“Submit” and “obey” are two words that don’t usually bring out the best emotions. Perhaps we think of submission as something we endure from some overpowering bully, like a mixed martial artist who submits his opponent. Perhaps we think of a family, school, a church or a business where all that mattered was authority and obedience, and it was experienced in a way that was mean, cold, harsh, or demeaning. Perhaps we think of obedience or submission as being weak, or being told not to think for ourselves. Perhaps we think of being a victim, abused by those who want to dominate and control us rather than compel or love us.
So here’s a question: What does the Bible say about power and submission?
Let’s go back to Paul’s letter to the Colossian church.
- Paul began Colossians by demonstrating the supremacy of Christ in every area of life.
- Because Christ is above all, we are not enslaved to human traditions and expectations about what it means to be righteous or holy.
- We are free – from the power and condemnation of sin, and to become people who “put on” compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience and forgiveness.
- In this life of freedom in Christ, the differences that we cite to create division and pride – race, nationality, gender, and social position – are gone.
- We are to put on love as the thing that holds together all the goodness we are free to have and to do in Christ.
Next, Paul gives a very practical demonstration about how this looks in their community:
“Let the word of God richly inhabit your lives. With all wisdom teach, counsel, and instruct one another. Sing the psalms, compose hymns and songs inspired by the Spirit, and keep on singing—sing to God from hearts full and spilling over with thankfulness. Surely, no matter what you are doing (speaking, writing, or working), do it all in the name of Jesus our Master, sending thanks through Him to God our Father.” (v. 16-17)
So the Colossian Christians were to do at least four key things: Let God’s Word richly inhabit their lives (read, listen, think, and absorb the truth found in God’s revelation); teach, counsel and instruct each other (challenge and encourage others with love); sing with gratitude (respond to God in thankfulness for who He is and what He has done); and do everything in the name of Christ (live transformed lives). Sounds great! What will happen when we do this?
Wives: be submitted to your husbands as is appropriate in the Lord. Husbands: love your wives, and don’t treatthem harshly or respond with bitterness toward them. Children: obey your parents in every way. The Lord is well pleased by it. Fathers: don’t infuriate your children, so their hearts won’t harbor resentment and become discouraged. Slaves: obey your earthly masters in all things. Don’t just act earnest in your service only when they are watching. Serve with a sincere heart , fearing the Lord who is always watching! So no matter what yourtask is, work hard. Always do your best as the Lord’s servant, not as man’s, because you know your reward is the Lord’s inheritance. You serve Christ the Lord, and anyone who does wrong will be paid his due because He doesn’t play favorites. Masters: treat your slaves fairly and do what is right, knowing that you, too, have a Master in heaven. (3: 18- 4:1)
Hmmm. Two thoughts strike me. First, this seems like an odd thing to write at this point in the letter. Second, this section seems to have a lot to with power: those how have it and those who don’t. In order to understand what is happening here, we need to know something about life in first century Colossae.
As far back as the fourth century BC, there is record that the Greeks viewed the household to be a miniature version of the order found in society, the realm of the gods, and ultimately the universe. Aristotle even identified the three key relationships within the household that mattered: “The smallest and primary parts of the household are master and slave, husband and wife, father and children.” Aristotle believed free men were by nature intended to rule over their wives, children, and slaves because they were created by the gods to be better. His writing is pretty clear on this point, noting that “the one gender is far superior to the other in just about every sphere,” and that “the slave has not deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature.” .
Considering this type of philosophical background, it's probably worth understanding how life looked like for women, children, and slaves in the Greco-Roman world before we look at Paul's Christianized household code.
Women existed to please the men around them, and a husband could do with his wife (or wives) whatever he wanted. Marriages were typically based on economic considerations. Wives were often young teens who married much older men. They were more important than slaves, but in many ways they were just property of their husbands. The reason for marriage was not “love” in our usual sense, but to bear legitimate children and to keep the family line going. Demosthenes noted: “Mistresses we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of the body, but wives to bear us legitimate children."
They had almost no voice in the home or in the city. They could not testify in court because they were considered unreliable liars (that was true in Judaism as well). Some were educated; most were not. They rarely joined their husband and his friends for meals, which was where all the important conversations happened. They had to be faithful while the husband could be promiscuous.
