Paul takes what he said in verses 12-17 about interacting with one another generally and applies it very specifically to family relationships. He instructs believers who are free in Christ and who know there are no longer any distinctions between them in Christ how to relate to each other in a household now based in Christ. Paul makes sure they understand social order remains in the new kingdom but explains what it looks like in Christ. Believers are free, but that does not mean there is now societal chaos. Authority continues to exist, but it is an authority that is recognized differently by those under it and exercised differently by those who wield it.
[See Part 1 notes for an introduction to this text.]
It is interesting to consider that Paul addresses children in this verse who in some cases would be pretty young to be reading and comprehending this letter. Nevertheless, Paul tells them that they are to obey their parents in all things. He does not qualify all things, but it makes sense that it does not extend beyond obedience to God. That he lists as the reason for obedience that it is well-pleasing to the Lord (could also be translated in the Lord), means that obedience to the point of disobeying God is not in view.
Just like with wives submitting to husbands, the motive for obeying parents is not the worthiness of the parents. The motive is obedience to God. The child obeys God by obeying his parents. It is an authority structure that looks basically the same as in the world, but a motivation to submit to that authority that is very different.
This changes how a Christian parent teaches his child about obedience. He does not stress that the child must obey because “I am dad and I know more than you and I am worthy of respect.” He teaches him that obedience is pleasing to God and is what God expects of him – and that God is completely worthy of his obedience. In this way he stresses the glory of God rather than the glory of dad (which ultimately is freeing for both child and parent). The child grows up with his focus on God, which makes submission in other areas of his life much easier.
In the parallel passage in Ephesians 6:1-4, Paul quotes the fifth commandment – honor your father and mother – to go along with his admonition to children. Applying both to our culture, it is probably reasonable to say that obedience is required of children in the home under the protection of their parents, and honor is required of all children for as long as their parents live.
While Paul commands children to obey parents, he now addresses only fathers as the authority figure who needs to wield his authority within limits (and it is interesting to consider that these are the same men he has already addressed as husbands in vs 19). This is somewhat cultural, as the father in Paul’s day is the unquestioned authority in the home to a much greater extent than in modern western society. So while his words have particular meaning to fathers even today, it is likely not a stretch to say that they apply to mothers as well.
What is in view here is effectively the same limit Paul placed on husbands. The father is the God-ordained authority in the home, but that does not mean he is to use that authority as a hammer. The father is not to rule over his kids in such a way that it discourages or disheartens or provokes or exasperates them. He is not to be so harsh that it actually drives his children away from obedience. He is not to belittle, or punish, or demean his kids in such a way that they give up obeying out of discouragement.
In some ways this is a more complicated command than the one to husbands. It is not hard to understand the need for husbands to treat their wives lovingly even as they lead them. Putting limits on parental authority, however, is not as clear. Where is the line between reinforcing positive behavior or discouraging negative behavior in children and provoking/exasperating them? How does a parent not provoke a child to anger who wants his own way and becomes very angry when he does not get it? How do you discourage bad behavior without discouraging kids?
Perhaps the best way to answer those questions is to apply to parenting what Paul encourages the Colossians to apply to the rest of life. Parent with a mind set on things above. If the father (or mother) does everything in relation to his kids with his mind set on things above, it will have an enormous effect on his motives for discipline. If he reinforces the positive and discourages the negative always with an eye on glorifying God and on training his child to glorify God, it will look much different than the man who disciplines for his own comfort or peace.
And if as a parent I discipline and correct for God’s sake rather than my own, then I am not as apt to lose my temper when my children disobey. I am not as likely to become enraged or sarcastic, because I do not derive my worth from my kids’ behavior or achievements. If they belong to God rather than me, and if my motives for correcting them are to make them God-glorifying adults rather than parent-respecting children, my penchant for becoming personally offended at their behavior largely goes away. If it is about God’s glory rather than my reputation or comfort, the odds against lashing out at them or provoking them go way up [and the odds of me becoming resentful or bitter towards other parents who have perfect kids go way down].
