As we have seen in recent readings, Paul has been describing life in the new humanity that has been formed through sinners believing the gospel. We can imagine a question that would have arisen in the minds of his readers, which is: ‘Paul, it is all very well to speak about a new humanity. But we are living in relationships connected to the old humanity, especially exemplified in the basic feature of first-century life, that of households. How can we live as members of the new humanity in everyday life?’ So Paul applies his teaching to three areas of household life – husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves (because these relationships were what everyday life was for most people).
The homes of such households usually would be the places where the church would gather at that time (in Colosse, we are told by Paul in his letter to Philemon that the church met in the house of Philemon, and that Philemon was a husband, a father, and an owner of slaves). In verse 15 of Colossians 4, Paul refers to a lady called Nympha in whose a church met. Priscilla and Aquila had churches in their homes, whether in Rome or in Corinth. In Romans 16, Paul mentions several different homes in which sections of the church in Rome met.
Elsewhere in the New Testament, we read of other households. Paul mentions that he baptised the household of Stephanus and he prays for the household of Onesiphorus. Luke, when describing the coming of the gospel in Philippi, mentions the households of Lydia and of the Philippian jailor. These households would become the core groups within a congregation, giving it a platform for continued growth in the wider community.
We live in a very individualised society in which each person makes his own decisions. It was very different in Paul’s day. When a person hears the gospel in our town, he will reject it or accept it by himself. In Paul’s day, such freedom would only be possessed by the head of a household. If the head rejected it, the household publicly would reject it (although individuals within it could accept the gospel, but with a heavy price. It is likely that Paul’s family in Tarsus rejected his gospel, and the outcome was that he lost everything). But if the head of the household accepted the gospel, then usually his family did as well and became identified with the church through baptism (as Luke describes what happened in Philippi in Acts 19).
Paul knew that it was important for households to function properly in order for there to be a credible witness in the community. Roman society laid great stress on household life and would not have been impressed by a message that diminished what they deemed important. Of course, its emphases were not the same as the aspects Paul goes on to describe here, which means that Christian households had the opportunity of bearing witness to the effects of the gospel. They were not to show a lesser commitment to households than did their neighbours; instead they were to have a stronger commitment to proper household life.