Making Your Relationships Work

Colossians 3:12-17

December 2, 2001 | Brian Bill

During the rehearsal for her wedding a nervous bride was having a difficult time remembering all the details.  Her kind pastor took her aside at the end of the night and said, “When you enter the church tomorrow, you will be walking down the same aisle you’ve walked down many times before.  Concentrate on the aisle.  And when you get halfway down the aisle, concentrate on the altar.  And, when you reach the end of the aisle, your groom will be waiting for you.  Concentrate on him.  Focus on the aisle, then look at the altar, and finally, lock eyes with your man.  That’s all you have to do.”

That seemed to help a lot, and on the day of the wedding, the beautiful but nervous bride walked flawlessly down the aisle.  But people were a bit taken aback as they heard her repeating these words during the processional, “Aisle, alter, him.  Aisle, alter, him.  I’ll alter him.”

I’m not sure how much success she had at changing her spouse, but there were probably a number of wives wishing her well that day.  As we approach our topic for this morning we come face-to-face with the reality that if we’re serious about following Christ, He will alter our lives.  

Follow along as I read Colossians 3:18-4:1: “Wives, submit 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 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, 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 that you also have a Master in heaven.” 


Before we jump into this practical passage, allow me to make some observations.

1. Our faith must come home with us. 

The true test of our relationship with Christ is how we relate to others.  Or to say it another way, the home is the first place we test our newness in Christ as “God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved.”  The virtues that Pastor Jeff preached about last week in verses 12-15 must be fleshed out in our relationships.  If Jesus is supreme in your life, then it should show in how you relate to the members of your family.  The followers of the Colossian heresy believed that true spirituality involved mysticism and esoteric knowledge.  Paul shows that faith must be lived out in the family.  Jesus is referred to as “Lord” or “Master” seven times in these verses because His lordship finds conclusive expression in the day-by-day, routine relationships of life. 

2. The issue is function, not inferiority. 

As we learned in Colossians 3:11, cultural, racial, and even gender distinctions are no longer obstacles when it comes to salvation.  Everyone is equal in Christ regardless of status.  Having said that, individuals have a role to play in the family.  We’re all disciples of Christ with different responsibilities in our discipleship.  For instance, the husband and wife are personal equals before God, but they each have different roles for functional purposes.  The same is true for children and parents.  This divine chain is meant to help the family run the most efficiently and effectively.

3. Relationships are meant to be reciprocal. 

The instructions in our text show a special concern for those who were looked down upon in the first century: wives, children, and slaves.  It’s striking that Paul would even give them attention since the culture denigrated these three groups of people.  Christianity elevated women, valued children, and set things in motion to sabotage slavery.  It’s also interesting to note that Paul admonishes those in authority as he tells husbands, fathers, and masters to be loving, kind, and fair.  These pairs are to be studied together because the relationships are reciprocal.  We can’t talk about the responsibilities of the wife without clarifying the obligations of the husband.

4. Families need help today. 

I won’t take the time to quote statistics to prove to you what you already know: the family is under fire and home life is disintegrating.  Since the very first institution that God founded was the family, we need to listen and apply what He has to say in the Bible.  Just as He created various physical and natural laws by which the universe functions, so too, when God created the family He gave good guidelines and practical parameters to follow.  If we ignore them, we do so at our own peril.  I pray that you will listen with an open mind this morning in order to see how Christ’s supremacy subtly deconstructs old habits of domination and exploitation and replaces them with loving leadership and gracious submission.

Let’s begin with the first of the three relationships.

God’s Guidelines for Marriage

The Bible views marriage as a partnership, with each partner filling certain roles.  Colossians 3:18 begins with the duty of wives: “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.”  Let me just say that there is probably no biblical teaching more controversial than that of a wife’s submission to her husband.  Let’s clear up a few things in order to understand this more accurately.

