Colossians 3:22–4:1 NRSV
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for whatever wrong has been done, and there is no partiality. Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything. (v. 22a)
Surely this must be among the most controversial texts in all of Scripture. Suppose a child living in a remote part of the world reads (or has read to them) Colossians 3 today. Suppose they were a modern-day slave making mud bricks or grinding grain. We would want them to heed verse 20 about obeying their parents, right? But how would we expect them to deal with today’s text? How would we have expected slaves in America in the nineteenth century to deal with it?
Just a few verses earlier, with the stroke of a pen, Paul seemed to abolish slavery when he said “In Christ there is neither slave nor free” (Gal. 3:28, paraphrased). Now he says, “Slaves, obey your masters.” We need to go all the way back to verse 2 to frame our understanding:
To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ . . . (Col. 1:2a)
Remember those four key words, “In Colossae . . . in Christ”? It is only as the “in Christ” reality takes root “in Colossae” that the new creation begins to flourish and change. So, Paul begins with the new reality, and then he goes to work in the real world. You can’t expect to read the letter on Sunday and abolish slavery on Monday; however, everyone who heard the letter can change the nature of slavery immediately through the power of the Holy Spirit changing their own hearts.
On the one hand, change cannot wait on new laws to be formed. The kind of change most needed cannot even be effected by laws. It must happen in the hearts and minds of masters and slaves. On the other hand, slaves can’t wait on masters to change (i.e., come to Jesus). Gradualism, as Martin Luther King Jr. called it, is not a strategy. We can look to the likes of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth on the one hand and William Wilberforce on the other to see the ways salvation “in Christ” upends sin “in England” and “in America” through the abolition of slavery.
As you are likely aware, slavery in the world today is worse than it has ever been. There are many modern-day Tubmans and Truths and Wilberforces striking major blows on a daily basis. I would encourage us all to join them in one way or another as a part of our discipleship to Jesus.
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything” (v. 22a). Paul is not somehow affirming the institution of slavery in the Bible. He is dealing with discipleship on Monday morning in Colossae. On another front, Paul is working on behalf of one of his associate pastors, Onesimus, who happens to be a run away slave. That’s what his letter to Philemon, also in the New Testament, is all about—setting slaves free.
No Longer Slaves. It’s a good moniker for Domino #3/22.
Abba Father, we thank you for your Son, Jesus, who being in very nature God took on the nature of a slave. Open my eyes to the ways I am yet enslaved to sin, and help me understand how my own slavery contributes to slavery everywhere it is found. I want to live fully “in Christ,” and I want that for everyone else. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
- How do you reflect on the reality that the Bible has been used to justify slavery through the centuries owing to texts like today’s?
- How do you deal with the fact that sweeping social change takes time and yet an approach of gradualism is not an acceptable strategy?
- Are you presently involved in the movement to end slavery in the world? Check out enditmovement.com to learn more.
For the Awakening,