In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Over the past several weeks, we’ve been looking at the epistle to the Colossians. A reminder that the impetus for this is the consideration of, as we looked at the advent of a new year, what it in fact means to “have a good year.” We’ve been trying to give some shape to what this means as people of God and as a people of God. Or, we want to give shape to what this means as a people of God as opposed to the numerous voices constantly around us that tell us what this is supposed to mean. Another way of thinking about this (especially if you don’t like the whole “having a good year” image) is simply, how do we live out this saved-life?
The assumptions or guiding principles of our consideration have included:
Firstly, that the saved-life, the Christ-life, is about a life lived. In other words, it’s not about inserting “Christian” moments into an already hectic lifestyle. Rather, it’s about recognizing, and living, Christ’s redemption, lordship and reign over the whole of our lives.
Secondly, that this Christ-life is done in the midst of, and as, a community. This is related to the previous, I hope obviously. We are not simply trying to improve our own lives – this smacks of a consumerism of Christianity. Rather, we recognize that we are saved into a community. And we recognize that it is as a community we live and proclaim the redeemed, kingdom-life.
Therefore, we’ve been working our way through Colossians, especially to note that everything else is incidental to Christ. Christ alone is central; Christ alone is comprehensive for our salvation. This is the content of the Christological hymn in chapter 1, and the point of Paul’s declaration in 1:28-29:
28 He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. 29 To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.
I think this is the central thesis in Paul’s letter to the Colossians. The center around which the rest of the letter revolves. This is the reason for Paul’s writing, what needs to be addressed, for which Paul reminds the Colossians that their hope and promise is in Christ alone, is that there seem to be false teachers in the community leading the people astray. Paul writes:
8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.
In particular, i.e. the false teachings, it seems that there are those who are insisting on a form or forms of legalism. The Colossians are being instructed that their salvation, their kingdom-life, is dependent upon the performance or avoidance of certain things:
20 Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
Now here is where we need to start paying attention as it relates to our passage today. The reason, says Paul, that these human rules, based on the elemental spiritual forces of our world and not on Christ, are useless is precisely because Christ died to free us from the forces, powers, philosophies, requirements, and wisdom of the world.
13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
And it’s the same reason – our freedom in Christ; what has been accomplished in Christ – that Paul turns to the matters that we’re looking at today.
Last week we talked about the illusion of lines. And we looked briefly at why our lives are not to be ruled by human-made lines (as we just reviewed, Christ frees us from human rules and expectations to live a Christ-life). And we touched briefly on the apparent contradiction with our passage today which appears to put certain lines in place. But as we said last time, the point is precisely that Paul is encouraging us towards the Christ life. Because we have been released, by Christ’s death on the cross, from the wisdom and the ways of the world, we are freed to live a life that we were intended to, created to life.
If this is a reasonable reading, then our passage today gives us some idea of what the Christ-life looks like. Though we are not to be governed or ruled by human-made lines, lines that are created by the powers and principalities of the world, yet we are to allow our lives to be given shape by the redeeming power of Christ’s blood; to be given shape by
This is why, in my opinion, Paul says:
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. 7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8 But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
Now it’s dangerous to overly generalize what’s going on but it helps me (personally) to see Paul’s explications in the following way (you may see it differently):
- “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry”
- These seem to me to be self-centred, making gods of ourselves, ways of living.
- “anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language…Do not lie to each other…”
- These seem to be those ways of living that are toxic to community. This seems further emphasized in the admonition that:
“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
I think this is where Paul’s interpretation of the household code comes in. It’s important to ask this question (why is Paul talking about this here?) because unless we understand it well, it seems like a fairly intrusive addition to the argument Paul is presenting.
Obviously, Christendom is pretty divided on this issue of men and women, though it’s worth noting that this (and the related passages) are not focused on men and women per se – but rather the entire household. Christians, roughly speaking, fall into three categories: Traditional; Complementarian; and Egalitarian. And we fight a lot about who’s right. Further complicating the issue is Western society’s, in particular, apparent inexorable march towards greater equality. Which presumably is a good thing, and yet there is still a lot of resistance to it.
In regards to this passage (and also the Ephesians passage and the 1 Peter passage), without getting too deeply into it, I think that it’s precisely the case that Paul (and Peter in the other case) are speaking a counter-cultural message into an existing social expectation.
When we looked at this passage in Ephesians, we saw the possibility (likelihood) that the household code which we see in Colossians, Ephesians, and 1 Peter is not an apostolic construction but is adapted from an existing social understanding (e.g. Aristotle). However, the secular code was especially harsh and even brutal.
The existing social expectation, the socially accepted (and not just “accepted”, but “assumed” – with probably little or no awareness of an alternative possibility) was that men were the superior sex. And I mean that in an absolute senses – the culture at large considered women, children, disabled people, elderly people (inasmuch as they had lost capacity), etc. as less-than-human.
Therefore, in this culture, men were not merely superior to women, but were absolutely superior to women. Parents (Fathers) were not superior to children, but were absolutely superior to children. Masters were absolutely superior to slaves. Slaves – allowing that slavery was, in many ways, different than contemporary slavery – could be bought and sold; beaten and abused; treated as property precisely because they were property.
My contention – and that of others – is that the Christian usage (in the aforementioned books/epistles) of the household code is not an affirmation of the existing social structure, but precisely a radical, counter-cultural revision of it. It is not, again in my opinion, a ratification of the social structure as ordained by God, but direction and wisdom about how to live a Christ-life in the midst of it.
Now when the Christian message, that Christ brought freedom and salvation, and that Jesus Christ alone was Lord, this could be expected to bring a certain amount of chaos to these household situations. Wives started to question their husbands’ absolute authority; slaves/servants started to doubt their Masters’ rules. The household, the basic unit of community was disrupted.
I believe, and this is my opinion – though not a unique one – that it is precisely into this chaos and disruption, in the midst of which the people of God are called to be set apart, that Paul is speaking.
12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
It seems to me that this passage on the household code must be understood in the context of what Paul is saying about living in the body with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and peace. So again, Paul’s use of the household code here is not, in my opinion, a ratification of the social structure as ordained by God, but direction and wisdom about how to live a Christ-life in the midst of it.
So What Now…?
If this is accurate, it brings us back to what Paul seems to be talking about in Colossians: living a life worthy of the Lord. What we’ve seen is that this Christ-life is not to be ruled or constrained by human wisdom or philosophies. Neither is it to be guided by self-gratification, ego, or even preferences. Rather, our goal is to be shaped by what Christ has done for us, the divine love that pours out in infinite grace to a people who are unworthy but nevertheless called.
So, as we look to this new year, ultimately that becomes the question: What does the Christ-life look like? And inextricably conjoined to that, what does the church-life look like? How will we, as individuals and as a body, live out, and therefore proclaim, this grace-filled, called life? Again, we are not trying to draw lines, but we are trying to be shaped. What does the shape of Jesus, fleshed out among you and I, look like? What could it look like?