When You Have No Choice

Delivered May 28, 2000 by Dr. Bart Houseman.

Sermon Text:
Colossians 3:18-4:1
3:18 Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
19 Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.
20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.
21 Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.
22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only
when their eye is on you and to win 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 men,
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 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, 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.

The passage that I intend to read in your presence this morning, is a passage which for many years I wished was not in the Bible. It’s a passage which I, as a Christian, found embarrassing, one which gives non-Christians an unusual opportunity to ridicule my Christian belief that we have in Scripture a guide for Christian ethics. There are some passages, which, as I’ve heard them read by preachers, I have often thought, “This passage is so powerful, so clear, so poetic, so wonderful, that the best thing the pastor could do right now would be to read that passage a second time and sit down.” In my judgment, this is not one of those passages. So I invite you to turn with me to page 834 in your red pew Bible, and let’s look at this passage together. It’s in Colossians, chapter 3, where I will begin reading at the 18th verse.

Wives, submit to your husbands, as it is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, as this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged. Slaves, (and this word really is “slaves”. If you have a Kings James version, you’ll notice that it says “servants”, but both the RSV and the NIV and other recent translations recognize that the word really is “slaves.”) obey your earthly masters in everything, and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win 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 and not for men; 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 his wrong, and there is no favoritism. Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know you also have a master in Heaven.

Now of course, it’s that third category, that third pair that I found so distressing. I just wished that Paul had possessed the good sense to say, “slavery is awful, it’s immoral, it shouldn’t be practiced, but since we can’t get rid of it right now, let’s consider that maybe we should do the following…” But he didn’t say anything like that. It appears that this authoritative guide for Christian ethics tolerates slavery. It seems to be accepting the buying and selling of people. I found this just too hard to swallow.

And so it was, for many years that I struggled with this passage particularly. My wife said, “Well, maybe we should struggle with another one of those pairs?” I said, “Oh, really? Which one?” Well you can guess the rest of that discussion! (If you need a clue, it had nothing to do with the parent-child pair!) . And the fact is – I have to be honest – in American society today, the marriages that seem to work the best do not involve what I would call submission of the wife. The marriages that work the best are clearly marriages of teamwork — marriages in which, if the husband is the “chairman of the board,” the wife is certainly the “chief executive officer,” and there is no question about it. So, out of deference to my CEO, I want to recognize that even Paul’s apparent attitude about husband-wife relationships may leave some room for discomfort among Christians in our society.

And then I was brought up short by, of all people, a Chinese pastor. This is a pastor, who when he was still quite young, was faithful to the Word in China and courageously preached the whole Gospel to his congregation. The Chinese government did not tolerate it and put him in jail, where he suffered for 18 long years, enduring solitary confinement and torture. His jailers enjoyed putting him into the “solid waste basin” under the latrine, telling him to clean it out. They used to blindfold him and tell him that he was about to be shot, and then shoot and miss, just for the pleasure of torturing him again. This man survived that jail for 18 long years and finally by a method that he doesn’t discuss, he was released and made his way to the United States. He quickly learned English, and as soon as he could arrange it, this faithful servant of the Lord, chose to go back. Chose to go back to his people and risk his life again for the Lord. He’s there today, preaching and teaching in a style that resembles Paul’s style..

This admirable man of God returns to the U.S. from time to time, and has occasionally graced our home as a guest. On one of these occasions, after he had told us his story, I said to him, “This is terrible. Is there nothing that can be done to generate change in Chinese government attitude toward the Gospel, no way that somehow Christians can be protected?” He looked at me with a strange look and was silent for a few moments, and then said this: “You know, you Americans are funny. You think that the government is your friend. You think that the system is adjustable, that if you do and say some things, you can make things better. Amazingly, in the United States that seems to work, but,” he said, “not in China. If you’re Chinese that thought never crosses your mind. The system is the system, the government is the government and the idea of changing the system simply is not in the Chinese mind.” I would enjoy telling you more about this modern Paul, but the point here is what he showed me: in much of the world, people have the Chinese mentality – it never crosses their minds to evaluate and change the system.

And so I begin to understand the mind of Paul. Paul, who lived in the Roman Empire, was in jail at least a half dozen times and was beaten within an inch of his life any number of times. By whom? The authorities. Do you see one single verse in any of Paul’s letters, that indicate any kind of mumbling word against the system that beat and jailed him, of any kind of expression of dismay about the way the government behaves? Not one word. To Paul, the system is part of the background. Paul is concerned, first, about how his spiritual children relate to God and second, about how they relate to others. And he doesn’t give two hoots for the way in which non-Christians or governments treat him.

In fact, if you read the Gospels, you will find that Jesus, too, was not concerned with the system. Although he and his fellow Jews were feeling the Roman boot on a daily basis, and the Jewish leaders were clearly preoccupied with manipulating the Roman system, Jesus evidently never brought the subject up. He didn’t care, he didn’t speak against it or for it, it was the system. The very system that ended up assassinating Him was not a source of complaint for Jesus. He was concerned with people’s hearts, with personal wholeness, with the Kingdom of God and not about how the system should treat Him.

When I saw this, I went back to this passage and realized that, perhaps, it meant something other than an evaluation of slavery and wifely submission. So, what does it mean? If you’re keeping track, you know that there are six groups of people to whom Paul is speaking. Three groups are at the bottom and three groups are at the top. We have at the bottom – children, wives, and slaves – and, at the top – fathers, husbands, masters. Focus first on the bottom three. What do they have in common? If you think about it, I hope you will join me in the conclusion that all three of those groups are there not by choice. How do you get to be a slave in the Roman system? You get to be a slave in the Roman system perhaps because your father fought against the Romans as they took over yet one more small country. You get to be a slave, possibly because your father was violating some small law and had very little rights once he was picked up. And, of course, when dad goes into slavery, the family goes into slavery as well. And so we find ourselves with people who are in terrible straits, often through no fault of their own, and certainly not by choice.

