The Society of Christ

The Society of Christ

The Society of Christ

Lets review where we have been in our study of Paul’s letter to the Colossians and his attempt to teach them a Christ-centered worldview and lifestyle. He begins by telling them that they have been rescued from the kingdom of Darkness and translated to the Kingdom of light. Scripturerepeatedly speaksof two kingdoms: one in the world and of it, the other also in the world, but not of it. Paul is concerned that the Colossians not return to the kingdom they’ve been rescued from. There are two reasons that might happen. They may return because of persecution, which was always a possibility in early church. However Paul seemsless concerned about the persecution of their faith than the perversion of their faith. It seems leaders in Colossae were teaching elements of pagan religion and philosophy, suggesting Christ alone was not enough. So Paul writes to correct the false teaching and to lay a foundation for a Christ-centered worldview.

We have so far reflected on four basic principles that Paul teaches about a Christ-centered worldview. First he emphasizes the supremacy of Christ. Christ is the image of the invisible God, the creator of all things. All things are not only created by him, but also for him. This universe and all of us in it exist not by chance or accident, but by the intentional design and for the purposes of a supreme Lord. And that Lord is absolutely sufficient to meet our every need. We have received a full salvation, given the fullness of Christ through the shed blood of Christ. We are saved by faith in that blood and not by our various attempts to make ourselves holy, whether obeying laws, gaining wisdom, having mystical experiences or appealing to angels or any other spiritual powers. Salvation is made possible not by our ascent to heaven, but byheaven’s descent to earth.

We reflected on Paul’s provocative statement that the suffering in his ministry filled up what was lacking in Christ’s suffering. Not that Christ’s suffering and death was in any sense inadequate for our salvation but rather, to be a Christ-centered people we will share in Christ’s suffering. We will hurt and grieve over the things Christ hurt and grieved over. And as the Body of Christ in the world today, through our suffering with and for others, people experience Christ’s sacrificial love for them. Finally we looked at the Sanctification of Christ. Being Christ-centered we see this world and ourselves with a different point of view, a different worldview, a Christ-centered worldview. We understand that we are to be a holy people, a special, dedicated, set apart, chosen people. Paul uses somewhat different language but his point is the same as Peter’s who writes, But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy(1 Peter 2:9-10). Therefore Paul makes it abundantly clear that we should live lives of holiness, set our hearts and minds on things above and avoid the earthbound worldview that leads to indulgence and vulgarity of all kinds.

Today we look at how being Christ-centered affects our basic relationships in this world, particularly relationships within our households. As a Christ-centered people we are called to display the Society of Christ, how Christ redeems our relationships with one another, how Christ affectsour understanding of human relationships. Paul speaks to three common, traditional relationships in society; the husband and wife, the father and child and the master and slave. These are the basic household relationships that all people dealt with in ancient society. Paul’s words are remarkably brief, but no less transformativethan his longer sections about Christ’ssupremacy, sufficiency, suffering and sanctification. Lets read them.

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 (Colossians 3:18-4:1).

Some of what Paul says would not have sounded very surprising at all to the Colossians. To ask wives to submit to their husbands was no surprise. In the ancient world wives were, essentially,property. With few exceptions, women had little or no rights. Their fate was largely determined by their husbands. To ask children to obey was also no surprise. Like wives, children also had little or no status in ancient societies. One of the more reprehensible practices in the ancient Greek and Roman world was the practice of exposure, abandoning infants to die from the elements or be killed by animals. Newborns were presented to the father who then made the decision whether the child would live or be exposed. This practice is seen in a letter written in the first century from a Roman citizen to his sister. "I am still in Alexandria.... I beg and plead with you to take care of our little child, and as soon as we receive wages, I will send them to you. In the meantime, if you give birth, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, expose it." And of course, in many ancient societies child sacrifices were not uncommon. So it is hardly a surprise that children would be expected to obey their fathers.Finally slaves were instructed to obey their masters. Well, of course! What else can slaves do? Their only option would be to runaway or rebel and that would lead to death.

