Today we resume our study of Colossians. Having described in 3:12–17 some characteristics of the new humanity in Christ — humanity as it should be — Paul in verses 18–21 depicts what this means for family relationships. This progression conveys two fundamental truths: First, living as new people starts at home; our families should be the first to see our new life in Christ, even if it can be harder to be Christlike toward them than others. Second, Jesus’ disciples are not concerned merely with “otherworldly” realities, for He calls us to die to self in all our relationships.
Paul addresses wives, husbands, and children in today’s passage. His words are strange to our culture, for the notion of a wife’s submission to her husband is rejected as passé, and some days it seems that obeying one’s parents is also now optional. Modern scholars uncomfortable with verse 18 range from evangelicals who say it is a temporary rule adopted to make Christianity palatable to first-century Romans to liberal theologians who call the text oppressive and deny its divine authority.
In addressing these issues, Christian men especially must recognize that female oppression has for too long been among us. Women have not always been treated like the divine image-bearers they are (Gen. 1:27). Napoleon Bonaparte’s comment that “women are nothing but machines for producing children” reflects past sentiments of many Westerners, including, sadly, many in the church. Still, female oppression and the misuse of Scripture to justify it does not mean Paul’s rules were temporary. Similarities exist between Colossians 3:18–21 and first-century cultural norms, but the apostle’s guide for families has Christian ideas (love, pleasing the Lord, not discouraging children) woven throughout. It is hard to keep these ideas and discard the unpopular injunctions. Paul’s confrontation with paganism also makes it unlikely at best that he shaped his ethics to make Christianity more acceptable to non-Christians.
The triune God defines equality differently than our culture, and His Word judges us, not vice versa (1 Cor. 1:18–25). He shows us that equality and submission are not mutually exclusive. The Father and the Son are coequal in deity and dignity, but the Son submits Himself to the Father (John 1:1–4; 5:19–20). Similarly, husbands and wives are of equal value, though wives submit themselves to their own husbands.
Paul expands on male and female roles in Ephesians, and our study of that book in a few months will look at this topic in more detail. Today, note that submission need not mean some household chores belong exclusively to wives and others to husbands. One commentator notes that proper interpretation of Scripture’s view of marital roles does not sound “like we are leading a march back to the gender caste system of the first century.”