This Sunday we have the text in Colossians that is the trickiest to teach. It is not tricky in terms of the concept or clarity of the passage. The trickiness lies in the sociological and political background noise of the issue at hand, namely, gender roles in marriage.
I said that the text is clear, but I did not say it does not require some careful unpacking. Many react strongly to passages like this one because it has been abused in the past. There is a way to foist a worldly understanding of gender onto passages like this, and we certainly want to avoid that. Whatever Biblical gender teaching is doing, it is not promoting American patriarchy. No, we want to understand what Paul, under the influence of the Spirit, meant to convey. We need to know what he means when he uses words like “submit”, “love”, “respect”, “head”, “as is fitting in the Lord”. So, we don’t want to teach something this passage does not say. We don’t want to over-teach it. But, we also don’t want to under-teach it. We do not want to fear people in such a way that we hold back on the meaning and implications of passages like this either.
So, I thought in preparation for this Sunday, I would take a few posts to cover things I will not have time to cover this Sunday and round things out a bit more. Today I want to answer the questions: 1) Does this text still apply today? 2) How can this teaching be fair and good? 3) What does Paul not mean by “submit”? And, 4) Do husbands and wives submit to each other, in basically the same way, and is Paul just focusing on wives because of cultural pressure or his usage of an existing household code well known in ancient Greek society?
Does this text still apply today?
Yes, I believe that it does. In chapter 3 of Colossians Dave Ward and I have been preaching on Paul’s teaching on what it means to be clothed with Christ. I focused on taking off the clothes of sinful self. Dave preached on what it means to put Christ on. Both parts dealt with specific exhortations to stop certain behaviors and to commit to others. In particular, we are called to sexual and relational purity. No problems there. How could it be then that in the same vein of thought, in the same context, continuing the portrait of what it means to put Christ on, that all of a sudden we land on a teaching that is no longer valid due to cultural particularity? These two verses are striking because of the sociological world we live in now, but for Paul they were natural thoughts about what it means to live a life under the authority of Christ. This, for Paul, is what it looks like to have the true gospel be lived out in marriage. In fact, the parsing of this text into a cultural preference, rather than a theological norm, splits the very thought in two kinds of teachings, if we are honest. In other words, no one complains about the command for husbands to love wives and not be harsh with them. But then how is it we can flatten out the first and grammatically connected thought about wives submitting to husbands? If we are careful and fair, we won’t parse it out that way and we will accept that the teaching still stands on both sides of the phrase.
How can this teaching be fair and good?
Because this is God’s word, not ultimately man’s. Paul penned this, for sure. But he penned it while being inspired by the Spirit and, in general, as a product of being a godly, gospel-driven, Biblically saturated man. Whatever this text means, it is a good word from a great God. There is no shadow of falsehood in this. Would God really have one of his apostles teach something as divine writ that was less than perfect, even dysfunctional, in order to condescend to cultural norms of an ancient setting? Now, God inspired texts that directed application for deeper principles that were culturally contextual, like head coverings for wives in public worship (1 Cor 11.1-16), but the deeper principle of husbands and wives being overtly reflective of the Trinitarian logic of marriage in worship still stands. Our text is raw principle. Paul does not suggest ways to live love and submission in ancient terms. He just says to wives: the gospel calls you to submit to your husbands; and to husbands: the gospel calls you to love and gentleness with your wives. That is just the raw principle. I would suggest that is an extraordinary grace that the Bible allows us to pray and wisely figure out what that means for us in our world.
But, however it is to be applied, we must believe that this is a good word from a great God. This is good news. This is a vision of health. There is nothing to fear. God wants to bestow life with messages like this.
What does Paul not mean by “Submit”?
I will talk about what he does mean later and certainly in the message. But, for now, let’s talk about what he does not mean. He does not mean: be mindless and manipulated, be a doormat, be disrespected and taken for granted, do whatever your husband wants, do not be a partner, do not think for yourself, do not teach, guide, or contribute significantly, be lower in hierarchy, don’t have a vocation, never think about anything outside the children and the home, don’t be highly educated, use your gifts, or be used mightily of God in your marriage and in the world.
Remember, we have to go with what Paul means by submission and not what we pour into that symbol-word. This is a case in point of trusting that there is meaning in texts and that the meaning of Biblical words is both true and what the author meant when he used the word-symbol. In fact, here is the beauty: Paul is doing the reverse of what we might think he is doing. In this passage, with both injunctions in view together (the call to both wives and husbands), Paul is giving women a radical standing that neither Jewish nor Hellenistic culture gave them. His meaning of submit is very different than the strong patriarchy that the ancient world assumed. His teaching is tied up to the Lordship and pattern of Christ and the requisite, and I would argue foundational, attitude and actions of a godly husband. But, we will take on what Paul does mean later.
Do husbands and wives submit to each other in basically the same way?
I am referring to the passage where we have Paul’s most expansive thoughts on gospel marriage roles in Ephesians 5. Before he dives into specifics, he says in Eph 5.21 “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” So, does Paul’s teaching on the submission of a wife focus on one side of the coin only because of cultural pressure? In other words, does Paul only touch upon and not expand on mutual submission because he would lose his audience if he went into detail about husbands submitting to wives, and/or because he was using a preexisting household code that did not talk about the submission of husbands? I don’t think so. Here’s why:
First, Eph 5.21 is a participial phrase – that is, a phrase that is acting as an adverb. It is modifying the phrase before it, namely, what it looks like to worship as a local church under the influence of the Spirit. This includes musical worship, thankful prayers, and the intertwined submission of the body (vv 18-21). While vv 22ff are not to be disconnected from the previous thought, they do begin a new subsection that focuses on Spirit-led, gospel centered marriage.
But, even if Eph 5.21 was a heading (which grammatically it really can’t be), does “submitting to one another” have to mean that everyone submits multilaterally and symmetrically to everyone else, all at the same time? It could mean that, but it does not have to mean that. And, whenever there is ambiguity about what a word or phrase means, then context is the guide. Whatever Paul says in 5.22ff, that is the specific meaning of mutual submission.
With that said, there are other places that talk about carrying out a specific action with the object being a group of people called “one another”. For instance, in Galatians 6.2 it says “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” That could mean a local church is full of people with burdens, all at the same time, and that it must bear each other’s burdens, multilaterally, all at the same time. I think we would agree, though, that is not what it means. It most likely means that when some people in a local church have a significant burden, that the other members are called to walk with them in that burden. The call is for one group, the strong, to walk with another group, the weak. “One another” is a general way of referring to a group of people. It does not have to mean every single person, in the same situation, all at the same time.
All that to say, Eph 5.21 is not probably not saying that husbands should submit to wives in the same way that wives submit to husbands. But, that does not mean that husbands do not relate to their wives in a way we would deem radically caring, respectful, open, vulnerable, desiring knowledge, leadership, input, correction, and love. I do think Paul is theologically purposeful in using the word “submission” for wives only. But, what is so neat about Eph 5 and our text, Col 3.18-19, is that his call for husbands to love and be gentle with their wives is just as radical, purposely unique in some fashion to husbands, and a blessing for the spouse. We will dive into the positive meaning in our next blogs.