Submission as Subversion – A Sermon on Colossians 3:18-4:1

We have now spent a month and a half inside of Colossians and we’ve pretty much been going in the same direction all along. Paul was writing to a church in Colossi and helping them see the lies of the empire and see the truths of the kingdom. Paul is writing a letter to a church who is struggling between the demands of the empire and the demands of Christ. Where the empire has robbed its people of being able to dream and makes all the decisions for them. Where the empire has decided the future of its people and controls and manipulates almost all outcomes, how ought the church be present? Where the empire keeps pushing for more and telling us that we can have anything at any moment, how does the church learn to live and say that it has enough?

The argument Paul has been formulating thus far has been very broad thus far. He’s been tackling major issues and hasn’t really narrowed anything down. This week, in the second half of chapter 3, Paul gets extremely specific. There is some weird stuff going on though. Most people will read the next verses completely out of context of the rest of the letter and just go on and make a bunch of moral assumptions about what Paul is doing here. Instead though, what I want to do, is try to follow Paul’s train of thought and why he would jump what he did. First though, let’s read our section for today.

Colossians 3:18-4:1
Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.
Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.
Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.
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. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.
Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

I’ve seen this verse used (along with a similar verse in Ephesians 5) multiple times to try and argue why women need to submit to their husbands and do what they say. More recently there has been a resurgence of well-known speakers who continue to belabour the point of gendered roles in marriage to the point where one speaker said that a stay at home dad was “worse than an unbeliever.” It really gets ridiculous after a while if we start to look at the Bible as a moral code book where we can just take any individual verse that we find and tack on all of our assumptions about what it must mean. Then verses start to be used as proof texts for arguments that have no consistency with what God’s story is even remotely about and become more about proving what we think it says, and we only think it says that because we’ve been told that’s what it means or we’ve bailed on the responsibility to actually understand what we are reading.

However, let’s give ourselves some background before we can understand why Paul would say something like this. The Christian story is a remarkable story of God using the most unlikely characters to bring about salvation to the entire world. Through thousands of years of culture where women we’re barely seen as human, slaves were treated as animals and depending on your class would determine your rites the story we find in the Bible was written. The difference being, the Bible is drastically different. In all other material in the time that is covered through the scriptures from my understanding we have nothing that even comes close to the story of Israel and Jesus. The Hebrew Scriptures, which were written during these times, are the most tolerant, life-giving and radical words to be written, putting time in perspective. Remember, slaves were like animals in this culture, they literally served no other purpose in life than to work for the demands of their masters. So killing them was no bigger of a deal than killing a chicken for dinner. They were pawns of whatever their master could come up with.

Then the Torah comes into play with all sorts of rules and regulations helping curb some of the ridiculous laws that were in place, they are at least worth mentioning. Now, I do know that anywhere and everywhere, even in religious writings, slaves were regarded as absolutely worthless, except by the Hebrews. But I’m not going to lie to you, I really don’t know what to do with some of these laws. There are laws in there for slaves that state that you can rape a women, but not if she’s engaged. Or if you beat your slave, you will only be punished if the slave dies. These are not exactly highlights. So I admit, there is way more going on here that need to be dealt with on a theological level that we can’t really jump into today. However, the more amazing part is how the scriptures include these nobodies into their stories. The Bible though does something that stories don’t usually do. It takes a slave, someone who is not considered anything worthwhile, someone who even the Hebrew Scriptures don’t give a lot of hope for, and then all of sudden puts her in the lineage of Jesus. Remember Ruth? She was just a lonely slave girl, someone who was at risk of being treated poorly who was vulnerable to whatever her master wanted. Then her Master died so she’s at risk of getting tossed around from master to master. She’s a puppet to other people. She has no humanity. Then, by a miracle, someone takes pity on her, marries her, cares of her and gives her a child and her child has a child and that child has a child and their name is David. King David. Ruth, an animal, a nobody, becomes a direct descendant to Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but if I was writing this story, I’d probably skip that part. Besides you don’t put the woman’s name in the genealogy at all anyway. She should have been cut out from the get go, not had an entire story written about her. Speaking of women, don’t even get me started about how women were treated in these times. They were impure, men had to clean themselves when they were with them. They were subject to the wishes of their husbands or their fathers. Again, the Hebrew Scriptures are better, but compared to the standards we would expect today, they are still appalling. But the story of Jesus incorporates women too. Remember Rahab? She’s a prostitute. Yup, she’s in the lineage as well. It also incorporates children in a way that even his own disciples couldn’t understand. At no point are we able to come up with any argument that makes slaves, or women, or children inferior to anyone else. In God’s story, everyone, of any class or gender, any sinful background. They are all included.

