In the book of Colossians, Paul discusses two groups of unbelievers. The first group, in chapter 2, consists of unbelievers who seek to impose their worldly philosophies and traditions onto the Christians at Colossae (Colossians 2:8). They insist that the Colossians embrace forms of worship and living that do not coincide with the gospel they were once taught (Colossians 1:5-6; 2:18; 4:12). When the Christians at Colossae refuse to yield to this unbiblical worldview, this first group of unbelievers declares them to be “disqualified” (Colossians 2:18).
The second group, in chapter 4, is known as “outsiders.” Paul does not accuse these outsiders of imposing their sinful ways upon the church like the first group of unbelievers but simply states their need for salvation and his desire for them to hear the gospel (Colossians 4:2-6). Naturally, conflict arises when believers find themselves trying to exist in a loving relationship with extended family members who are “outsiders,” members of the second group.
However, there tends to be a caustic, tumultuous rumble of sorts when believers attempt to stand firm against family members who fit into the first group of unbelievers—lost people who demand your participation in their worldly ways. I do not propose to solve the entirety of this problem here but hope to provide biblical guidance for those times when you find yourself striving to glorify God and not altogether sever the relationship with a lost loved one. We will rely on Paul’s letter to “the saints and faithful brothers” (Colossians 1:2) at Colossae to help us “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord” (Colossians 1:10) when we encounter conflict with our lost family.
Thinking Biblically About Lost Family
As we approach the topic at hand, we must acknowledge two helpful biblical truths. First, we should not expect lost individuals to think and behave like Christians (1 Corinthians 2:14). This truth, inserted into real life, necessitates conflict because we live in a world teeming with unbelievers. There will probably be times when your actions please God and infuriate or stupefy lost family. This probability does not imply that we ought to seek to offend family members flippantly but simply acknowledges that conflict arises from the conflict between God’s will and the world’s will.
The second truth is in Matthew 10:34-39, which says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” Here, we see Jesus teach that while the gospel brings peace between God and man, it also brings necessary division between those who do and do not follow Him.
Viewing Ourselves in Light of the Gospel
The majority of Colossians 1-2 reminds the saints of who they are in Christ: redeemed (Colossians 1:14). Paul reminds them that they are forgiven by God through the gracious canceling of their sin debt, which was nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:13-14). This truth informs believers that nobody—not even family members who render us unfit because we do not acquiesce to their unbiblical impositions—has the authority to declare a person as “unqualified” once God, in Christ, has rendered a person as “qualified” (Colossians 1:12; 2:10,18). Therefore, if you stand your ground and state your boundary in a family dispute and then hear how unfair, unloving, and unchristian you are, remember that pagans don’t have the authority, nor capability, to determine what a life “fully pleasing” to God looks like (Colossians 1:10; 2:10; 1 Corinthians 2:14). In times of conflict with outsiders, remind yourself of the gospel and its demands on your conduct and speech and never waiver in your faith (Colossians 1:23; 3:1-17, 23-24).
Viewing Your Lost Family in Light of the Gospel
In the context of Colossians 4:2-6, Paul asks the saints at Colossae to pray for himself to have a “door for the word” so that he may communicate the gospel to unbelievers (Colossians 4:2). Then, Paul immediately gives instructions to the Colossians on how they should conduct themselves among the lost. His teachings on how to treat “outsiders” in verses 5-6 stem from Paul’s zeal for lost people to hear the gospel, as seen in verses 2-4. Accordingly, the first piece of counsel we should heed when in conflict with “outsiders,” even when they are family, is to remain gospel-focused.
Remember in times of conflict that your lost family members are part of your mission field (Colossians 4:2-4). We ought to be zealous and pray for their salvation. If they slander you or judge your requests as “unchristian,” take heart and recall that we should not expect lost individuals to think and behave like Christians (1 Corinthians 2:14). So, now that we have a gospel-focus, how are we to navigate times of necessary conflict? By obeying Colossians 4:5-6.
Walk in Wisdom
The word wisdom appears six times in the book of Colossians. Paul teaches that wisdom is from the Lord and should be taught to the Lord’s people (Colossians 1:9-10, 28; 2:3), implying that since one can teach wisdom, one can also learn wisdom. Paul explains that the goal of possessing wisdom is maturity, saying, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). The term that describes the biblical process believers undergo when they transform from “immature” to “mature in Christ” is sanctification. Therefore, when concerns for personal holiness arise, asking the question, “Will my attendance and participation promote sanctification?” will help lead you toward a wise, God-honoring decision.
Gracious Speech, Seasoned with Salt
When establishing boundaries with lost family, we must do it graciously, meaning that our speech must follow the pattern Paul presents in Colossians 3:8-10. He teaches to put away “anger, wrath, malice, slander, obscene talk from your mouth” and lying. When we confront our family, or anyone for that matter, we must prayerfully speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Speaking graciously also means speaking clearly (Colossians 4:4). Whether it is communicating the contents of the gospel message or our sanctification-promoting boundaries, we must clearly state the problem, God’s issue with the problem, God’s solution to the problem, and, if applicable, kindly state your conviction.
Sometimes when we place necessary boundaries between ourselves and a family member, conflict, strain, and awkwardness persist much longer than we desire. In these times, you may find your resolve in the words of Micah, the prophet whom Jesus quoted in Matthew 10 when our Lord declared the divisive nature of the gospel within families. Micah writes, “a man’s enemies are the men of his own house. But as for me, I will look to the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me” (Micah 7:6-7).