[Note: This is a prepared text to the Bible study given to the Portland, Oregon congregation of the United Church of God on October, 20, 2021.]
Today I would like to talk to you about a subject that I have never heard a message about from anyone else. That is not to say that I have never heard any of the verses given in sermons. In fact, at least one of the passages that are a part of the topic I am covering today is extremely familiar to me and likely will be to all of you as well. What I mean, though, is that I have never heard the two passages I am focusing on today being explored in a message as a unit. And there is insight we can gain about these passages when looking at them as a whole that we would not otherwise gain when we focus only on one element of them. This is all the more the case because when these passages are discussed in the world, it is usually by viewing them as obsolete and irrelevant and signs of an archaic and outmoded view of social relations. This negative view will obviously not be the view of this message.
Before we discuss the household codes of Ephesians and Colossians, though, I would like to first begin with a discussion of how it is that these household codes mirror the preexisting relationship between God the father and Jesus Christ. The relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ being described as that of a father and a son is of some importance because the relationship between parents and children is one of the three types of relationships explored in the household codes, and therefore it is relevant to us. In addition, though, by showing how the biblical plan for relationships within the household mirrors the relationship that exists between Jesus Christ and God the Father, we can see that these passages are extremely relevant because they show what it looks like on earth when it resembles what already exists in heaven.
Let us therefore begin our discussion in the book of John, because the way that the Gospel of John discusses the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ sets up the way that authority exists within the household. And the way that authority exists within the household then in turn sets up the way that authority is viewed in the Bible in the institutions of church and state. From the first three verses of the Gospel of John we already see the theme of equality and subordination between Jesus Christ and God the Father being explored. John 1:1-3 reads: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.” Here we see that Jesus Christ was both God–equal to Him in form as a member of the God Family–but also with God, and therefore separate from God the Father. From the very beginning of John, we are presented with a mystery of how it is that two beings who are equals can be in a relationship that also includes one of those beings subordinating their own will to the authority of another.
Let us now turn to a familiar passage in John and see how the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ is discussed in John 10:22-30. This is a passage I have discussed before in the context of the Festival of Dedication and its timing, but here let us look at the two things that we see in this passage relating to the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ. John 10:22-30 reads: “Now it was the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple, in Solomon’s porch. Then the Jews surrounded Him and said to Him, “How long do You keep us in doubt? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father’s name, they bear witness of Me. But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. I and My Father are one.””
Here in this passage we see the juxtaposition of equality and subordination, and that is a pattern we will see throughout the household codes. When Jesus Christ says that He and the Father are one, he says that both He and the Father are equally God beings. Theologians refer to this as being of the same substance and of the same nature. Whatever it is that makes God God, both God the Father and Jesus Christ have it. The same is true when we think of earthly families. Parents and children are equally members of the same family and we are all equally members of the human family. Whatever it is that makes human beings human is something that we possess alike and makes us equals. The fact that we are equals, though, as human beings, does not mean that we are not involved in unequal relationships based on authority, and the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ is one of parent and child and thus one of the subordination of one to the other, albeit in a way that does not make them separate orders of being. The fact that wives are subordinate to husbands in God’s political order, or children subordinate to parents, or servants and slaves subordinate to masters does not make the higher and lower separate orders of being like God and mankind or mankind and the lower animals and still lower plants. All are still human beings and still in subordinate relationships to God and Jesus Christ above. This point is important to remember, because it forms the basis of the biblical view of authority, in that having or being subject to authority does not remove the essential equality that exists between human beings in the eyes of God. But, on the other side of the coin, the essential equality between humanity does not remove the inequality of authority that exists as part of the just order within various institutions, starting with the household and moving up to church and state.
With that introduction, therefore, let us turn to Colossians 3:18-4:1. The chapter break is awkward here and breaks up five sixths of the passage in Colossians 3 and the other section in Colossians 4. The passage as a whole, though, starting in Colossians 3:18 and ending in Colossians 4:1, reads: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be bitter toward them. Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God. And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ. But he who does wrong will be repaid for what he has done, and there is no partiality. Masters, give your bondservants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.”
