Wives Submit to Your Husbands: Layers of Meaning in Colossians 3

The great British theologian N.T. Wright offers a note of caution about accounting for the perspective of the original audience for a particular teaching of Jesus: “His onlookers’ minds were not tabulae rasae. Nor were they those of modern western democrats. They were stocked, kitted out one might say, with stories and symbols about kingdom, slavery, battle, and freedom.” Here, Wright is thinking of First Century Jews, the religiously devout who were worshiping at the Temple during Passover week. While Wright has a specific group in mind, this same note of caution can be applied as we consider any other passage of Scripture. The points of view of the people for whom any text was written is steeped in myriad social, political, and philosophical assumptions that are far from obvious to a modern reader but have profound implications for the meaning of each text.

In a way, approaching any Biblical passage is a lot like starting a film in the third act and trying to make sense of what’s going on. Not only have we missed out on the immediate factors of the build-up of the plot and characters, we have also missed out on all the intertextual commentary — the references to other films, books, events or ideas — that has been purposefully included to inform our understanding. Not knowing a film like “10 Things I Hate About You” is based on a Shakespeare play would make a textual analysis of its dialogue intensely confusing; having no familiarity with the teen romcom subgenre might make it utterly inscrutable.

Crafting an understanding of, say, the feeding of the 5,000 in Luke 9:12-17 will be incomplete at best and heretical at worst when not read in the light of Exodus 16. See, for instance, St. Peter’s speech in the film “Millions” about how the “miracle” of this passage has nothing to do with a supernatural procurement of fish and bread but rather the humanistic generosity of a crowd willing to share its food. That Jesus was making an unequivocal claim to divinity is either missed or ignored.

Similarly, in the passage that Wright is commenting on above, knowing the particular attitudes of both the Sadducees and the attendant Jewish crowds profoundly impacts our understanding of the seemingly-benign aphorism, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” The question of whether a faithful Jew should pay Roman taxes was one loaded with life-and-death implications: to tell his followers to not pay taxes was sufficient basis to be accused of treason; to tell his followers to acquiesce to taxation – and thus endorse an allegiance with Caesar – would contradict their concept of Messiah. Either position could prompt immediate execution. Beyond that, civic and religious duty were less easy to separate in an era when a Roman emperor could claim to be the son of God, a claim to divinity (divi filius) often superscribed on Roman currency. Per Wright:

(Jesus’) Temple-action, at the head of a kingdom-movement, carrying clear messianic overtones for those with ears to hear, and reinforced by the riddles about destruction and rebuilding, about John the Baptist, and about the ‘son’ and the ‘stone’, created a context within which his saying would have meant: Pay Caesar back what he is owed! Render to Caesar what he deserves! The words Jesus said would, prima facie, have been heard as revolutionary.

When, however, the words are set in context, they acquire a second layer of meaning. Jesus was not in a classroom giving a lecture, or for that matter on a battlefield urging on the troops. He was facing a questioner with a Roman coin in his hand. Suddenly a counterpoint appears beneath the coded revolutionary meaning; faced with the coin, and with the implicit question of revolution, Jesus says, in effect, ‘Well then, you’d better pay Caesar back as he deserves!’ Had he told them to revolt? Had he told them to pay the tax? He had done neither. He had done both. Nobody could deny that the saying was revolutionary, but nor could anyone say that Jesus had forbidden payment of the tax.

“They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public,” recorded Luke. “And astonished by his answer, they became silent.” Jesus’ riddling reply, thick with double meaning, is obscured by its simplicity. What, exactly, is Caesar owed? Taxes? Perhaps. The penalty for blasphemy? Perhaps. What, exactly, is God owed? The title and allegiance falsely claimed by Caesar. “The real revolution would not come about through the non-payment of taxes and the resulting violent confrontation,” adds Wright. “It would be a matter of total obedience to, and imitation of, Israel’s god…. Jesus’ aphorism, like his kingdom-teaching as a whole, transcended the popular view of the kingdom, subverting the blasphemous claims of Caesar, and the compromises of the present Temple hierarchy, and the dreams of the revolutionaries.”

