Thursday 19 March 2009

United in the gospel, Partners for Christ (Colossians 4:7-18)

  1. Tychicus: The one sent to evangelize the world, returns to encourage the church (4:7-9)
  2. The few Jews (Aristarchus, Mark, Justus): The remaining chosen few become the few choosing to remain (4:10-11)
  3. Epaphras: The one who teaches the gospel faithfully, prays for faithfulness to the gospel (4:12-13, 1:7)
  4. Luke: The one who uses his profession to support the gospel, is known for his profession in proclaiming the gospel (4:14)
  5. Paul: The one who proclaims the sufferings of Christ, suffers for the propagation of Christ (4:18, 1:24-27)

28We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. 29To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.

Colossians 1:28-29

Wednesday 4 March 2009

Seeking submission

Wives, submit 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 win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism.

Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

Colossians 3:18-4:1

Paul's advice on relationships within the church family reads like a to-do list of orderly conduct. It is tempting to preach it that way, at least. Often, we can think of someone we know who sorely needs to hear these words, not ours, mind you - Paul's!

Yet, it might be worth taking a step back, and looking at the preceding arguments in Paul's letter to the Colossians, as well as trying to notice any recurring patterns within these verses, to fully understand what the apostle is trying to get at:

  • The earlier verses of Chapter 3 outline two starkly different humanities: one in darkness and sin, facing the wrath of God (5,6); the other, chosen and sanctified, reflecting the very character of the deity (12).
  • Paul reminds the Colossian Christians that all of them were formerly in the first camp (v7 - you used to walk in these ways). It is God who has transferred them out of darkness into the kingdom of his dear Son (1:13).
  • Therefore his readers are to be united in love and patience. Practically, this meant putting up with one another (the "patience" in verse 12 has more to do with bearing with someone who might very well be overbearing!)
  • There is to be no status or division - Christ is all and in all (verse 11).
  • Some then find it hard to reconcile the latter verses directed at husbands, wives, children, slaves and masters. Hasn't Christ abolished social hierarchies within the church?
  • If anything, glancing through 3:18 to 4:1, will establish that the apostle fully recognises headship within relationships. All the more, these reflect the headship of Christ over the church (see Eph 5)
  • Within family structures, wives are to submit to husbands; and children to obey their fathers. Yet we need to see the motivation behind these words - submission to an authority is always in reference to Christ.
  • For example, submission of wives is described as fitting "in the Lord". Not simply, fitting to the Lord - that is, not just as part of our submission to Christ; but as part of our being in Christ. Submission here is almost a characteristic of being a Christian - being in Christ.
  • Though not as obvious in the NIV rendering, the same idea is found in verse 20 directed at children (here neutrally speaking of all who are children; is more likely referring to young children still in care of their parents). The second half of the verse could be more accurately rendered "pleasing in the Lord" - again emphasising that obedience to parents is an expression of Christian belief in children.
  • Furthermore, the command to submit is not merely a recognition of an ordered structure within a social family unit - Paul's injunction has wives (and later slaves) actively seeking to be subject to a higher authority.
  • Why does Paul devote so many verses of similar instruction to slaves?
  • Perhaps he has a specific situation in mind - maybe he is thinking of the situation with Onesimus (see Paul's letter to Philemon)
  • It may be that the Colossian church has a high proportion of believers who were slaves. If so, is he endorsing such a social condition? Some find these verses hard indeed because of this suggestion. Others come to Paul's defence saying that he is silent about the economic situation in the Graeco-Roman world that has created the slave-master system, but nonetheless is addressing the reality in the era.
  • Recognising the peculiarities in Paul's address to the slaves is important before jumping to a direct application to our personal situations today. We are tempted to paint our situation in the workplace as one where we, the helpless workers are being unscrupulously manipulated by taskmasters - our bosses/supervisors/managers. Notice that Paul has much more to say to the slave, just or unjustly treated; perhaps all the more so if in an unfair situation; than to the master.
  • Obey! In everything. Sincerely. Even when unsupervised.
  • As to the Lord! The play on words doesn't come across in the English. Literally verses 22 onwards reads... "Slaves... obey... earthly lords (or lord in the flesh)... reverence for the Lord... working for the Lord... from the Lord...the Lord Christ you are serving."
  • Verse 24 is compelling as it correlates our earthly service to earthly masters, to our heavenly blessings in an eternal domain. - "since you know you will receive an inheritance from the Lord".
  • This stands in stark contrast to worldly career advice. Job satisfaction, career prospects, financial security, skills development ... we stay in a position if it is comfortable; we dig our heels if there is some kind pay-off in the end. In any bible study group with working professionals - prayer requests are inevitably focussed on the unfair (and often idiotic) boss, the long hours, the frustrating work conditions, the hope for promotion and success. Paul's advice is to see our whole lives, at home, in church and not least, at work, as under the lordship of Christ. And if the Lord would have us serve under overbearing earthly lords, then it is enough to be reminded of our true master, to continue in diligent and faithful service.
  • Not all of us are masters - but all Christians have a Lord.
  • 4:1 - Masters (literally lords) have a heavenly Lord; and
  • 3:19 - Husbands are to love their wives. Elsewhere in Ephesians 5, Paul will couch this command in the pattern of love displayed by Jesus himself towards the church - characterised by purification, sanctification, willing sacrifice - through the word of God.
  • It is worth noticing the practical prohibitions directed towards husbands and fathers.
  • Husbands are not to be harsh with their wives - literally, they are not to make their wives "bitter". The leadership entrusted to men is not to be carried out in such a way as to exert domineering authority over their spouse. Men are to lead their wives, yes, but in such a way that it leads to their ultimate good, as an expression of their love, and enables their spouses to love them all the more in their stewardship and responsibility as husbands. Husbands - do not enbitter your wives!
  • Fathers (notice how specific this is towards men) in verse 21, are not to embitter their children. Confusingly enough, "embitter" here, is a different word employed in the previous instance in relation to wives. The word has the idea of leading another to rebel; to provoke; to challenge. Some translations has "exasperate".
  • Fathers are hence instructed not to provoke their children in rebellion. This isn't as odd as it might seem - actually I think this is extremely relevant. Some fathers employ tactics akin to mindgames when dealing with their kids (often teenagers) - daring their children to disobey them - "If you don't know how to live by my rules, you can get out!", or "You think you're so smart? Why don't you do better!" Sometimes, this is done out of the growing insecurity amongst today's males, who may have had little positive role models themselves growing up; but often they say these things, simply because they work - 99 times out of a 100, the kid backs down.
  • But that's simply the point. In 99 times, the child relents because he has given up - not at all out of respect or love for the father. The tone in Paul's advice to fathers "Do not embitter your children" is this - don't make it hard for your son or daughter to respond to you in love. Especially in matters of discipline, exasperating your children harshly leads to sons and daughter who give up trying to please their fathers - or, as the apostle puts it, they simply become "discouraged".