This is a less familiar passage than the one in Ephesians, and also shorter, and so we will start here to provide an overview an overview of the Household Codes as a coherent unit. The Household Codes of Colossians and Ephesians provide a discussion of three sorts of relationships within the household. They begin with the relationship between husband and wife, move on to the relationship between parents and children, and then move on to the relationship between masters and servants/slaves. It is perhaps unsurprising, given the fundamental nature of authority in these relationships, that all three of these relationships are viewed as being especially problematic and troublesome in contemporary society. We live in an age where people simultaneously seek authority for themselves or for their allies but reject those in authority over them, where people claim equality with others but simultaneously demand that others be subordinate to them, and given our own problems in our evil age with these questions, it is unsurprising that their being embedded in the most fundamental relationships of humankind causes all manner of difficulty.
When we are fighting over the question of mutual submission between husbands and wives and whether or not a bride should or should not make an oath to her groom before God and many witnesses to honor and obey Him, we do not often stop to think about how it is that these three relationships are modeling something far larger, and something that all of us are a part of. For the remainder of my study today, though, we will be looking into precisely the question of what it is that these three relationships are modeling with regards to spiritual and eternal reality, and how it is that the tension between equality and subordination that exists in these three relationships between human beings in the household serves as a model for the relationship all human beings stand in with regards to God. And our view of God as an authority figure and how we stand in God’s eyes ought to affect how we deal with authority when we have it in our own life.
Let us now turn to Ephesians 5, and we will go into detail about the lessons that we learn from the three relationships discussed in the household codes and their relevance to us as believers today, not just in our personal relationships, but also in the larger political questions of these relationships as they have existed in history and how they shape contemporary disputes over questions of authority in the contemporary world.
We begin in Ephesians 5:22-33, with among the most unpopular passages in contemporary society. Ephesians 5:22-33 tells us: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
Here we see that the Bible commands wives to submit themselves to their husbands as the church submits itself to Jesus Christ’s authority. This is a command that cuts both ways, and in doing so it helps to remind us of the bigger picture of these relationships. The verse does not command women in general to submit themselves to men in general or for every woman to be subject to each and every man in particular. What it reminds us, though, is that the household has authority, and that authority resides in the husband as the head of household, and that the wife is to be subject to authority. This is not authority that is coerced upon anyone. If a woman does not feel that she can submit herself to a particular man, she would do best not to marry him but to marry only the sort of man to whom she could submit herself and be safe from abuse. Let us also note, though, that husbands are simultaneously commanded to have a self-sacrificing love towards their wives as Jesus Christ does for the church, and this is by no means an easy thing for us to do, because just as every wife is supposed to be symbolic of the Church, every husband is called upon to be symbolic of Jesus Christ in his devotion and care to his bride.
What we see in this passage, for all of its unpopularity in our own contemporary age, is that the wife in every godly marriage serves as a symbol of the church as a whole in its relationship with Jesus Christ as the bride of Christ. Let us keep a marker in this verse, because we will be coming back to Ephesians 5 before too long, but let us look at a few passages that demonstrate how it is that women individually serve as symbols for the collective relationship of the church and Israel and as humanity as a whole with regards to God. In doing so, we will understand that the practice that women gain as a result of their submission to their husbands is submission that is also being practiced by people with God, and is therefore useful not only in this life but for all of eternity, for we will never cease to be subjects of God, regardless of how many titles and how much authority we happen to possess.
Though there are many passages which discuss the way in which women serve as models for larger groups of people, including men as well, I would like to discuss three of them today that each bring out this point in a different way. In the first 3 verses of 2 Corinthians, Paul compares the church to the bride of Christ–a point we will return to shortly–and also worries that the church at Corinth would be like Eve and be susceptible to deception. 2 Corinthians 11:1-3 reads: “Oh, that you would bear with me in a little folly—and indeed you do bear with me. For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. ” Here we see that all believers are viewed as being part of the bride of Christ, whether male or female, and that the behavior of Eve, as the representative first wife of humanity, to her husband is representative of the behavior of all mankind towards God.
