Have you ever asked yourself why you do things the way you do? You and I have predictable responses to certain experiences we face in life. This doesn’t mean our response isn’t genuine, it just means it’s customary, even reflexive. For example, I have friend who was raised in the southern part of the United States. Whenever I converse with him, if I ask him a question, his initial response is always “yes, sir” or “no, sir.”
That’s not something I do, so, why does he do that? He does it because he was raised in a time and place that showed respect or deference to those older than himself. I very much doubt that he consciously thinks about it before he responds, it’s just part of who he is.
In this case, it’s at least partly the culture he grew up in that shaped his responses. And all cultures have things that are unique to them, especially in the way members of that culture relate to each other. But the question remains, where do those ideas and practices come from? Though many people today would try to deny it, the best foundational principles of human relationships are given to us in Holy Scripture.
There are a couple of terms that we hear occasionally as we talk about human behavior. One of them is something called the “social contract.” This theory says that people live together in society in accordance with an agreement that establishes moral and political rules of behavior. In other words, members of a society cooperate for the good of everyone involved. There is “give and take.” This is seen through both written laws and unspoken rules of behavior. And every functioning society has these rules to live by.
This social contract theory grew out of two historical philosophical movements, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The first movement rejected divine revelation and promoted the idea that humans are basically good and with proper education can lead an ethical life apart from God. The second movement, the Enlightenment, was a logical outgrowth of the previous one. It was centered around the idea that human reason is the primary source of authority and legitimacy. It elevated individualism, skepticism, and science. It promoted the idea that science and logic would give people more knowledge and understanding than either tradition or religion.
Maybe you’re wondering why I’m taking the time to talk about these philosophical movements. I’m doing it because we’re seeing the impact of these philosophies today, even though they were birthed hundreds of years ago. They may be old, but they are still exerting a huge influence on our world today.
These ideas have led to the second term I want to mention, “social construct.” The original understanding of a social construct is something that doesn’t exist in objective reality but is formed as a result of human interaction. It exists because humans agree that it exists. For example, in my country we have the idea that pink is the color for baby girls and blue is the color for baby boys; that’s a social construct. There’s nothing objective about that. Somewhere along the line it was a custom that became established.
But today, some people are saying that our biological sex, decided in the womb, is a social construct. That’s why they use the word, gender. Boys are boys and girls are girls only because we say so. They tell us that a biological male can choose to be a female and vice versa. And if someone doesn’t want to be a boy or girl, there’s a plethora of other options available. They propose that each person gets to choose what his or her gender is. Christ-followers know that premise is false – because God created male and female in humans and in the animal kingdom. Furthermore, human beings, male and female, are made in God’s image.
In our continuing study in the book of Colossians, we’ve come to the apostle Paul’s teaching on human relationships. I’ve titled our study “God’s Social Contract.” I believe that most of the social maladies of our day are directly traceable to our abandonment of God’s social contract, the guidelines He’s given us in His Word for healthy, functioning families and society.
I invite you to listen carefully as I read our text, Colossians 3:18 to 4:1.
This text outlines the GUIDELINES God has established for the flourishing of human relationships in a well-ordered society.
God designed human beings and their relationships to reflect His person, His character, and His glory. He clearly desired fellowship with Adam and Eve and designed them for that. But they listened to Satan’s lies and their sin introduced negative consequences in our relationship with God and our relationships with each other. We’re still dealing with those effects today.
One of the basic issues underlying all relationships is the issue of authority. We believe the Scriptures teach the plurality and equality of the Godhead, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. They were all active at Creation. However, within that equality there is a order of authority (Philippians 2:6). The Scriptures repeatedly show us that God the Son does only the things that please the Father (John 8:29). The Holy Spirit doesn’t speak about Himself, He will only speak what He hears from Christ and from the Father (John 16:13).
Similarly, in human relationships all people have equal value in God’s sight as His image bearers. But for the human family to flourish as He intended, there must be a designated order of authority. This order existed before sin entered the world and was designed by God to be expressed in beautiful, harmonious relationships. But sin took God’s good plan for authority and twisted it to promote self and gratify sensual desire.
Unfortunately, sinful human beings, and that’s all of us prior to salvation, resist or reject authority as something bad. We see God’s guidelines as burdensome, even though the apostle John says the exact opposite in First John 5:3.
With those thoughts in mind, let’s examine God’s social contract as designed for our good and His glory!