  • Nowhere does it say that a wife is to obey her husband.  Children are to obey in verse 20 and slaves are to obey in verse 22, but wives are to submit.  There’s a difference.  
  • This has application to wives in a marriage relationship, not to women in general.
  • Both husbands and wives are to submit to the Lord and to each other.  Ephesians 5:21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

The concept of submission is taught in many places in the Bible and does not mean slavery or imply inferiority.  The Greek word means “to arrange one’s self under a delegated authority” and comes from the military world where soldiers were to be in order under the direction of their officer.  This is similar to what Paul praised the believers for in Colossians 2:5: “…I delight to see how orderly you are…”  

In the home, the wife is to submit to the delegated authority of her husband.  I recognize that some of you may chafe at this idea.  A 1998 Gallup Poll showed that 69% of the public disagreed with the statement that “wives should graciously submit to the servant leadership of their husbands.”  The fact that a teaching is not popular is no reason to discard it.  

The reason for this submission is found at the end of verse 18: “As is fitting in the Lord.”  Another translation puts it this way: “This is what the Lord has planned for you.”  A wife is to submit to her husband out of the same allegiance she shows to Christ.  This is not a cultural deal but represents God’s sense of order in the marital relationship.  That’s how He set it up at the very beginning as 1 Timothy 2:13 reminds us: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve.”   

Submission carries the idea of entrusting oneself to the leadership of another to accomplish a task.  When a Christian woman is submitted to the Lord and to her own husband, she will experience a release and fulfillment that can come no other way.  The end result will be an environment of intimacy, growth and a ministry partnership that will make a difference in the world.

Fellow husbands, before you start gloating and posting this verse on your wife’s mirror, it’s our turn to take a hit in verse 19: “Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.”  Throughout the Bible, God says more about the quality of the husband’s leadership than He does about the wife’s submission.  I personally think that the responsibility for a good marriage is put more on the husband.  Bad marriages are usually the result of the husband’s inability to love his wife instead of the wife’s refusal to be submissive.  I’ve yet to meet a wife who would not be willing to follow the leadership of a man who loves her unconditionally.

The word “husband” originally meant one who holds the house together.  Another image is that of a gardener who cultivates the soil and keeps the weeds out.  As husbands, our responsibility is to love our wives by holding things together and providing an atmosphere for growth and fruitfulness in our homes. 

I heard about a husband who decided to make an appointment with a marriage counselor because his marriage was on rocky ground.  His wife was hurt and upset and as she began to talk, she crossed her arms and recounted her loveless life.  Tears filled her eyes and her lips started quivering.  It wasn’t long before the wise counselor realized what the problem was.  So without saying a word, he took her by the hands, looked in her eyes for a long time, smiled, and then gave her a big hug.  

A change immediately came over her face.  She softened and her eyes lit up.  Stepping back, the counselor said to her husband, “See, that’s all she needs.” The husband checked his Daytimer and said, “Great.  I’ll bring her back to see you every Tuesday and Thursday.”

Guys, has it been awhile since you’ve hugged your wife and taken the time to listen to her?  In a parallel passage in Ephesians 5, Paul devoted twice as many words telling husbands to love their wives as he did in telling wives to submit to their husbands.  Ephesians 5:25 tells us that we’re to love our wives in the same way that Christ loves the church.  That means I must love Beth to the point of dying for her.

An amazing demonstration of that kind of sacrifice happened this week in Athens, Georgia.  Randy Burris was in his front yard when a young mother walked by with her two-month-old daughter in a stroller.  Just then a car screeched around the corner, lost control and headed straight for them.  The mother tried to push the stroller into the grass but it got stuck.  Burris grabbed the handle from her, ran toward the lawn and was hit in mid-stride.  The baby girl and mother are fine but Randy Burris was killed instantly.  That’s the kind of love that God is challenging husbands to have for their wives.  The kind of love that is willing to die for another.

This word is agape, which is the type of love that is based on commitment, not emotions or romance.  If you’re here this morning and you no longer feel like you’re in love with your wife, let me shoot straight with you.  It doesn’t matter whether you feel love or not.  Biblical love is a verb and a command.  1 Corinthians 13:4-5 reminds us that, “Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

A happy marriage does not come automatically because we are naturally self-centered and prideful

If you don’t have the feelings, it doesn’t mean that you can take a pass on your responsibility.  Act with love, and the emotions will usually follow.  A happy marriage does not come automatically because we are naturally self-centered and prideful.  It’s like the woman who complained to her marriage counselor that when her husband won a trip for two to Hawaii, he went twice!  