Let us continue on to the passage where we ended last time, and look at Revelation 19:6-9. Here too we see believers viewed as the bride of Christ. Revelation 19:6-9 reads: “And I heard, as it were, the voice of a great multitude, as the sound of many waters and as the sound of mighty thunderings, saying, “Alleluia! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns! Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready.” And to her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints. Then he said to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb!’ ” And he said to me, “These are the true sayings of God.”” The increasing godliness of the Church over the course of our lives after conversion and baptism help us to become fit to be a part of the bride of Christ and to be invited to the great wedding supper. Here too, let us note once again that all believers are here viewed as being in the role of the feminine when it comes to our relationship with God.
Let us now turn to a passage that is among the most obscure in the entire Bible that deals with an asymmetrical matter between husbands and wives that is often ignored because it is highly contentious in contemporary times. Let us read this passage and then briefly discuss its implications for marriage between husbands and wives and also the relationship between believers as the bride of Christ and Jesus Christ as the husband. Let us turn to Numbers 5:11-31. Numbers 5:11-31 reads as follows: “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘If any man’s wife goes astray and behaves unfaithfully toward him, and a man lies with her carnally, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and it is concealed that she has defiled herself, and there was no witness against her, nor was she caught— if the spirit of jealousy comes upon him and he becomes jealous of his wife, who has defiled herself; or if the spirit of jealousy comes upon him and he becomes jealous of his wife, although she has not defiled herself— then the man shall bring his wife to the priest. He shall bring the offering required for her, one-tenth of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil on it and put no frankincense on it, because it is a grain offering of jealousy, an offering for remembering, for bringing iniquity to remembrance. ‘And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the Lord. The priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. Then the priest shall stand the woman before the Lord, uncover the woman’s head, and put the offering for remembering in her hands, which is the grain offering of jealousy. And the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that brings a curse. And the priest shall put her under oath, and say to the woman, “If no man has lain with you, and if you have not gone astray to uncleanness while under your husband’s authority, be free from this bitter water that brings a curse. But if you have gone astray while under your husband’s authority, and if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has lain with you”— then the priest shall put the woman under the oath of the curse, and he shall say to the woman—“the Lord make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the Lord makes your thigh rot and your belly swell; and may this water that causes the curse go into your stomach, and make your belly swell and your thigh rot.” ‘Then the woman shall say, “Amen, so be it.” ‘Then the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall scrape them off into the bitter water. And he shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter her to become bitter. Then the priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy from the woman’s hand, shall wave the offering before the Lord, and bring it to the altar; and the priest shall take a handful of the offering, as its memorial portion, burn it on the altar, and afterward make the woman drink the water. When he has made her drink the water, then it shall be, if she has defiled herself and behaved unfaithfully toward her husband, that the water that brings a curse will enter her and become bitter, and her belly will swell, her thigh will rot, and the woman will become a curse among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself, and is clean, then she shall be free and may conceive children. ‘This is the law of jealousy, when a wife, while under her husband’s authority, goes astray and defiles herself, or when the spirit of jealousy comes upon a man, and he becomes jealous of his wife; then he shall stand the woman before the Lord, and the priest shall execute all this law upon her. Then the man shall be free from iniquity, but that woman shall bear her guilt.’ ””
There is a lot going on here, so let us try to untangle this situation. Typically Bibles will label this passage as concerning unfaithful wives, but it is just as much about concerning jealous husbands. Whether or not we like to admit it, there are some asymmetries between husbands and wives or between men and women in general. A jealous man may very well wonder who is the father of a pregnant wife whose loyalty and faithfulness he mistrusts. No one asks, however, who is the mother of an unborn child, because that has an obvious answer. Similarly, the spirit of jealousy that this passage invokes as causing a man to have suspicions about his wife can very easily lead him to become abusive towards a wife even though he lacks sufficient witnesses to bring her up for formal charges of adultery. Even where a husband is not physically abusive to a wife he suspects of cheating on him, and this was as true in the ancient world as it is in our own, he certainly does not love and cherish her as he ought to, and so the Bible provided a trial by ordeal in which God and Jesus Christ would serve as the two witnesses necessary to vindicate or convict a woman who was being accused of unfaithfulness by her husband but where no witnesses had caught her in the act or were willing to come out against her. And if she is vindicated, then she would be free of God’s judgment and the man would be shamed publicly for his needless jealousy.
