What is a family? (Colossians 3:17-21)

(public domain)

I. Introduction

What is a family? Why should we need to be asking this question in a sermon in church on Mother’s Day? Simple!

Families are in conflict in this town & district. Dare I suggest that there might be family disharmony in this church. Also, families are being redefined today, but that’s nothing new. Here are a few examples of how the definition of marriage has changed over the years.

On April 6th we celebrated a very important anniversary in church history – well, important for some. On April 6 1868 – Mormon Church leader Brigham Young, aged 67, married his 27th and last wife. (In all, Brigham Young’s 27 wives bore him 47 children.)[1] This cult leader officially believed in and practised polygamy.

Does the name John Stanhope ring a bell? Have you heard some of his philosophy about marriage in the mass media lately? He’s the chief minister of the ACT (Australian Capital Territory, Canberra) and has introduced the “Civil Union Bill” into the ACT Legislative Assembly.

Angela Shanahan wrote in The Canberra Times, 1st April, 2006:

‘Mr Stanhope has denied that he wants to pass an act enabling marriage between people of the same sex. “Civil unions are not marriage and I have been at pains throughout the debate to make that point plain,” he said in Wednesday’s Canberra Times [29th March 2006]. Oh, really? So why does the Civil Union Bill state, “Civil union is to be treated under territory law the same way as marriage”‘.[2]

There’s another way that family life is being redefined in Australia: “Between 1996 and 2001 the census count of people aged 15 years and over in defacto [relationships][3] rose by 28% from 744,100 to 951,500.”[4]

This is what the Australian Bureau of Statistics states:

‘The . . . marriage rate has been declining since 1970. This decline in the marriage rate can be mainly attributed to changes in attitudes to marriage and living arrangements that have occurred since then’.[5] [Those are the words from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.]

Into this situation God steps with these words:

II. God’s Word on marriage (Col. 3:17-21)

Let’s turn to what God says about family in Col. 3:17-21.

Please note these fundamentals for the health of your family and mine, the health of the church, and the health of the nation. There are key words in this passage.

  • Whatever you do in words and actions, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks (this is the foundation); [this is obviously addressed to Christians];
  • Wives (are female);
  • Husbands (are male);
  • Children (male and female);
  • Parents (male and female);
  • Fathers (male). Or as we’ll see, this word could just as easily be translated, “parents.”

Let’s get something clear at the outset. Here in Colossians, God’s order for the family is heterosexual marriage (a man and a woman). Elsewhere in the NT we learn that “a woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord” (I Cor. 7:39). Marriage is for this life.

God’s best order for children is in a marriage relationship and not a defacto relationship (it’s impossible to produce children naturally in a homosexual relationship). God invented marriage, human beings invented the alternatives.

One of the fundamental laws in God’s universe is in Gal. 6:7: “Don’t be misled. Remember that you can’t ignore God and get away with it. You will always reap what you sow!” (NLT).

That’s why we need to examine this passage from Colossians in the light of Col. 3:17.

A. Do everything in the Name of the Lord Jesus (v. 17)

If you want things to go God’s way in your household, the foundation is: “Do everything in the name of the Lord.” What does that mean? It does not mean: (1) We try to live the best way that we can, not imposing our views on others, not being homophobic, not being judgmental – it does not take that line. (2) It certainly does not mean grit your teeth, call on friends for support, and exhorting – you can do it! Forget about human effort. You cannot do it.

Here’s the key. In all that you say and do, “do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (1) Christians have a new power to carry out God’s commands. That power comes from the grace of God they have received in Christ’s salvation. (2) Christians have a new purpose in life. As I Cor. 10:31 puts it: “do it all for the glory of God.”

The only way that you will have the power and purpose to do what I am preaching is by doing it all to the glory of God. Here in Col. 3:17, the language is: “Do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” To do something “in the name of the Lord Jesus” refers to Jesus as he revealed Himself to us in the NT. “In the name” means “in vital relation with him” that you are “in harmony with his revealed will, in subjection to his authority, in dependence on his power.”[6]

What kind of culture was it like in Colossae, Asia Minor (Turkey today) in the first century? When Paul addressed these Christians, through the God-breathed Scriptures, what kinds of people were his audience?