The First Guideline (in God’s social contract)
Relationships in Marriage
Paul’s teaching on marriage relationships in this text is brief; just two verses. As we look at these guidelines in our text, we will also reference Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. There he reminds us that the marriage relationship is to reflect the union of Christ with His bride, the Church.
Verse 18 is addressed to the married women. The command for wives is to submit to their husbands. Submission is a hated word in our world today, partially, I believe, because those in positions of authority too often abuse their role. They have one set of rules for themselves and another set for those under their authority. We’ve seen this again and again through this whole Covid-19 experience. The idea of submission is also hated because of our desire to control our own lives and our destiny. We don’t appreciate anyone telling us what to do!
And yet, the command for the wife is to submit to her husband. It means to obey reflexively. This can mean automatically, or without thinking. But, as I understand the whole of Scripture, Paul isn’t commanding wives to be robotic in their responses. A wife has her own God-given intellect and emotions. What he is commanding is that the wife has a predisposition to submit to her husband. She recognizes her husband as her divinely appointed authority and accepts that God will work through him to both guide and protect her.
Yes, she may have legitimate fears, based on experience, that he’ll make a wrong decision. But she will also realize that God can use those poor decisions and failures to discipline her husband and, at the same time, deepen her trust in God. If her husband is a godly man, her support through these difficult times will only increase his love and appreciation for her.
The final part of this command specifies that this submission is fitting, or well-pleasing to the Lord. Looking at Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 5:24, the submission of the wife to her husband mirrors the submission of the Church to Christ. The Church submits to Christ in all things because His authority is exercised perfectly. A wife submits to her husband in all things if they do not violate her higher obedience to Jesus Christ.
Husbands, according to verse 19 are to “keep on loving their wives…” And, in parallel with Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 5:25, that love is agape. It’s the same kind of love that motivated Christ to love us individually and as His Bride, the Church. It’s not the kind of love that demands reciprocity. It’s a love that’s focused on giving rather than getting. It’s a love that delights in serving rather than being served. It’s a love that puts the good of the one being loved as the highest goal. It’s a love that is impossible outside of Christ living in us.
Paul’s further command is that husbands “are not to be bitter against their wives.” The verb tense used in this command conveys a couple of things. First, husbands should not let bitterness develop in their relationship with their wife; stop it before it starts. In addition, if they’ve already allowed that to happen, then, they are to stop being bitter against them; break off the bad habit.
There are only two other places in the New Testament where this word Paul uses for bitterness occur, and both are in the book of Revelation. In Revelation 8:11 the word is translated as Wormwood. In one of the trumpet-judgments, it’s the name of a star that, when it was cast into the freshwaters of earth, it made them taste bitter and brought death to those who drank them. The other use is in Revelation 10:9 where it refers to something distasteful.
Evidently, Paul realized from his interactions with people that this bitterness is a common sin for husbands. Why is that so? Could it be, at least in part, that men in general, and husbands, often have anger issues? And what are they angry about? Some feel disrespected or unappreciated by their wives. Others feel that no matter how hard they try, they can never make their wife happy. Whatever the reason, when anger isn’t properly resolved it can grow into bitterness. It has devastating consequences both spiritually and physically.
I knew a husband who wanted very much to please his wife. She was a woman who wanted to have nice things, so he worked hard to provide so she could have them. But then, she complained that he didn’t spend much time at home. And he was confused! He was trying to give her what she wanted and yet she had complaints about his absence. What was he supposed to do?
In the marriage relationship, there are the reciprocal duties of subjection and love. One thing to keep in mind as we reflect on these guidelines is to remember the context in which they are given. If we are letting the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, if we are letting the Word of Christ be “at home” in us, and if we are letting the name of Christ motivate our choices and our actions, then obeying these guidelines for marriage will be an overflow of our relationship with Jesus! We will be blessed, and He will be glorified!
The Next GUIDELINE addresses,
Relationships in Families
As in the husband-wife relationship there are reciprocal duties, so there are the same in the parent-child relationship. Here, the children are given a clear, succinct command – “…be obeying your parents in all things…” And the fathers are commanded to “…not be provoking their children…” Let’s look at each of these in their order.
This command for children to obey their parents contains the idea of “hearing under.” That means, first, that children should listen attentively. One needs to hear the command clearly before it can be obeyed. Some would also add that the command must be understood before it can be obeyed. But that depends on the age of the child. Tone of voice and facial expression communicate the command with very young children who can’t understand the actual words. Training for obedience needs to begin almost at birth.