In the middle of his letter to the Colossians, the apostle Paul lays out a rubric for managing household relationships. This section, along with similar instructions in Ephesians and 1 Peter, are described today as household codes, what Martin Luther called “Haustafeln” (house-tables). Here is the passage in full:

Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged. Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism. Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

This section strikes many modern readers as outdated if not legitimately offensive, and it’s not difficult to see why: it seems to condone both slavery and the subjugation of women. (In fact, this passage contains not just one but two entries in the London Telegraph’s list of the ten most offensive Bible verses.) That Paul appears to prescribe — or indeed impose — a patriarchal family composition makes this passage difficult to swallow for modern readers.

But it’s worth echoing Wright’s note of caution: the original recipients of this letter, the Christian church of the city of Colossae, were neither blank slates nor modern western democrats. Their immediate cultural context crafted an understanding of this passage that would highlight subversive, revolutionary ideas that are lost in a more superficial modern reading.

The first step towards seeing this is to note that Paul’s household code was hardly the only example one could find in ancient Near East writing. Paul’s contemporaries Philo and Josephus had penned similar codes. Per Philo:

Other rules again there are of various kinds: wives must be in servitude to their husbands, a servitude not imposed by violent ill-treatment but promoting obedience in all things. Parents must have power over their children to keep them safe and tend them … The same holds of any other persons over whom [a man] has authority.

Not to be outdone, Josephus adds:

The woman, says the Law, is in all things inferior to the man. Let her accordingly be submissive, not for her humiliation, but that she may be directed; for the authority has been given by God to the man.

But an even earlier version of the household codes can be found in Aristotle’s Politics. “And since, as we saw, the science of household management has three divisions, one the relation of master to slave, of which we have spoken before, one the paternal relation, and the third the conjugal — for it is a part of the household science to rule over wife and children….” To Aristotle, the order of the family is not arbitrary but ordained by nature. “Again,” he wrote, “as between the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject.” (As though his contempt for women wasn’t already cemented, Aristotle went on to quote the poet Sophocles in support of his argument: “Silence gives grace to woman” though that is not the case likewise with a man.”) He continues this line of thought:

Almost all things rule and are ruled according to nature. But the kind of rule differs; the freeman rules over the slave after another manner from that in which the male rules over the female, or the man over the child; although the parts of the soul are present in an of them, they are present in different degrees. For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature. So it must necessarily be supposed to be with the moral virtues also; all should partake of them, but only in such manner and degree as is required by each for the fulfillment of his duty…. The temperance of a man and of a woman, or the courage and justice of a man and of a woman, are not, as Socrates maintained, the same; the courage of a man is shown in commanding, of a woman in obeying…. All classes must be deemed to have their special attributes.

Read in the light of previous household codes, Paul’s Colossian Haustafel represents a clear, though perhaps small, step forward. As N.T. Wright observes in his commentary on Colossians, “the differences between Paul and his pagan contemporaries are as clear as the parallels. Paul has thoroughly Christianized the code, not just by adding ‘in the Lord’ at certain points, but by balancing carefully the duties and responsibilities of the various family members to that the stronger parties have duties as well as rights, and those who are in a position of submission are treated as responsible human beings, with rights as well as duties.” Paul advocated submission and obedience because he believed submission and obedience are right and pleasing to God; Aristotle advocated submission and obedience because he believed women, children, and slaves were inferior to free men. Further, Paul insists that husbands, fathers, and masters act in love, encouragement, and fairness; Aristotle simply tells them to rule. Notes Douglas Moo: “Requiring wives to submit to husbands, as we have noted, matches widespread Greek and Jewish teaching about marriage. Requiring husbands to love their wives does not.” Aristotle does not so much as nod at the ethical obligations required of husbands, fathers, and masters. Wright revisits this idea in “Paul and the Faithfulness of God”:

