The Peace of Christ (3:15)
One undeniable thing about the New Testament is its often brutal honesty. There is no whitewashing of human weakness or the hardships of life. The apostle Paul is especially open and forthright about the struggles of being a Christian as well as the realities of existence in the church. We are not yet perfect. Heaven is still to come.
Nowhere is this better seen than in Colossians 3. Paul recognizes that, notwithstanding the grace of conversion, Christians still fight against fleshly impulses to sexual immorality and impurity and anger and unforgiveness, just to mention a few. He knows that believers are capable of exasperating behavior and that sinning against one another (cf. 3:13) is a very real threat that must be addressed.
Disputes are inevitable. Schisms occur. Theological disagreements and relational friction are ever present. Threats to the unity and tranquility of church life are all too real. This is why Paul includes this crucial word of counsel on how to resolve such problems when they arise: “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body” (Colossians 3:15a).
The first order of business is determining what Paul means by “the peace of Christ.” He earlier stated that Christ made “peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20). That is to say, he removed the hostility of God toward sinners by absorbing it in himself on the tree. Thereby he established a relationship between God and the Christian of peace, tranquility, harmony, love, and fellowship.
Then there is the “peace” Jesus had in view in John 14:27 when he reassured his disciples with this promise: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” This is a peace he both embodies and gives. It is the peace that characterizes Christ himself, a peace that he in turn graciously imparts to his people.
Clearly, then, Paul is saying that in making decisions in the corporate assembly we must give consideration “in our hearts” to what will preserve and promote the peace that Christ died to achieve. It is in the realm of the “one body” (3:15b), the church, where this “peace of Christ” comes to effect and exercises its authority.
Although the “peace of Christ” in other contexts may well refer to the personal and individual experience of spiritual tranquility (cf. the “peace of God” in Phil. 4:7), I don’t think that is Paul’s primary concern here in Colossians 3. The context of this passage is the corporate body of Christ and relations among the many and varied members of the church. This is obvious from a careful reading of vv. 11, 12, 13, and 14 (note the emphasis in these verses on how we interact with others in the church).
This is reinforced, I believe, by the word Paul uses that is here translated “rule” (found only here in the NT). This word was used to describe the responsibility of an umpire in the athletic games who directed the competition and rendered decisions concerning the winners of each contest. He also awarded the competitors their prizes. It later came to have the more general meaning of to arbitrate, give a verdict, preside, rule, control, and hold sway.
Thus, contrary to the way many have used this passage, Paul is not telling us to make personal decisions in our individual lives based on whether or not we “feel peace” in our hearts. “I’m at peace with this course of action” is something I often hear people say as a way of declaring their conviction that they are in the will of God. This may well be legitimate in another context, but it is not what Paul is addressing here.
We should also take note of the reference to the “one body” (i.e., the unified corporate life of the church) to which we “were called” (3:15b). Whether or not we should take “in one body” as expressing purpose or perhaps result (hence, “so that you might be united in one body” or “so that you form one body”), or simply “as members of one body,” the point is the same: pay close heed to what maintains the unity of the church.
This, then, is Paul’s point: “In making your decisions, in choosing between alternatives, in settling conflicts of will, a concern to preserve the inward and communal peace that Christ gave and gives should be your controlling principle” (Murray Harris, 165). A decisive factor in how you should conduct yourselves in relation one to another is whether or not the peace that Christ died to achieve and impart is preserved and promoted. When you are faced with tensions and potentially divisive decisions in the community of faith, give strong consideration to what will most effectively sustain the “peace of Christ”.
The apostle said much the same thing in Ephesians 4:3. There he called on Christians to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” There is an obvious urgency in Paul’s exhortation: “be eager!” That is to say, spare no effort, make it a priority, be urgent about it, make haste! Peace has a bonding effect. It is that which enables us to get along and support and sustain one another. Thus, “the bond of peace” is the means by which we demonstrate to the world that unity which the Spirit has created among us. This unity already exists by virtue of what the Spirit has done, but we must be diligently committed to preserving it.
One final comment is needed. Paul is not saying that peace, precious though it be, is pre-eminent. Unity in the church is certainly important, but it doesn’t come at any price. We must never sacrifice the fundamental truths of Christian faith simply to avoid conflict. One cannot appeal to this passage to justify the termination of all theological disputes in the church. Paul is not suggesting that “peace trumps truth” and that we should compromise on what we know to be biblical lest we offend those who disagree.
Some things are actually worth fighting for. One thinks immediately of Galatians 1:6-10 and Paul’s commitment to the purity of the gospel. We cannot negotiate when it comes to the foundational principles of God’s work in Christ in saving souls. Any so-called “peace” that comes at the expense of gospel truth is not “of Christ”, no matter how pleasant it may feel or effective it may appear.
Called to peace,