting' :). It's as if I announced
that I'd be preaching while juggling swords, flaming torches,
and dressed in a tu-tu. Now, that would be entertaining, perhaps
interesting as well :).
Well, this text is known as a 'household code', a common type of
literature in antiquity. And it's the first of 4 such texts that
we find in the New Testament, the other 3 being in Ephesians,
Titus, and 1 Peter. Now, you may be confused because Ephesians
comes before Colossians, but at any rate, that's the
chronological order in which scholars thing they were written.
In the New Interpreters Bible, there's a big expensive set of
commentaries, we have a set in our library, I have a set, took
three years to publish (one of the best in the business) says
this: to the question 'how would you preach on a household
code?', one answer would be-- follow lectionary readings, and
you will not have to do so! :). Oh, so tempting :).
It turns our that yeah, these 4 household codes do not appear in
the revised common lectionary, which I normally use for
preaching. So yes, the glutton for punishment that I am, I've
departed from my normal practice in that honorable tradition in
order to deal with this challenging text. Why?
Well, it's kind of like hitting yourself in
the head with a hammer, you know, it feels so good to stop. And,
I figured being married now 30 years, maybe my wife will finally
get the message to submit :).
You see, there's a problem with silence. In this case, from
lectionary-bound pulpits. And it's this: that it leaves those
difficult passages like this in the hands of those who readily
and easily misread the text, thereby intentionally or
un-intentionally abusing their listeners. Thus, I consider it
essential for us, who are quite serious about the task of
transforming Christianity (as well as transforming lives and
transforming the world), to learn not only how best to
understand and interpret the original intent of the author, but
also how to appropriately apply it today.
So here's my message in a nutshell, to
do just that, pay attention to these 3 things, and you can go
First, the modern use of this text, sadly, often results in the
exact opposite of the original intent.
Second, rather than reflecting the wisdom and the insight of
Paul, who wrote in Galatians 3:38 you remember that great verse
"there is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female,
all are one in Christ Jesus", this text represents a significant
retreat from Paul's concept of radical equality in the body of
Third, whatever the original intent, it cannot be removed from
its original context and placed into our context today without
revising it to fit accordingly. And in fact, failure to revise
the content of the text threatens the integrity of the content
of the Christian message and the mission of the Gospel.
So, got all that? You can go home now :).
And if you're paying attention, on the other hand, you may be
asking something like 'Are you suggesting we need to change
God's message in Scripture?'. And that's a good question. And
I'm saying 'no', we need to update scripture if we want to keep
In fact, those who move this text from its original context to
the present without changing it are the ones who change God's
message. So, this may not be as entertaining as preaching in a
tutu, but I hope it will be more relevant and maybe interesting
So, first of all -- what was the original intent? Household
codes in ancient Greek and Roman literature were a genre of
literature that define the relationship and responsibilities of
the members of the household, of which there were primarily
three -- husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters
and slaves. Those codes were in essence the 'family values' of
that era. And a common feature of all such codes, whether Greek,
Roman, Jewish, or Christian, was that men were intended, by
nature, to rule as the father, as the husband, as the master,
and of course frequently served all three roles. Right.
Equally important, as noted in the New Interpreters Bible,
failure to adhere to this proper hierarchy was detrimental not
only to the household but also to the life of the state. So make
the connection here -- failure to adhere to this hierarchy was
detrimental to the life of the state, as well as the household.
In other words, the model of rule for the household was the
model for rule of the Roman Empire. Hence, those who question or
challenge the traditional family values were considered to be
subversive and challenging the very basis of Roman society and
Cesar Augustus, for instance, severely
chastised Roman men who failed their duties to the Roman state
by choosing a lifestyle other than that of a traditional husband
and father. Any other lifestyle threatened the very fabric of
society. And so he passed a number of laws to require men to
perform their duty.
Does that sound familiar at all?
Now, note that the witness here is not from Scripture but from
the conventional wisdom of the time, the importance of adhering
to those traditional values. Now, any religion which attracted a
high number of slaves and women was then treated as suspect,
subversive. Judaism in particular was cited as subversive
because Jewish slaves refused to recognize the Gods of their
masters, contrary to the traditional family values.
Josephus, a Jewish author writing during the same period when
much of the New Testament was written, emphasized subordination
of children, wives and slaves precisely to show that Judaism was
not subversive or a threat to Roman society. So, undoubtedly,
there was considerable societal pressure on these early
Christian communities to adhere to the social standard, which
then explains the overall tenor of this text and the
hierarchical structure of the households within it.
However, it would be a mistake to see this as simply accepting
those social standards of the day, for the author of Colossians
makes some significant changes to the household codes of Roman
and Greek literature.
First, regarding the marriage relationship, the Greek and Roman
household codes of that era make no mention of love. Whereas
submission of wives to husbands was the standard of the day, the
expectation that husbands should love their wives and never
treat them harshly was a significant departure from the norm.
The same pattern is repeated with respect to children and
parents, specifically fathers. Whereas the instruction given to
children is very traditional, the instruction to fathers to not
provoke their children goes beyond the social norm of the time.