Many writers today seem to expect that all morality will be reduced to the liberal ideals of western society in the early years of the twenty-first century, and then to complain that the early Christians ought to have said this more clearly than they seem to have done. This has made it harder for us to understand, let alone appreciate, Paul’s agenda. It is, however, often noted that he significantly modifies the expectations of his day, not least by emphasizing the obligations of husbands to wives, parents to children and masters to slaves (not just the subservience of those wives, children and slaves), by adding ‘in the lord’ at various points, and, in the case of Ephesians 5, building a remarkable theology of marriage on the model of the Messiah himself and his death. Even when Paul is saying things which are similar to what one might have heard in the moralism of his day, he regularly adds another dimension which subtly and profoundly changes the whole impact.

Despite the fact that he pushes these ideas in an undeniably progressive direction, the fact remains that Paul seems to tacitly condone slavery and female subjugation. Many modern Bible scholars go to great lengths to make this passage more palatable for contemporary consumption, but these attempts tend to seem more like post hoc rationalizations than a plain reading of the text. I don’t think Occam would be a big fan of this. For example, according to Timothy Gombis, some commentators perceive “an apologetic thrust in Ephesians, viewing it as an attempt to shield the new Christian movement from the suspicion that it might undermine contemporary social structures and ultimately threaten the stability of the Roman empire.” David Garland articulates this position as well. “If others did not perceive Christianity to be disruptive of society’s basic building block, they might be more willing to listen to the gospel.”

The superficial plausibility of this idea quickly gives way to even light scrutiny. “Such a reading, however, is less convincing than it initially appears,” continues Gombis. “One searches in vain for any indication that Paul is trying to justify Christian communities against the suspicions of Rome.” Additionally, this idea misses a facet of the passage that first-century readers would have immediately identified as deeply subversive: the promise of an inheritance for slaves. According to Margaret Macdonald, slaves “under Roman Law stood outside the realm of inheritance altogether.” Jerry Sumney builds on this idea. “Giving slaves the status of heirs, Colossians signals a reorientation of the structure of society,” he says. “The promise of recompense – indeed of an astonishing reward – assures slaves that God will not allow their current treatment to be the final word.” If Paul’s aim was to avoid being disruptive, proclaiming the usurpation of Roman law seems an odd way to achieve that goal.

Further, some argue that the tense of the Greek verb used here — “hypotasso” is the Greek word translated to “submit yourselves” in verse 18 — suggests a voluntary, rather than compulsory, state of affairs. Douglas Moo says that “characteristic of New Testament usage are exhortations to voluntarily ‘put oneself under’ the authority or direction of someone or something else.” Moo provides a litany of examples where “hypotasso” is used to encourage just this form of voluntary ordering, such as exhortations to submit oneself to God the Father in Hebrews 12:9 or James 4:7. But this likewise seems quizzical: can submission at apostolic command truly be seen as voluntary?

Christian morality is best understood from the inside out. You cannot always control your specific situations or circumstances, but you are always in control of how you respond to them. There has never been a society completely free of oppression or inequality, and, to Christians, one’s position within the societal hierarchy does not excuse immoral or ungodly behavior. When you encounter a situation where submission or obedience is required – and everyone, sooner or later, has to submit to something or someone – you face the choice to act morally or immorally, to submit to Christ or revolt in defiance. “People try to persuade us that the objections against Christianity spring from doubt,” observed Søren Kierkegaard. “That is a complete misunderstanding. The objections against Christianity spring from insubordination, the dislike of obedience, rebellion against all authority. As a result people have hitherto been beating the air in their struggle against objections, because they have fought intellectually with doubt instead of fighting morally with rebellion.”

