Colossians 3:18-21

In this lesson Paul will add the two final elements included in the Christian standard/ethic established by Jesus.
Class by:
10 of 12

We are nearing the end of our study on the book of Colossians. We have learned that this letter was written to reject a system of false teaching and teachers who were attempting to displace Jesus and His teachings as the primary standard for Christian life and doctrine.

After Paul describes Christ's priority or "pre-eminent" position in the scheme of things, he goes on to explain that Jesus' teachings have an equal priority. He also describes for them the type of life that is supposed to emanate from these teachings: Christ is pre-eminent in ethics therefore the right way to live is by following His ethical teachings.

In the previous chapter I described the standard for Christian life that is established by Jesus' teachings and the details or elements of that standard/ethic that pertains to Christians.

  1. One was holiness – sexual purity.
  2. A loving nature – truthful and compassionate.
  3. A thankful heart – a life motivated by a grateful spirit and expressed in worship and praise.

In this chapter, Paul will add the two final elements he includes in the Christian ethic/standard established by Christ.

Elements of the Christian Standard – continued

4. An Ordered Family – 3:18-21

Most of our lives are lived within the context of a family so it would only be natural for Jesus to include instructions for family life so that we would have these teachings as the base for marriage. The Judaizers forbade marriage and saw it as a concession to the flesh. The pagans had a very loose commitment to the marriage bond and they modeled it after the ignorant and cruel system they themselves came from. Men treated wives and children as property. Women and children survived as best they could through cleverness and silent submission.

Paul establishes the basis for an orderly family according to the words of Christ.

Vs. 18 – Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

Wives should be in submission to their husbands (obedience towards). Again the word here is the same as the one used by Paul in Ephesians 5:21, "… be subject to one another in the fear of Christ."

In Ephesians he referred to Christians in the church who were to be subject to each other; in Colossians it is the wife to be in subjection to her husband. The word is a military term which means to "place oneself under." The idea that a soldier understands his rank and recognizes and submits to the one who has a higher rank.

In the marriage relationship the ranks were handed out by God in Genesis and have not changed since Genesis 3:16 says "… your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you."

The requirement that these be only one man and one woman for life in a marriage was established here in Genesis, confirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19:4-6 and taught by Paul in I Corinthians 7:1-ff.

Everyone agrees this is the "ideal" marriage arrangement. Well, in the same way the requirement that a wife be subject to her husband was established in Genesis and confirmed and taught by Paul in the New Testament not only in this passage but in Ephesians 5:22 as well.

Jesus does not ever say this but Paul, in teaching this, says that it is "fitting" or "proper" in the Lord – that a wife submit to her husband. This is an easy one to understand but not such an easy one to accomplish for a variety of reasons:

  • The husband is not a Christian.
  • The husband is a weak or immature Christian.
  • The wife has a forceful personality in opposition to her husband.
  • The problems of dysfunctional families.

Whatever the situation, women need to understand several things about this teaching.

A. It is not a Cultural Thing

This is not an outdated "Jewish" thing that we should ignore because it does not fit into our society anymore. It is a command of God and relevant in each generation. In marriage, what God wants, what is proper and the right thing for Christians, is that wives be in submission to their husbands. You can teach this idea to your children because it will be around as long as marriage will be.

B. It is not an Absolute Thing

Although the Bible says this is what would be proper for those calling themselves Christians, it does not mean that it is always possible (e.g. a widow cannot do this).

A divorced woman cannot do this – I Corinthians 7:15. A woman whose husband is evil and cruel and violent cannot do this. However, for those who are trying to have a marriage that is fitting in the Lord, the woman should be in subjection to her husband. Do this if this is possible, but if you do not do it or use a different system because it suits your personality better – then your relationship to your husband is not "fitting in the Lord."

C. It is Something you Choose

If you are beaten or threatened into submission, this is not submission, it is slavery. Submission is a choice that the wife makes for the greater good of the family not an act of debasement. Submission is a faith issue, not a competency issue.

A Christian woman gives freely, because of her faith, the leadership role in the marriage to her husband and reinforces that decision each day by respecting him.

Vs. 19 – Husbands, love your wives and do not be embittered against them.

In a world where marriages were arranged by parents and women treated as property, it was natural for Paul to admonish men to love and not treat their wives harshly. When your view of your wife is that of property, it is difficult to love her as self, treat her as self.

