Studying the book of Colossians has been a delight. The text has been challenging and encouraging, full of numerous insights to think about and discuss. At the same time, Colossians brings its own challenges, especially in terms of interpreting the section on household rules. In these slavery is condoned, children are directed to obey their parents, and wives are called to submit to their husbands.
Christians today have little difficulty with explaining why slavery is considered to be against God’s good order; the guidelines on slavery are clearly contextual, written in a context when no one imagined that slavery could be abolished. At the same time, few (Christian or any other faith) would argue that children should not obey their parents. If the rules regarding slavery are considered contextual (so not applicable) and obedience to parents is considered a rule for all time, what about the last rule: submission of wives to husbands?
Not surprisingly, a lot of young adults are uncomfortable with the rule of wives submitting to husbands. There is good reason for this: Too many have seen and heard how submission has been used to validate abuse, or, at the least, make women second-class citizens, even and especially within their own marriage. At the same time, the dominant voices of our society invite and encourage us to unleash our inner potential, to develop our skills fully, to not let anyone hold us back, etc. Such a highly individualistic culture, where progress is considered to be blessed, leaves little space or validation for submission of any sort.
So what does one do with the Biblical text on submit? One can’t simply ignore it because I don’t like it or because it has been misused and/or misinterpreted. Courtesy of Blue Letter Bible, we can see how ὑποτάσσω (hypotassō; Strong’s Number G5293) has been used throughout the New Testament (in 31 verses). These are all listed in a google doc, with the persons doing the submitting highlighted. Analysis of the texts shows that some seem clearly contextual (not only in their parallel to slavery, which we’ve noted earlier is understood as no longer being applicable, but also 1 Peter 3 when it talks about how women should adorn themselves). Other texts talk about Jesus and submission, pointing perhaps to wisdom of what submission ought to entail. Lastly, Ephesians 5:21 says that we are all to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, and then verse 22 tells women to submit to their husbands. The verb for submit in verse 22 (in the Majority Text) is actually absent and taken from verse 21. This suggests that the submission of women ought not to be separated from the submission noted in verse 21.
Just as Paul’s context plays a role in understanding the contextuality of a text is, so does our context. Margaret Kim Peterson and Dwight N. Peterson in their book Are You Waiting for “The One”? (IVP, 2011) note the following about relationships and submission:
There is “one more unpleasant truth about the control-and-acquiescence mode of male-female relationships. Defining male headship as control and female submission as acquiescence is not just misguided; it is dangerous. By idealizing rigidly defined gender roles, assigning power in relationships disproportionately to men, and encouraging both men and women to see this as spiritually appropriate and desirable, a theological ideology for abuse in intimate relationships is set in place.” page 95.
When trying to understand a difficult text, there is much to consider. As these texts on submission have been used to validate and reinforce abuse, we as Christians should want to do all we can to stop that. At the same time, deleting the idea of submission means we run the risk of deleting (or ignoring) the Bible’s call to radical sacrifice for one another and putting others above myself – something that would be a gift and a witness to our strongly individualistic (and consumeristic) culture. Most of us tend to either extreme – all submission or none. Christians do not have a good track record of living in the tension of recognizing both the danger of the text and the danger in dismissing the text.