The command given to children to obey their parents is one that sorely needs strengthening today. The disobedience and disrespect of children toward parents and other adults in our day is epidemic. However, let me quickly say, the children don’t bear the blame for that, the parents do. Rebellion is in the human heart from birth! Children must be TAUGHT to obey by their parents.
This failure of parents to command obedience, is to some extent a reaction to the severity of earlier eras. Past discipline, sometimes bordering on abuse, was often harsh and authoritarian. Many in my generation, growing up in the 1960s and 70s reacted to those excesses by throwing off all restraint. Many parents became overly permissive, a trend that continues to this day. They were told by child psychologists that any attempt to impose discipline would damage the child’s personality and character. That advice flies directly in the face of Scripture!
Many children, whether in single-parent homes or homes where both parents are employed outside the home, are essentially left to raise themselves. Electronic gadgets have become the new babysitters. Children are being neglected by their parents and forced to make choices and decisions that they’re not intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually equipped for. We’ve even come to the absurd place where young, elementary school age children are being asked to decide whether they are boys or girls! Is it any wonder our culture and our world are broken and confused?
Paul closes the instruction for children to obey in the same way he did for the wives to submit; it is well pleasing to the Lord. It is pleasing to Him because it recognizes His plan for human flourishing. In his letter to the Ephesians, he adds the general principle that those who obey and honor their parents can usually expect a long and fruitful life.
In the role of parental authority, Paul mentions only the father. That doesn’t imply that a mother’s role and influence aren’t important. We know better than that. What it does tell us is that the father’s role is the key to success in the parent-child relationship.
“Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they be discouraged.” The KJV reads “provoke not your children to anger,” but the last two words are italicized, meaning they were added by the English translators. Once again, the grammar shows a command to shun this behavior and to stop it if it’s already occurring. So, how do fathers provoke their children?
One way that fathers provoke their children is connected directly with the command for the child to obey. Fathers too often don’t give clear commands or instructions. They assume their wishes or expectations are understood, so they don’t explain them carefully. When their expectations aren’t met, they often respond in anger. In younger children, this leaves them confused and feeling like they can’t please Dad. In olderchildren, fathers can give too much direction, making the older child feel like he or she doesn’t know much.
Another way fathers can provoke their children is through inconsistency. As I reflect on my experience as a father, consistency in discipline and training of children is probably one of the most difficult tasks of parenting. If a child is told that certain behavior is unacceptable, the enforcement of that command must be consistent. But if the father is physically tired, or distracted by his work or personal interests, and overlooks the infraction of the rules, the child learns quickly that Dad doesn’t really mean what he says.
When negative behavior is overlooked in one instance but disciplined the next time it happens, the child becomes confused and exasperated. He or she may become so dispirited, they just give up trying to please Dad. Many times, through the years of parenting, I needed to apologize to my children and ask their forgiveness for failing to be consistent and gracious in discipline.
I can think of numerous additional ways that fathers can exasperate their children. But I will highlight just one more – hypocrisy. When fathers expect their children to obey them, but they, in turn, refuse to obey the authority over them, children are quick to pick up on that. Or it may be that the father demands certain behavior from his children, but then fails to live up to his own commands. If the children are disciplined for their failures but Dad excuses his, that is a recipe for resentment and disillusionment. Many of the social ills of our day can be traced to fatherlessness; either no father is present, or the one who is there is unengaged.
But you and I as Christ-followers have been given the remedy for these social ills. If we are letting the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, if we are letting the Word of Christ be “at home” in us, and if we are letting the name of Christ motivate our choices and our actions, then obeying these guidelines for families will be an overflow of our relationship with Jesus! We will be blessed, our culture will be healthier, and God will be glorified!
The Final Guideline addresses,
Relationships in Employment
Just like the previous instruction for families, this instruction for employee/employer relationships is much needed today. The motto for many today is “the least work for the greatest amount of pay.” Years ago, I worked with a fellow who wore a shirt that had these words printed on it; “I don’t need this job, I just need the pay.”
As we look at these final verses of our text, we immediately realize the differences in our time compared with the times during which Paul wrote. Paul addresses masters and slaves, something very common in his time but not practiced in most of the developed countries of the world today. Just as in the previous commands, he lays obligations on both parties. But the principles laid down here apply just as well to our current employer/employee relationships.