God’s story incorporates those that are rejected by society and culture. It’s slow, and its extremely indirect. But God’s story is for them and has not forgot about them in any kind of way. The culture that Paul is writing in though, the Roman empire, has forgotten. They had their own way of doing things. There was a hierarchical order of how relationships worked.

Man -> Wife
Master -> Slave
Parent -> Children

This is just how it is. These hierarchies denoted rites, and submission. The husbands will rules. The master’s will prevails. This is how society interacted, this is how the world worked. You didn’t ask questions, you kept quiet and let them men do the talking.

This however poses a problem to these new found Christian communities. As Paul has been saying all along in Colossians, the church is to be caught up in modelling alternative ways of being in the empire, and this most certainly includes relationships. The church models new creation and new creation is completely different then the way of the empire. Paul since the beginning of this letter has been rooted in an argument that puts Christ central. Just a few verses before Paul says

Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

In his letter to Galatians he take this a bit further

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Paul is unapologetic. He claims over and over again, the kingdom of God works different. It wrecks havoc on the regular way of doing relationships. Enough of this hierarchy based strictly on human categories. How about this, we are human and we are in Christ and that is it. The rest of these hierarchical structures, leave it to the empire, they are empty and will only lead to more destruction as they are not in Christ.

“This is not a narrative that imposes a series of absolutes to oppress us; it is a story of liberation from an empire that would take captive our imagination while it rapes and plunders the earth….this is a story of restored relationships, a love story that calls forth an alternative community characterized by compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, love, peace, gratitude and wisdom.”
– Walsh and Keesmaat

Up until this point in the letter, according to the Kingdom, according to Jesus there is no difference between man and wife, Jew or Greek, Slave or Master…all are free and all are one in Christ. All. So when we get to the second half of Colossians, Paul isn’t just throwing out everything he said before. He isn’t re-instituting a hierarchy of unhealthy relationships and contradicting all this one in Christ talk. So let’s throw out that idea right off the get go. There is still no male or female, no slave or master. Paul is an egalitarian. All are equal. There is no law that states that because of some class or gender that you were born into it somehow changes your inherent value as a human. So with all this in mind, let’s revisit our passage for today.

Colossians 3:18-4:1
Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.
Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.
Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.
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. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.
Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

What has happened, as I mentioned before is with verses like this and the verse about the male being the priest of the home we very quickly can come up with an argument for male kingship. So what ends up happening is we end up getting into arguments about authority and control, and then eventually we start making broad statements like “well I’m the man, and this is the way it is.” As soon as a label is presented…we have a problem. There is nothing to form a belief like that rather than imparting that into the scriptures and not understanding the context of what Paul is doing whatsoever. This verse was never meant to give anyone power over anyone else. In fact, it’s meant to do the opposite, its meant to encourage each person to give power to the other. The way a relationships should work.

There is a few things we need to realize about what Paul is doing here. The first line that should pop out to us is “as is fitting to the Lord.” We know now what is fitting to the Lord. That line should debunk all ideas of control and forceful power by itself. We know that giving up power and not taking it is always fitting to the Lord. What is fitting is that men and women are created equal and their relationships are a reflection of Christ’s love for the church. We know that power, oppression and control in relationships is not the God given direction. We know that God has redeemed relationships through Christ and that the church is to model this new way of living in these relationships. So with this in mind, wives submit to your husbands, and husbands love your wives. This is what we call a parallel passage. They are saying the same things. Paul is not giving men power and telling the women to do whatever he says. This isn’t saying that the husbands will is the prevailing will. This is just reinstating how relationships work. Love and submit, that’s how it goes. We are to be a community of people whose relationships are marked by love and submission.

