Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19 Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. 20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. 21 Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. 22 Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in singleness of heart, fearing the Lord. 23 Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you are serving the Lord Christ. 25 For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. 4:1 Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. (Colossians 3:18–4:1)
Unlike our own, the Greco-Roman world was blatantly and unabashedly hierarchical. To be sure, ours is stratified, whether we talk of the ‘one percent’, the middle class vs. the impoverished, or the affluent Westerners vs. those in the global south. But we are not supposed to be proud of our hierarchy (even though we often are); we hold that all are created equal (even though we don’t always practice it) and we strive to not use the language of privilege. The Romans had no such qualms and this was reflected in the basic building block of society, the household. The Pater Familias, the male head of the house hold, defined the home, as the emperor came to define the empire. Beneath him (and they would not have objected to the phrase ‘beneath him’) were his wife, his children, and then his slaves (who were animated property). And outside the home, hierarchy was just as visible, with the elite running the city’s businesses, government and religion, with the understanding that by preserving their status and wealth they preserved the social order. Honor, wealth, power were synonymous. The more wealth you had, the more honor, and it was only fitting that the most honorable were the most powerful.
Into this world came Jesus, in whom the divine fullness dwells. Yet where the gods of the Romans would embody the hierarchical nature of the world, lording over humans, and justifying the pretense of those with power and status, Jesus surrenders himself to a bloody death on the cross. The cross - a shameful and violent tool used by the Romans to reassert the social order by shaming and violating those who rebelled against it. Yet in Jesus’ death, the cross backfires, shaming and violating the rulers and authorities (Col 2:15). Jesus does not play by the rules of Roman society.
That Jesus doesn’t makes Colossians 3:18-4:1 interesting. This passage, often referred to as a household code, prescribes the proper behavior in three dyads: wife/husband, children/parents, slaves/masters. In contrast to Jesus, the household code seems to reinforce the status quo rather than to call it into question. Wives must be subject to their husbands (the word ‘subject’, hupotassō, connotes precisely the attitude Romans would have expected inferiors to have vis-à-vis their betters). Children must obey their parents. And slaves, who receive the greatest attention in the Colossian household code, are told to obey their masters authentically and consistently, doing so for God who sees them at all times, even when their masters are not around. Singling out the slaves to emphasize obedience seems to be in tension with what Paul had said earlier in Col 3:11, that the new human that believers put on is one where there is no distinction between slave or free, but Christ is all in all. So which is it? Slaves and Free are one in Christ or slaves must obey their masters, knowing God is keeping an eye on them? Regardless, one can’t help but feel that the household code seems to constrain believers to behave in accordance with their status.
However, a closer inspection reveals a number of things that suggest that Paul is not simply regurgitating the status quo. First, he addresses the women, children and slaves; in Greco-Roman moralistic literature, these type of instructions would have been given to the pater familias as instructions about how to govern your home; their inferior counterparts would not have been addressed. Second, for every instruction given to the wife, child or slave, there is reciprocal instruction given to the male head of house. Husbands are told to love their wives and not be embittered toward them. Fathers are told not to provoke their children, lest their children become discouraged. And masters are told simply to treat their slaves rightly because they have their own master in heaven. The notion that the heads of household have any responsibilities to their ‘subordinates’ other than to govern them is foreign to the Greco-Roman world as is the idea that a master is accountable to his own master (4:1).
The third aspect of the code that suggests Paul is not promulgating cultural norms is recurring motif found in the instructions to wives, children and slaves. Verse 18 to wives, “as is fitting in the Lord,”; verse 20 to children, “this pleases the Lord”; verse 22 to slaves, “fearing the Lord” as is verse 23, “as serving the Lord,” and verse 24, “you are serving the Lord Christ.” Paul is redirecting the focus of wives, children and slaves so they are oriented toward the Lord in their service, not the pater familias. At least part of the reason for this is to show the applicability of his statement in Col 3:17, to “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.” The Colossians were rescued by Christ from the darkness and now live out of his graciousness. This means they should live their whole lives to him in gratitude. In areas where they have no choice and/or must serve a ‘superior’ counterpart–and it must be stressed that in the first century, they really could not just say no and reject the oppressive system–Paul encourages them even then and there to live for Christ. It is a reminder to them that they have already achieved deliverance, that their future is secure in Christ and that he provides them lovingly and graciously regardless what their husband/father/master does. If one does not have a choice of what one must do, it seems to me that it is at least worth something when one can chose why one does what he or she cannot avoid.
The fourth (and last for today) aspect of the code that challenges the status quo is found in the instruction to slaves. My sense is that slaves received the bulk of the attention here because they had found a place in Jesus’ body, the church, where they had to be understood as beneficiaries of God’s grace in a measure equal to anyone else. Paul seems to have intended that slaves be treated as brothers and sisters in the context of Christian fellowship and worship. If so, this would pose considerable risk to that community as it would have been seen as a socially destabilizing force. Roman government and Roman elites were very skeptical of any social or political association that posed a threat to the norm. Slaves elevated in this fashion could not help but look like such a threat. Hence, Paul wants to emphasize the slaves’ responsibility to obedience so none can say Christianity warrants investigation or proscription. But as he does, he makes it clear that the slaves have indeed achieved such elevation; in language that would have been shamefully embarrassing to any self-respecting Roman, Paul tells the slaves to obey because they know they “will receive the inheritance as your reward” (3:24). Everyone should know that inheritances are for free people of status; yet Paul says that slaves will receive exactly this benefit. They are God’s children, beneficiaries of God’s plans. The end result is that slaves are encouraged to behave in a way they had to regardless (or risk death), but they are reminded that belong ultimately to Christ, and so have a status even the wealthiest or most powerful couldn’t even imagine.