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Reciprocal Relationships

Colossians  3:18 - 4:1

The second most maddening thing about this passage is that it crosses an arbitrary chapter/verse line. Whoever put the chapters and verses into this should have had his head examined (or at least his fingers). Here’s the more logical grouping:

The Holy Bible, New International Version

18Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

19Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.

20Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.

21Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.

22Slaves, 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. 23Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, 24since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. 25Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism

1Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven. Colossians 3:18 through Colossians 4:1 (NIV)

As you can see, there are three relationships described here in brief – three relationships that are with us today, if you can transmute slave/master into employee/employer.

Husband and Wife

The nub of the matter for the modern Christian is this: women believe submission is wrong; men believe that it is not necessary. In the ferocious pride of woman’s liberation, we declared that marriage is slavery, so we recreated it in our own image. The results are plain to see: modern, liberated marriage fails far more often than “traditional” marriage. But at least no one is “in submission” to anyone else, right?

Ignoring, for the moment, the pride in that last sentence, we may state that it is not true. You think not? Consider this situation: you are driving on a main thoroughfare. Some guy in a big red truck comes up behind you and begins flashing his lights and blowing his horn, obviously wanting you to get our of his way. You’re not going to tolerate that, are you? Hey, traffic’s bad enough without this idiot, right?

You mean you don’t pull over for a fire truck?

“Oh, wait a minute, …” Yeah, right. You are in submission to fire trucks. Why? The life they save might be yours, the next time. Perhaps it’s time we looked at this word “submission” and see what is really meant here.


The phrase in the Greek comes from two words linked together. The first you might recognize: hypo. A hypodermic is hypo (under) the skin, or derma. The next word means “to arrange in an orderly fashion.” So submission in the sense we have it here means that the wife must arrange herself in an orderly fashion under her husband.

A side note: maybe you haven’t noticed, but this also puts the children in their proper position – and makes discipline in the household much easier.

“As is fitting”

The word “fitting” is sometimes translated “proper.” So we see:

  • This is not obedience that a slave would owe a master. We’ll examine that later.
  • Nor is it “whatever comes naturally” – for this is “in the Lord.”
  • No, this is submission for God’s sake.

That last deserves some amplification. This is a letter to mature Christians with an active faith. They would understand that marriage is the picture God gives us of the church – and therefore is holy, and to be done in God’s way.

The husband: love

The word used here for love is the familiar “agape.” It’s not that the Greek doesn’t know the word “eros” (from which we get “erotic”); it’s just that the husband’s responsibility is greater than that.

How great? He is to model his conduct on Christ himself, for he plays the part of Christ in the drama that is marriage.

He is given one simple command: don’t be harsh with her. In the original it can be seen as “do not embitter”. Do you see that the husband, being responsible, is responsible for being sure that his wife does not grow bitter?

Most of you husbands at this point are saying, “this is not going to work.” Have you ever tried it? Hear some words from an old, old preacher:

Do you want your wife to be obedient to you, as the Church is to Christ? Then be responsible for the same providential care for her, as Christ is for the Church. And even if it becomes necessary for you to give your life for her, yes, and even to endure and undergo suffering of any kind, do not refuse. Even though you undergo all this, you will never have done anything equal to what Christ has done. You are sacrificing yourself for someone to whom you are already joined, but He offered Himself up for one who turned her back on Him and hated Him. In the same way, then, as He honored her by putting at His feet one who turned her back on Him, who hated, rejected and disdained Him, as he accomplished this not with threats, or violence, or terror, or anything else like that, but through his untiring love; so also you should behave toward your wife. Even if you see her belittling you, or despising and mocking you, still you will be able to subject her to yourself, through affection, kindness and your great regard for her. There is no influence more powerful than the bond of love, especially for husband and wife. A servant can be taught submission through fear; but even he, if provoked too much, will soon seek his escape. But one's partner for life, the mother of one's children, the source of one's every joy, should never be fettered with fear and threats, but with love and patience. What kind of marriage can there be when the wife is afraid of her husband? What sort of satisfaction could a husband himself have, if he lives with his wife as if she were a slave, and not a woman by her own free will? Suffer anything for her sake, but never disgrace her, for Christ never did this with the Church.