Paul wrote in Col. 1:2, “To the holy and faithfulbrothers [meaning brothers and sisters] in Christ at Colosse.” What was their background? In vv. 5-11 of Col. 3 we get a picture of why Paul had to write about the basics of the Christian family. The Colossians were recent converts from the darkness and putrid sensuality of a heathen lifestyle. There was a danger of drifting back into a sexually promiscuous life. Three things could have been influencing these new Christian converts:

  • Their evil past;[7]
  • The wicked environment in which they lived;
  • Passion in their hearts that had not been totally controlled by Christ; and
  • The tug of Satan’s clever tricks.

Paul needed to teach them family and sanctification matters to prevent them from slipping back into the evils of paganism. What did Paul teach?

This is not a choice in Kingdom living. What I’m about to preach is not politically correct in our decadent culture. This is why some families are in disorder, even disaster. Over the next 25 minutes, I want to teach what the Bible says about how the family can survive and thrive in a feminist, chauvinistic, and opinionated culture.

Remember this acronym: S-L-O-NE. If all families in this church practised S-L-O-NE, our church would become radical and Bundaberg people would have to sit up and take notice.

Paul gives 4 commands for every family to become a S-L-O-NE family.

First command:

B. If you want things to go God’s way in your family, in the Name of the Lord Jesus, wives submit to your husbands (v. 18)

The parallel Scripture in Eph. 5:22 expands this a little: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.”

That’s the first part of becoming a S-L-O-NE family. It’s a command: Wife, submit to your husband. This is a simple straightforward statement but this teaching is widely challenged in Christian circles, even among some evangelicals. Some of these “argue that Paul’s teaching on this theme is not Spirit-inspired, but reflects his [male] chauvinistic, rabbinic attitude toward women.”[8] However, when we come to the command for husbands to love their wives, I wonder if these same people would argue that this also is not Spirit-inspired.

What we have here in Col. 3 is God’s way for marriage and the family. It’s not surprising that it is at odds with the world’s thinking. Folks, here we have commands for all times.

Wives, “be subject to/submit to” your husbands!

1. What is submission?

Feminists think this is an abusive word. I read a review of a book on submission and it stated: “For many modern Christians, and not only for feminists, submission of any kind is seen as degrading, while power in an ecclesiastical or spiritual context is always regarded as abusive.”[9] Is that so?

What does it mean to “submit” (the Greek hupotasso)? This verb appears about 40 times in the NT and it “carries an overtone of authority and subjection or submission to it.”[10] Before we get to a specific explanation of submission, let’s look at some other passages in the NT where submission is used:[11]

  • Luke 2:51, Jesus’ submission to his parents;
  • Luke 10:17, 20 describes the demons who were subject to the apostles;
  • Rom. 8:7, Paul uses the word to describe being submissive to the commands of God’s law;
  • In Rom. 13:1, 5 we have the need for every person to submit to the governing authorities which are established by God;
  • In I Cor. 15:27-28 and Eph. 1:22, hupotasso looks forward “to the time when all things in the universe are made subject to Christ and God in eternal glory.”[12]

“To submit” is a military-style[13] word in the Greek that means to recognise “the rights of authority. [Paul’s] main thought is that the wife is to defer to, that is, be willing to take second place to, her husband. Yet we should never interpret this as if it implies that the husband may be a domestic [dictator][14], ruling his family with a rod of iron. It does imply, however, that the husband has an authority [that] the wife must forego exercising.”[15]

Let’s say a few things about what submission is not:[16]

First, there is absolutely no suggestion or implication that the wife is inferior to her husband.

“Jesus made some of his most startling revelations to women” (John 4:13-14, 21-26; 11:25-26; 20:11-18).[17]

Clearly, in Christianity, women are not inferior to men.

Secondly, the command for wives to submit to their husbands is not an absolute with no exceptions.

A wife must never submit to her husband who is abusive to her. A husband should never ask his wife to do something that would violate her scripturally informed conscience. We have this limitation for the wife from Acts 5:29, “Peter and the other apostles replied: ‘We must obey God rather than men!'” (NIV). God does not endorse abuse or anything that violates another’s conscience.

Thirdly, this command for the wife to submit to her husband is issued in the context of a husband who loves his wife.

