Whatever you do, work at it with your whole being, for the Lord and not for men, because you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as your reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Whoever does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism. (Colossians 3:23-25)
In any religious discussion there is a temptation to place the entire matter in the realm of thought and philosophy and the inner person, and never bring it out into the openness of human relationships. Christianity does not allow us that possibility, but rather from the very beginning to the end it reminds us of our human community with which we live.
Six roles are mentioned: wife, husband, child, father, slave, master. We might notice that several relationships are not mentioned: mother, brother, sister, colleague, let alone citizen, business partner, and even the needy, the prisoner, and stranger, just to name a few. So the intent of the passage is not to exhaustively discuss every possible relationship one earth – remember Christ in a parable said, “I was a stranger and you did not invite me in” (Matt. 25:43) – rather it was to give clear instructions on some of the more fundamental relationships of life, and particularly those in the church.
The dignity of every human life
The verses above are directed particularly at the slave, but here the Spirit led Paul to use a bit of subtlety, for if the slave was to remember that God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34) and shows no favoritism, then surely the master and everyone else should consider this.
Every human being has an inherent dignity as the creation of God. Genesis insists that we were originally made in the image of God, and though sin has marred that image, it is still there, hidden beneath the fallenness of humanity. Regardless of what role we play in this life, or what status we achieve, the day will come when we will each stand before God, stripped naked from titles or privileges, and made to give account of ourselves to God.
This calls us to treat all with respect and consideration. We never meet an insignificant human being. And from the Christian perspective especially, all that we meet or deal with have had the blood of Christ shed for their sins – at least in potential – and can be saved and redeemed.
The particular instructions
The specific commands to each are not limited or uniquely or solely attached to these relationships, but rather as they reveal the Christ-character of every Christian they also call us all to consider how these would be acted out in our lives.
- “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” Some ancient manuscripts specify “to your own husbands” and not to every husband in the church. I would think that is common sense, but, alas, common sense is not always so common. But it was “fitting in the Lord” that the Christian home should have a united husband and wife in the center. The Christian wife must obey the Lord first, she is not a slave, and this is not a command to endure mistreatment or abuse. But an argumentative wife is a complete contradiction in the Christian family.
- “Husbands love your wives and do not be harsh with them.” Leadership is given not to any one in order to damage people, nor to insult them or to control them, but to lift them up to protect and encourage them. In Ephesians, Paul made the point of mutual submission (Eph. 5:21), so the husband also has a duty to be sensitive to his wife’s thoughts and condition. She is differentiated from a slave, and that alone is one of the reasons, I believe, that the Spirit led Paul in these two passages (Ephesians and Colossians) to include them.
- “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.” Children also differ from slaves. They are to willingly obey their parents, because in this way they please the Lord. We do have to ask the question when does childhood end? Every culture has a slightly different answer to that question, but surely childhood does end some time. The principle of scripture of marriage is that it is clearly the ending of childhood for both husband and wife, “A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Matt. 19:5). This applies to both the husband and the wife, of course, that the husband does not leave his family and then unite to his wife’s – though often it seems to work out privately similar to that – but at marriage childhood has ended for both and adulthood has begun. And it can end by age alone, as Jesus demonstrated at Cana when, at thirty years of age, He limited his mother’s instruction and authority over His decisions (John 2:4).
- “Slaves, obey your early masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.” These words certainly apply across the board to all, that obedience to the Lord’s command should be paramount in all relationships, that we do not merely pretend to obey or be sensitive, that we do not do this just to be seen by others, but out of hearts that love and revere the Lord Himself. They convict me of how often I have done what the Lord has called me to do, whether as a husband, father, son, brother, or pastor, more from the sense of appearances than as an act of true worship. And I assume they convict you also, and anyone who takes them seriously.
- “Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know you have a Master in heaven.” Abuse of position is forbidden. We should be sensitive to the needs of those who work at our pleasure or convenience. The exact amounts and specific items may be debated, but two thoughts should be kept in mind. First, is the dignity of the slave or employee himself as a human being. Remember Christ taught us, “As you would that men should do to you, do you even so to them” (Matt. 7:12). We should treat others as we would like to be treated. Second, is that we must give an answer to the true Master who created all. We are held accountable by God, even if we are not held accountable by society.
Applying this in our lives
If then we were to sum up these attitudes we can simply see the new self in these attitudes: “[You] have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Col. 2:10).
Here are some applications for us today:
- Do we realize that in every human relationship and responsibility we are to live out those moments in our personal faith in God? In no human relationship or interaction should we leave God out of consideration. All of our life is to be lived under His Lordship.
- Do we respect other people as God’s creations and possessing inherent dignity?
- Do we respond respectfully to those in authority or in a leadership position over us? To respond respectfully and submissively is not demeaning to us, but rather it pleases the Lord. Remember of the Eternal Son it was said: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant … he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:6-8)
- Do we exercise protect and build up those we lead? Do we punish them pointlessly? Or do we strengthen them and develop them?
- Can we thank God for those relationships He has given us, and see in them that they are not mere random things, but they are God-given opportunities for us to live out our faith?