There are spiritual ramifications too. The faithfulness of Jesus Christ to his bride, the Israel of God, is not in question. Neither God the Father nor Jesus Christ can lie or cheat or sin in any way; their character is perfectly reflected in the laws they established for us to follow. They are the embodiment of their statues, commandments, and judgements. It is our faithfulness to them that is in question. This passage reminds us that God is a jealous God and that both God the Father and Jesus Christ can stand as sufficient witnesses against us for our own unfaithfulness to God and our violation of our covenantal obligations of loyalty and commitment to them. This is not something to be taken lightly, and it is again a reminder that the pattern of relationships on earth reflects larger truths in heaven.
Let us now return to Ephesians and look at the first four verses of Ephesians 6 that talk about the relationship of parents and children. Ephesians 6:1-4 reads: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with promise: “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.” If the biblical teaching about husbands and wives is not particularly popular, neither is the biblical advice given to parents and children. The Bible straightforwardly tells children to obey the fifth commandment, telling us to honor our fathers and mothers, and Paul reminds us that this commandment has a promise, that if we honor our parents it will be well with us and we will live long on the earth. He then tells parents not to provoke their children to wrath. Here again we see a pattern of reciprocal but not mutual obligations, just as was the case between husbands and wives, and just as we will see with regards to servants and masters. Here too, just as was the case before, all of us are children but only some of us are parents, and while people fulfill different roles on earth, before God the Father all of us are His children, and so while children represent humanity as a whole, parents on earth again are fulfilling, in their role as authorities in the house, the role of God as it relates to all of us. And this is a heavy responsibility to bear. By honoring parents we therefore honor God, as the Father of us all, even when we have very imperfect parents to honor, as is sometimes the case.
The Bible is clear-eyed when it comes to viewing the honor that is due to our human parents as being symbolic of our relationship to God and repeatedly draws connection to the relationship between children and parents and human beings and God. Let us look at two of these examples. The first of these comes from Jesus Christ Himself, in Luke 11:9-13. Here, in Luke 11:9-13, Jesus compares earthly parents giving food for their hungry children to God giving believers His Holy Spirit as follows: ““So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead of a fish? Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”” Here, Jesus Christ does not mince words about what he thinks of the moral character of human parents. He calls them evil. We are still expected to honor them anyway. In doing so, though, He draws attention that God is the Father of us all and we ought to respect Him also as the giver of our sustenance.
We see a similar pattern when the author of Hebrews in the twelfth chapter talks about the aspect of discipline and how it is that we know we are legitimate children of God. Here, in Hebrews 12:3-11, we are told the following about the disciplining of God as our Father and of earthly parents: “For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin. And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: “My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives.” If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons. Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
Here again we are given a clear-eyed picture of both how God the Father conceives of Himself as a parent to believers and how the Bible views the efforts at discipline of human parents. Concerning human parents, the author of Hebrews says that for a few days–usually the first eighteen to thirty years of life in our time–our human parents chastened us as seemed best to them. That is rather faint praise, to be sure. That said, it tells us that God chastens us for our profit, to bring about the fruits of righteousness in our lives, and that if we do not see evidence of God chastening us in our lives–as I trust most of us can in our struggles, our chronic health difficulties, our years of heartfelt and agonizing prayer over what is going on on our lives or the lives of our loved ones–then we are not truly His children. I trust that most of us will see in the trials and struggles of our lives that God has indeed chastened and corrected us to improve our character for our eternal benefit, but that is the sort of Father that God sees Himself as.