The father also had authority over his children no matter their age. They were to submit to his will even after they had families of their own. Once again, his children existed to serve and please him. He could set them outside the city to die when they were babies if he didn’t like what he saw. He had absolute control over their lives. They were meant to bring him honor and perhaps wealth. It was all about him, not them.
The head of house was also free to beat his slaves, servants, wives and children, into submission (see the posts on Philemon for a more nuanced look at the reality of slavery at the time).
This is what had formed the perspective on Paul’s audience. In this cultural milieu, Christians were already finding themselves butting heads with both the culture and the law as they came to grips with what it meant to follow Christ. They were now part of a "new humanity" in which the divisions of race, gender and freedom were meant to dissolve in mutual love toward Christ and each other. For example, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women, were sharing common meals together in their meetings (1 Corinthians 11). This was unheard of. Meals separated the free men from everybody else. While the Romans passed laws forcing widows to get remarried, the early church helped the widows (1 Timothy 5:3-16) without insisting they get remarried.
This was not necessarily sitting well with Rome. The early Christians were called “haters of humanity,” because they so willingly broke down the structures that the Greeks and Romans believe brought stability to the nation and honor to the gods. So when the husband/father became a follower of Christ, his conversion brought him and his household shame and suspicion in the eyes of the Romans and Greeks. They were pretty sure this man and his family were on the verge of being traitors to their country, the gods and the order of the universe.
So Paul has his work cut out: he does not want to add shame, suspicion or even persecution by dismantling the structure of the household. What he needed to do was show believers how to enter into an imperfect Greek culture and apply a gospel of love and servant hood that reflected the heart of Christ.
This brings us back to the question of power vs. submission and authority.
I have heard this passage quoted as an example of how Paul just wanted men to be at the top of every relationship. That kind of observation misses the point. Paul was not imposing a new power structure onto marriage. He was showing them how to redeem a flawed cultural reality so that they could live at peace in their city while offering everyone the dignity and honor they deserved. This may seem like an odd conclusion to reach from this passage, but let's go back to Genesis.
The power struggle between people entered the world as a result of sin entering the world. We read of women in in Genesis 3:16 that, as a result of the fall: “With pain you will give birth to children. You will want to control your husband, but he will dominate you.” (NET Bible). I saw a website for wives that posted this verse with the comments: “Could your desire for your husband be a little stronger? Could you let him rule over you a little more than you did last week?”
They are missing the point badly. This verse is not a promise of blessing; that’s an observation about how life will not look in a fallen world. Rebellion broke the world. Genesis 3 is not a list of how things ought to be; It's an explanation of how things have become. One thing we learn right away: The fallen nature craves power and hates servanthood. But the New Adam, Jesus Christ, came to redeem not just people but the ways in which people have grown comfortable in their fallen state.
Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, did not seek the position His power offered him. Instead, he became a servant and gave his very life for those he loved as an example for how we are to live. Three examples from Scripture:
- Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5–8).
- In speaking to them about authority he said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25–28).
- When his disciples argued amongst themselves about who would be greatest in the kingdom, Jesus told them that “anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
In Colossians, Paul is showing how redemption looks in relationships. Now men (the culturally privileged and powerful) have to care for the people within their household for their own sakes with the same level of committed self-sacrifice that Christ himself showed for us all. Men must learn to genuinely love and serve those whom their culture said they could use and control. The redeemed nature chooses service over power.
This was unprecedented in the history of household codes.
No one is told that they are better. No is told they have a right to rule. No one is told what their rights are, or what is owed to them. They are all told what their responsibilities are to those around them: mutual service to honor Christ. The language is different, but the principle is the same.
From this perspective, there is much we can learn from the household codes about confronting our own lives.
- Do we feel like we actually are better than others because they don’t have the same education, level of success, background, appearance or spiritual training?
- Do we feel like we deserve to be in a place of privilege?
- Do we feel like our spouse, kids, parents, employees, or friends are there to serve us and make us happy?
When we follow Christ, we are called to sacrifice power, pride and privilege. Are we learning how to genuinely love and serve those whom we assume we can use and control?
When we all find ourselves kneeling at the foot of the cross, we look up and see only Christ, not other lording over us. If we look up and see our spouse, or our parents, or our boss, something has gone wrong.We look down and we see only the ground, not people we are lording over. If we look down and see our spouse, or our kids, or our employees, something has gone wrong. And when we look around, we see everyone around us eye-to-eye, remembering that God so loved the world – and we are called to nothing less.