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. —Colossians 3:18–25
I worship in a liturgical church tradition that follows a lectionary, a prescribed order of four readings for every Sunday of the church year: An Old Testament passage, a Psalm, a New Testament passage, and a Gospel passage. One or more of these readings corresponds to the weekly sermon, but the others are simply read aloud and received in an affirmation of the authority of Scripture. These non-sermon readings sometimes create uncomfortable moments, such as when a particularly brutal Old Testament proclamation of judgment or a particularly thorny Pauline passage is left ringing in the ears of the congregation without explanation, without sermonizing, without any wrap-up beyond a simple “thanks be to God” following in its wake.
Colossians 3:18–25 is one of these uncomfortable passages. Its public reading produces clenched stomachs, inward groaning, the sting of old wounds, and the vigilance of self-protection among those in a congregation against whom such words have been weaponized. This passage has been used throughout the centuries to bless patriarchy, racism, slavery, and domestic abuse in the name of Christian obedience, and its proclamation from the pulpit is enough to make one squirm in the pew and scan the room for the nearest exit.
It may surprise a modern pew-squirmer, then, to know that this passage was likely received in a similarly uncomfortable manner on its very first hearing in a little house church in ancient Colossae. There, Paul’s words would have issued a discomfiting challenge to everything its listeners thought they knew about household life in the Roman empire. Remembering the original context of this letter helps us better grasp the new kind of household Paul envisioned and reclaim that vision in our own context.
Putting Paul’s Words in Context
One key aspect of this original context was the makeup of the Colossian church itself. The community assembled to listen to Paul’s letter was already wildly subverting the social norms of the Roman empire. Imagine a room of mixed genders, ethnicities, and socioeconomic statuses listening with rapt attention to the story of a humiliated, crucified criminal named Jesus. This story was being told by a prisoner named Paul and delivered by a runaway slave named Onesimus—a slave whose master was almost certainly in the room. Something radically new and controversial was already underway in this little room, and the contents of Paul’s letter had the difficult task of calling this disparate fellowship to a lifestyle of Christian maturity in the face of overwhelming opposition. Whatever Paul had to say would be worked out in real time in the real relationships in this room. It was probably going to get messy, and it would certainly be uncomfortable.
Furthermore, it’s important to remember that these Colossian Christians would have listened to Paul’s letter in a single sitting. Paul’s household instructions in chapter 3 were not an isolated set of rules, but part of a broader letter that reimagined the entire notion of household altogether. Just minutes before the Colossians heard the words “wives, submit,” they would have heard that they were all heirs of the kingdom, all brothers and sisters, that God was their Father and Christ was their head (Col. 1:9–20). They would have heard those miraculous, reconciling words that in Christ, “there is no Gentile or Jew, slave or free” (Col. 3:11) and that everyone in this new household ought to treat one another with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. . . . [and] love, which binds them all together in perfect unity" (Col. 3:12,14). And then, just minutes after hearing “slaves, obey,” they would hear Paul call the fugitive slave Onesimus a “faithful and beloved brother who is one of you” (Col. 4:9).
Gone was the patriarchy and hierarchy of the Roman empire. Gone was the ancient divide between Jew and Gentile. In their place was an entirely new social unit called the church, a big extended family in which all kinds of people would live as close as kin, humble servants of one another, equally loved in the fatherhood of God, equally submitted to the headship of Christ.
Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? So why doesn’t Paul just . . . leave it at that? Why can’t he simply extol the egalitarian virtues of this new kind of household and omit those pesky rules about submission and obedience?
Roman Households in Paul’s Time
I cannot claim to know the mind of Paul, but I do know the context of the Roman empire in which he was writing. In that context, the emperor was already giving detailed rules for how to order one’s household relationships, rules which demanded a Christian rewrite if Paul hoped to counter the empire’s claims. A few decades before Paul’s letter was written, the emperor Augustus had instituted sweeping social reforms designed to restore Rome’s mos maiorum (traditional social norms) and its publica magnificentia (public magnificence)—a sort of ancient campaign to “make the Roman empire great again.”1 The emperor knew that households—those most intimate habits and relationships of daily life—were the places where people’s true loyalties were formed. Thus, to produce obedient Roman subjects, the Roman empire set forth detailed rules for how people ordered their household lives.2
One such rule was compulsory marriage. Every man and woman between certain ages was required to marry or else face steep taxes. The head of each household by law was the oldest man—usually the father—and he answered to the head of all households, the emperor, who saw himself as father and head of the empire. Within this hierarchy, the male head’s job was to ensure that those in his household—usually wives, children, and slaves—behaved as good Roman citizens, paid taxes, sacrificed to imperial gods, and generally upheld the economy and order of the empire. Thus when Paul assumes the household in Colossae includes husbands, wives, children, and slaves, he is not tacitly endorsing marriage, parenthood, or slavery as a superior way of life for the Christian; he is simply addressing the state-mandated household norm.3
But the empire cared about more than who was in the household; it also cared deeply about how those people related to one another. To regulate those relationships, the empire relied on ancient household codes developed by Greek and Roman philosophers. Among the most famous of these was Aristotle’s. Every Roman subject, including Paul’s audience in Colossae, would have understood this code as the basis for relationships within the home. Aristotle’s code states:
For the male is by nature better fitted to command than the female. . . and the older and more fully developed person than the younger and immature. . . . All human beings that differ as widely as the soul does from the body . . . are by nature slaves for whom to be governed by this kind of authority is advantageous. . . . For the free rule the slave, the male the female, the man the child.4
This was the philosophy in which the Colossian church was steeped. But against such a code, Paul had already warned the Colossians not to be taken “captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition” (Col. 2:8). Paul’s reimagined Christian household no longer follows Aristotle or any other philosophy or tradition of the empire. Into this vacuum, Paul writes a new household code in Colossians 3:18–25, and this code’s empire-rattling subversiveness becomes clear when juxtaposed with the dominant code of the day.