There’s one interesting detail that I want you to think about regarding the details of this letter to Colossae. The messenger who carried this letter most likely carried in the same bag the letter to Philemon, and this messenger was likely accompanied by Onesimus the fugitive slave. Paul’s counsel in his letter to Philemon, the master of Onesimus, doesn’t deal with the institution of slavery per se. What he does deal with is the way that the two men should relate to each other as brothers in Christ regardless of their rank, or title, or position.
As is common through his letters, Paul again gives his first instruction to those who are under authority. Servants, or employees, are to obey the instructions of their employers in all things. Unless, of course, that instruction violates clear commands of Scripture. This is one reason why Christ-followers should choose their workplace carefully. But even among those engaged in honorable occupations, there may be those employers who ask employees to break the law or at least remain silent when laws are broken. That isn’t acceptable for those who follow Jesus.
Employees are to perform their required tasks diligently, and not only when the boss is looking. Attempting to curry the boss’s favor by extra displays of false enthusiasm is something that Paul states shouldn’t be part of our service. We are to work with singleness of heart, or with sincerity because we fear the Lord. Our work is to be consistent and sincere because we know that ultimately, we will receive our reward from Christ Himself. Our heavenly Master isn’t fooled by appearances and our works will ultimately be judged and our rewards assigned accordingly.
The reason for our diligence is the realization that we’re really doing our work for the Lord. Considering that, we should do our work enthusiastically with a good disposition. As God-fearing people, grumbling and complaining aren’t an acceptable part of our service.
If we serve graciously, we can be assured that God’s rewards to us will be gracious too. But the opposite is also true; if we do what is wrong there will be a just reward for that too. The law of sowing and reaping applies in both cases, and – it applies to the employer’s service to his or her employees as well. God doesn’t play favorites, He’s just in all that He does.
Finally, in chapter four, verse one, Paul gives guidelines for the way employers are to treat their employees. They are to give to their employees what is just and equitable, that is, what is fair and impartial. In today’s world, these words have different meanings for different people.
I’m using the word equitable in the sense that the employer understands the abilities of the employee and provides him with the tools he needs to do the job. In contrast, equality demands that every employee receive the same tools and tasks, even though some of them may not have the skills or experience to perform them. It reminds me of my years of working in a cabinet shop.
My boss, who by his own testimony was not a Christ-follower, treated all of us equitably but not equally. One of my fellow employees made all the drawer parts for the cabinets we built, and that is all he wanted to do. He was comfortable doing the same thing and didn’t have a desire to learn other parts of the production process. But I wanted to learn everything I could about the entire production process. In that way, I became a more valuable employee. My boss told me never to discuss with my pay rate with this employee, because even though he was hired before I was, his rate of pay was less. He was being treated equitably, or fairly, but not equally.
The reasoning behind this command for employers is that there is a Master in heaven who is observing them. Just like employees, they too will receive a reward commensurate with their works. James, in his epistle, has some harsh words for employers who mistreat their workers. You can read about that in James chapter five.
Think about these guidelines as God’s social contract. Can you imagine how different the world would be if everyone would follow these? How about if every person who professes to be a Christ-follower would live out these principles consistently? That would make a huge difference in our world. But that will only happen as we embrace the central focus of this entire letter to the Colossians – the preeminence of Christ. In other words, Christ first in everything. And that is so hard for us as our natural desire is to try making ourselves first in everything!
I can assure you; fulfilling God’s social contract will never happen if we live only from a sense of duty. Duty easily becomes drudgery. No, our obedience must be motivated by love; love for God that results in love for our fellowman. This divine love is the answer to strained marriage relationships, fractured families, employees with a sense of entitlement, and employers who take advantage of their workers.
A life with Christ preeminent is a life of peace, joy, and gratefulness. It is not an easy life! It means cooperating with the Holy Spirit in putting off the old nature and putting on the new. Denying ourselves and giving others priority is painful. But there are tremendous rewards for us as we allow Christ to conform us into His image. Some of those rewards are available right now, in this life. Others will come only when we receive the eternal rewards of faithfulness.
But of this we can be sure; God’s social contract guidelines are designed for the flourishing of human relationships in a well-ordered society. We can embrace His ways and reap the rewards, or we can follow our own way and reap the consequences. Which do you choose?