Let us now turn our attention briefly to the limits of honoring our parents that help us to better understand what is at stake in the duty we owe to our parents and to the concerns that the Bible had for the abuse of that authority. Let us first look at what should be a familiar passage for us to reflect upon when it comes to our duty to respect and honor authority. Exodus 22:28 gives this principle in one verse telling us, “You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people.” It is admittedly tempting to curse the incompetent and corrupt rulers of our people, but the grim student of human history will realize that a large majority of all rulers of all nations at all times over all peoples have been wicked and evil and corrupt men and women. We are still commanded to honor them anyway, not because they are good, but because in honoring authority, even where we must rebuke and correct it for its moral failings, we honor God Himself, who is ultimately in authority over everything.
That is not to say, though, that parents have the right to do whatever they want to their children or that authorities have the freedom to run roughshod over the people they rule over. The Bible itself conceives that parents could do some pretty wicked things to their children and explicitly gives limits as to how far this parental authority goes. One such verse can be found in Leviticus 19:29, which is not at all idealistic about how parents could exploit and abuse their children in ways that go on around the world today. Leviticus 19:29 reads: “Do not prostitute your daughter, to cause her to be a harlot, lest the land fall into harlotry, and the land become full of wickedness.” When children are commanded to obey their parents in the Lord, that obedience is limited to godly matters. Obviously, many children young and old may be frustrated by the efforts of parents to encourage godly behavior and punish bad behavior, but we are commanded to obey parents in the Lord, up to that which is commanded in the Bible and not beyond the line of what is forbidden by the Bible. The Bible does commend those who, like the Sons of Korah, obeyed God rather than following their physical father into rebellion against God and destruction, demonstrating again the limits of parental authority to that which is in line with the commandments and laws of the Bible.
Let us now return once again to Ephesians and look at the third and last element of the household codes, that relating to masters and their servants or slaves. Ephesians 6:5-9 gives a bracing picture of the this relationship: “Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ; not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, with goodwill doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.”
The Bible’s careful and balanced view about slavery on earth is not very popular in our age that rages against any sort of subordination, whether to human authorities in the household or other places or to God as the Creator and Lord of the universe. This passage is the least often cited of the household codes because it is not always viewed as being relevant. To be sure, most households these days do not have servants as was far more common in previous generations, but we all have to deal with issues of subordination at the workplace where we have to serve others who have substantial authority over our well-being where this authority is according to the flesh and not based on any real superiority on the part of those in authority over those they are in charge of. It is well worth considering, though, that all of us are under authority. Most of us who work are individual contributors, tasked with various sorts of responsibilities in the workplace in dealing with people and goods and processes. Those who supervise us in turn are responsible to ever higher groups of managers and executives. If we happened to be presidents and chief executives we would then be responsible to a board of some kind that could vote us out, the board itself subject to shareholders. And if we were tired of corporate politics and went into business for ourselves we would find ourselves beholden to our customers and suppliers to keep ourselves in business. No matter how high we advance in the institutions of this world, we never escape being subject to the authority of others and having to serve with fear and trembling in sincerity of heart, knowing that God will reward us for our faithful service, regardless of our status as human beings. And in the world to come, we will always be subject to authority as well, so we will not be able to escape it for all time. We might as well start dealing with that now.
In understanding the spiritual implications of this intermediate status of earthly authorities let us look at an example of how this principle was understood by a centurion in the Gospels who receives high praise from Jesus Christ for his understanding and faith. We find this story told in Luke 7:1-10. Luke 7:1-10 reads: “Now when He concluded all His sayings in the hearing of the people, He entered Capernaum. And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear to him, was sick and ready to die. So when he heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to Him, pleading with Him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they begged Him earnestly, saying that the one for whom He should do this was deserving, “for he loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue.” Then Jesus went with them. And when He was already not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to Him, saying to Him, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof. Therefore I did not even think myself worthy to come to You. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man placed under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard these things, He marveled at him, and turned around and said to the crowd that followed Him, “I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!” And those who were sent, returning to the house, found the servant well who had been sick.”