I think this may be one reason why Paul focuses on the duties and rights of each member of the household rather than seeking to redefine those roles entirely. As Wright notes, “we may disapprove of such an arrangement, but one of the things you learn in real pastoral work as opposed to ivory-tower academic theorizing is that you simply can’t take a community all the way from where it currently is to where you would ideally like it to be in a single flying leap.” Paul is less concerned with reordering society than he is with preparing Christ followers for their citizenship in a New Society. “Where the new age has dawned in Christ,” says Robert Wall, “people are valued as equals regardless of their station or role. The believer’s way of seeing has been transformed by divine grace, and this renewal of the mind has resulted in a new sense of being and a new capacity for doing. In this sense, then, calls to submit to or love another mean something very different for the believer than for the nonbeliever.”

It is no coincidence that Aristotle’s household code is found in his book on politics: his purpose in writing it was not domestic but political. To Aristotle, the family was a microcosm of the citizen-state relationship: a properly-ordered family produced a properly-ordered society. Aristole wrote that “every household is part of a state, and these relationships are part of the household, and the excellence of the part must have regard to that of the whole.” Citizen-masters who understood their place at the head of their family created a social order subsumed in all of Greek life. “Harmony in the family, the basic unit of the city-state, sustains harmony for the city-state,” writes Shi-Min Lu. “Harmony among the members of a family is crucial for the stability of the city-state.” This aspect of Greek philosophy was adopted by the Romans, who added their own novel twist: divi filius, the notion of Caesar as God.  In a Roman family, then, a properly-ordered home was a building block of a Caesar-oriented theocratic society.

Here is where another subversive layer of Paul’s Haustafel becomes apparent. Though Aristotle believed women, children, and slaves to be fundamentally inferior to free men, the stated purpose of his household code was to create a well-ordered society. Paul subverts this aim by apprehending an instrument designed to serve the state — and with it the divi filius — and instead directs it towards worshiping God. To Paul, the Gospel is transformative: even in areas where we exhibit practical conformity to contemporary social norms, the Christian motivation and mindset is to become one of perpetual and intentional worship. Shi-Min Lu builds on this idea. “On the surface the Christians seemed to adapt to the existing patriarchal hierarchy, but… the subtle alteration of the codes in light of the new identity in Christ asserted the transformational power of the gospel in daily life.” Harry Meier goes a step further: “(Paul) urges believers gathered in house churches to realize by love what Rome seeks to achieve by the force of arms, and thereby to be the visible ecclesial manifestation of an alternative cosmic rule centered finally in an empire-renouncing logic.”

It is a regular theme of Paul’s writing to assert Christ as “kyrios” (master), the true ruler of all nations — a claim to divine royalty that challenges Caesar’s fraudulent standing. As Wright argues, even the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ is rich with a Caesar-usurping symbolism:

As everyone in the Roman world knew well, the cross already had a clear symbolic meaning; it meant that Caesar ruled the world, with cruel death as his ultimate, and regular, weapon. For Paul, throughout his writings, the cross is far more than simply the means whereby individual sins are forgiven, though of course it is that as well. It is the means whereby the powers are defeated and overthrown (1 Cor. 2:6-8; Col. 2:13-15). The resurrection demonstrates that the true God has a power utterly superior to that of Caesar. The cross is thus to be seen, with deep and rich paradox, as the secret power of this true God, the power of self-giving love which (as Jesus said it would) subverts the power of the tyrant (Mk. 10:35-45).

Curiously, Paul’s view of Christ as kyrios still leads him to preach a “hypotasso” submission to Caesar and government authority. Caesar may not be God, but God had loaned him power. Recognizing Christ as kyrios does not give us license to disregard hierarchical authority; rather, submission or obedience to temporary authority must be treated as a worshipful act of submission to Christ.

As Paul is orienting Christians into their citizenship into the New Kingdom, his primary concern is tightening their focus onto their New King. In most bibles and commentaries, the Colossians Haustafel is blocked off into its own discrete section, a passing thought only tangentially related to the ideas that come before it. I submit, however, that the preceding verse is key to understanding Paul’s message: “Whatever you do, either in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus.” The particulars of how society is ordered — who has authority over whom, or who should submit to whom — matters far less than being transformed by the belief that Christ is the true master of all people.


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