One note to keep in mind about this section of the text. Just like in his admonition to husbands, Paul says nothing here about parents enforcing their authority. That does not mean, however, that they are prohibited from doing so. There is a difference between parental authority and the leadership of a husband in marriage. The parent does have a responsibility to train his children and discipline them so they recognize authority. Paul’s goal here is to limit that authority and change its motives, thus he does not discuss enforcement. But other verses of scripture – Prov 22:6, 23:13, Deut 21:18-21 – make it clear that the parent is not to sit back and wait for his child to obey.
Slavery in the Bible is a difficult subject to understand or explain. In many cases, it is not the same as what we think of as slavery today based on America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many slaves were slaves because of economic reasons. They fell on hard times and became indentured or they owed money and became slaves to work off the debt. Under Mosaic Law, Israelites were slaves to other Israelites because of financial issues and had to be freed after six years regardless of the amount of debt (Ex 21:1-11).
However, there are other examples of slavery where the issues are not as easy to explain away and the circumstances and customs are uncomfortable for modern Christians to understand. For example, another law dealing with slavery reads – “If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken, for he is his property” (Ex 21:20-21). That is not necessarily a portion of scripture that you would be eager to explain to a non-Christian in the 21st century.
Paul’s words here can likewise be difficult to understand. Why give admonitions about slavery instead of simply telling the Colossians (or the Ephesians [Eph 6:5-9], or Timothy [I Tim 6:1-2], or Philemon) that slavery is immoral and they should free their slaves? What is the point of setting parameters for something that seems so clearly wrong?
There are no easy answers to this question. It is important to note, however, that the instructions Paul gives to both slaves and masters totally change the relationship between the two. If masters treat their slaves with justice and fairness, it obviously changes the dynamic and makes the gulf between them much smaller and effectively eliminates the practical application of one man being owned by another. Paul’s words may not outlaw slavery or directly call for its end, but anyone abiding by his commands in this passage (and others) would effectively eradicate slavery in his house. There is no way to treat slaves with love and compassion, justice and fairness, and maintain a traditional slave/master relationship. Paul does not end slavery but he plants the seeds that will.
Paul spends more time instructing slaves in this text than any other person. This makes sense because of their situation. While wives and children may have difficulty submitting to husbands and parents, neither of them is in the same challenging role as a slave. Slaves are property; they have no equality with the people who own them, no rights in society at large, and in some cases no hope for freedom. Thus to be a slave and honor God by accepting authority as ordained by God is the most difficult of the three relationships Paul addresses.
That said, the slave is to take basically the same approach as wives and children. He is to serve his master faithfully (even an unreasonable one – I Pet 2:18), but do it out of allegiance to God. He is ultimately to serve God rather than the master (work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men). Look at God, serve the master.
His service is to be done wholeheartedly also. He is not to work hard only when the master is looking , but he is to work at all times with sincerity of heart. He has a master on earth, but his real Master is in heaven. And since he works for One who is never out of sight or out of earshot, he is to work as if his Boss is always looking. He is to fear God and honor his master.
Outside of love your enemies, is there another command in the Bible that so clearly illustrates how differently we are to live? A Christian slave is to work his hardest and regard his master as worthy of all honor (I Tim 6:1), even if that master is harsh and unjust and treats him as nothing more than property. Think about the absence of pride this requires! Think about the completely different perspective on life this requires! This kind of behavior is only possible for one who has been crucified and resurrected with Christ and lives in the strength of the Spirit with a mind seeking things above. Believers live in a different identity for a different world, and that means their behavior often makes no sense in this one.
In verse 23 Paul applies verse 17 to the workplace. It summarizes the whole message to slaves. Whatever you do – anything, everything, no matter how demeaning or seemingly unimportant – do your work heartily – full bore, with all sincerity, caring about its quality, doing the best job possible – as for the Lord – with a full appreciation that God will judge the work, that it is God who needs to be pleased, that God is the One watching – rather than for men – men may not appreciate the work or be fair masters or be just and honest, but the work is not for them so it does not matter.
