Paul takes what he said in verses 12-17 about interacting with one another generally and applies it very specifically to family relationships. He instructs believers who are free in Christ and who know there are no longer any distinctions between them in Christ how to relate to each other in a household now based in Christ. Paul makes sure they understand social order remains in the new kingdom but explains what it looks like in Christ. Believers are free but that does not mean there is now societal chaos. Authority continues to exist, but it is an authority that is recognized differently by those under it and exercised differently by those who wield it.
Paul adopts a somewhat different writing style in this section of the book. Each admonition is stated as a short imperative rather than a long multi-clause sentence like he uses in the rest of the letter. Until he gets to the section on slaves, he simply states the command and gives a short explanation for each. He does not bother with much detail as presumably the admonition stands on its own.
The commands are stated in pairs and always begin with the subordinate party (and move from most intimate to least intimate relationship). He first advises those under authority how they are to submit, and then instructs those in authority how they are to lead. It is important to remember that this section comes immediately after Paul’s instructions to treat everyone with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and love. Nothing in this section contradicts those commands, and everyone – regardless of authority or lack of authority – has the responsibility to interact with others according to those guidelines. The commands of 12-17 have an enormous impact on the commands of 18-4:1.
It is also important see this section in context. As mentioned above, believers who read that there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman (vs 11) might be tempted to think that any part of the old authority structure is now invalid. If everyone is the same in Christ, then why does anyone have to serve or recognize the authority of anyone else? Paul’s words here may be written to counteract that kind of thinking and make sure believers know that authority still exists, it just exists in perhaps a slightly different form and with radically different motives on both sides.
Just as is true with the commands in verses 12-17, the commands in this text are not contingent on others’ behavior. Wives do not submit only to those husbands who prove themselves worthy of respect. Husbands do not only love wives that are lovable. Slaves do not obey only those masters who are reasonable (I Pet 2:18). Every command is ultimately based on relationship with Christ. We do not serve each other as much as we serve our Creator and Savior. We look at God and love others – we look at God and recognize human authority or treat others well. The worthiness or unworthiness of others is not taken into account.
One last thing to notice – and it is vital. In all three pairings, Paul puts the responsibility to recognize authority on the subordinate party. He never tells the one in authority to force or ensure submission. Each person under authority is to voluntarily submit to that authority. In this way, Paul somewhat puts the responsibility to make the relationship work on the one who submits. Voluntary submission is key to making an authority structure Christ-centered and effective.
Telling wives to submit to their husbands is similar to telling all believers their new selves are being renewed in the image of Christ (vs 10). Mankind was originally created in God’s image – it was only after sin entered the world that the image was corrupted. In the same manner, Eve was created as a helper corresponding to Adam (Gen 2:20) and was created for his sake (I Cor 11:7-9). Therefore, to tell wives to submit to their husbands is to call them back to their created purpose.
The reason they submit has nothing to do with their husbands per se. They are to submit as is fitting in the Lord. They ultimately submit to Christ by submitting to their husbands. This is fitting as Christ is the ultimate example of submission. Even though He is God and is equal to the Father in all respects (1:15-20, 2:9), He voluntarily submits to the Father and even went to the cross in obedience to His Father’s will (Lk 22:42, Phil 2:5-8, I Cor 11:3 & 15:28). From that perspective, the wife can both submit to Christ and follow Christ’s example by submitting to her husband. And by recognizing Christ’s authority as the primary reason for submission, she eliminates the need for her husband to earn her respect.
This is crucial to understand. The believer in any position of submission has to view it as ultimately a submission to Christ. She looks at God and submits to human authority. The worth of that authority is secondary. We do not submit only to those who earn our respect – we submit to those God has placed over us and remember that it is God we ultimately serve. Since God has certainly earned our respect we can willingly submit to His authority. A wife with an unloving or unworthy husband can still submit to him because she focuses on the real authority in her life.
That is not to say there are no boundaries to her submission. It is one thing to continue to submit to one who does nothing to earn that submission. It is another situation entirely if that unworthiness takes the form of abuse or of trying to force the wife to engage in sin. Any believer’s ultimate allegiance belongs to God, and any authority that tries to usurp that must be resisted. Peter made that plain when he told the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). And abuse would seem to meet the guideline of desertion outlined by Paul as a legitimate reason for divorce (I Cor 7:15 – if a woman cannot live with a man because of the danger he presents to her physical safety then he has effectively deserted the relationship).