What is it that draws Jesus’ praise? The centurion was himself a man under authority who was simultaneously in authority over others. As one of the non-commissioned officers of the Roman army, he was in charge of 100 soldiers and was himself subject to the leaders of the legion of which his century was one of 60. He viewed the authority of Jesus Christ over the health of his servant as being related to the authority he had over the troops in his unit and the servants of his household who he could simply command without having to micromanage it. And Jesus Christ marveled at such faith and healed the servant at the request of the generous-hearted centurion. As an aside, I invite you all to undertake a Bible study of centurions in the New Testament because without exception, all of them are viewed in a positive light, and examining why this is the case is an interesting matter.
Let us now look once again at the law and look at two laws that framed the limitations of authority in the Bible that masters had over slaves. These laws are instructive in looking at the context of slavery as it happened in American history and in the rationale behind the instructions that the Bible has to masters to provide justice to their bondservants and to avoid threatening and violence in their dealings, remembering that all masters are themselves the bondservants of God. Paul himself, it should be noted, repeatedly emphasized this fact at the beginnings of his epistles, as you may all verify for yourselves. The two laws in the Old Testament I will look at examine the two sorts of abuse of slaves that we tend to find most offensive in the contemporary period, which were both forbidden by the Bible.
The first of these laws can be found in the Law of the Covenant in Exodus 21:7-11. Interestingly enough, this passage is the second of two passages that contrasts how it is that male and female slaves are to be treated. Exodus 21:7-11 reads: “ And if a man sells his daughter to be a female slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he has betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights. And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money.” This passage gives us the startling perspective that a slave concubine purchased for a man or for his son is to be viewed as a wife and has certain guaranteed rights of upkeep no matter what the man subsequently does. Not only does a slave wife have guaranteed food, clothing, and “marriage rights,” but she cannot be sold by her master after being his concubine, and if the master cannot follow these rules, the woman is to be set free. The Bible is conscious of the vulnerability of women to sexual abuse, especially when there is a stark difference in status between the man and woman, and the biblical law strongly supports the well-being of the vulnerability, placing strict limits on what can be done to someone who has been made a wife through sexual union, even though she was of much lower status than he was.
Just as the first law we looked at in this category dealt with sexual violence the second law deals with the problem of physical violence. We find this law in the same chapter of the Bible, just down the page in verses 26 and 27. Exodus 21:26-27 reads: “If a man strikes the eye of his male or female servant, and destroys it, he shall let him go free for the sake of his eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of his male or female servant, he shall let him go free for the sake of his tooth.” Here we see that if a master is physically abusive towards his slaves and blinds the, or even disfigures them by knocking out a tooth, the slaves are to be set free without payment because of the abuse suffered at the hand of the master. Those who would seek to consider human beings as mere property to be subject to their own brutal and wicked whims are deprived of that property under biblical law. Needless to say, our own view of slavery in the United States would be considerably different had this legal standard been applied to slaves who were forced into concubinage to increase their master’s stock of slaves or who suffered repeated scourging and disfigurement and dismemberment at the hands of brutal masters over the course of centuries of abuse. God does not tolerate and accept abuse by authorities because those authorities are supposed to provide those under their rule with a picture of God Himself.
Having looked at the three parts of the household codes in both Colossians and Ephesians and nothing how they echo a broader biblical view of the nature of equality and subordination that exists on earth and in heaven, let us now review some of the themes that appear over and over again with these three paired relationships and how these three physical relationships within the household have far larger spiritual implications and relevance. After that, we will briefly discuss where we will follow this discussion, God willing, in the future.
