Colossians 3:18 Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
This passage by Paul is always looked upon with favor by husbands. They see this verse as giving them authority to do what they want in a marriage relationship, and to require the wife to do whatever the husband wants, and the wife must obey. It says it here, in black and white. It’s hard to argue against that, isn’t it? If I want Judy to work in the garden all day pulling weeds, then I have the biblical authority to demand and expect that. Paul says it right here. And I need to do is to remind her when she is not living up to my standard.
On the other hand, women look at this passage with dread. Some think that Paul hated women. Others grudgingly accept what it says and try their best to obey their husband even if his demands are unreasonable.
So in order to understand what this passage means, I want to consider this passage based on the culture during the first century, and also comparing this passage with a parallel passage in Eph 5.
First, notice that the word Paul used in verse 18 is not the word “obey”. The word obey is used when Paul was referring to slaves and children. Slaves, obey your master, and children obey your parents.
Secondly, in a commentary called the Bible Background Commentary it mentions that in the Roman Empire, there were things called ‘household codes’. The codes had a standard form of exhortation about how the head of a household should deal with members of his family. The code would usually break down into discussions of husband-wife, father-child and master-slave relationships. So Paul basically borrows this form of discussion straight from the cultural moral writings of the first century. But that is where the similarity stops, because what Paul says undermines the main point of these codes: which was the absolute authority of the male head of the house. But the Gospel does not support the teaching that the male head of household has absolute authority over his wife.
Thirdly, I want to look at the specifics of this verse. And we’ll do that by relying on a parallel passage in Eph 5, which helps make what Paul says a bit clearer.
1. In Eph 5:21 Paul states that all believers are to ‘submit’ to other another. Now Paul did not say that this one another submission didn’t apply to the marriage relationship. Even when believers marry, they are to submit to one another. Paul, here in our text is emphasizing this submission requirement for the woman, but when he gets to the man’s responsibility, he doubles down and makes an even greater requirement for the man.
In Jewish and Greek and Roman societies, they has was we call a patriarchal marriage. The man was in charge of and in authority over all things relating to his house, and his property (which included his wife). But what Paul states in Col 3:18ff and Eph 5:21ff was a radical change from the standard patriarchal marriages and household codes of Paul’s day. Paul tells all believers (whether husband-wife, children, masters, and servants, to submit to one another in the Lord. So whatever “submission” a wife is called to, her husband (as a fellow believer) is also called to the same thing:
We show in our lives that when we are filled with the Spirit, we “submitting to one another” because Christ is our Lord and all who believe, serve Jesus Christ as Lord and master over their life. Those household codes of Paul’s day called for wives, children and slaves to submit in various ways, but this new teaching of the Gospel that calls all members to submit to one another went against the culture of that time.
Paul says in Rom 12: 9, 10:
9 Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor;
When we give preference to one another, it is a form of submitting to one another. Instead of me first, it’s you -my fellow believer- first. In all our dealings with one another, we are to put the other person’s good, the other believer’s benefit before our own. Paul even goes so far as to to say, when we are treated badly by another believer, “why not rather be wronged?” In other words, instead of taking revenge, let God deal with it, and you be the stronger believer and submit to your brother out of love. Not an easy thing to do, is it?
So what does this self-submission, modeled after Jesus, look like in marriage?
We know that the model for the believer’s self submission is Christ. What Paul is saying in Ephesians 5:21 is that the Spirit enables believers to be in a relationship that is radical, and culturally transforming, through mutual self-submission. The basis for this new approach to human relationships is “out of reverence for Christ.” And the reason why we are to have that reverence and awe of Christ, is because in His earthly life, He freely submitted Himself to the Father’s will and gave Himself up to be crucified in our place. It is the awesomeness of that self-sacrificing love that motivates our own submission to Christ and to one another.
Here is another point we need to notice: Paul’s command for wives to submit—as for all believers—is based not on authority, but on freedom.
The submission of the wife to the husband should be “as to the Lord.” Under the Gospel this submission is no longer to be what was dictated by culture, and therefore forced upon women. In the non-Christian cultures of Paul’s time, women were seen as inferior to males. Under the Gospel, the wife’s submission is given freely, to her husband “as to the Lord.” As a disciple of the Lord, the wife submits because she is motivated by the selfless love of her Savior. This type of submission goes against the culture of Paul and it goes against our culture today. The Gospel confronts and challenges any behavior not based on the love of Christ.
