Slaves in Christ:
Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians
Dallas Heilman Hosey
Dr. Edward T. Gareau
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
In the early days of Christianity there were few leaders who were able to
avoid fatal persecution while spreading the good news across the Roman Empire.
The dangers associated with proclaiming the mystery of Jesus were great and a
great many were martyred for their witness to the faith, their blood truly becoming,
in the words of Tertullian, “the seed of the Church.” Those prolific leaders who were
able to avoid execution, if only temporarily, provided hope and pastoral care to their
fellow Christians during the movement’s early tribulations. One voice rang out
above all others in that infantile Church and provided Christ’s followers with
guidance and wisdom through his ministry and writings. St. Paul the Apostle is
among the earliest Christian writers and his works comprise the bulk of the New
Testament Cannon. Thirteen letters classified as Pauline Epistles and through these
letters Paul testifies to the mystery of Christ and provides pastoral guidance to his
fellow Christians. Several questions surrounding these writings arise, however,
based on the style, content and authenticity of some of the letters. Placing those
questions aside, for the time being, it is clear that one element is present, or implied,
in nearly all of the Pauline Epistles; they provided a way for him to be present in
communities, when he could not be there physically.1 The Epistle to the Colossians
provides an ideal example of this fact as it was composed while Paul was
imprisoned and he says, “I may be absent in body, but I am with you in spirit.”2 His
message is clear and is suggested to be the essential element of Christian society,
that in serving and loving one another as Christ loved and served all of humanity,
1 Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Writings of the New Testament: an Interpretation.
2 Colossians 2:5
humanity is actually serving and loving Christ, whose presences in the world is
found within those who have taken up their cross to follow Him.
In order to adequately understand the Letter to the Colossians, the reader
must first become familiar with St. Paul and his ministry. St. Paul’s life followed a
particularly unique course compared to other Christians. Little is known about his
younger life but it is certain that he was Jewish and zealous in his faith. He was
specifically committed to Pharisaic beliefs and was extremely well versed in Torah.
What makes his story especially interesting is that, prior to his conversion, he
admittedly persecuted Jesus’ followers and tried to eradicate the messianic sect.
Though he never came into contact with the living Jesus, his faith and works were
radically transformed after he encountered the Risen Lord. This “religious
experience can re-create a symbolic world”3 and did just that for the Apostle. This
“re-creation” is something that is never far from his message to the Colossians, as he
sees the experience of Christ as a truly and completely life changing event. His life
therefore was transformed and he felt called, and obligated, to be an Apostle for
Christ’s Church, a mission he took to with as much zeal as he had for the following of
Torah in his “old life”. In his “new life” he would travel great distances spreading the
good news, while truly following in Christ’s footsteps. He was persecuted and was
eventually executed for his witness to the faith, but not before providing the early
Church with much needed guidance and love through his ministry and letters.
The Pauline Tradition comprises 13 of the 27 works found in the New
Testament. Some of the works credited to Paul are often said to be inauthentic, and
3 Johnson. (pg. 263).
are thought to have a different, albeit unknown, author. Some consideration should
be given to these claims, though not to the detriment of what the letters actually say.
Furthermore, evidence to support these claims is rather limited while evidence to
the contrary is easily found within the context of the letters. Seven of the Pauline
Epistles have undisputed authenticity and nearly all Biblical scholars are certain
that 1 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Romans, Philippians, Galatians
and Philemon are the work of St. Paul. The remaining six epistles have disputed
authenticity and are collectively referred to as the “Deutero-Pauline Epistles.”4 Of
those letters, a majority of Biblical scholars agree that Ephesians, 1 Timothy, 2
Timothy and Titus are inauthentic. The authenticity of the two remaining letters, 2
Thessalonians and Colossians, is not so clear as about half believe they are authentic
and the other half that they are not. Luke Timothy Johnson is one of the few
scholars who support a belief that the entire Pauline Tradition should be attributed
to St. Paul or those under his direction.5
It was not uncommon for great minds in the ancient world to attract a
following, which would join in the work of their leader. Such was the case with Paul,
who acknowledges the contributions of dozens of fellow Christians in his letters
which points to the likely existence of a “Pauline School.” Also, many of the Pauline
Epistles were not written solely in his name, but also bore the name of one or two of
his associates as “cosponsors.”6 Furthermore, the life experiences of the Apostle
could have contributed to variations in his theological emphases. Finally, there is