Note that Paul's instructions for men do not have much to do with being good leaders, fair managers. He goes to the heart of what is difficult for men – love and tenderness. We have come a long way as a society but the commands for men remain the same within marriage:

A. To love their wives

In Ephesians 5:22, he gives more details about this love: That it is to be similar to the love that Christ has for the church (sacrificial) and it is to be similar to the love they have for themselves (generous).

Again, this command for a husband's love remains until there will be no need for marriage (heaven). A woman who is loved in this way finds it a joy to respect and submit to her husband.

B. To be tender towards them

The term "bitter" means sharp, pointed, harsh. When you perceive something as less than you are, it is easy to disrespect it, to become harsh and cruel. Paul's admonishment requires men to keep in mind who the wife is:

Such a precious person must be treated with care and tenderness. I would say the same thing to men as I did to the women on this subject – a man must choose to be this way with his wife, it does not come naturally. It does not come naturally for a woman to submit to her husband (she must choose and cultivate a submissive nature through prayer and practice). In the same way it does not come naturally for a man to love his wife sacrificially and tenderly (it is natural to act this way because of desire, but not be this way) – men are just more naturally selfish than women.

In the end, the man must choose to deny himself and make his wife the beneficiary of his love and tenderness rather than himself.

Vs. 20-21 – Children, be obedient to your parents in all things, for this is well-pleasing to the Lord. Fathers, do not exasperate your children, so that they will not lose heart.

Again Paul reaches back to the elemental principles found in the Old Testament.

In Exodus 20:12:

Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you.

Paul summarizes this in Colossians by keeping the main elements and applying them in a New Testament context. The responsibility of children is:

Obedience to parents in all things

This includes the commands of God and the judgments and application of these in daily living made by parents. When parents say, "Because I say so," this has basis in Scripture.

The promise of the Old Testament was fulfilled in Christ and so now the children of God look forward to a heavenly "promised land," where Christ reigns. There is a blessing in learning to "obey" parents in all things – it prepares us to obey Christ and please Him.

Parents are the ones who develop the "obedience" muscle first in their children. If they do a bad job of this, someone else (school, police, etc.) will have to teach it the hard way.

Now Paul adds one caution to dads, and that is to not overdo the authority thing. Some Bibles use the term "provoke to anger" or "stir-up" emotionally: how?

  • Setting the goals too high
  • Being inconsistent
  • Lack of praise and appreciation
  • Favoritism
  • Creating jealousy by devoting too much time to work or hobbies

Children become discouraged when they cannot please, properly obey, secure a blessing from their fathers. Discouragement can easily lead to either depression and withdrawal or rebellion and acting out.


So the forth element of the Christian standard is an orderly family. An orderly family is a tremendous witness of Christian grace and the presence of God in your life. Paul says that an orderly family requires three main components (cannot have it without these):

1. A submissive wife

Begins with the woman because she is the key to a balanced Christian home. A woman who respects and supports her husband's leadership (despite his flaws and hers as well) is the first component in an orderly family.

2. A loving husband

A man who understands, accepts and practices loving leadership of his wife and children is the second part of the equation. You cannot have an ordered family if the one in leadership refuses to lead or leads improperly. Many ask, "If husband will not lead, what is a Christian woman to do?"

  • Do not lead him. This is not your job, the job is vacant.
  • Lead your children to Christ (e.g. Timothy).

3. Obedient children

Ordered families suffer their greatest strains when children begin to test the limits of parental authority. Paul says it is possible to do this without discouraging the children. We have learned that consistency, fairness and tenderness go a long way in repairing and maintaining the bonds with them at this time.

In our next chapter we will go on to explain the last element in the Christian standard.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the relationship of Christian ethics and our commitment to Jesus?
  2. Why does Paul seem to change focus by bringing in instruction for the family?
  3. From Colossians 3:18-21, why are the teachings of Jesus important to how we live as a family?
  4. What are the similarities of Colossians 3:18-21 and Ephesians 5:21?
  5. Although Paul expresses the "ideal" family arrangement, how does this apply to those whose family situation cannot fit this pattern?
  6. From Colossians 3:19 what is the responsibility of husbands to their wives and how does this relate to Paul's instruction in Ephesians 5:25-33?
  7. What instruction does Paul give to children and what is the relationship of the father in this?
  8. How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?
10 of 12