Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them. Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord. Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged.
You cannot purchase a home (new or old) without understanding that being a homeowner requires constant maintenance and upkeep. Fixing and improving a home is the consistent responsibility of its homeowner. This is also true when you establish a home through marriage and a family through having or adopting children. It entails an ongoing process of improvement.
Though the church becomes a spiritual family for believers, it does not replace God’s design for a stable home — husband and wife, parents and children. In Colossians 3:18–21, Paul addresses the members of a Christian home with regards to his or her role and responsibilities in the home. After reading these verses, a few questions should come to mind.
First, are these commands sufficient for building a Christian home? They are so short and simple, even abrupt. Is there not more to the family than what has been written?
Second, does a Christian view of the family negate the equality of individuals? It may appear from these verses that the wife and the child are put in a place of inferiority, even vulnerability.
Third, do these commands create a cultural conflict? The idea of a wife being submissive could create tension. Should these roles and responsibilities not be altered or adjusted because of the culture? Does the definition of a biblical family conflict with those who are proponents of a non-traditional family, such as family built on a same-sex union?
Fourth, who is ultimately responsible for the family? The way we view the family must be seen through the lenses of salvation. We are members of the family of God and are called new creations (“the new man”) in Christ (Col. 3:10).
As members of this family of believers, we are commanded to live out our new identity in every area of our life under the complete lordship of Christ. If our faith is to be genuine, it will touch every realm of our lives, including our own human families. These commands, therefore, reveal how a Christian family is to look and operate under the authority of Jesus Christ.
Paul’s pattern is to speak directly to each family member (wives, husbands, children, fathers), to give each one his or her divine responsibility, and then to give a motivating reason behind the command.
COLOSSIANS 3: 18
Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord.
To submit means “to place oneself under” or “to subject oneself.” In military terms it involves rank. In relation to government, this term denotes citizens who are obedient. It is very clear that Paul’s approach is to address first the one who is placed in a subordinate role.
In an age where individual rights are prominent, particularly in a country such as the United States, this command may seem to demean women. In fact, it has been interpreted as a contradiction to what Paul has said in other places, even a few verses earlier in Colossians 3, about the equality of all believers.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
“Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11).
It is very clear that Paul places no distinction between men and women in their relationship with God. We are all equally one. This is not surprising, because He explicitly created the first man and woman (Adam and Eve) equally in His own image (Gen. 1:27). Therefore, submission has nothing to do with competence or value.
But if we are equal image-bearers and equal members of Christ’s body, why should wives submit to husbands? It is all about the way the family is to function. Consider three truths.
God Has Established a Functional Order
Relationships in the home are rooted in the Trinity. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are co-equal with one another. However, there is a functional order in the Trinity where one person of the Godhead submits Himself to another person in order to accomplish God’s sovereign purposes.
For example, Jesus totally submitted Himself to His Father’s will. Why? In order to accomplish the Father’s plan and purpose of our redemption. Likewise, the Holy Spirit functions in submission to the Father’s sovereign will by working in the hearts of those whom the Father has chosen to be heirs of salvation. So within the Trinity equality and submission co-exist, and this submission has a functional purpose in our salvation.
God has also revealed a functional order in the family:
“But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3).
In order for the family to function, there is a divine flowchart, an order of responsibility and accountability. The duties of the subordinate are always first, because if there is no submission everything will fall apart. Just like in the Trinity, there is equality between husbands and wives, but submission is necessary for the family to function. They are equal in essence but complementarily different in function.
This Submission Is Always Voluntary
The grammar of Paul’s command indicates this is a voluntary submission. By way of contrast, Paul states his command that children obey with a stronger form that does not emphasize volunteerism. God’s ideal is not that a wife comes kicking and screaming but rather joyfully and willingly submits to her husband. Role differences do not translate into superiority or inferiority. They are both equal. In fact, the trajectory Paul is setting is that both the husband and the wife share in mutual responsibilities. The husband is commanded to obey God by loving his wife and making her needs, desires and wishes his focus.
This Submission Is Ultimately to the Lord
Paul says it is “fit” or proper for the wife to submit to her husband “in the Lord.” In other words, the motivation is not a man’s dominance but rather Christ’s preeminence. He is the Head of the church of which we are a part (Eph. 5:24). Submission in the home is defined by God, not culture. Therefore, biblical submission does not ask a wife to disobey God by obeying her husband. Such obedience would not be fitting, for all of us are ultimately under the authority of our Lord.
Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them.
Paul gives husbands two commands. The first is positive. Husbands must love their wives. This was an unusual command in ancient times. The widespread notion among Greeks and Jews was that wives were to submit; however, there was no reciprocal code in the ancient world requiring husbands to love their wives. The second command is negative. Husbands must be not harsh with their wives. This love is distinctly sacrificial — a self-giving love modeled by Christ. It means considering a wife’s every need and showing her the greatest respect.
The fall did not cause gender roles in marriage; it perverted them. Since we all sinned in Adam, wives are tempted to control their husbands, and husbands are tempted either to abdicate their responsibility or use it in manipulative and unloving ways. With frightening regularity, a husband destroys this closest and dearest of relationships because his wife fails to live up to his ideals, his hopes and his ambitions — physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, relationally.
Ironically, everything a husband thinks his wife needs to change in her life is a reflection of what he needs to change in his. A wife is simply a mirror reflection of her husband. Husbands love wives, not by controlling them, but by serving them. The lordship of Christ demands that we love!
Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord.
Children are also addressed as responsible persons within the congregation. The responsibilities within the family are mutual; even children have a role. The root of the word obey means to listen. Consider Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.” In this context, listening and obeying are virtually synonymous. It is an eager ear that listens with the intent to obey absolutely.
Paul seems to be addressing children who are living under the protection and care of their parents. They are obligated to obey in all aspects of life, including time and schedule, friends, entertainment, and dress. This is appropriate behavior within the Christian community.
Children who do not live at home should show deference but are no longer expected to obey. However, the command to “honour thy father and mother” has no statute of limitations (Eph. 6:2). Furthermore, the motivation remains the same. In relation to our parents, we must do what is “well pleasing to the Lord.”
Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged.
By divine intention, the father is primarily responsible for motivating his children. It is easy to provoke children so that they become disheartened. This exasperation sucks the life out of their passion to please their parents.
Children naturally want to bring their parents pleasure. Every father of young children knows the delighted plea, “Daddy, watch me!” I remember looking toward the stands as a football player hoping to see my parents sitting there. I remember as a freshman in college sitting on the bench as we played Erskine College and looking up and seeing my father, who drove 92 miles to come to the game. I remember how encouraged I was to have my father attend my college graduation. I also remember how my father, who was paralyzed from his chest down, said to me one week before he died how proud he was of me.
No Christian father inherently desires to dishearten his children, but it happens regularly. How? Dads say and do things in ways that contradict their acceptance of their children. Their love and approval are, or at least seems, conditional. This happens through anger and abuse as well as apathy and absence. It might be nagging, belittling or criticism. It might be the repeated failure to acknowledge worthy achievements.
We see the effects in children who are unusually fearful, withdrawn and so timid that they lack normal self-confidence. They start believing they have amounted to nothing. The overbearing emotional strength of a father can crush his children. His irritability can beat them down. Fathers should admonish their children, correcting wrong attitudes and wrong behavior. However, they must also constantly nurture them through good counsel and encouraging words.
Let’s return to our initial questions. First, are these commands sufficient? They are, because they provide a framework to demonstrate resurrected life in a family context. Furthermore, specific commands regarding relationships in this paragraph are rooted in the general commands in the preceding paragraphs.
Second, does Christian teaching about the family undermine the equality of the individual? Absolutely not! Paul’s inspired words actually elevate the individual by giving him or her purpose and meaning in fulfilling roles and responsibilities.
Third, is there a cultural conflict with these commands? Increasingly, yes. The roles and responsibilities within a family vary somewhat among cultures. However, the fundamental laws of the family are unalterable. The biblical definition of a family conflicts with the current belief of many in our society. That can greatly intimidate us, but we should embrace our contemporary context as an opportunity to shine the gospel light brightly through counter-cultural, God-honoring family relationships.
Finally, who is responsible for the family? Everyone! A family works well only when each person takes responsibility for his or her divinely created role.
The sins that destroy the fabric of Christian communities start by disintegrating the threads of Christian families: bad morality, bad communication, pride, lack of forgiveness, disunity, and more. Instead, we must be vigilant as family members, heeding Paul’s admonition: “As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in Him” (Col. 2:6).
This post is from Seeking Things Above: A Study in Colossians by Steve Pettit. Copyright 2016 by Bob Jones University.
This post is part of the study designed to correspond with the 2021 Spring Chapel Series. Watch the chapel message below:
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