Called to Be a New Household
First, Paul’s code is centered on the Lord Jesus Christ. Six times he references “the Lord” as the one who is reverenced, served, and pleased by well-ordered household relationships. Just as the Aristotelian code cultivated good subjects of the empire, Paul’s code cultivates good subjects of the “kingdom of the Son,” those whose lives demonstrate the new reality ushered in by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (Col. 1:13).
Second, Paul’s code makes no claims to natural order. The basis of Aristotle’s household relationships is rooted in one’s gender, age, or social status: women, children, and slaves are by nature suited for servitude, while men are by nature suited for leadership. In this way, the reasoning of this pagan philosopher finds odd resonance with early American slavery apologists and more recent evangelical complementarians whose arguments rely on a natural order based on race or sex.
But Paul makes no such claims. In his reimagined household, everyone is equally subject to the rule of Christ. The powerful now have duties, not just rights. And the powerless now have rights, not just duties. Everyone is called in one way or another to a lifestyle of serving one another; not because nature dictates they do so, but because loving submission is the way of Christ. As if to underline this new reality, Paul does something unheard of for his time: he addresses the bulk of his household code to the lowest people in the room. He speaks directly to wives, children, and slaves, acknowledging their presence, elevating their dignity, and including them in the conversation, just as Jesus had done throughout his earthly ministry.
Hearing Paul’s household code spoken for the first time must have created quite a stir among the fellowship in Colossae, upending relational norms between the people in the room and challenging them to new rhythms of loving servitude in their everyday lives. His rationale for these rhythms was not to produce happy marriages or obedient children (though such outcomes would be welcome!). No, Paul was after something far more consequential: a new kind of household loyal to the kingdom of God, a household of liberating equality, radical welcome, humble service, and Christ-honoring love.
Reclaiming Mutual Submission Today
Paul knew, just as the Roman empire knew, that the ordinary relationships of our everyday lives are where our deepest sense of identity and loyalty are formed. Theologian Dallas Willard captured this reality when he wrote, “Where transformation is actually carried out is in our real life, where we dwell . . . we must accept the circumstances we constantly find ourselves in as the place of God’s kingdom and blessing. God has yet to bless anyone except where they actually are.”5
How can we live with Paul’s words where we actually are, now, in the 21st century? As we dig deeper into the context surrounding Paul’s letter, we can begin to make peace with these uncomfortable words. We can begin to dislodge them from their tragic legacy of racism and patriarchy, a legacy that more closely resembles Roman imperial philosophy than the radical way of Jesus. And we can begin to reclaim them as our own powerful words of empire-shaking resistance. This work of making peace, dislodging, and reclaiming Paul’s words is slow and sensitive, especially for those who have been hurt by them in the past. But ultimately, our work goes even further; not just to reclaim, but to actually live by these words. For our identities and loyalties to be formed by the kingdom of God rather than our contemporary empires, we must practice the disruptive way of Jesus in our ordinary relationships, the way of loving submission described in Colossians 3:18–25.
1. Paul Zanker, trans. Alan Shapiro, Augustus and the Power of Images (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1988), 2–6; 156–158.
2. N.T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon: Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 12 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic), 180–183, Scribd Ebook.
3. Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 57, 211. See also G.K. Beale, Colossians and Philemon, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2019), 753–754.
4. Aristotle, Politics, 1259b, 1253b, 1254b. Quoted in Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 203.
5. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: Harper One, 2009), 497.
This article appeared in “Making Peace with Paul,” the Spring 2021 issue of Mutuality magazine.
Read the full issue here.