So Paul is only repeating what were common household codes. These household codes can be found in many ancient documents and they are very similar to Paul’s instructions here in Colossians and also what he writes in Ephesians. But Paul adds some things not found in other ancient documents and what he adds makes all the difference. Paul sets down an ethic of mutual obligation. Not only are wives, children and slaves under obligation to husbands, fathers and masters, but Paul places husbands, fathers and masters under an equally binding obligation as well.That is a radical difference in a society wheremen were under no obligation legally or morally to treat women, children or slaves with respect or even basic decency.

Christ redeems and transforms the relationships of Christ-centered people. Rather thanfocus onwho has power over each other, the Christ-centered focus is on how can we serve each other. To those who have been given power and privilege, Paul commands they use that power and privilege to serve. To those who are without status, and of little value in society, Paul gives their position status by adding new motivation and meaning to it. Wives submit to your husbands, not because you are inferior, not because you have less worth but because this is fitting in the Lord. Children obey your parents, not because you are less important, not because you live at their pleasure, but because your obedience pleases the Lord. Slaves obey your master, not because you are of less worth, not because you have no other choice, but because you are really working for the Lord.

Bible scholars tell us Paul’s letters to Ephesus and Colossae are parallel in many ways, including his discussion of household codes. When we look at the parallel account in Ephesians we see even more clearly the basic principles guiding Paul. In Ephesians he begins his discussion on household relationships with this simple statement, Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ(Eph 5:21). For a Christ-centered people, relationships are radically altered and fundamentally transformed. Essentially Christcalls us to quit positioning for power over each other and begin seeking to serve each other.

Christians today read these verses and argue whether or not they are a divine pattern for family relationships in every place and every time in the Church. Those who believe these verses are a pattern for all time and all places tend to emphasize the absoluteauthority of the husband and father in the home. Other Christians believe Paul is not endorsing the societal structures of a Graeco-Roman world only addressing how to live as Christians within them. They argue the intent of Christ was neither to endorse nor to overturn immediately all social structures, but to express spiritual principles that would, over time, lead Christians to reform social structures so that would be more Christ-centered. Such changes take time. Two thousand years this side of the first century, we can see how those Christ-centered principles have changed the world. Most of us would be uncomfortable today with anyone who taught that Paul’s admonition to slaves to obey their masters gives us biblical authority to own slaves today. Although not that many years ago this is exactly what was preached from the pulpits of many churches in America.

In fact, American historian and Christian scholar Mark Noll argues that the Civil War was in part at least, a religious war based on whether or not the Bible authorized slavery. It took time for the principles of a Christ-centered worldview to change society. I am persuaded by Bible scholar F. F. Bruce who writes, Paul’s “household codes did not set out to abolish or reshape existing social structures, but to Christianize them. As far as slavery was concerned, it took a long time for the essential incompatibility of the institution with the ethic of the gospel…to be properly assimilated by the general Christian consciousness.”

Christians debate today whether the restrictions or social structures regarding women and wives in both families and churches should also be “Christianized” and made more egalitarian and less male dominated. Whatever you think about that, one thing is clear. Marriage is and has always been a battle of the sexes; men and women struggling for power. Since the fall it has been the case that when anyone is given power in any form, that power has been used to control and manipulate others. In every age and in every culture, institutions, whether they be governments or businesses or marriages and families, are essentially power struggles. Rules are made to determine who is in control, who has the final say. That was true in Paul’s world and it is true in ours. But controlling others is not the purpose of power in the Kingdom of Christ. Christ redefines the meaning and purpose of power and relationships. To those whom Society has made powerful, Jesus demands they use their power to empower others. And to those whom Society has made to be less powerful,Jesus shows in his own life that there is no better way, indeed no other way to be great, than to be a servant. Paul applies this Christ-centered principle to the fundamental social unity in society, the household. “Submit to one another” defines all relationships. We are to serve each other. Wives, submit to your husbands.No surprise. Husbands, love your wives, give yourselves up for your wives even as Christ gave himself up for the Church. Big surprise! Children obey your fathers. No surprise. Fathers do not embitter or exasperate your children. Instead nurture them and bring them up in the Lord. They do not belong to you! Big surprise. Slaves obey your masters. No surprise. Masters provide for your slaves what is right and fair. Treat them with respect and do not threaten them since he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven and he shows no favoritism! Big surprise.