A wife must never be treated by a husband as an object. She is to be loved by her husband. We’ll get to that in a moment.

2. Is this for all wives?

God’s command for an orderly family is, “Wife, submit to your husband.” It is not a command for a husband to state, “Wife, submit to me.” That would be completely out of order from God’s intention here.

It’s a command to the Christian wife: If you want things to go well in your family, submit yourself to your husband. We know this because it is the middle voice in the Greek. We don’t have a middle voice in English, but it means, Wife, submit yourself to your husband.” A wife’s submission to her husband is, therefore, voluntary. However, if a Christina wife does not submit, she is being disobedient to God’s command here.

3. In what areas should she submit?

Here v. 18 states, “as is fitting in the Lord.” If you go to the parallel passage in Eph. 5:22, we read, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” “As is fitting in the Lord” has “the thought of what is becoming and proper” and relates to Christian marriage.

This is where it gets a bit tricky because this amounts to my application of the Word of God and I want to only make suggestions of how submission of the wife to the husband might happen in a Christian family:

  • I think it would be a foolish husband who would require authority over areas in which he was not gifted. For example, I’m a hopeless cook and am not astute in handling financial matters. My wife is an excellent cook and is a former National Bank employee. Who should cook and handle the finances in our family? Desley, of course.
  • Child rearing is often a contentious issue but I’m of the view that mutual agreement is needed with husband and wife agreeing on implementing God’s way of raising the family. It often spells disaster when a husband and wife are not in agreement over parenting principles and actions.
  • Just one other practical example. I consider that a husband’s choice of profession and location for employment should involve the wife yielding in submission – but not without extensive discussion on the pros and cons of going there to do that.

Wives, if you want your family to go God’s way, “submit to your husband as is fitting in the Lord.” That’s the S of the S-L-O-NE family – submit.

Alright husbands, it’s now your turn.

C. If you want things to go God’s way in your family, in the name of the Lord Jesus, husband, you must love your wife (v. 19).

In 33 years of marriage and family counselling, I do not ever recall one husband or wife who disagreed with the command: “Husband, love your wife.” Please note the fundamental: It’s a

1. Command to love.

It’s a present, active imperative in the Greek: It means, “keep on loving” your wife. But what is love? Is it what you see in the movies? Is that what you get in bed? What kind of love is it?

In the world of the first century, even among the Jews, the wife was often treated as little more than a piece of property to be used. Husbands would force wives to obey.

Agape love is “a willing love, not the love of passion or emotion, but the love of choice—a covenant kind of love.”[18] It’s a “caring love, a deliberate attitude of mind that concerns itself with the well-being of the one loved.”[19] You are commanded to love with a devotion to your wife and NOT with satisfaction for you.

One of the most beautiful ways this can be done is expressed so profoundly in Eph. 5:25-28:

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself”. (NIV)

God designed that a wife would submit in the context of this kind of other-centred love.

Husbands, that’s the positive command – love your wife! There’s a negative command:

2. Do not be harsh or bitter with them.

The word, “harsh”,[20] “suggests a surly, irritable attitude. Perhaps the [common lingo] ‘don’t be cross with [her]’ best expresses the meaning.”[21] In the only other uses of this word in the NT (Rev. 8:11; 10:9-10), “it refers to something bitter in taste. Paul tells husbands not to call their wives ‘honey’ and than act like vinegar. They must not display harshness of temper or resentment toward their wives. They are not to irritate or exasperate them, but rather to provide loving leadership in the home.”[22]

Why would God have to give Paul this command to make a healthy family? It was obviously being violated in the Colossian church and Paul had to teach what God wanted for a Christian family to function.

This continuing agape love by the husband will have “a moderating influence upon the husband’s exercise of authority.

Husband, how can we apply this – being other-centred in loving your wife and not being bitter against her?

When children are young and you come home from a hard day at work, how do you think you could love your wife in relation to dealing with the children? If your wife is an at-home Mum who has been running after children all day, she needs a break. Love her by caring for the children – even though you may feel worn out. Imagine how she feels?

I had a very practical application come home to me as I was preparing this sermon. We have a rather large lawn to mow and I use a ride-on mower. I sometimes get a bit uptight (exasperated) with my wife’s need to rake the grass and rake the leaves under our 4 mango trees. I am not loving her as Christ loved the church when I resent all that raking after all that mowing. If that is her need, I need to love her by unconditional response to her need.