So even without taking the historical context into account, this
text should make very clear that domestic violence has never
been permissible at any time and in any place for Christian
households. And those who cite the first half of the instruction
('Wives obey your husbands, children obey your parents') without
the second half ('do not provoke', 'to love') as a means to
enforce their will upon the other members of their household
(women and children) engage in the worst kind of scriptural
abuse in order to justify their own emotional and often physical
It is therefore incumbent upon us to stand up to such abusers
and say 'In the name of Jesus, never again will we in this
society tolerate such behavior in any household, Christian or
Now, regarding slaves and masters -- you
know, how do we get around this? How can Christians ever accept,
as acceptable, slavery? In God's world, where all humanity is
created in the image of God?
Now, note three things about this portion of the text: first of
all, once again the same pattern is repeated. A fairly standard
treatment for the subordinate party (slaves) to do the
traditional thing. Whereas the instruction given to the master
goes beyond the social norm, which was, to paraphrase Richard
Nixon, 'in the Roman world if the master does it, it's not
illegal'. Thus, even though by definition slavery can never be
justified or fair, a benevolent master would be preferable to an
Second, whereas all other members of the household get one verse
(look at the text -- wives get a verse, husbands get a verse,
children get a verse, parents get a verse, masters get a verse),
slaves get 4 verses. So right there it's telling you that the
author is struggling here, he has to work harder to make his
case, and it's probably an indication of a situation happening
in Colossae -- slaves expect to get their freedom in this new
community. Ha!, well why would that be?
Third, note that in the end, slaves will be treated equally, as
the masters, by the Lord. No partiality. In other words, in the
realm of God there is no distinction. Thus the inequalities of
the present are but temporary. And once again the writer of
Colossians goes beyond the social norms of the day to claim at
least spiritual equality, which eventually will give way to
earthly equality. And when spiritual equality is accepted,
social equality is inevitable. And when spiritual equality is
denied, social equality is impossible.
In sum, in Christianizing this standard household code of his
day, the author has made it more consistent with the Christian
ethic of love and justice and respect for the human dignity of
all persons. And even if it comes up short by our standards
(which it does) it likely was the best that one could do in the
context of that day and still be considered acceptable within
And please note that within all three of
these relationships, the responsibility is placed upon the
stronger one to be just and loving and fair. Now, we may
question the whole premise of this notion of stronger and weaker
and so forth, especially in the marital relationship, but that's
Now, my second point: previously, I have
indicated up until this point in this whole series of sermons
that there is some doubt among many New Testament scholars of
authorship, of whether or not Paul actually wrote this. And for
the sake of simplicity, I've set those arguments aside and
continued to refer to the author as Paul, which you may have
noticed I have not been doing this morning. I am convinced by
the argument that though this is a significant modification of
the traditional family values at that time, it is also a
significant step backwards from the radical equality advocated
by Paul in Galatians 3:28. And I could go further into how Paul
lines that out in those authentic texts of Paul, but I'll have
to save that for another time.
Paul could not very well advocate for the abolition of slavery,
because the economy of the time could not exist without it. Paul
did advocate for the freedom of one slave, Onesimus, in this
letter to Philemon. The rhetorical force of that short letter is
such that Philemon could not remain within the Christian
assembly if he had kept Onesimus as his slave.
Would Paul, after telling Philemon to treat Onesimus as a
brother in the Lord, then turn around and tell Onesimus to obey
Philemon no longer as his brother, but now once again as his
master. You see, I don't think so.
But would someone else, seeing how Paul was executed by Nero for
his subversive views, now write in Paul's name to urge the new
Christian community to stay within the norms of society? Quite
By the way, when you get to Titus, also supposedly written by
Paul but considered by most scholars to have been written some
50 to 60 years after the death of Paul, slaves are told to be
submissive and to not talk back to their masters, where masters
are not given any instruction at all. And likewise, women are
told to be submissive to their husbands with no reciprocal
responsibility placed on the men as husbands.
Thus, the farther one gets from the authentic Paul, the more the
message conforms to the traditional norms of the Roman world.
And so we see already, in Scripture, how the Gospel is co-opted
to the standards of the day.
My final point, then, is this: whatever
the original intent and whoever the author, the authentic Gospel
message is the one which leads us in the direction of greater
equality and justice, where the human dignity and value of each
person as a child of God is affirmed and honored.
And that requires that we do update the text -- yes, to change
it. To take our current context into account, so that we, like
Paul, are leading the pack, not following it. Advocating
continually for greater equality, that all persons will be
treated justly and fairly. Submission language may have made
sense in the first century, where one third of the population
lived in slavery, but is it not time that we, in the name of
Jesus, talk not about submission but about consensus, about
mutual acceptance, about reciprocal relationships?
Does it not make more sense, when we no longer are ruled by a
King or an Emperor, that we still use that kind of language for
our faith and our families? Would we not be better served in
this era of democracy and equal rights to focus on mutuality
rather than obedience? On relationship rather than head-ship? On
equality rather than hierarchy?
But updating the gospel, I mean it is not enough for us merely
to say 'no' to those who use this text to abuse others.
In the name of Jesus, we need to stand with those who have been
In the name of Jesus, we need to make clear that honoring the
rights of women and children is a family value.
In the name of Jesus, we should celebrate the victory in a
federal court in California this week over Proposition 8 as
another step towards greater equality.
In the name of Jesus, we need to speak up for the rights of
immigrants to be treated fairly, justly, and equally.
In the name of Jesus, all of our relationships, in work, and at
home, in school, in the public square, should reflect the love
and justice as the values of God we are called to duplicate, to
emulate, to make real and present in our world.
This is the gospel.
[Applause from the congregation]