Relationship Rules

Relationship Rules

Colossians 3:18-4.1

James C. Denison

A friend recently sent me some statements about marriage which he thought I should use only at Men’s Bible Study on Thursday morning. But since I’m not as smart as he is, here goes:

Patrick Murray: “I’ve had bad luck with both my wives. The first one left me, and the second one didn’t.”

Sacha Guitry: “When a man steals your wife, there is no better revenge than to let him keep her.”

Henny Youngman: “Some people ask us the secret of our long marriage. We take time to go to a restaurant two times a week. A little candlelight, dinner, soft music and dancing. She goes Tuesdays, I go Fridays.”

Rodney Dangerfield: “My wife and I were happy for 20 years. Then we met.”

Fortunately, God’s wisdom on marriage and relationships is far more redemptive than ours. We’ll close our conversations in Colossians today with the most practical discussion possible, as we study God’s relationship rules. They apply to us all–husbands, wives, children, parents, employers, employees, Americans. We don’t break these rules–we break ourselves on them. Let’s learn how to keep them, and why we should.

Marriage rules

“Wives, submit to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord” (v. 18).

“Submit” translates “hupotasso,” the voluntary submission of one to another. Do this, not because you are inferior to your husband, for you are not. Do this because encouraging respect is what your husband most needs from you today.

The Lord designed him in such a way that your affirmation and support is his greatest need. Before he needs the respect of his peers or society or anyone else, he needs it first from you. Encouraging respect is your greatest gift. That’s simply how God made men.

“Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them” (v. 19).

In a culture which made women the property of their husbands or fathers, Christianity was radically different in its affirmation of women. Mary Magdalene was the first person to see the risen Christ, and the first person commissioned to tell the world about his resurrection. Lydia was the first convert in Europe. Philip had four daughters who were preachers (Acts 21:9). Phoebe was a “servant” or “deaconess” of the church (Romans 16:1). Junia was “outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16:7).

So it is that husbands are not to be “harsh” with their wives. The word means to find fault, to criticize and complain. Such treatment makes our wives a means to our end, an object for our use.

The Jewish theologian Martin Buber distinguished between “I-You” and “I-It” relationships. In “I-It” relationships the other is a possession, something I use for my purposes. In “I-You” relationships the other is my equal, as valuable and significant as I am. We are to have “I-It” relationships with things and “I-You” relationships with people. Unfortunately, we often reverse the two. I know men who love their car and use their wives. As the song put it, “Loving things and using people only leads to misery; using things and loving people–that’s the way it ought to be.”

And so we are to “love” our wives.

Here Paul uses agape, the word for unconditional commitment. Not eros, the word for erotic or sexual love; not phileo, the word for friendship or partnership love. Before our wives are our sexual partners or our business partners in raising our children and running the house, they are first our unconditional commitment. They must come before all others.

God made wives in such a way that this is their greatest need. Before they need our sexual love or our friendship as partners in raising children and running the house, they need to know that they come first. Before all others. Before all ambitions or plans or priorities. Husbands, unconditional commitment is your greatest gift to your wives. That’s simply how God made women.

In my wedding introductions I always quote the statement: “Long ago, the Lord God gave the first woman to be the bride of the first man. The Bible tells us that Eve was taken from the side of Adam. Not from his head, to be a ruler over him. Not from his foot, to be trodden upon by him. From his side, to be equal with him. From under his arm, to be protected by him. From near his heart, to be loved by him.”

Encouraging respect and unconditional commitment are the gifts God made us to need, and to share. How are you doing at giving your gift this morning?

Parenting rules

From marriage to family: “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord” (v. 20). “Obey” can be literally translated, “listen under.” Listen to them, then do what they say. “In everything,” in every dimension of life. Why? Because parents are superior to children, of greater value? Just the opposite, in fact.

In a world which saw children as the possessions of their fathers, to be kept or discarded as they wished, the word of God is subversive and revolutionary in its view of children.

Children are his gift, created by his grace: “Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him” (Psalm 127:3).

They typify all that is best in life: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Luke 18:16).

They are to obey their parents because this is best for them. Such obedience “pleases the Lord” because it blesses the children he has made: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’–which is the first commandment with a promise–‘that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth'” (Ephesians 6:1-3).

Every child on earth has probably encountered some circumstance where disobeying parents would have led to pain or even death. They would have run into the path of a car, or eaten something poisonous, or played with something deadly, except that they obeyed their parents.