4 The Deutero-Pauline Letters.
5 Johnson. (pg. 272-73).
6 Ibid. (pg. 270).
considerable evidence to show that Paul dictated the letters to a secretary, who
would actually write them and may have been given “considerable latitude” in the
letter’s composition. These facts cause Luke Timothy Johnson to tend towards
viewing all of the Pauline Epistles as authentic, in the sense “ . . . Paul ‘authored’ but
did not necessarily write” the letters. In short, all of the letters should be regarded
as the product of the “Pauline School,” which was comprised of Paul and his closest
These arguments are especially useful when approaching the Letter to the
Colossians, whose authenticity is widely disputed. Even the time of its composition
is largely debated as clues to its setting are vague and the reader only knows that
Paul is imprisoned, but does not know where or for how long. The simple fact that
he was imprisoned does not help much in determining the setting either, as he was
imprisoned multiple times and in more than one place, possibly spending as much
as six years in prison over the course of his mission.7 It does seem likely, however,
that this letter was written near the end of Paul’s life, as the theological emphases in
the letter are slightly different than those of the earlier letters. Another factor
contributing to the letters authenticity is its relationship to the Epistle to Philemon,
which was also written during one of Paul’s incarcerations. Philemon was a
Colossian and his slave, Onesimus, and several others, appears in both Colossians
and Philemon. The similarities in the two letters are astounding. The cast and
circumstances alone seem to suggest that they have the same author, not to mention
7Did the Apostle Paul ever spend time in Jail?
that they are both “cosponsored” by Timothy. Luke Timothy Johnson proposes that
the two letters were actually composed together and delivered by Onesimus to their
respective addressees. Even adding the possibility that Ephesians, which shares
many theological similarities with Colossians, was included with the other two,
though likely as an encyclical rather than a letter addressed to one specific
community, as was the case in Colossians.8 It is reasonable to conclude that
Colossians could be considered an authentic Pauline Epistle. So, assuming the
letter’s authenticity, we will examine the text with minds and hearts open to Paul’s
apostolic guidance, which benefitted so many in the early Church.
The Letter to the Colossians, as previously noted, was written from an
unknown prison to the Christian community at Colossae, which Paul probably never
visited personally. Paul and Epaphras, who founded the Colossian church and is
also imprisoned, have been made aware of some of the problems that have arisen in
the community. Paul still appears to be pleased with the community, which
suggests that they have not yet given in to the troublemakers attempting to lead
them astray. Still, the community was experiencing a crisis, their founder was in
prison and among them was a growing interest in mystery cults that would threaten
the faith of the newly converted. Paul’s primary concern in this letter is to ensure
the continued growth of the faith of the community in the face of attractive
Paul opens the letter, in typical Pauline fashion, by identifying himself and
the letter’s “cosponsor,” Timothy, as fellow Christians. After giving thanks to God
8 Johnson. (pg. 384-387).
for the faith of the Colossians, he goes straight into his theological teaching. He
explains Christ in a cosmic sense, as he relates to the whole created order. He
reminds his audience, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all
creation.”9 He works out an astounding bit of theology, explaining that through
Christ all things were created and through his sacrifice on the cross all things were
created anew in his life. He emphasizes the eminence of Christ as the head of all
things and all powers “in whom [is] hidden all the treasures of wisdom and
knowledge.”10 He insists upon the wisdom and knowledge of Christ over the
wisdom and knowledge of the world, which can be used to “captivate you with an
empty, seductive philosophy.”11 He elsewhere refers to such things as being devoid
of the Light. The Light has emancipated humanity from “power of darkness,”12 to
which humanity must never return and is to avoid at all costs. It is clear that Paul is
troubled by the possibility that the newly converted, infants in their faith, will be
easily deceived by those claiming to hold the secrets to the mystery of knowledge.
He prays that they remain strong in their newfound faith, and that they will not
succumb to the seduction of evil.
