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Published Date: August 14, 2013

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Whatever You Do (Part Two)

In last week’s blog, John considered the apostle Paul’s view of marriage, parenting, and slavery that opposed the hierarchy of his own culture. This week John will explore the basis of mutual relationships.


“Wives,” Paul writes, “be subject to your husbands…” Now before we get into a knot, it is important that we keep on reading. “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord” (Colossians 3:18 NRSV). Notice first of all that Paul places a condition upon the wives’ submission. And notice secondly that Paul does not stop with wives. “Husbands,” he continues, “love your wives and never treat them harshly.”

If Paul had been typical for his time, he would have given instructions only to wives (to submit to their husbands), children (to obey their parents) and slaves (to obey their masters). But in each case Paul also addresses husbands, parents, and masters. By doing so, Paul puts everyone on an equal footing.

In his commentary series, Interpretation, Richard Hays says this about 1 Corinthians:

Paul offers a paradigm-shattering vision of marriage as a relationship, in which the partners are bonded together in submission to one another, each committed to meet the other’s needs. In the ancient world, this vision posed a challenge to the prevalent patriarchal picture of the husband as master of the wife; in our world, it poses a challenge to the prevalent picture of the sexual autonomy of each individual. Any congregation that begins to reflect seriously on the implications of this Pauline model for marriage will find themselves forced to reevaluate many of their assumptions and habits. In our time, no less than in [the] first-century… the church has unthinkingly absorbed many assumptions about sex and marriage that are simply “in the air” in our culture—disseminated in our case through television, movies, magazines, and self-help books. Grappling seriously with Paul’s alternative vision may help us begin to identify the false images of sex and marriage that surround us. (131)

What Paul is calling for is mutuality in relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves. He recognizes that it is not just one side that bears responsibility towards the other, but that each side is under equal obligation. In fact, in the case of masters and slaves, it is within the realm of possibility to translate the word “fairly” in Colossians 4:1 as “with equality” or even “as equals.” In fact, Paul does that in another letter composed at the same time as Colossians. When Paul sent the runaway slave Onesimus back to his master, Philemon, he did it “so that [he] might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother” (Phil. 1:15b–16a). And so there is in all our relationships this revolutionary realignment: no longer a hierarchy, but partnerships between these various parties.

Stay tuned for part three, when John examines relationships through service and discipleship. Coming next week!