Every generation will come up with its idea of what marriages and families should look like, how they should act. I spent many years studying marriage and family therapy and one thing I learned is there are hundreds of different theories and models for marriages and families. For that matter, there are no less number of theories suggesting how employers and executives should manage their employees. Is Paul giving us a pattern, a blueprint for marriage and family dynamics for all times and all places? Is the patriarchal relationshipbetween husbands and wives common in the Graeco-Roman world and for that matter in the Jewish worldmerely descriptive of the culture Paul is addressing, or is it supposed to be prescriptive for all marriages and families at all times?

As I said, sincere, Bible honoring Christians differ on what marriage and family should look like. Some accept the traditional patriarchal model that holds up male headship and declares that the husband/father has the final and only authority in the household. Others argue for modelsthat are more egalitarian and have less emphasis on authority. Whatever model you decide best reflects your understanding of scripture, Paul’s Christ-centered principle of empowering love transforms it! If we feel scripture places men in an authoritative role as head over women, then it is clear that every bit of privilege and power we have must be laid down to meet the needs of our wives. And if we decide relationships in marriage should bemore egalitarian, God’s empowering love transforms our relationships from a struggle for power between equals, to equals struggling to use their power to serve each other. In either case, Christ is your model.

When I was young I had a hard time understanding the difference between Jesus and Superman. Both were heroes to me (though I confess I leaned a little toward Superman.) Superman had all those powers. He could fly; he had x-ray vision; bullets would just bounce off his chest. OF course Jesus had super powers too. He could walk on water, calm a raging storm with just a word, heal the sick and even raise the dead. I was pretty sure Jesus could fly and probably had x-ray vision too. Years later as I grew up I learned the difference between Jesus and Superman. Superman was invulnerable. Jesus was strong enough to be vulnerable. Superman had the courage to step in front of bullets because they would just bounce off. Jesus had the courage to step in front of bullets when he knew they wouldn’t bounce off. You tell me, which took more strength: to stand upright in a boat and shout “Be still” or to kneel trembling in a garden and pray “Thy will.”; to amaze his disciples by walking on the water or to disappoint them by stumbling up to Calvary; to cry out for all to hear, “Lazarus come forth” or to groan in words barely audible, “Father Forgive.” Christ shows us what happens when love and power come together, power becomes the strength to lay down my life, the agenda to serve others, the passion to recognize, honor and privilege others helping to empower others to become what Christ wants them to be. When we embrace this kind of empowering love in our marriage relationships, our parent-child relationships, our employer-employee relationships, our focus becomes how can I use whatever resources and opportunities and power I have to help others become what God wants them to become.

So, if you believe you should have authority and power, fine. Just remember Christ had all authority and all power and laid it all down to become a servant, even to the point of giving his life. If you believe you should have more power than you have, fine. Just remember Christ, and that the lack of any title, or position or recognition did not prevent Christ from having all the power he needed to do the most incredible work ever done. Whether or not we believePaul is giving us a detailed blueprint for what marriages and families and other social relationships should look like in every place for all time, clearly he is giving us a transforming principle forany relationship, in any place at any time to become l ess self-centered and more Christ-centered. As Christ taught by his life, even if you enjoy the ultimate power, being God, there is no better way to use that power than to become a servant to others. For the son of man came not to be served, but to serve.He did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but emptied himself taking the very form of a servant(Philippians 2). If we would be a Christ-centered people, if we want our household societies to be Christ-centered, we can hardly do any different.