Every July 14th, France celebrates Bastille Day. More than 200 years ago, an angry mob of just under a thousand people rushed upon what was known as “the fortress of despotism.” The Bastille was the symbol of everything that was wrong, unjust, and cruel under the French monarchy.
At the heart of the Christian faith there also lies a revolution. It is evident in the latter verses of Colossians 3:18–24, which begins, “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly” (NRSV). I recognize that there are many who are critical of passages such as this. Surely, they would argue, Paul is supporting the typical hierarchical view of marriage in his injunction for wives to submit to their husbands. Not only that, he says nothing to challenge the institution of slavery, but bids slaves to live in obedience to their masters. What are we to say to these accusations?
In fact, almost exactly the opposite is true. And here I believe I stand in line with most responsible biblical scholars. Before we draw our weapons, let’s stand back for a moment and see if we can discover what Paul was saying both to the Colossians and us today.
Verse 17 sets the tone for all that Paul writes in Colossians 3: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (NRSV). Paul’s underlying conviction is that when we bow to Jesus Christ as Lord, everything, every aspect of our lives, must come under his dominion. Remember how he has described Jesus in the opening chapter of the letter:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15–20, NRSV)
It is one thing to proclaim Jesus as Lord of history or of the far-flung planets of the universe. Those are profound theological truths and we must never forget them. But what about the nitty-gritty, daily practicalities of life? Surely this is where the rubber hits the road. So it is that Paul touches on three areas of life that were applicable to almost every member of the little church in Colossae: the relationships between wives and husbands, children and parents, and slaves and masters.
However, Paul breaks from the typical direction of his era by calling for mutual submission. He does not ask only that wives submit to their husbands, but he places a condition upon this submission and calls for mutual respect and love on behalf of the husband. He does not label submission as a duty or a right, but emphasizes that we are to serve one another. With the words “as is fitting in the Lord” (Col. 3:18), Paul reminds us that our relationships—all of them—are to be founded in Christ’s lordship over us. And here is where I (along with Paul) start to get into deep waters…
Join John next week as he dives further into what Paul is saying about the relationships between wives and husbands, children and parents, and slaves and masters. Read part 3 of this series here.