The duties listed in Eph 5 and Col 3 are for the wives, the men, the children, and the servants. The household codes simply addressed the head of the household, telling them how to govern members of his household. But Paul first addresses wives, children and servants. And Paul doesn’t tell the man how to govern his wife, children and slaves, but he simply tells him to love his wife, and exercise care in disciplining his children and to also regard his servants as equals before God. The wife, children and servants are to obey the Lord in their voluntary submission.
Fourth, what Paul means by ‘submit’ is related to humility and not to obedience of one in authority.
Since the marriage relationship of the husband to the wife is pattered after the love of Christ for His church, we can make some conclusions about the husband-wife relationship. As Christ submitted His will to the Father’s will, He humbled Himself and came to earth to do what His Father wanted. When in our relationships we submit to one another, we do it out of humility. We humble ourselves and willingly yield our wills, first to Christ, and then to one another.
In Eph 5:33, the closest Paul comes to defining submission is “respect” and in the Greek text, the submission of the wife to her husband is just one example of general mutual submission of believers to one another. In Paul’s concluding summary of the Eph 5 paragraph he says in vs 33 that the wife should respect her husband, and the husband should love his wife. In that culture wives were expected to respect their husbands, but it was also emphasized that they also be obedient to their husbands.
In Eph 5:24, Paul makes a point about this radical teaching of voluntary self submission of a wife to her husband. “As the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” So what is the nature of the church’s submission to Christ? The church’s submission to Christ is given in humble response to His self-less, sacrificial work and His continuing nurturing of the church. The church’s submission to Jesus Christ does not have anything to do with external control or coercion. The life of Christ shows us that He didn’t come to earth to rule over us and demonstrate His power over us. If He wanted to do that, He would have made His kingdom here on earth. But His earthly ministry demonstrated endless compassion for His people. The husband, by the way, is to model that love of Christ. Not by demanding absolute obedience from his spouse, but by wooing her with love and compassion as Christ did for the church.
The last point I want to make about what Paul says regarding the marriage relationship, is that the requirement he lays upon the husband was radically different from what was considered normal in the first century.
Being filled with the Spirit, and having the word of Christ dwelling in us, as Paul says in the Eph and Col passages, means that we “submit to one another” because Jesus Christ is our Lord. Everything that Paul states is based upon that fact. In the culture of the first century, it was normal and expected to have women, children, and servants to submit and obey the male head of the household, but to require the head of the household to submit as well, was just not done.
So Paul does uphold the concept of wives submitting to their husbands, but he qualifies it by placing it in the context of mutual submission. Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church, by willingly laying down their lives for them, by self-sacrifice, by setting aside their own interests and needs and caring for the wife that God has given them.
In the first century, women were viewed as something to be used and taken advantage of by the husband. Something to serve them. Jewish males would thank God daily that he had not made them a Gentile, a slave or a woman. On the other hand, the Apostle Paul calls upon husbands to have an agape love for their wives, to be there for them and with them in self-giving, nurturing, serving love. That is the way that Christ loved the church, and both husbands, and wives are to be imitators of Christ (Eph 5:2).
So why does the church stumble so much over this issue of self-submission? Could it be our egos are inflated? Does our high view of ourselves keep us from submitting to one another? If the King and Ruler of all creation, the sustainer of our very lives, refused to submit to His Father, we would be without hope.
We probably all think that we have no difficulty in submitting ourselves to Jesus Christ. But when it comes to personal relationships in the church, do we have difficulty submitting ourselves to one another? Could it be that we really are not fully submitting our wills to Jesus Christ?
And in marriage, there is the same issue. If we don’t fully submit ourselves to Christ, then we won’t submit ourselves to one another in the church, nor will wives and husbands be inclined to submit to one another.
When Paul says that he can do all things through Christ who strengthens him, we may think that he was talking about miraculous healing or some other powerful manifestation of the Spirit working in and through us. But don’t you think that submitting to one another in love in the church and in our marriages requires tremendous spiritual strength? When we submit our wills and desires to Christ, only then will the church look like the bride of Christ. And only then will be submitting to one another.