The other side to that coin is what Peter says about how a believing wife can influence an unbelieving husband. A wife who submits to her unsaved husband and behaves respectfully towards him in purity can bring him to Christ without a word (I Pet 3:1-6). A man who witnesses the sincere and respectful behavior of his wife and knows there is no reason for it other than her devotion to God (he recognizes that she treats him well regardless of his behavior), is attracted to that spirit. In this way, quiet submission proves more powerful than verbal evangelism (this is not to say it always works – otherwise Paul would not include instruction as to what to do when an unbelieving spouse leaves the relationship – I Cor 7:15 referenced above).
Notice that this submissive role is not based on differences in worth. The husband is head of the wife because of created purpose – not because he is more worthy or wiser or more important in God’s eyes. Nowhere in the creation account does God assign higher value to males. He creates both in His image. He simply establishes husbands as leaders in the family presumably to ensure the family functions efficiently with a set authority structure. He also intends marriage to model the trinity (Gen 1:26-27, Col 3:10) and the relationship of Christ and the church (Eph 5:22-33). In both cases one submits to the other – the church to Christ and the Son to the Father.
Submission is commanded within marriage and in regard to teaching in the church (I Tim 2:8-15 – although there is not universal agreement on the meaning of this text). It is not commanded generally in other areas of life. Females do not submit to males – wives submit to husbands. There is nothing in the Bible that would cause a Christian man to resist the authority of a woman or cause a Christian woman to refuse authority over a man.
What does submission look like practically? It is a difficult question because submission takes different forms with different couples. In its simplest form it is the wife submitting to the man’s decision when there is disagreement. It becomes more complicated when it pertains to areas where the woman is clearly more competent or knowledgeable (submission does not mean the woman never takes the lead – it just means she takes the lead under her husband’s ultimate authority), or involves long-lasting decisions that stem from different world-life views. It is perhaps best thought of as a general mode of operation – the husband leads and the wife supports his leadership and defers to it.
How to accomplish this when the wife is married to a knucklehead? This goes back to the second half of the verse – she ultimately submits to the Lord rather than to her husband. That is not to say it is easy. A man who repeatedly proves himself unworthy of respect makes the life of an obedient (to God) wife extremely difficult. And a husband who does not fulfill the obligation to love his wife makes submission much harder for her. Ultimately the woman in this situation has to continually live in the power of the Spirit and know that the One she truly serves is more than worthy. And she must remember that God is sovereign and her marriage is not outside of His control and her husband is not in her life by mistake. She must hold on to the freedom that comes from serving the One who loves her perfectly and leads her perfectly and laid down His life for her.
This obviously is not a popular teaching in western culture. For a woman to say she submits to her husband is to say she has no self-respect and wants to send society back 50 years. Very few things go against the prevailing philosophy of our culture as much as a woman voluntarily putting herself under the leadership of her husband. Even for Christians it can be a difficult pill to swallow because of society’s continual call for women to stand on their own and not require a man to give them meaning and respect (“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”). The thing to remember, however, is that submission in marriage returns a woman to her created purpose. And just like the believer who understands that contentment only comes from glorifying God rather than self – because that is everyone’s created purpose – the woman who fulfills her created purpose in marriage finds greater contentment than the one who rebels against it.
It is also worth noting that rebelling against the husband’s authority is a direct result of the fall. When God pronounced his curse on Eve, He told her she would resist Adam’s leadership and oppose him (Gen 3:16 – the word for desire is the same as in Gen 4:7). Like everything else, marriage was corrupted by sin – and this is clearly seen in women’s desire to no longer recognize the husband’s authority in it.
As noted in the introduction, this is a command to wives – not to husbands. It is not the husband’s responsibility to ensure his wife submits to him. Another curse of the fall is that men will seek to rule over their wives (Gen 3:16 again) rather than lead them lovingly, and this can cause a man to force his authority rather than trust his wife to submit to it. No man is commanded to pound on his wife with the hammer of submission. The wife is to voluntarily submit because it is fitting in the Lord. The man who demands submission places himself in the Lord’s spot and ultimately seeks his own rights rather than God’s glory. Besides, the man has enough on his plate – see verse 19.