Paul also stresses the importance of a Christian’s “new life” in Jesus, and that
they are to leave the ways of their “old life” behind saying, “Put to death, then, the
parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the
greed that is idolatry.”13 He explains that in baptism they have died and been raised
9 Colossians 1:15
10 Col 2:3
11 Col 2:8
12 Col 1:13
13 Col 3:5
with Christ14 to this “new life” which empowers them to live as members of his
body, the Church15 on earth and that they have “put on the new self, which is being
renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator.”16 Furthermore, he explains
that nothing about them from before their baptism and acceptance of Jesus Christ
bares any importance. Now they are Christ’s and must live as a part of his body.
This means that their prior “religious” practices of dietary restriction and
circumcision are no longer essential to their new religious identity, and should “let
no one, then, pass judgment”17 on them regarding these practices. A similar
teaching can be found in The Gospel According to Mark when Jesus explains,
“Nothing that enters one from the outside can defile that person; but the things that
come from within are what defile.”18 Paul’s concern, therefore, is not that the
community at Colossae will stray from Christ by their flesh, but that they will be
seduced to believing in false teachings with a “fleshy mind.”
Paul, while insisting that Christians should “seek what is above,”
acknowledges that they must still live in the world and within its social structures,
waiting in anticipation for the “hope laid up for them in heaven.”19 So, he outlines
the proper order of a Christian family in that society. He specifies the
responsibilities and obligations members of the family should live by and the type of
love they should have for one another. This, Paul states, is also to apply to the
relationship between a slave and his master; the master must treat his slave justly
14 Col 2:12
15 Col 1:18
16 Col 3:10
17 Col 2:16
18 Mark 7:15
19 Colossians 1:5
and the slave should serve his master as he would serve the Lord knowing that any
injustice he may face will not go unnoticed by God. Concerning the family, he starts
by saying, “Wives be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them.”20 The word for
love Paul uses, Agape, refers to a deeper, “self-sacrificing love that empties itself into
service for others.”21 This is the same love that Christ showed for the world, that he
now calls us to have for our loved ones, that we might love and serve one another, as
in doing so we are really loving and serving Christ.
If any one passage can be said to be of paramount importance to the whole
letter it is in Chapter 3 beginning at verse 12:
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion,
kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and
forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has
forgiven you, so must you also doe. And over all these but on love, that is the
bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace
into which you were called in one body . . . And whatever you do, in word or
in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the
Father through him.”22
It is here that the whole of Paul’s ministry to Colossae can be learned. The love
individuals should have for one another is not simply an emotion, but a love that
20 Col 3:18-19
21 Johnson. (pg. 401)
22 Colossians 3:12-15,17
“leads to service for others.”23 Paul refers to being a “slave of Christ”24 four times in
this short letter and calls to mind a call to serve Christ as he exists in the world, the
Church. So to be a “slave of Christ” is really to love and serve one another, struggling
and making sacrifices for one another just as He made the ultimate sacrifice for all of
creation. Another part of that great love, Agape, we are to have for one another is
forgiveness, since Christ forgives us, so too we must forgive others; always seeing
Christ in others, as we all were made in God’s image and are now brought together
as members of Christ’s body. Finally, Paul says that everything one does should be
“in the name of the Lord” so that Christian virtue may spread and conquer the
wickedness of vice and that the Light may continue to conquer the darkness.
23Johnson. (pg. 400)
24“our beloved fellow slave”(1:7); “be slaves of the Lord Christ”(3:24); “slave in the
Lord”(4:7); “a slave of Christ Jesus”(4:12).
The Catholic Study Bible. Personal Study ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. Print.
"Did the Apostle Paul Ever Spend Time in Jail?" The Bible Study Web Site at
BibleStudy.org. 14 Apr. 2010. <http://www.biblestudy.org/question/when-and-
Havener, Ivan. First Thessalonians, Philippians, Philemon, Second Thessalonians,
Colossians, Ephesians. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 1983.
Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Writings of the New Testament: an Interpretation.
Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2002.
Just, Felix, S.J. "Deutero-Pauline Letters." Catholic Resources. 14 Apr. 2010.
MacDonald, Margaret Y. Colossians and Ephesians. “Sacra Pagina.” Ed. Daniel J.
Harrington,S.J. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 2000.
"St. Paul." Catholic Online. Saints & Angels. 14 Apr. 2010.
"Teaching and Admonishing One Another in All Wisdom." Desiring God: from the
Ministry of John Piper. 18 Apr. 2010.