Let us note that there are a lot of parallels in the three pairs of roles. All three pairs combine equality and subordination. Wives are equal to husbands as human beings, in a parity covenant of marriage, but husbands have authority within that marriage. Parents and children are equally members of the same family, but parents have temporary authority over their children and a permanent place of honor as elders. Similarly, masters and servants are equally human and frequently those in subordinate positions have more conspicuous talents and abilities than those who are in authority over them. Yet honor is still owed to those with positions of authority anyway. Those who are in subordinate positions as wives, children, or servants, all serve as representatives of how all humanity stands with regards to God on a best case scenario. We can never be, in comparison with God, superior to those roles. At best we can be the bride of Christ. At best we can be God’s adopted children in God’s family. At best we can be His bondservants. We can be less than these things in comparison to God, but not more than these things. Similarly, those who are in positions of authority in the household serve as the models of our Heavenly Father and Elder Brother (note the way that these names for God and Jesus Christ too have a household ring about them) for the people they are in authority over. This is a tall order, and we should not flippantly view this role as something we can fulfill without a great deal of help from above. To model the graciousness and lovingkindness and justice of God towards us to people whose attitude and behavior may drive us to distraction is by no means an easy thing.
These parallels do not stop there. In each of the three relationships there are reciprocal but not identical obligations owed by each party to the other. Wives are told to respect and submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ. Husbands, on the other hand, are told to cherish their wives as their own flesh and to sacrifice for their wives the way that Jesus Christ sacrificed for the church. Parents are told to honor and obey their parents in the Lord, while parents are told not to exasperate or provoke their children to wrath. Servants are told to faithfully serve their masters on earth realizing they are really serving their Master in heaven, who will reward them without partiality against their lowly earthly status. Similarly, masters are reminded to be just and to avoid threatening those under their authority and also that they too have a Master in heaven and are His servants. In our lives it is typical to see that none of these obligations on any side are frequently or faithfully done. And yet, between them, these three pairs answer the problems that exist on earth between human beings and in the struggles we see for humanity to understand what God is really about. We learn spiritual truths from physical analogs, and because we are so terrible at treating authorities with honor and respect, and because we are so terrible as authorities in refraining from abusing that authority, the lessons that God wants us to learn in the household are often not learned at all, and we have false views of what submission means and what God is like because of the bad models we grow up with and experience over the course of our lives.
In a godly economy, each side of the role provides something and refrains from something that is simply absent in our fallen and wicked world dominated by Satan. The justifiable fear of all authorities in the household and outside of the household for that matter is that those under their authority are rebellious and hostile to their legitimate rule. All of the commandments given to those in subordinate positions within the household are meant to address that concern to treat authority with honor and respect, for all of its imperfections, and to recognize that in honoring human authorities, starting in the household and moving from there, one learns how to honor and obey God, which is something we will be doing, God willing, for all eternity. Similarly, the justifiable fear of all of those who are in subordinate positions to flawed and imperfect human authorities is that those in authority will abuse their authority and exploit and take advantage of them. This is an evil realty all too many of us have experienced in the household. All of the commandments given to those in authority in the household focus on the requirement for them to refrain from abusing and taking advantage of those they are in authority over and modeling the gracious, just, and loving nature of God for us. God has no tolerance for rebels, because those who rebel against earthly authorities have also rebelled against Him. Likewise, God has no tolerance for bullies and tyrants, because they mistreat His children and give others a completely wrong idea of His own character and nature. In humanity, we often model Satan by being rebellious to those in authority over us while simultaneously being tyrannical to those under our authority, and this same approach is mirrored at every level within the family, community, business world, churches, and society at large.
We might therefore expect that the godly pattern established in the household codes and affirmed elsewhere in scripture as we have seen today similarly applies to the realm of civil and religious authority as well. Indeed it does, but we do not have the time to explore that topic today, as we have already spent and even exceeded our time for today. God willing, as time and opportunity permit, let us explore that minefield another day while we all seek God’s help in better fulfilling our obligations to God and each other as we have discussed today.