We are continuing our study of the household code in Colossians 3.18-4.1 (click here for full text). We left off at verse 22, where Paul instructs slaves and masters of their responsibilities in the Lord:
22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. 25 Those who do wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism. 4.1 Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven (TNIV)
Here’s another section that at first glance appears to support an unjust system. But again, let’s hear Paul in the context that he writes. Several things need to be said.
(1) Slavery in the first century was quite different from slavery in the sixteenth-nineteenth centuries: slavery was not based upon race, and slaves were not always mistreated (sure, sometimes they were, but this appears to be the exception rather than the norm). I could go in a lot more detail here, but we’ll save it for a discussion on the Letter to Philemon, or just let me know if you’d like more info about first century slavery.
(2) Paul is often criticized here because he carries on as if he has no problem with the institution of slavery—shouldn’t he call for its abolishment? After all, didn’t he just write, “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col 3.11)?
While Colossians 3.11 certainly provides the ideal or even proclaims the “eschatological reality” in Christ (which is a fancy way of saying that this is how God views things in the new era under Christ’s reign), as embedded as slavery was in the first century culture, it would have been impossible to change the historical reality over night. In fact, it’s estimated that one out of three to four people were slaves (DeSilva, Introduction to the New Testament, 672). And according to John Barclay, it would have been very unlikely for one to go through one’s day-to-day chores without employing a slave (“Paul, Philemon, and the Dilemma of Christian Slave-Ownership,” 177). All this is to say that slavery played a fundamental role in society, and it’s very difficult to imagine how Paul could have called for its abolishment.
(3) Furthermore, if Paul had demanded Christians renounce slavery, the outcome would have been devastating. Any Christian revolt would have been met and crushed by the Roman authorities, likely destroying Christianity in the process. “…Christianity recognized that it had perforce to live within an inevitably flawed and imperfect society and sought to live and witness within that society by combining that society’s proven wisdom with commitment to its own Lord and the transforming power of the love which he had embodied” (Dunn, Colossians, 246).
Now, having said all that, the positive trajectory that started with 3.11 should not be minimized. If we listen to Paul carefully, we’ll hear a message of redemption in his instructions to the slaves and masters. Let’s, at last, turn to the text.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward (3.22-24).
Slaves were important members of the home and are here recognized as responsible individuals within the congregation. Paul implores the slaves (servants; doulos) to work not only when their earthly master/lord (kurios) is watching but to always work diligently putting their whole heart into it, as if serving the true Lord (Kurios) in Heaven, who sees all. This same principle applies as we serve (doulein) our employer. We do well to bear in mind that “it is the Lord Christ you are serving. Those who do wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism” (3.24-25). The Lord knows our deeds, and he’ll reward accordingly. This verse may also serve as a comfort to those working faithfully under a cruel boss, since we know that the Lord is just and will punish the wicked in due time. We have “an audience of One”—it is Christ alone whom we serve. So let’s make it our goal to serve and please Him. Perhaps if we do this, our crooked boss will see our good deeds and come around… or perhaps not. Either way, if we serve Jesus faithfully, we’ve done our part. He will reward those who are faithful.
Masters, [grant your slaves justice and fairness (my trans.)], because you know that you also have a Master in heaven. The reciprocity and concern for slaves well being is, again, rather remarkable in comparison to typical household codes of antiquity. Paul here continues to diminish the significance of the hierarchical relationship that existed between master and slave: both are answerable to the same Lord (Moo, Colossians, 317).
Of particular relevance is Paul’s letter to Philemon (which, coincidently, Onesimus likely carries along with the letter of Colossians; see Col 4.9, 16; Moo, Colossians, 298), in which Paul appeals to Philemon (master) on Onesimus’s behalf (slave) to be welcomed as a brother in the Lord (Phlm 16-17, 20-21; heck, read the whole thing—it’s short). In Christ, slaves enjoyed a new status as brothers and sisters and were to be treated as equals (Col 4.9; so here, 4.1 “grant your slaves justice and fairness,” the latter possibly translated as “equality”). But the equality called for here should be understood not in terms of power and rank, but in terms of love and service (Barth and Blanke, Colossians, 438; as found in Blomberg, Pentecost to Patmos, 297). The latter, I believe, is far greater. At the end of the day, all who are in Christ, regardless of social position—whether master, slave, etc.—stand shoulder to shoulder as brothers and sisters, equally reliant on God’s mercy and grace.
A message like this is revolutionary. The vision of Colossians 3.11 is being realized in these instructions, this is the first fruits. When we understand the implications of Paul’s message, we unlock the key to rectifying the injustices that we see in the present. It is a love like this—a love that that transcends social status—that ultimately sets the stage for the likes of William Wilberforce.