As we saw earlier, Colossians was written to correct false teaching that Christ was insufficient for the Colossians needs, that supplemental help was needed from the “elemental spirits” of the universe. There is clear evidence that some were practicing Gnostic asceticism in pursuit of mystical knowledge.
Paul opens his letter with his wonderful hymn about the supremacy of Christ in 1:15-20, which we examined in the discussion about the “head” metaphor. Paul then explains his concern for the Colossians and makes his case for the sufficiency of Christ as fully God. He challenges ascetic practices. It appears that one impact of the false teaching was rivalries and divisions among folks. Thus, Paul is intent on correcting the teaching and restoring unity.
The passage from 3:1-4:6 is Paul’s instruction on new life in Christ. (He closes out the letter after this instruction.) The household code portion is actually 3:18-4:1, but I think it is critical to see the code within the context of Paul’s whole teaching on new life in Christ. We begin at 3:1:
1 So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. 7 These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. 8 But now you must get rid of all such things -- anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11 In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
Verse 11 needs some comment. It is often noted that Gal 3:28 says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” What happened to the “male and female” component in this verse 11 list?
Andrew Perriman makes an astute observation here. (193) The Galatians context addresses status within the community. The Colossians context addresses unity. There is no removal of hierarchical structures in Galatians. The verse says, “no longer slave and free,” not “no longer slave and master.” As we saw earlier, Galatians removes status distinctions by creating fictive siblings but it does not concern itself with societal hierarchies. As we see in verses 8-9, Colossae had a fractious group of folks. Verses 9-10 talk of putting on the new self as a unified body, not carved up into the competing factions identified in verse 11. Apparently, men versus women was not one of the fissures that needed healing. Paul continues with his exhortation toward unity and holiness:
12 As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17 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.
Paul’s strongest encouragement toward unity is in verses 12-15. Then in 16-17, just prior to launching into the household code, we have a statement that echoes what is written just prior to the household code in Ephesians:
…but be filled with the Spirit, 19 as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Worship and thanksgiving seems to set the stage for the household code that follows in both passages:
Wives and Husbands
18 Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19 Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.
Children and Parents
20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord. 21 Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart.
Slaves and Masters
22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. 23 Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, 24 since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ. 25 For the wrongdoer will be paid back for whatever wrong has been done, and there is no partiality. 4:1 Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.
Once again we see the following:
- The code is not based on a desire to protect the social order or gain conformity to some ordained order of the world.
- Nowhere is the paterfamilias told to rule his household.
- Members of the household, like women and slaves, are treated as free moral agents who have the ability to choose how to behave within the household.
The submission of each lower status member is transformed from being an act in obedience to the earthly paterfamilias to being a missional response to God as paterfamilias of the fictive family. The paterfamilias , far from being told to rule the household, is told to act justly and finds himself in status reversal, being likened to a slave in verse 4:1.
2 Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving. 3 At the same time pray for us as well that God will open to us a door for the word, that we may declare the mystery of Christ, for which I am in prison, 4 so that I may reveal it clearly, as I should.
5 Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. 6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.
Verses 2-4 seem to sandwich the household code with instructions of prayer and thanksgiving. Then, as we have seen with 1 Peter and Titus, the instruction is explicitly linked to the impact it has on outsiders in verses 6-7.
Once again we see that the household codes are status flattening missional expressions in the Greco-Roman world that, while leaving societal structures intact, moved allegiance in all action to the paterfamilias of the Household of God instead of to the paterfamilias of earthly households.