He ends the thought of verse 23 in verse 24. It is God who will someday reward their service. They may not be appreciated on earth – and as slaves that is probably very likely – but that pales in comparison to the fact that they will share in the inheritance of the saints in light (1:12). They are to serve their masters as all believers are to live – with their minds set on things above. They – perhaps more than anyone – are to work and live with their eyes on eternity. The world may not be fair or just or even pleasant – but the next world will be, and that will be their home forever (it is no coincidence that so many negro spirituals expressed a longing for heaven).
The end of verse 24 is the key truth for everyone who submits to authority. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve. Wives do not serve husbands, children do not obey parents, slaves do not work for masters – not ultimately – they all serve the Lord Christ. And since they all serve God they are free to submit to all authority on earth.
Verse 25 could refer to both slaves and masters. Both are to remember that they will ultimately give an account to God for their actions. God will judge everyone and do it without partiality. Wealth and status will not allow anyone to escape, and poverty and lack of standing will not justify leniency. The way believers submit to authority and the way those in authority wield it have eternal ramifications. It is the Lord believers serve, and it is the Lord who will judge that service.
Paul’s final admonition is to masters. He tells them to grant to their slaves justice and fairness. As mentioned above, this dramatically alters the master/slave dynamic. If a slave is property then granting justice and fairness to him is unnecessary. He has no rights in society, so why grant him rights in the household? He is property – property does not have the right to expect anything.
Paul turns this on its head. He has already said all believers are one in Christ and that there is no difference between slave and free (3:11). He has also said that all believers are to treat each other with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and love (3:12-14). So it makes perfect sense to now command those who own slaves to treat them justly and fairly. They may be slaves but they are also brothers and sisters in Christ.
Why does Paul command this? Because masters have their ultimate Master in heaven. Their motivation to treat slaves fairly is the same motivation for slaves to submit and serve heartily. Both have their authority in heaven. Masters treat slaves well because they answer to a higher authority and have their own Master (which means they treat even slaves who are outside of the faith with justice and fairness). Slaves work well for their masters because they answer to a higher authority and have a heavenly Master. It is the heavenly Master that changes behavior and the motives behind that behavior.
It is not a direct apples to apples comparison to apply Paul’s words about slaves and masters to employees and employers. But it is not a totally invalid comparison either. The main thought to take away from his admonitions is that both employees and employers must act toward the other with eternity in mind and with their eyes on God. Everyone treats everyone else differently when their eyes are on God rather than on others or themselves. My boss is not my boss but the one I honor because he/she is there as God’s representative authority in my life. And since my real Boss is in heaven and is completely just, fair, and omniscient, I am free to serve my earthly boss wholeheartedly regardless of his fairness, justice, competence, or likability.
The same is true if I am the one in authority (The Man – if you are from the sixties). I treat those under my authority differently because I know I answer to a higher authority who requires it of me. I do not just owe my subordinates respect; I owe God respect which translates into respect for my subordinates. I treat them as my Boss treats me. I will someday give an account for how I treated those God placed under my authority. Consequently, I will treat them well if my eyes are on Him.
Summary to Parts 1 & 2
Remember that in all cases – wives/husbands, children/parents, slaves/masters – not one of Paul’s commands is contingent. No one can say they are free to disregard what Paul says in this text because the other side of the relationship is not worthy of the commanded behavior. Each party is responsible for his own conduct toward the other regardless of the other’s behavior. We do not look at them and respond to them – we look at God and respond to Him.
In the end it all comes down to who we serve. If we serve God it will change how wives submit to husbands, husbands love wives, children obey parents, parents train children, slaves serve masters, and masters rule over slaves. Everything changes when everyone remembers that it is the Lord Christ whom you serve. Whether we submit to or wield authority, we all do it with eyes on God and minds set on things above. Those who serve, serve as unto the Lord. Those who lead, lead knowing they have a Master in heaven.
Well it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
– Bob Dylan