Husband, in the S-L-O-NE family life, this is the L=love your wife.

Now it’s time for the children

D. If you want things to go God’s way in your family, in the name of the Lord Jesus, children must obey their parents (v. 20);

2 Tim. 3:1-5 gives a penetrating analysis of our culture. It reads:

‘But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. 2People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, 4treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— 5having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them’ (NIV).

Will you note that one of the signs of the last days will be those who are “disobedient to their parents.” We have problems with law and order in society, when families come to church, and especially in the family because children do not heed this command: “Children, obey your parents. Who are these tekna? This “is a general term for children and is not limited to a specific age group. It refers to any child still living in the home and under parental guidance.”[23] Again this is the present tense command – continue to obey your parents.

Remember the 10 Commandments: “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” It is very serious to disobey your parents. Disobedience to parents is what marks the ungodly children (2 Tim. 3:2; cf. Rom. 1:30).

Children, please note how extensive this obedience to parents is:

1. In everything?

Should children obey their parents if parents are into drugs, sexual immorality or assault their children – parents who act illegally?

Absolutely not because “in everything” is covered by this over-arching biblical principle from Acts 5:29, “Peter and the other apostles replied: ‘We must obey God rather than men!'”

Children, a fundamental for life going well in your family and in this nation is for you to obey God’s command: “Obey your parents.” Why? This verse makes it clear

2. This pleases the Lord.

So, the O in the S-L-O-NE family is “obedience” by children to parents.

S = submit, a command for wives

L = love, a command for husbands

O = obey, a command for children

There’s one more:

E. If you want things to go God’s way in your family, in the name of the Lord Jesus, parents must not embitter their children (v. 21)

Col. 3:21 reads: ” Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.” This word, “fathers” is probably better translated as “parents” as it is in Heb.. 11:23, which reads: “By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born.” That’s the same word — parents.

We have a parallel here with Eph. 6:4: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”

1. What does it mean to embitter them?

“Embitter”[24] in the original language of the NT means “to stir up, provoke, irritate, or exasperate. Another way to phrase Paul’s command is, ‘stop nagging your kids.’ Failure to obey this can cause children to ‘lose heart.’ Parents can take the heart out of their children by failing to discipline them lovingly and instruct them in the ways of the Lord with balance.”[25]

How can you embitter your child?[26]

  • You can embitter by overprotection. If you have too strict rules and don’t give them liberty to make mistakes.
  • You can embitter them by playing favourites with your children.
  • Your children may become bitter if you do not encourage them. If you regularly put down what they do, they become disheartened and withdrawn.
  • Some parents have unrealistic goals for their children. This may embitter them.
  • If you fail to show love to your children verbally and physically, they may grow bitter. Some boys may become touchy when parents try to show love by putting arms around them. Be sensitive to that.
  • You can embitter your children by criticism.
  • You may neglect your children and they become bitter.
  • Finally, you can embitter your children with excessive discipline that becomes abuse. This happens when you abuse your children verbally, emotionally or physically. Parents sometimes say things to their children that they would never say to anyone else. There is godly discipline of children (another subject for another time). But never discipline your children in anger, but lovingly correct them, just as your heavenly Father lovingly corrects you.[27]

That wraps up the S-L-O-NE Christian family:

S = submit to your husband.

L = love your wife.

O = obey your parents.

NE = never embitter your children.

III. Conclusion

What are the essentials of the family?

  • Heterosexual – mother and father – and not homosexual;
  • Marriage and not defacto;
  • One woman for one man until death of one of them;
  • Wives: submit to husbands;
  • Husbands: love their wives;
  • Children: obey their parents;
  • Parents: never embitter their children.

I conclude with this comment by Ray Stedman:

‘I know it is popular to make jokes about bossy wives and henpecked husbands, but having observed the marriage scene for [a] considerable time and having personal involvement in it, I would say the problem is not so much due to the demand of wives to assert leadership as it is the refusal of husbands to assume their responsibilities’.[28]

What would happen to this church, to this town and district in Queensland, and our country of Australia, if all Christian families lived this way?

