As we saw in the previous post, Paul wrote that it is fitting to the Lord that Christian wives and Christian husbands, when it comes to roles in marriage, were to practice “wives submit, husbands lead.” In that First-century Greco-Roman culture it just so happened that this dictum was in line with that society’s standards for marriage relationships.
Except that’s not all Paul said. I haven’t mentioned this a whole lot thus far in the Colossians series, but Paul wrote another letter right around the same time he wrote Colossians. If you ever compare Colossians with his letter to the Ephesians, you see passages that are incredibly similar. Keep your finger in Colossians 3, and turn to Ephesians 5:22-6:9. We’re going to flip back and forth between the two.
What do you notice when you compare the two passages? They say the same thing, but Ephesians has more detail. Look at Ephesians 5:22. It’s nearly identical to Colossians 3:18. Now scan ahead to Ephesians 5, verses 23-24. There Paul makes a theological case for why husbands are the heads or leaders of their wives. Just as Jesus is head of the church, Paul writes, the husband is the head of the wife. Through the centuries, biblical scholars and theologians have made a strong argument using this passage that male leadership and female submission is God’s design for all marriages for all times and places.
Clearly, Paul’s description of “wives submit, husbands lead,” and his rationale for those roles in marriage worked well in his culture, because that culture was already practicing those precise roles. Of course, the Greco-Roman patriarchal culture did not practice male leadership and female submission in marriage because they wanted to follow God’s design. That was just the way that culture had developed. Nearly all cultures through history have developed that way. But not all. There have been some matriarchal cultures, but they tend to be far and few between.
How would you describe our contemporary American culture? Are we patriarchal or matriarchal or egalitarian, which is an approach where men and women are equal in every way? Historically, America was patriarchal, but we have moved toward the egalitarian approach. I doubt anyone would say we are entirely egalitarian, but we we have certainly moved in that direction. Think about the iconic 1950s family: the husband goes to work, and the wife stays at home to raise the kids, clean the house, and prepare meals. It seems like a relic from an ancient past. Sure, it is still the case in some families, but less and less.
But Paul is writing to Christians, not to the Greco-Roman culture. That’s an important distinction. He is simply saying that these marriage roles are for Christians. When we look at state of the contemporary American Christian marriage, can we say that our marriages are in line with Paul has written here? “Husbands, lead. Wives, submit.” Or is it okay if we do things differently because our culture is different?
The big question when looking at passages like this one is whether we are to understand them as applicable and binding for all Christians everywhere all the time, or if we are to understand this principle as Paul writing for that church in that time and place.
In other words, should Christians living in a culture that is becoming more and more egalitarian look at Colossians and Ephesians and say, “Well wives, in order to be faithful to the Lord, your husband is your leader, and you submit to him”? It doesn’t matter that this goes against our larger culture, you do it. You are to be different from the culture. There are plenty of things we Christians practice that go against our larger culture. We should be ready and willing to do what God says rather than what our society says. As the apostles in the early church said, “We obey God rather than men.”
But some people look at this passage and disagree, saying that Paul only wrote this because those first century Christians were living in a patriarchal culture. Some people claim that if Paul were writing to our more egalitarian culture, he would have written something like, “Submit to one another.”
I have a surprise for you. Look at Ephesians 5:21. There Paul writes, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Paul DID write, “Submit to one another”!!! And he wrote that to people in a patriarchal culture! Submission in marriage is to be mutual. Both submit to each other! Are you thinking, “Wait a minute. Then why didn’t Paul write that in Colossians?”
Check back in to the next post, and we’ll talk about that further.