The last part of Colossians 3:19 challenges husbands to “not be harsh” with their wives.  This phrase can also be translated, “Don’t become embittered [or resentful] toward her.”    That means that even if a wife is not perfectly submissive, the husband is not to become resentful.  Husbands must prevent a sour attitude from taking root.  The only other time this word is used in the New Testament, it refers to something bitter in taste.  Paul is telling husbands not to call their wives “honey” and then act like vinegar.  As a good gardener who pulls out weeds, the husband must follow the challenge of Hebrews 12:15: “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”

God’s Principles for Parenting

Next, Paul addresses the relationship between children and parents in verses 20-21: “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.”  Kids have a duty to listen and carry out the instructions of their parents.  The verb here is in the present tense, indicating that such action is to be habitual and ongoing.  When a child obeys his or her parents in everything, the Lord is pleased.  In addition, this 5th Commandment, according to Ephesians 6:3, carries with it a promise: “That it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”  Obedience brings God’s pleasure and comes with God’s promise.  As such, children must be taught its importance.

In 1 Samuel 15:22-23, God puts rebellion on a par with witchcraft and idolatry.  Because of the ramifications of disobedience and the blessings of obedience, parents must take seriously the task of training children to obey.  We need to be engaged and encouraging, but we must also expect obedience from our children.  That’s why Colossians 3:21 gives fathers an awesome responsibility: “Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.”

In the Old Testament, Joshua was strong in his resolve for his family to serve the Lord (Joshua 24:14-15).  Eli, on the other hand, was condemned because of his failure to restrain his sons (1 Samuel 3:11-14).  While Paul uses the word “fathers” here to show the strategic role that dads play in parenting, the Greek word certainly includes mothers as well.  I think one reason he does specify the role of the father is because dads have a propensity to cause bitterness in their children.  In Paul’s day, the father was more like a dictator than a “daddy.”

Ray Stedman lists three things that fathers do that can lead a child to discouragement.  I’ve added a fourth.

  • Ignore them.  A father who has no time for his children soon creates within them a deep-seated resentment.  Children in these homes can grow up to feel unloved and unaccepted and may end up looking elsewhere to have their needs met.
  • Indulge them.  These types of fathers give their children everything they want.  This is not good because a child who is indulged all the time can become restless, dissatisfied, and spoiled.
  • Insult them.  Some dads like to criticize their kids and even call them names.  Sarcasm and ridicule can knock the stuffing out of a child faster than anything else. 
  • Intimidate them.  Threats and unfair expectations can filet a child’s self-esteem and scar him or her for life.

Fellow fathers, we must make it as easy as possible for our kids to obey!  The way we treat them has a lot to do with their ability and willingness to fulfill their responsibility in the home.  Ephesians 6:4 puts it this way: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”  Here’s a brief inventory that you can use to determine how well you’re doing in this area.

  1. Do I believe that my children are not mine but rather a gift from God entrusted to me?
  2. Am I partnering with God to enable my children to become the men and women He intends them to be?
  3. Do they know how delighted and excited I am about them?  Do they feel like I’m on their side?
  4. Am I living under the leadership of Christ in my life so that my children will have a model to follow?
  5. Am I calling my children to obedience and providing corrective guidance and discipline that is both firm and fair?

God’s Ways in the Workplace

Beginning in verse 22, we come to some teaching about slaves and their masters.  Most homes had slaves in them, so this fits in the general section of how to live out our faith in the family.  The Colossian church no doubt had slaves and owners as members – in fact, it was probably the only place in that society that they would get together on the same level, without racial or class distinctions.

Here are a couple background truths to keep in mind.

  1. At the time of Paul’s writing, almost 50% of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire were slaves.  It’s important to know that slavery was not a racial issue in the Roman world like it was in our country many years ago.  Slaves were usually those who were defeated militarily.  
  2. While Paul did not call believers to overturn the institution of slavery, these verses helped to bring about change from the inside.  The Roman Empire ultimately lost its commitment to slavery as the gospel penetrated further into the culture and more and more masters and slaves started treating each other like brothers and sisters in Christ.
  3. While there are not exact similarities to the workplace, we can apply this passage to our jobs.  That may work just fine for some of you because you feel like a slave to your work!