Pray for Christian families.

Prayer by Suzanna Wesley[29]
mother of John and Charles, founders of Methodism

You, O Lord, have called us to watch and pray.
Therefore, whatever may be the sin against which we pray,
make us careful to watch against it, and so have reason to expect that our prayers will be answered.

In order to perform this duty aright,
grant us grace to preserve a sober, equal temper,
and sincerity to pray for your assistance. Amen.

Suzanna Wesley had seventeen children, but is said to have given each of them one day of special attention and training per month. From John’s writings we know that both he and brother Charles Wesley viewed their mother as a vital source of inspiration and encouragement for their ministries.

Oh Happy Home

v. 1

Oh happy home, where You are loved the dearest,

You loving Friend and Saviour of our race,

And where among the guests we’ve never sighted

One who can hold such high and honoured place!

v. 2

Oh happy home, whose little ones are given

Early to You, in humble faith and prayer,

To You, their Friend, Who from the heights of heaven

Guides them, and guards with more than parents’ care!

v. 3

Oh happy home, where each one serves You, lowly,

Whatever his appointed work may be,

Till every common task seems great and holy,

When it is done, O Lord, as unto Thee.

v. 4

Until at last, when earth’s day’s work is ended,

All meet You in the blessed home above,

From where You came, to where You have ascended,

Your everlasting home of peace and love!

Carl Johann Philipp Spitta, 1833, tr. Mrs Sarah Laurie Findlater, 1858, altd. Tune: O Perfect Love


[1] Copyright 1987-2006, William D. Blake. Used by permission of the author, from ‘Almanac of the Christian Church’, available as emailer from: “In this day in history” at: listserv@lists.studylight.org (Accessed 6 April 2006)

[2] Available at: The Australian Christian Lobby website at: http://www.acl.org.au/national/browse.stw?article_id=8876 (Accessed 7 April 2006).

[3] The ABS called it “marriage.”

[4] Australian Bureau of Statistics, “1301.0 – Year Book Australia, 2005,” released 21/01/2005, Available at: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/94713ad445ff1425ca25682000192af2/992C91E65FB38B66CA256F7200832F7E?opendocument (Accessed 7 April 2006).

[5] Ibid. (Accessed 7April 2006).

[6] Hendriksen, W. 1964, Colossians & Philemon (New Testament Commentary), The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, p. 164.

[7] Based on ibid., p. 17.

[8] John MacArthur Jr. 1992, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Colossians & Philemon, Moody Press, Chicago, p. 167.

[9] Fergus Kerr, 2006, Lead Book Review, ‘A joyful dependence: Powerless before God’, a review of Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender, Blackwell Publishers Ltd., Oxford, UK. Available at: https://www.thetablet.co.uk/issue/20720/booksandart (Accessed 10 October 2010).

[10] Peter T. O’Brien 1982, Word Biblical Commentary: Colossians, Philemon, vol. 44 (gen eds David A. Hubbard & Glenn W. Barker) , Word Books, Publisher, Waco, Texas, p. 221.

[11] Based on MacArthur 1992, p. 168.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Robertson A. T. 1931, Word Pictures in the New Testament: The Epistles of Paul, vol. 4, Broadman Press, Nashville, Tennessee, p. 506.

[14] Vaughan had “despot.”

[15] Vaughan, C. 1978, ‘Colossians’, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (vol. 11), gen ed F. E. Gaebelein, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, p. 218.

[16] Based on Hendriksen, p. 169.

[17] Ibid.

[18] MacArthur Jr., p. 169.

[19] Vaughan, p. 218.

[20] Pikrainesthe.

[21] Vaughan, p. 218.

[22] MacArthur Jr., p. 169.

[23] MacArthur Jr., p. 170.

[24] Erethizo.

[25] MacArthur Jr., p. 171.

[26] Based on ibid., pp. 171-172.

[27] MacArthur Jr., p. 173.

[28] Stedman, Man the Initiator, pp. 78-79, cited in Cleveland McDonald 1975, Creating a Successful Christian Marriage, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, p. 70.

[29] Available at: http://www.desperatepreacher.com/susanna_wesley.htm (Accessed 10 May 2006).


Copyright © 2006  Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 9 October 2015.

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