The surprising thing is that, probably, it’s true of wives as well. How do you get to be a wife in Judea in 55 AD? Certainly nothing like one does in the U.S. in 2000 AD! Back in 55AD, you were some poor, fourteen year old girl, who got told by your father one day, that a dowry had passed between him and some man you may have never seen, who might be twice your age, who has spotted you and has decided to take you as his wife. I find it hard to imagine the terror that must have existed in those poor girls’ minds, as they were processed through some kind of a ceremony, taken away, brought to the bedside of a man they didn’t know and were treated from then on, as little better than slaves. Wives, what were they worth? They had received absolutely no education, were untrained in the social graces in their male dominated world, and were likely to be valued just slightly higher than a good cow. These women in the wifely position in 55 AD were often not there by choice, and often not to be envied.

Kids. What about kids? No education except highborn males. As soon as you’re strong enough you go to work, probably for your father, who gets as much out of you as he can. There are no labor laws; life is not easy. You get trained up in a job that’s going to make you some money, because life is tough. And you don’t get to shop around for the easygoing parents.

Now, it’s these three groups to whom Paul speaks. Paul is saying to the kids – obey your parents, whether they are kind and generous and give you an allowance and let you have the family chariot or not. He’s saying to wives – submit to your husbands whether they are the nice guys that you wished for or not. And he’s saying to slaves – it doesn’t depend on whether the master is a nice guy or not, you are to work hard for him, because you’re actually working for God. The question of whether these relationships, these opportunities for abuse, which were aspects of “the system” in 55 AD, were good or bad simply didn’t show up on Paul’s radar screen. Paul is telling the Colossians, “Don’t worry about how society treats you; just think about how you behave within a potentially unjust society.”

As we take Paul’s message to the powerless groups and bring it forward two millennia, we can hear him saying that, if you are in a relationship that you didn’t choose and may not like, if you’re in a position or situation that you didn’t expect and don’t particularly like, you are called away from the temptation to bitterness. Because you are directly in the service of the most high God Himself, you are called upon to do what is necessary and good, as little as you might want to do it. Your first concern is not to decide whether you’re getting a fair deal or not, it’s to act responsibly within that relationship.

Now admittedly, he says a thing or two to people who are in positions of control. In all cases, such people are called upon to be considerate and compassionate. In the case of slave masters, to be fair and reasonable. In the case of husbands, to be not only reasonable with that wife, but to actually love her. The primacy of genuine love within marriage in our culture today seems natural to us, but I suspect it may have sounded radical to some of Paul’s listeners. Similar is the instruction to Christian fathers – be compassionate with your kids, even though your non Christian neighbor is getting more work out of his kids by harsh tactics. Again, Paul wasn’t evaluating the system that created these unequal relationships; he was telling his listeners in positions of authority to relate compassionately to the people who find themselves under their control.

Now, given all of this, what does it say to us today? Actually, in this sermon thus far, I have cheated on you just a little. Although I have given to you the cultural context in which this passage was written, so that together we understand a little better the impact of these words on Paul’s readers, I haven’t given you the full scriptural context in which this was written. In fact, if you would like to, you may find it interesting to return to this passage with me and now read the portion slightly before the passage that we have been discussing..

Go back from verse 18, where Paul starts talking to wives, to verse 12, and recognize that the passage that we have been discussing is really the application of the portion that we are about to read. It’s an application to people who are in special predicaments in which the danger of unfairness, resentment, and bitterness is unusually high. But now go back and read with me verses 12 through 14:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people,
(Wow, you mean, I, a worthless wife, am chosen of God? What a surprise!)

holy and dearly loved
(I, a worthless slave, under the heel of a cruel master, am dearly loved by God Himself? Incredible!)

clothe yourselves with compassion,
(So compassion doesn’t have to flow only from “top” people to “bottom” people, but even those at the bottom are given by God the gift of compassion for those at the top! Slaves actually can have compassion for masters, and wives for unloving husbands!)

kindness, humility,
(humility – no doubt easier for the slave than for the master!),

gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues, put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

These verses are so powerful that maybe the best thing a preacher can do is to read them and sit down. Herein lies the secret – that we all, being dearly loved of God, have been given the gift of forgiveness to others, have been given the wonderful power of forbearance for them, have been given the incredible ability to be patient and kind, and been given the opportunity to be humble. And we have these gifts, these powers, even if we’re stuck in the bad half of a bad situation. What a gift we have from God!

And so God’s word to us, spoken through Paul when these two passages are tied together, assures us that even right now, if we are at our wits’ end because we’re in a situation that we didn’t want to be in, God gives to each of us the strength to be more patient than we thought we could be, to be less critical than we might be inclined to be, to approach the people who are giving us trouble with more forbearance than we ever thought we had, and to be able to show to them more patience than we did yesterday. That’s power! Thank God!

Let’s pray.

Oh, almighty God, creator of the universe and sustainer of mankind, you have control over our lives, and we are confident that, in whatever situation you have placed us, you will show us the way through it. And that the way will provide us the opportunity to show the gift of compassion, and kindness, and forgiveness, and patience that Paul promised to the Colossians so many years ago. Thank you for your promise, that you will not leave us alone here, because you so dearly love us that you look forward to the opportunity to richly reward us with the joy of communion with you. In Jesus name, Amen.