(The quote is from Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople, ~AD 390-410)

The Reciprocal of Submission is Love

God, in establishing the marriage relationship, did so to accomplish his purposes.

  • He intended marriage to be a life long relationship, broken only by death. A relationship between two equals will eventually split; someone has to be the senior partner if the relationship is to endure. God has made man the senior partner since the time of Adam.
  • He intended that marriage would help keep sin in check. Not only the lust and adultery, but also pride. Husband, how can you strut over one you love? Wife, how can you exalt yourself when you are in submission?
  • He intended it to be a permanent relationship, modeled on the eternal relationship between Christ and the church. The husband, in authority, must love – and therefore forgive. Love does not imply happiness – it implies responsibility. Any mother cleaning up after her toddler vomits at three A. M. would understand that.

Parents and Children

Children are to obey

The word for “obey” is not the same one as “submit” – but it has something similar. The prefix “hypo” is still there; the second half is related to the verb, “to hear.” How I wish the translators had found a way to include that thought! Children are to listen and obey. This, of course, any parent could tell you. What may be news to all is this: it pleases the Lord. He will reward the children for their obedience. This is a point often missed.

The Father is responsible

As is always the case, obedience produces a corresponding responsibility. Fathers have the power to frustrate and embitter their children. All it takes is the frequent repetition of “You never could do anything right!” But Christ teaches us that we are not to do that. Indeed, even the least of fathers should recognize his responsibility to his children:

11“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for£ a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? Luke 11:11-12

If a father is the source both of fairness and forgiveness, he does well. But there is something I would add.

The reciprocal of obedience is encouragement

We said it very often to ourselves and our children: “We are not raising chickens for Colonel Sanders.® We are raising Eagles to fly.” One does not learn to fly without learning the rules of flight. But there is something else.

Do you remember Dumbo? If you do, you might recall “the magic feather.” A father should be a source of encouragement for his children.

Masters and Slaves

We need to do a little “translating” here – slaves and slavery having left our part of the world some time ago (and good riddance). But we need to look at these passages with the eye that employee and employer have a similar relationship.

Slaves – wage and otherwise.

Paul puts it quite simply: the slave has a burden.

  • He is to be obedient in everything.
  • And that not just while the boss is looking.

Which sounds a bit harsh. But Paul explains it: you are not just working for your master, but for your Master. If you are working for Christ, then he will see to your reward. He is very loving and generous.

But – should you so choose – you might prefer to justify yourself by saying, “I’m a Christian, he’s not – why should I serve him wholeheartedly?” Did you really think your Lord will play favorites? Work as if to convince him that Christians are the kind of workers he wants; stand high in his favor. Who knows? You may be the one whose life brings another soul home to God.

Masters have a Master, too.

The test seems simple enough for those who are in authority here. Provide what is “right and fair” to those who work for you. Sounds simple enough; but let me provide a test for you: do you believe that an employer is obligated to provide a living wage for his employees – even if he isn’t forced to do so by the competition, or the law?

If you do, then examine these two cases:

  • What about the staff at your church? They are your servants in Christ; are they paid a living wage?
  • What about the public servants in your town, city, county, state? Does the janitor who cleans the restrooms make enough money to live on?

What will your Master say about this when you face him? Will he not pick up the yardstick you used to measure “right and fair” to these – and use it on you?

The reciprocal of obedience is righteousness

Is it not so? Even if your earthly boss does not reward you, is there not your Lord in heaven who will – and much more richly? Is it not a fact that the Lord rewards obedience? Let us then look to his example:

  • The one in authority – dare we say “master” in these days? – must use that authority in the same way Christ did – for he is the supreme example of the Master.
  • The servant is to imitate Jesus in the same way, even if that means imitating the Suffering Servant of God.
  • If both will do this, then we will have treasure on earth while laying up treasure in heaven.

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