Americans in the twenty-first century take it for granted that “all men are created equal,” but this idea has certainly not been affirmed throughout most of world history. In the first-century Roman Empire, people were anything but equal. Male, property-owning citizens ranked highest in the social order, having rights not extended to their wives, children, or slaves. The male head of household determined whether or not infants born to the family would live or be left to die of exposure. Slaves were regarded as machines subject wholly to the will of the master of the house. Wives did not fare much better, and while it was not uncommon to find a first-century Roman husband who loved his wife, such love was not expected or demanded.
Considering these realities, it is easier to see how revolutionary the Christian message was in that society. In his application of what it means to live as the new humanity in Christ to existing social and familial relationships, the apostle Paul addresses wives, children, and slaves directly, assuming that they are equally important in the church. Moreover, in an age when these groups were often believed to be incapable of exercising sound moral judgments even if directed, the apostle appeals to them as rational, moral creatures who can and must submit to certain ethical imperatives (Col. 3:18, 20, 22). Recognizing a proper order to society and relationships, Paul nonetheless applies the gospel to them in ways that transform them, defining all members of the church as responsible human beings regardless of their gender or social status, and he demands that the men not be domineering and cruel, as was allowed in Roman law, but loving, encouraging, kind, and just (vv. 19, 21; 4:1).
In the master-slave relationship, Paul says that Christian slaves must not work “by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord” (Col. 3:22). Considering that many thought all slaves were lazy back then, working wholeheartedly demonstrated the power of the gospel to bring true transformation and not just to create hypocrites who only pretended to do what was right. Moreover, the injunction for the slave to fear the Lord put a limit on the slavemaster’s authority. The slave had but one ultimate master — Christ Himself — and when the master commanded the slave to do something that Jesus forbade, the slave had to disobey the master.