Radical Social Change

When I planned this sermon series on Colossians, I initially left this section out. It has been used to defend patriarchal power. It has been used to defend slavery. It has been used to offer rationalization for abuse and oppression. I kind of wanted to skip it. What could it possibly teach us, anyway? How could it be useful?

This passage, written about 30 years after Christ’s death and resurrection, is the earliest form of the Christian Household Code that we have.

To understand Paul’s motivation in writing a household code, we need to back up in history. 400 years before the time of Christ, the Greek philosopher Socrates wrote, “’No one will deny that it would be the greatest good to have women in common and children in common.’ It would be best for society for no man ‘to have a private wife of his own, and the children must be common too, and the parent shall not know the child nor the child its parent.’” It was plausible because wives had no public lives, never appearing at meals or social occasions, with limited opportunity to have social contact even with other women.

300 years before the time of Christ, Alexander the Great ruled the Macedonian Empire…which included what we would now call the Holy Lands. Greek thought and customs began influencing Jewish thought and life. Philo, a Jewish scholar at the time of Jesus, worked to blend the teaching of the Old Testament with the teachings of the Greek philosophers, Plato and his student Aristotle, whose perception of women was so low that in observing a swarm of bees he described how they changed location and built a new nest, reestablishing their complex society following a single leader, the “king bee.”

Greek philosophy, combined with the sacred prostitutes in pagan worship of other gods, influenced the status of Jewish women. By the time of Paul, women were allowed in public worship only if they were silent and out of the sight of men.

Jesus set a different example, though. He taught men and women. Women were among his followers, traveling on foot with the male disciples. Jesus was friends with women. Mary, Martha, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, Salome, and Mark tells us that at his crucifixion there were “many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.” He approached and talked with a woman who was Samaritan and out at the well alone, and she became an evangelist. In the Gospel of Luke, the apostles speak of “the women of our company.” In Acts, the apostles engage in prayer together with the women, on the Day of Pentecost multitudes of men and women joined the fellowship of believers and were baptized.

Before his conversion, Paul (then named Saul) was persecuting the church and arrested both men and women believers. Then after his conversion, the first convert Paul made in Europe was Lydia. Wherever he preached, men and women believed and were baptized. And Paul recognized and appointed women as leaders in churches – Damaris in Athens, Euodia and Syntyche in Philippi, and Priscilla in Corinth. At the close of Romans, Paul lists 26 church leaders worthy of praise – 8 of them are women. Phoebe was a deacon. Junia a missionary. For in Christ Jesus, wrote Paul, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

So, why would Paul write this Household Code to the Colossians? Remember that Colossae is a city of trade, with goods and ideas from all over the known world and that Paul is writing to correct a major issue being taught in the church in Colossae – a dualistic teaching that everything bodily is evil and everything spiritual is godly. In Greek philosophy women were associated with things bodily/earthly and men were associated with things spiritual/godly.

There are two competing moral codes at work in Colossae. One says that women are like a body and men are like the soul, certainly men should not involve themselves in a relationship with them. Wives and slaves were considered the property of their husbands and masters. The other moral code is radical! It says there is no longer male or female, slave nor free. The old power dynamics are gone!

The way of Jesus brought radical social change. Now that 30 years have gone by and most of the people who knew Jesus are in their last years or have already died, the movement is settling in. It became important to answer the question: What should relationships in Christian households look like?

I think it is a lot like the intersection at Poplar Pike and Poplar – the one that just went from a yield to a stop. The problem was not that people couldn’t yield…it was that people didn’t yield. So, they had to put in a stop because you can’t just keep going without a high risk of crashing. Paul is putting in a yield sign. Unfortunately, over the centuries it has been interpreted as a stop sign by some. Paul is addressing a culture in which wives and husbands, children and fathers, slaves and masters were not even driving on the same street in the household before Christ. How will they merge?

A word for wives: you should treat your husbands with respect. This is appropriate in the Lord.
A word for husbands: you should treat your wives with love, and not be bitter with them.
A word for children: obey your parents in everything. This pleases the Lord.
A word for fathers: don’t provoke your children to anger, otherwise they might lose heart.
A word for slaves: obey your earthly masters in everything. Don’t do it simply out of show to gain favor with human beings, but wholeheartedly, because you fear the Lord. Whatever you do, give it your very best, as if you were working for the Lord and not for human beings. After all, you know that you’re going to receive the true inheritance from the Lord as your reward. It is the Lord that you are serving.
A word for masters: do what is just and fair for your slaves. Remember that you too have a Lord in heaven.

So what could this passage that has been used to preserve slavery and subordinate wives to husbands possibly teach us, anyway? How could it be useful?

First, it is only useful if we read the entire passage. Paul wrote the code in couplets, meant to respond to the duality of the culture with the balance of relationship. Each member of the couplet is to yield to the other. Second, it is only useful if we understand the social structure of family in Colossae. In Colossae, women had few legal rights. Their marriages were arranged as a business transaction between their father and the groom, and they were the property of their fathers until they were married and then were the property of their husbands. Men chose the woman they would marry based on her dowry, her perceived fertility, and the quality of her handiwork. In addition to their wife, it was the cultural norm for men to also have concubines. Paul writes that the relationships of wives and husbands are to be respectful and loving – that’s a radical social change. The relationships of children and parents are to be characterized by obedience and kindness. We hear the echo of the commandment for children to honor their fathers and mothers in Paul’s instruction to children. But in his instruction to fathers, I really wonder what was going on that Paul felt he needed to correct. Don’t provoke your children to anger, or they might lose heart. Were children teased and aggravated like pets might be? Did their fathers ridicule them or ignore them? What we know is that fathers didn’t have the kind of parental relationship with their children that we do now until their sons were nearing adulthood. And we know from our own experience that children can lose heart when they are repeatedly provoked to anger. Finally, the relationships of servants and masters were economic and transactional. Slaves were considered property. Today, Paul’s words speak to the relationships of employees and employers calling for employees to be honest, diligent workers and for employers to be just and fair.

Wives and husbands, children and fathers, slaves and masters in Colossae lived in the same household, but they did not live in relationship. As they merge, Paul is outlining radical social change that will maintain the household structure of society and establish relationships of mutuality. May we, too, learn to yield to one another. Amen.