As soon as you try and separate the two verses and use them to empower one side over the other side we’ve completely missed what Paul is doing and what God has been doing and leading up to all throughout the scriptures. This new way of doing relationships though doesn’t stop with the husband and wives, it flows down into how children and parents interact. There is another parallel verse happening here. Since the beginning, parents were the bosses, they tell their kids to do something and they do it. Children we’re seen as lesser beings, just waiting to grow up and be meaningful contributors to society and actually become fully human. But then it looks like Paul is saying that even these relationships are being subverted. No longer is one the boss over another, but it looks like there is a mutual submission going on here. There is actually a relationship that is happening that both sides need to be mindful of as opposed to one person just telling the other what to do.

Paul’s on a role now and he just keeps going. Masters and slaves, two more parallel verses. Masters be fair, servants kick so much butt. Paul is not just advocating for people to get along, he’s advocating for people who were once in oppressive, authoritative relationships to actually think about the other when they make a decision. Can you imagine?

We recognize why this divisive system is in place in the empire. Why does it not work in the Kingdom of God? In this train of thought, what other questions come to your mind?

We are not a community who simply has stricter rules about how certain people should act with certain people. Rather, we should be a community that puts all people on the same page in all cases. There is no hierarchy, there is no control, there is no power. The bottom gives power through submission rather than the top taking it through control. We find all of those things in Christ, so we refuse to let them seep through into our relationships. So in a world where the homeless and disabled are not listened to and our patted on the back, we subvert that by having relationships with them and listening to them. In a world where the guy at the pulpit tells you how you should behave and what you should do with your money, we have a community where the guy at the front has a relationship with you and struggles alongside of you to make sense of the scriptures.

This passage is not creating rules for how marriages and parents should setup their power structures. This passage is saying that those patterns of hierarchy don’t work in the kingdom, so no matter what “title” you have in the world (male, female, slave, master, parent, child) that doesn’t automatically make you powerful, respected or worth being submitted to. Rather, the kingdom, this church, works completely different, we refuse to see labels and rather see people. We aren’t going to play power games, and we certainly are not going to acknowledge the labels of power that already exist.

Just because you have more money, and can tithe more, does not mean that you will have any extra say or pull. Just because you are a parent of thirteen kids doesn’t mean that the single who walks in the door doesn’t get a say. Just because you’ve grown up middle class and you follow certain social standards about how to conduct yourself, doesn’t mean that someone from an impoverished class will be looked down upon. Just because you’re an adult, will not make your will play out before our kids. Just because I’m a pastor, doesn’t mean I have the corner on the Bible or God.

Instead, we are in a relationship with humans, no matter what status symbol they have. All this talk about empire and how its all around us and trying to figure out how to interact with it and subvert it. Paul gives us a heads up. He says it starts in the home. It starts in your marriages. It starts with your employer. It starts in your relationships.

However, we can’t just stop there anymore. Because we live in a global economy. We are connected to people we have never met. And Paul talks about slaves. So yes, none of us have a slave that lives in our house, well most of us don’t. So we would think a lot of what Paul is saying here doesn’t apply to us at all. However, let us not forget that there is over 32 million slaves in the world today. Listen to the working conditions in factories around the world.

“Regardless of where these factories are located, the workers’ stories have a certain mesmerizing samness: the workday is long–fourteen hours in Sri Lanka, twelve hours in Indonesia, sixteen in Southern China, twelve in the Philippines. The vast majority of the workers are women, always young, always working for subcontractors from Korea, Taiwan, or Hong Kong. The contractors are usually filling orders for companies based in the U.S., Britain, Japan, Germany or Canada. The management is military style, the supervisors often abusive, the wages below subsistence, the work low skill and tedious. ”
Naomi Klein

All of us are part of this slavery. Just think about any product you’ve bought in the last little while, especially coffee, tea, t-shirts, electronics, chocolate, vegetables, fruit and meat. If you purchased it from a larger store, odds are that it came from a slave trader. The corporations themselves that offer us these products admit that the moves to these countries where there are no labour or environmental laws is to increase their profit and stay competitive. We are involved. We are responsible. And unfortunately there is nothing innocent at all about this kind of slavery even though we try to justify our way out of it. Every time we step into a store and buy their products that come from these slave houses, and we are excited about the price or how great it looks, we’ve then joined the cycle and have made these sweatshop workers our slaves. Every time we buy coffee, or tea or chocolate that isn’t fairly traded, we’ve made those workers are slaves.

