Do No Harm

John D. Barry

Love can hurt. Many well-intentioned people have done more harm than good while attempting to care for others. This is especially the case in cross-cultural situations, as well-meaning people attempt to introduce change without understanding the local culture. But it can even be true in our homes.

Paul’s words in Col 3:18–4:1 have been misused countless times by those seeking to gain or maintain power. Yet when we examine the passage closely, we find that Paul’s main goal is to teach the church in Colossae to help without hurting as he works toward seeing cultural norms in the light of the gospel.

When Paul talks about wives “submitting” to their husbands, he frames it in light of the phrase, “husbands love your wives” (Col 3:18–19). The submission he speaks of is not about giving up will or freedom; Paul is acknowledging the cultural and economic realities of the time and encouraging the Church to operate within those norms. In Graeco-Roman culture, the idea of married women having their own livelihoods—and thus holding complete autonomy in decision-making—was incomprehensible. Women couldn’t own property or vote. Paul acknowledges that Christ’s work in making all people equal will radically reframe culture (Gal 3:23–4:7), yet in Col 3:18–4:1, he’s concerned that if the Church introduces radical changes, it will gain a negative reputation in Graeco-Roman culture. He wants the Christian work in culture to help, not harm.

It’s for this same reason that Paul includes a provision for masters and slaves; however, as with men and women, he reframes the cultural norms to the extent possible: Masters are to grant their slaves “justice and fairness” (Col 4:1). Paul would have likely been alone in calling people to this standard. As his decision to subtly ask Philemon to free Onesimus shows, Paul likely wished to completely overturn slavery, but he also understood that doing so would take time (see especially Phlm 15–16). Paul’s charges to slaves and masters in Col 3:22–4:1 are meant to help until a more complete reform could take place.

Paul sees the Church as first setting basic examples, then progressing to a more radical framework as culture itself is changed by Christianity. In Paul’s lifetime, a radical reworking was not feasible—it would have resulted in culture completely rejecting Christ, and thus ended the very work He was trying to make happen. Therefore, Paul creates provisions to help people during the process of the change.

Love must work to change things that need to change. But ultimately, love must always avoid harm.

What is God calling you to change? How can you do so without harming others?

This article was originally posted in Connect the Testaments: A One-Year Daily Devotional with Bible Reading Plan.