Why the ultimate Christian approach to marriage roles is “submit to one another” – Colossians 3:18-21, Part 3

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Yesterday I mentioned that have a surprise for you. 

This week we have been looking at how to live the Colossians 3:17 principle of “whatever you do, do it all in the name of Jesus,” as it pertains to family relationships. Paul teaches that wives should submit to their husbands and husbands should love their wives. I also mentioned in the second post in the series that Paul repeats and expands this teaching in another letter he wrote around the same time, Ephesians. If you look at Ephesians 5:22-33, you can see it. So what is the surprise?

Look at Ephesians 5:21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  That’s the surprise. Paul wrote, “Submit to one another”!!!  And he wrote that to people in a patriarchal culture!  One way to apply “submit to one another” is in marriage. Submission in marriage can be mutual.  Both submit to each other!  In fact, I hope in this post to explain why I believe “submit to one another” is the ultimate and best Christian approach to marriage roles.

Are you thinking, “Wait a minute.  Then why didn’t Paul write that in Colossians?”  There are two things I want to say about that.  First, these were circular letters.  Just as you and I have access to both Ephesians and Colossians so that we can compare the teaching and fill in the gaps, they had access to both as well. Peek ahead to chapter 4, verse 16 to see what I mean.  Paul didn’t have to write everything in both letters because he knew the letters were being passed around, and soon enough the people would hear both. There wouldn’t be any doubt that he meant “submit to one another.” 

Second, look at Colossians 3:19 again, “Husbands love your wives.”  Do you think Paul meant, “Husbands, you love your wives, but wives, you don’t have to love your husbands”?   Likewise, could it be that Paul meant that only the wives were to submit, and only the husbands were to love?  That’s ridiculous, right?  We would never say that.  Instead we know that both should love each other.  Paul doesn’t have to say “Wives love your husbands,” because it is obvious to all that they should love their husbands.  Then why do we say, “Only wives have to submit”?  When we do that, we are using an inconsistent approach to interpreting and applying the Bible. 

We need to be consistent.  We need to incorporate the passage from Ephesians and understand that wives’ submission is in the context of “Submit to one another,“ and both love one another.  Both go both ways. 

What Paul is writing is actually radical for that culture.  Submit to one another?  The typical Greco-Roman male would hear that and think, “What madness is this?  I only submit to people who are leaders over me.  There is no way I’m submitting to my wife.”  And yet, clear as day, right there in Ephesians 5:21 we read the principle. 

It was also radical for Paul to say to the husbands, “Love your wives, and do not be harsh with them,” because it was absolutely normal in that society for the husbands to treat their wives poorly.  Love them?  Men would respond, “Why?”  The patriarchy of that society could be quite cruel.  Paul, then, was teaching something radical for the husbands. 

He was also teaching something radical for the wives, but in a different way.  They had always lived in a patriarchal culture, so you might think that telling wives to submit to their husbands is simply perpetuating the norm.  But remember that these are people who had been hearing a new teaching about a new life in Christ.  That teaching was quite different from anything they had heard before.  Women were now being told that they are in Christ, that God loves and prizes them, and they are made in the image of God. Those women had been learning that in God’s eyes, in every way that mattered, they were equal to men.  After centuries of being downtrodden, you can see women excitedly embracing this new powerful teaching of equality, as they should.  Paul knows this, and he wants them to embrace this new teaching, but he is also concerned about what could happen if they do not use wisdom in how they apply the teaching to their lives. 

The women could respond, “What do you mean, ‘Submit,’ Paul?  You have been teaching that we are equal to men, and we have been downtrodden for so long, and we are just loving this new breath of fresh air.  Now you’re going back on your word.  You’re contradicting yourself.”  It could seem like that.  On one hand Paul is saying they are equal, and on the other hand he is telling them to submit.  Which one is it, Paul? 

I believe Paul is looking at marriage roles from a Kingdom trajectory.  In the Kingdom of God men and women are 100% equal right?  The Kingdom of God is not patriarchal and it is not matriarchal.  It is egalitarian.  But Paul knows that the church is young, fragile, easily compromised, and so he has to contain his teaching to the point where it promotes the momentum of the growth of the Kingdom, and doesn’t do damage to the momentum and mission.  If Paul teaches something so radically different from the patriarchal culture, the culture will likely react strongly against it, and the church could suffer as a result.  Paul knows that he wants a different cultural reality in the future, a Kingdom reality of equality, and so he has to make sure the young church is moving toward that Kingdom reality at the right pace.  Paul doesn’t want the church to be known as a cult of wild women who are disrespectful.  So he makes sure the women are following the conventional norms of society, that of submitting to their husbands, while at the same time, he is embedding in the theology of the church, a new way.  Mutual respect, mutual submission, mutual love.  Egalitarianism.  Total equality.

2000 years later, we are no longer living in a strict patriarchy.  Our culture is much more egalitarian.  Therefore  I believe that Paul would not need to write verses 18-19 to the Christian church in the USA.  I suspect, instead, that he would only write, “Submit to one another.  Love one another.” 

But don’t you need one person to be the final decision maker in a marriage?  I get how that can make life easier in some ways.  My wife, Michelle, has traveled quite a bit in the last 12-13 years because of her work in Cambodia. When she is halfway around the world, I am temporarily a solo parent. There are elements of being a solo parent that are easier than the normal, because as the only parent around, I just make decisions and don’t have to communicate or compromise. But there are also significant difficulties to being a solo parent, such as companionship, and the deeper wisdom that comes from the combined personalities, experiences and perspectives of two people. As a result, I have great respect for single parents, as they carry a massive burden, and we in the church family should support them as much as we can.

When Michelle and I do premarital counseling, what we say is that each couple needs to agree together on what roles and decision-making process they are going use.  We know people who strongly believe in the male headship role, and that works for them.  Most commonly they describe their position as the complementarian position, such that the husband and wife are 100% equal in God’s eyes, but they have different and complementary roles in the relationship.  If that is how you want to look at it, and most importantly, if that is how both the husband and wife agree to look at it, then go for it.  But if you prefer the egalitarian view, that is okay too.  What is not okay, is when the complementarians believe their way is the only right way, or when the egalitarians believe their way is the only right way.  Instead, there is room for both views!  We’re not in the Kingdom yet.  Let us be clear, no matter what approach you use, each spouse should be growing and guided by their love for one another. 

Love is active, sacrificial, and nurturing. You might want to review 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, that famous passage about love. It’s not a marriage passage, but it surely relates to how husbands and wives should demonstrate their love for one another.

Published by joelkime

I love my wife, Michelle, and our four kids and two daughters-in-law. I serve at Faith Church and love our church family. I teach a course online from time to time, and in my free time I love to read and exercise, especially running,

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