The command to husbands is actually much weightier than that given to wives, although at first glance it does not appear to be. In this text Paul simply says the man is to love his wife. In Ephesians, however, he says the husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her. He is also to love his wife as he loves himself (Eph 5:25-33). When seen in this light it becomes apparent that the husband has a HUGE responsibility. He is effectively to love his wife with the same love that caused Christ to come to earth and die. He is to have a John 3:16 love for his wife!
From a human perspective this is obviously impossible. No human can approach the perfect love that brought Christ to the cross. However, Paul makes it clear that the love a husband is to have should surpass any other human relationship. It is sacrificial, giving, selfless, and unending. It bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things (I Cor 13:7). It is a love that surrounds and supports and secures the wife who receives it. It is a gospel-fed love that reflects the love of the Father but reflects it in a way that is deeper and more intense than it is reflected on anyone else in the husband’s life.
Paul goes on to say that the husband is not to be embittered against his wife (do not be harsh with her – ESV). As mentioned above, an effect of the fall was that man would seek to exercise his authority in a domineering way rather than lovingly. Here Paul warns the believing husband against this. Just because the man is in authority it does not give him license to treat his wife with disdain or lord his authority over her. This obviously goes with the first part of the verse. A man cannot treat his wife harshly if he loves her as Christ loved the church.
In Paul’s culture the man of the house can be a dictator with very little accountability to the culture at large. If he wants to rule violently with an iron fist over his wife and family that is his right. So Paul’s words to a man from Colossae may have a somewhat different meaning than they have for a man living in the west in the 21st century. For the man in modern society, treating a wife harshly may take on the form of verbal and emotional abuse rather than physical (although that obviously is included). It could also be something short of abuse – verbal put-downs or a projected lack of respect or criticizing her to others or teasing her in public (these same activities apply to the wife in that they go directly against the spirit of submission – the wife who criticizes her husband at every turn cannot claim to live in submission to him). Anything that does not express the love of Christ is prohibited in this verse. Anything that focuses on the husband’s authority rather than on the wife’s success is against the spirit of the command.
With this verse Paul puts a fence around and gives definition to the authority the husband has in the marriage. This is anything but a domineering role. The man is to first love and give himself up for his wife – that is a far cry from lording his authority over her. He is to be a servant leader as Jesus was and as He commanded His disciples to be (Matt 23:10-11, Lk 22:25-26). He is to lead but do it in such a way that love is always at its heart and service to his wife always the priority.
Again – not to continually return to this point – nothing is said here about the husband only loving a wife who is lovable. And nothing is said about the husband only loving a wife who submits. He is to love his wife – no contingencies. And the only way he does this is to look at Christ and love his wife. He loves because Christ loved him, not because his wife earns it or deserves it.
So if both parties to a marriage fulfill their God-ordained responsibilities, what does it look like? A wonderful, Christ-centered, loving relationship between two people who have their eyes on God and so see each other through the lens of their redemption. As the wife submits, the husband finds it much easier to love her and care for her. As the man loves his wife, she finds it much easier to submit to his leadership – especially because for him to love her as he is commanded he must live in the Spirit and thus be guided in his decision-making by God.
Paul does not call the husband and wife to an authoritarian relationship of unequal power. He calls them to a loving relationship of co-equals who understand their role. Both parties center their perspective on Christ. The wife submits as to Christ. The husband loves as Christ loved. Just like everything else in Colossians, marriage becomes all about Christ. It is the marriage based in Christ that becomes everything God intended marriage to be. Before sin, Adam and Eve enjoyed a relationship so close that it modeled the Trinity and that was meant to reunite them into the one flesh they shared before Eve’s creation (Eve was created out of Adam – Gen 1:23-24). It is that kind of closeness that awaits the couple who fulfills the responsibilities Paul commands.
Is it hard to submit? Not to a man who loves as Christ loves. Is it hard to love? Not a woman who submits as is fitting in the Lord. Ultimately, however, both can only come from people who have their eyes set on things above. Those with eyes on the things of this earth will never relate to each other as Paul commands here. Submission and Christ-like love come from lives that are not for themselves but are identified in Christ. …it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me (Gal 2:20).