At the time, they are often less than grateful for our wisdom. I remember well the time I was using a razor blade to scrape some paint off a window and Ryan, three or so at the time, was enraged that I wouldn’t let him play with this shiny new toy. His obedience saved him from hurt, as mine to my parents probably saved me years earlier.

Children are to give such obedience to their parents, because this is the parent’s greatest need. A husband needs encouraging respect from his wife; a wife needs unconditional commitment from her husband; and parents need continual obedience from their children. This is the only way they can lead their children and families well.

But there’s a catch: “fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged” (v. 21). The text addresses “fathers” because they were the primary disciplinarians and leaders of the first-century family. Today Paul would speak to fathers, but would include mothers in these parenting rules as well.

We are not to “embitter” our children–the word means to “provoke” or “hurt” them through constant criticism. Such parenting will cause children to “become discouraged,” literally “to lose heart” or to “become spiritless.” John Newton, the slave trader who later wrote Amazing Grace, once said, “I knew that my father loved me–but he did not seem to wish me to see it.”

Ephesians 6:4 adds: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” Be the kind of people you want your children to become, because that’s precisely what will happen. Godly example is their greatest need, and the one you can best meet.

Equality rules

God’s word has spoken to marriage and to family. Now it turns to work, with relationship rules for slaves and their masters. The principle is simple: slaves are to obey their masters as unto the Lord, as their witness. Masters are to “provide your slaves with what is right and fair” (4:1). As an employee, you owe your employer your best work as your witness. As an employer, you owe your employee fair and honest treatment, as unto the Lord. Such integrity is what each most needs from the other. This is the clear and transcendent principle of this passage.

But its context provides me an opportunity to speak to a related issue: the sin of racism. People sometimes ask me why the New Testament did not do more to eradicate slavery. My answer is that it did.

Christianity is precisely the movement which has ended the slave trade wherever it has been followed. From England to America and Africa, followers of Jesus have always been the leaders in this battle.

Sometimes, tragically, the process has taken far too long. I believe that racism is still the greatest sin in America. And conversations with black and Hispanic leaders across Texas and the South have convinced me that the problem is still epidemic. We have passed civil rights legislation, but minorities still face the same economic and educational discrimination and prejudice they always have.

It was Paul and the New Testament who began the process we have yet to complete.

First, Scripture abolished even the possibility of racial or social discrimination for followers of Jesus: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:28-29).

Second, wherever the early church spoke to this issue, it did so with a view to freedom and equality. Paul knew he could not yet end the institution of slavery, but here he tried to reform it, to end its abuses, to bring it to integrity and godly relationship. The apostle also appealed to Philemon to set his slave free (Philemon 16).

The Christian church gave slaves a family and a home, which is one reason why so many of the earliest believers were slaves. Pastors and congregational leaders were often slaves, for the Church made no distinction between slave and free.

Third, not a single New Testament leader owned slaves or condoned such, even though many such as Joseph of Arimathea and Barnabas had the means to purchase them. Their example inspired Christians across history to do all they could to abolish slavery, and we thank God that they were successful.

But we are not done. The process is not complete until every person in America has the same opportunity and responsibility as any other, regardless of color or race or culture. Employees and employers must treat each other with respect, dignity, and integrity.

And every member of every race must treat every member of every other race with the same respect, dignity, and integrity. This is the only way to the abundant life of Jesus as the Kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.


Are you here today to work on your marriage? To give your husband encouraging respect, or your wife unconditional commitment? Are you here to work on your family, giving your parents consistent obedience and your children godly example? Are you here to work on your employment relationships, to commit to integrity in every way? Are you here to repent of racism and to commit your heart to respect and dignity?

Imagine a society which lived by these relationship rules. A society without adultery or marital grief or family bitterness. A society with integrity in the workplace and in all relationships. This is God’s dream for our country and our community. Is it yours?

Amazing Grace is the remarkable new movie profiling the life of William Wilberforce. This English gentleman was a member of Parliament and the landed gentry of his society. He had every means at his disposal for a career of popular acclaim.

Prime minister could have been his if he had wanted it. Instead he spent his years, his credibility, his fortune, his life in leading the crusade to abolish slavery in England. Before he died, he saw his revolution come to pass and slavery outlawed in Great Britain forever.

All because one man chose to stand for the word and will of God, for the sake of his marriage, his family, and his society. Does God need another Wilberforce, where you live, today?