For the kids first, then adults: With Christmas on its way, why will we still buy (and want) products that we know are made by slaves?

Brian Walsh, in his book about Colossians helps us understand how the position we find ourselves in is exactly where the empire wants us. It’s this language of helplessness, and inevitability that should make us aware that our imaginations have been captivated by the empire. Remember we talked about this a few weeks ago, and how the empire looks to crush and imagine for us, and then the only things and life we can imagine, the only problems we can solve are through spending more money. Our imaginations have been captivated by the empire. Because the truth is, we have many, many choices. We just don’t want to do the work, or spend the money to use them. There is fair trade, and there is products made in co-ops all over the world. The very least you could do is buy your clothes from a used clothing store so that your locally poor will benefit from your purchase. We could make different decisions, that are less oppressive, but we are lazy, and our imaginations and energies are drained by money and the dreams of the empire….you know like looking good, and having more things.

It is overwhelming. It is overwhelming to treat our slaves right and fair, because we don’t know them. But this is why we’ve spent the last two months talking about how this place needs to be different. The church needs to act as an alternative community who can imagine and dream together about what living differently means. Imagine if we had our kids in the other room imagining ways that we can learn to function that doesn’t oppress people?

We talked about this a few weeks ago, but when children start getting targeted as consumers, to buy more of these products that are made in slaveshops, then no wonder Paul is concerned with the relationships between parents and children. When parents spend on average 4 minutes a week talking to their children and children 1350 minutes a week in front of a television, well obviously there is something wrong going on, and this community needs to face into that and start offering alternatives. Handing over our children to the captivity of media, food, television, the education system of the empire provokes them to become dutiful citizens, obedient consumers of the empire who have no imaginations left and certainly do not learn how to resist. Have we handed our kids over to the empire’s wishes for them? We have slaves. We’ve handed our kids over to the wishes of the empire. Our marriages are falling apart as each spouse tries to get what they deserve.

It is all connected. This all works together, and we as the church must work together to create a community that is actively creating alternatives so that our kids thrive and have imaginations and have real relationships with people. Our kids will learn, like Paul, to treat the distinction between slave and the free person as irrelevant in this new community, in the new creation. They know they wouldn’t have a slave now that they treated poorly and they will question and they will dream up new alternatives so that we don’t have slaves over seas either. We can’t just hand them over to dream the same dreams of the empire, to have more and nicer things. Slaves won’t make sense because they are no different than ourselves.

So this is heavy passage by Paul, because it demands that we no longer see separation by labels for anyone. The person in the sweatshop making your latest fashionable sweatshirt is no different than your brother or sister. The husband is no different than the wife. The kid is no different than the parent. We are all in this together, all one in Christ, all have value in Christ. When we actually believe that and start living that practically, everything has to change. Everything you do will go through that filter. Everything you buy you will have to be mindful that you aren’t oppressing someone. Everything you say will be in love toward people and not hate or bitterness or ignorance.

So may be this kind of community. I wrote this prayer, that I hope we can read together.

May we be the kind of community where
Wives love their husbands and
Husbands love their wives
and where
Husbands and Wives mutually sacrifice and submit to one another

May we be the kind of community where
Parents listen to their children
Children obey their parents
and where
Children and Parents seek understanding and not manipulation or control

May we be the kind of community where
Others become important to us
Our Lives don’t oppress any other
and where
We seek justice and peace rather than excess and luxury

May we be the kind of community where
Children are given opportunity to dream
Children are given freedom to be different
and where
We create environments for selflessness instead of selfishness

May we be the kind of community where
Those we don’t understand are welcomed
Those we don’t see are sought
and where
We consciously create an alternatives where there seems to be none