Take a look at verses 22-25 where we can draw some principles to our role as employees: 

“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, 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.”

1. Do your best at your job at all times.

We’re to work hard not just when the boss is around, but even when he isn’t.  Years ago, a missionary was responsible for getting the nationals to do certain jobs.  He was frustrated because they were lazy and only worked when he was actually watching them.  When he left they would stop their jobs and just sit around.  This man had a glass eye and one day when it was irritating him, he took it out and put it on a stump.  When he returned, everybody was still working because his “eye” was watching the workers.  The missionary was thrilled until one day he came back to find a hat over his eye and all the workers lounging around.  That’s what Paul is warning against here.  We should work hard even when the boss is not around. 

2. Worship at your work.

That doesn’t mean that you hold a worship service at your company.  Instead, it means that you work out of reverence for the Lord.  Properly understood, your job, no matter what it is, can be an act of worship.  Sometimes we get this backward as we look to our jobs to provide us with meaning and significance.  Instead of looking for meaning in your career, bring meaning to it as you work in an attitude of worship.

3. Recognize Jesus as your boss

Since Jesus is your Master, work as His servant in your job.  That means that we should never be sloppy or unethical.  Since verse 17 tells us to do everything in the name of the Lord, we must work for our bosses “as if” for the Lord.  Verse 22: “reverence for the Lord.”  Verse 23: “…as working for the Lord, not for men.”  Verse 24: “…you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.  It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” Your employer may pay your salary, but it is the Lord for whom you are working.

4. Work for a “raise” in the next life. 

Verse 24 tells us that when we do our best, when we worship at our work, and when we recognize Jesus as our boss, we will receive eternal compensation and a benefit package that is out of this world.  Verse 25 reminds us that our behavior, whether good or bad, will lead to a “payday” in the next life.

Colossians 4:1 provides a challenge for employers as well: “Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.” Masters are not free to set their own standards on how to treat their slaves; rather they must do so with what is right and fair.  It was revolutionary of Paul to tell masters to care about their treatment of slaves.  If slave owners were to treat their slaves with integrity, then bosses today must also.  If you have people working for you, it’s important to deal fairly with them, just as God himself treats you.

Action Steps

In order to make our relationships work, we must work at them.  Let me give you some practical steps you can take.

1. Marriage. 

if one spouse is willing to change, the marriage can change

If your marital relationship is a bit rocky, remember this: if one spouse is willing to change, the marriage can change.  Wives, you don’t have to wait for your husband to be more loving before you submit to him.  In fact, as you respect him and affirm his significance, his love may start flowing.  Likewise, husbands don’t have to hold out on love until they see their wives act more submissive.  When you determine to love your wife as Christ loves the church, you will make it much easier for your wife to submit to your loving leadership.

  • Wives: Tell your husband today that with God’s help you are going to follow his lead.  If you can think of one thing that you’ve been holding out on, then mention it to him.
  • Husbands: Think of one thing you can do today to put your love into action, even if you don’t feel like doing it.  If you have any bitterness toward your wife, confess it to her.

2. Family. 

Determine today to take the steps you need to take, whether you are a parent or a child.

  • Children: Practice first-time obedience.  When your parent asks you to do something, or tells you not to do something, say something like this: “Yes, mom I will obey.”  Instead of pouting or yelling, honor God and your parents by obeying.
  • Parents: Ask your children this week what one thing you’ve been doing that causes them to be exasperated.  Get alone with each child in order to reaffirm your love.

3. Work. 

It’s not too late to bring Jesus to work with you.  

  • Employees:  Try to picture Jesus as your boss this week.  Think through how your work will be different with Him behind the desk of your supervisor. 
  • Employers: Pray for your employees by name every day this week.  At the end of the week ask each one if they think you are treating them fairly.


Everything we do in marriage, in the family, and in the workplace must be done in recognition that we have a Master over us.   As such our attitude should always be to please Him, whether through submitting or loving, obeying or encouraging, working or supervising.  Our master will reward us for our service to Him.  We come back to the Colossian question: Is Jesus supreme in your life?  If He is, then He will alter you – if you allow Him to.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?