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. … Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven. [Colossians 3:18-23,4:1 (NIV)]
According to the Apostle Paul, these are the instructions for a Christian household: wives submit, husbands love, children obey, fathers encourage, slaves work sincerely, and masters provide. People often find these verses troubling for a variety of reasons. The word “submit” is a stumbling block for many and the mention of slavery is disturbing to us all in the 21st Century. Unfortunately, slavery was a way of life in the 1st Century. Fortunately, for the most part it was quite different from the slavery found in our American history books. In fact, about two-thirds of the Roman Empire were enslaved and people could even sell themselves into slavery as bond-servants. While not right, it was the way of life at that time and needed to be addressed by Paul.
These verses can also be troubling if we think of them as all-inclusive. While every action Paul mentions should be taken, he never said they were the only things members of a household should do for one another. In Ephesians, for example, Paul tells both spouses to submit to one another, children to honor parents as well as obey them, fathers to discipline their children, slaves to respect their masters and masters not to threaten their slaves. The Bible is the sum of all of its parts, not just a few select verses. Nevertheless, Paul makes it clear that we all have a mutual responsibility in our family and work relationships—we each must give so we each can get. Wives submit, husbands love and never treat harshly, children obey and fathers don’t aggravate them, and workers labor diligently while their bosses are fair and just.
Let’s look at the six actions in Paul’s letter to the Colossians—submit, love, obey, encourage, work, and provide—and then at the life of Jesus. Did Jesus submit? He submitted to his disciples when he humbly knelt and washed their feet and He submitted to God’s will in the Garden of Gethsemane. This man who could raise the dead, still the sea, and heal the sick certainly could have struck down the guards who mocked and beat him, but he didn’t. Instead, he submitted willingly. Did Jesus love? He loved us enough to lay down His life for us—people he didn’t even know and who were totally unworthy of such a sacrifice. He loved enough to ask forgiveness for those who crucified him and to suffer as a man although he was God. As for obedience, Jesus was obedient to Jewish law, secular authorities and His earthly parents. He remained obedient to God’s word when tempted by Satan and was obedient to His Heavenly Father’s will all the way to the cross. Did Jesus encourage? Rather than belittling his disciples, He loved them and took every opportunity to tell his disciples not to worry, be anxious or afraid. Rather than criticizing and shaming the adulterous woman, he forgave her and encouraged her to sin no more. Did Jesus work with sincerity of heart and reverence for His Lord? Indeed, he did. From the time he was a boy in the temple, he went about His Heavenly Father’s business by learning, teaching, preaching, healing and miracle making. He neither ignored the needs of the people around him nor neglected the work God gave Him to do. He worked without complaint or resentment. Did Jesus provide? From wine at a wedding feast and food for a multitude to the gifts of salvation and the Holy Spirit, our master provided generously for his servants.
Paul doesn’t ask us to do anything in our lives and relationships that Jesus didn’t do. We are called to follow His example and, to do that, we must conduct our lives the way He did—submitting, loving, obeying, encouraging, working for His Master and providing for His people.