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Published Date: September 9, 2019

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What to Say When Someone Uses Paul’s Letters to Endorse Patriarchy

Editor’s Note: This article is one of a nine-part series on difficult Bible passages titled “What to Say…”

Colossians 3:7-17 is often misinterpreted and weaponized to keep women in submission and bolster sexist teachings in the modern church. Rather than viewing this text as a reframing of unjust social structures like patriarchy and slavery—as Paul intended—many interpret it as endorsing those oppressive systems. Women are told to submit themselves to their husbands, and the sentiment is also mirrored in Ephesians. Yet a closer look at both passages indicates that Paul did not intend to condone existing power disparities, but to reframe flawed earthly systems through a gospel lens.

So, what should we say when someone says wives are to submit to husbands, and that Paul endorsed patriarchy in his letters? Let’s begin by comparing the Colossians text to its counterpart in Ephesians.

Similarity to Ephesians

If you read Ephesians and Colossians side by side, you will notice similar language, theology, and metaphors. Ephesians is longer than Colossians, and it expands on some themes that Colossians passes over quickly. On the other hand, Colossians has some interesting things to say that Ephesians skips. If you want to know more about something in Colossians, you should read Ephesians, and vice versa.

One major theological image in both is Christ’s body, the church. Jesus is the head of the body. In Greek, “head” usually isn’t an idiom for authority like it is in English. Jesus is certainly the supreme authority over all things, but this word isn’t talking about that. Instead, the Greek idiom is talking about the head as the source of the body. The body is “created” from the head. It also gets its identity and sustenance from the head. 

Christ is all and is in all (3:11)

Colossians 3:7-17 and Ephesians 5:8-21 are full of similarities. “You were once in darkness” (Eph 5:8) and “used to walk in these ways” (Col 3:7). Both speak of holy living in the light of Christ. Then, they talk about singing “psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit,” “singing and making music,” and “giving thanks” (Eph 5:18-20 and Col 3:16). In Ephesians, verses 21 and 22 are part of a long Greek sentence that begins in verse 18. This makes submitting to one another—and therefore to your husband—part of the worship that arises from the Spirit.

In Colossians, this same idea appears in verses 9-15. In fact, the theme of mutual submission is expanded quite a bit here—in good ways. The resurrected Christ is the source (or “head”) of the renewed image of God in us (Col 1:15-20 and 3:10). The image of God has no worldly divisions (Col 3:11).

Colossians 3:11 is very similar to Galatians 3:28, which includes male and female in the list of divisions that shouldn’t matter to Christians. This one adds circumcision and cultural background. We can assume that all of these differences are implied in both places. But the image of God is not dependent on any of these things. Christ is all and in all!

None of Christ’s earthly identities (Jewish, circumcised, free, male) matter for our identification with him. This is why we can be included in the resurrection. Because, in the grand scheme of things, there are no real differences between us. Therefore (3:12), we should treat each other well. We should act with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, love, unity, and peace (3:12-15). This understanding of submission should stick with us when we read the household codes.

Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus (3:17)

This theme is tightly woven into the household codes in Ephesians and Colossians. Colossians tells slaves “it is the Lord Christ you are serving,” and to work as “for the Lord, and not human masters.” Ephesians tells slaves to obey “just as you would obey Christ,” “as serving the Lord, not people.” It tells wives to submit “as to the Lord.”

But these relations of authority and submission are not endorsed. They’re reframed. In this culture, there was no escaping these three basic household relationships (for more on the household, see our short answer on Ephesians 5). However, each person in these relationships could still live out their identification with Christ (3:11). Husbands could use their authority to behave like Christ. Wives could use their submission to behave like Christ. In suffering, oppressed people had the comfort of Christ’s suffering. At the same time, they could subvert unjust authority by directing their submission elsewhere—as to the Lord.

This does not mean that sexism and slavery are good (they’re not). Paul used a common form, the “household code,” to talk about relationships in the household, but he reframed those bad systems in terms of identity in Christ. The fledgling church was already being slandered and persecuted at the time. Some saw Christianity as a threat to the social order, so Paul was concerned with Christians living “quiet lives” (1 Thess. 4:11, 1 Tim. 2:2). He likely knew it would have been unrealistic and unwise to tell people to ignore social rules like these.

But when the church later came to great social and political power, it sinned by continuing to enforce them. The church demands suffering from women in the name of Christ. But Christ already suffered for all of us. Christianity has great influence, and we ought to be using it on behalf of the oppressed, not systems of oppression.

Submit yourselves (3:18)

Colossians tells the women to “submit yourselves to your husbands.” The system they are in is not ideal. However, even in this system, it’s the women who initiate submission. This submission isn’t happening because the men somehow deserve to be obeyed. Because of this, men have no right to demand it. There is no place for men to enforce anything. The commands to men tell them how to identify with Christ in their social position. The way women make sense of their own social position is none of the men’s business.

So, what should you say if someone says Paul endorsed patriarchy in his letters?

  1. Colossians shares its “head” theology with Ephesians and 1 Corinthians. The head isn’t an authority, it’s the source from which something grows or is created.
  2. Because Christ assumes all our differences into his earthly flesh, we can all take part in his resurrected flesh. Because of this, none of our earthly distinctions should matter in the body of Christ.
  3. Mutual submission means compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, love, unity, and peace.
  4. The submission of wives and slaves is not endorsed. It’s reframed in terms of service to Christ. Both husband and wife are told how to act like Jesus in their (current) social position.
  5. Submission is the submitter’s business. Even though their culture gave them authority, husbands were not supposed to enforce or demand submission.

More from the “What to Say…” series:

What to Say When Someone Says that Patriarchy is God’s Plan
What to Say When Someone Dismisses Women’s Leadership in the Bible
What to Say When Someone Says Women Should Be Silent in Church
What to Say When Someone Says Women Are Not Permitted to Teach

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