“The rules are there for a reason.” Have you heard that before? I used to work in a residence hall on a university campus and some of their rules were rather interesting. As I flipped through the policy manuals outlining student conduct, employee expectations, and other rules, I saw a curious rule. I asked, “Why is there a rule forbidding access to the subbasement of the building? Why would this rule be in the book?” The answer: It’s there for a reason. One year a couple of adventurous male students found their way into a machine room, discovered the door leading to the subbasement, and concocted a plan to dig a tunnel under the building so they could visit the female-only wing on the opposite side. Rumors swirled concerning the tunnel and the students’ subterranean exploits. Sure enough, during the inspection of their dorm rooms, some small digging tools and muddy clothes surfaced. Their tunneling expeditions were brought to an end and a new rule was put in place. I was given a similar explanation in regard to the rule concerning access to the roof, as some students who loved to climb attempted to rappel from the building. Rules are there for a reason.
Why Is This a Thing?
Maybe you’ve wondered the same thing about the rules you read in Scripture. Why is this rule here? There are dos and don’ts in every genre of Scripture. How are we to understand them all?
One of the biggest keys to unlock the rule interpretation question is context. What is the context in which the rule is given?
Consider the rules for Christian households in Colossians 3:18-4:1: “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and don’t be bitter toward them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not exasperate your children, so that they won’t become discouraged. Slaves, obey your human masters in everything. Don’t work only while being watched, as people-pleasers, but work wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, do it from the heart, as something done for the Lord and not for people, knowing that you will receive the reward of an inheritance from the Lord. You serve the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for whatever wrong he has done, and there is no favoritism. Masters, deal with your slaves justly and fairly, since you know that you too have a Master in heaven.”
The Apostle Paul has something to say to everyone as he speaks directly to wives, husbands, fathers, bondservants, and masters. Paul’s instructions aren’t his opinion, but they’re God’s Word to all of us in every culture in all times. How can these rules be applicable to us today?
Context Is Everything
These rules are there for a reason, and that reason is best understood given the context in which Paul is writing to the church at Colossae, a body of believers who have been raised from death to life in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What is true of the Colossians in Christ is true of all those who are in Christ everywhere. Paul’s letter begins, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will, and Timothy our brother: To the saints in Christ at Colossae, who are faithful brothers and sisters. Grace to you and peace from God our Father” (1:1-2). Saints and faithful brothers in Christ in Chicago, London, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Tbilisi, and at Campinas should heed the Word of God written by Paul, Christ’s appointed apostle.
We can narrow down the context of this Christian household code even further when we understand the immediate context of the letter to the Colossians. These rules aren’t the ramblings of an idealist who can’t imagine what it’s like for sinners to try to live peaceably together in this world. They are specific instructions for how to live in this world as people who are participating in the new creation, which was inaugurated by the coming, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because we’ve died with Christ and been raised with Christ, we’re part of this new creation. Paul has previously written about how to put on character traits of this new creation life. And here are specifics for putting off the old man of the flesh and putting on the new man of new creation life in Christ.
Can you see the put-off-and-put-on language in the passage? There’s a “this way, not that way” pattern that emerges.
When a parent tries to guide his or her kids through apologizing to a sibling, the conversation often goes likes this:
“Please apologize to your brother for taking his toy.”
(Child rolls eyes and walks away mumbling.) “Sorry.”
“No, come back here. Turn around. Give him his toy. Face your brother. No eye rolling. We don’t mumble when we
apologize. Now I want you to tell him specifically what you’re sorry for and ask him to forgive you.”
In other words, the parent teaches the child to put off certain behaviors and put on new ones.
Paul is teaching Christians that putting on the new man is what makes sense in light of the reality of being in Christ. There’s no room for the old ways. The root of that lifeless baby tooth is dissolved and gone as it makes way for the new, adult tooth that is coming in. Make way for the new man!
A New Humanity
The Book of Colossians is densely packed with some fantastic and exquisitely specific descriptions of how to put to death what is fleshly and earthly in us. There’s no room for the old ways because God is remaking us into the image of His Son, Jesus. Together, we, the local church, are living out the reality of the new creation in the context of our relationships with one another and with the world. As you can read in Colossians and in other writings by Paul, this is all done in full view of the watching, astonished cosmos.
The nuts and bolts rattle loudly in this section of Colossians. Scholars have pointed out that in ancient Graeco-Roman culture the normative household codes were associated with the government and politics with an eye toward practicality. The shape of the family in those days reflected the shape of the government. But here in Colossians, we see that Christian families are modeled after Christ Himself. We are in Christ, which means we’ve been given a new, permanent identity in Him. Notice that in Christ’s household those who are over others in authority are also instructed. This is radically subversive in view of the evil powers that animate the course of this world where it is the manipulative and abusive bullies who inherit the earth. Christ is demonstrating to the evil powers that He is bringing all things together in Himself as His people obey Him in every area of his or her life. Our submission is always unto Christ.
Colossians 3:18 says, “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” Which Lord and what is He like? He is the Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified for our sins, triumphant over the grave, and is ascended to the seat of cosmic authority. This Lord is the One who died and is alive forevermore. This Lord is the righteous Judge who will come to judge the living and the dead. This Lord will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
Here we see what it practically looks like for us — in word and deed — to do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus. This is what it looks like to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts. This is what it looks like to live a life where the word of Christ dwells in us richly.
A wife’s submission to her husband is no mere practical arrangement or social contract. It’s fitting according to the lordship of Jesus Christ and the reality of His new creation. A husband’s love for his wife is no mere “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” agreement. It’s a reflection of his transformed heart as he puts away the things that are earthly in him.
And what about the kids? Look back at verse 20: “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.” What a great verse to teach your kids to memorize! We see here that even the littlest actors have been given a role to play in this cosmic drama where Christ is summing all things in Him. Jesus loves the children and He loves it when we worship Him. Teach this to your kids — teach them that obeying mommy and daddy isn’t an arbitrary thing but worship unto Jesus. How can kids glorify Jesus? By obeying their parents in everything (according to that which is fitting in the Lord) by using the strength that God supplies.
Parents, let’s be like Paul and give the why behind the rule. Paul has taught us about the new humanity in Christ and Christ’s role as Lord, so let’s teach our children that Jesus is the head of a body and that body is His church. Tell them that even though they are small, it doesn’t mean Jesus has left them out of this incredible reality of the new humanity. Jesus’ gospel is for them too. Jesus’ strength to resist sin and to obey God is for them too. Jesus’ grace is for them too.
As you read further in the passage you see how bondservants and masters are reminded of the big picture. We work fearing the Lord, and as plain as day we read: You’re serving the Lord Christ.
Everyone, from husbands, wives, children, bondservants, and masters gets to see how his or her role is part and parcel of the new creation in Christ. This new humanity, walking in step with the gospel, risen together with Christ, is a radical, revolutionary thing.
Friends, what a glorious reality to live out and to show to the watching world. Be amazed by Jesus. Be amazed by who He is and what He has done and what He is doing. Jesus is the ultimate household manager. He’s putting the very fabric of this fractured cosmos back together — and all of it under His wise and loving rule.
Gloria Furman is a wife, mother of four, and writer. In 2008, her family moved to the Middle East to plant Redeemer Church of Dubai where her husband, Dave, serves as the pastor. She is the author of several books including Treasuring Christ When Your Hands Are Full, Missional Motherhood, and Alive in Him. Gloria has also authored two Bible studies: Missional Motherhood and, her most recent, Raised Together.