Colossians 3:18-19

Paul has concluded his summary of the Christian life. Now, as in a number of his other letters, he descends to details, as the Puritans used to put it, “breaking grace up small.” And he begins, where our lives begin, in our homes. And in the home the first and most fundamental relationship is that of husband and wife. It is their relationship that creates the home and is its foundation. You find a similar progress in ethical instruction, from general to particular, a summary followed by the ethics of the home in 1 Peter. It was, apparently, a typical way for the Christian life to be taught in apostolic Christianity. Martin Luther gave to this type of teaching the name Haustafel, or “House Table,” meaning a list of rules for life at home.  Another scholar describes them as “station codes” because in them Christians are addressed according to their station in life. [O’Brien, 214-215]

We find similar passages in the apostolic fathers, the nearest Christian writings to those of the New Testament that have survived. The reason for the standard approach we find in the Haustafeln may well be that Christian writers used an already existing template, a form of ethical instruction already in use by Jewish and Greco-Roman writers, especially the advocates of the Roman philosophical school of Stoicism. We know this from other parts of the Bible. Literary structures and templates, even political and diplomatic ones, were sometimes employed for the revelation of God’s truth to his people. The Apostles gave their instruction, of course, a distinctly Christian form, but it is one of many reminders we have in the Bible that Christian ethics are not wholly unique. The law of God has been written on the heart of every human being. It should not surprise us that we often think as unbelievers do about right and wrong. Still, the instruction we find regarding family relationships in the Bible and, in particular, in the New Testament is unique in a variety of ways: in motivation to be sure — we are serving the Lord when we treat others and behave according to his will (note how often “the Lord” appears in these few verses) — but also in tone and in content. And, of course, as we will soon see, there is a feature of the Christian ethics of marriage that, however non-controversial through the ages, has become extremely controversial in recent years in the Western world.

One significant departure from both Jewish and Greco-Roman ethical codes is the reciprocity expected of husbands and wives. In ancient thought generally — as today in much of the world — the rights are chiefly on one side and the duties on the other. But in Christian ethics both man and woman, both parents and children are bound to obey, to serve, and to love. This was, as you know, one of the utterly revolutionary features of the Law of Moses: that women also had rights that men were obliged to respect. [O’Brien, 217-218]

Text Comment


You will notice, if you run your eye down through these verses, that the subordinate member of the pair is addressed first: wives, children, and slaves, but two things are to be observed. First, each is addressed as a moral agent with his or her own responsibilities before the Lord. Each life has its own integrity, value, and significance before God. Each person is responsible for his or her own life and each has a calling from the Lord. This was very definitely not the view of the ancient world. Women and slaves, for example, did not have the same significance as moral agents before God as did men and slave owners. Second, the next member of the pair, the predominant one, has corresponding responsibilities.  The two must be read together; never one by itself. The woman’s submission is one side of a coin, the other side of which is her husband’s sacrificial love, and so on with each ordered relationship. While children are to obey, for example, the parents are duty bound to make that obedience easy for them.

The ultimate reason for such submission is never for a Christian wife a fear of her husband, or a sense of her inferiority, or resignation to her weaker nature; it is gratitude to God, faith in the wisdom of his order for human relationships, and a sure hope that such submission is the very best way to what she most wants for her marriage and her home. Hence her submission is “fitting in the Lord.”


As you know, there are three different words translated “love” in the New Testament and there remains some debate about the specific connotation of each one. But, whatever the specific nuance of the word, here it is the same word employed above in 3:14 where Christians are all called to live a life of love, and it is the same word (agapé) that Paul uses in Ephesians 5 where he likens a husband’s love to the sacrificial and deathless love that Christ has demonstrated for his church. Requiring wives to submit to their husbands was not at all controversial in the Greco-Roman world. You should all know this.  Requiring husbands to love their wives was not a part of that ethical system. No ethical code so far discovered from the ancient world requires husbands to love their wives except the Bible! [Moo, 302]

And then to the positive commandment is added a negative: husbands are not to be embittered toward their wives. In Ephesians 6:4 we read that fathers are not to exasperate their children or provoke them to anger. A contextual translation in both cases would be that husbands are not to be harsh with their wives or children. The verb can be used and is used in the New Testament of a stomach turned sour or bitter. [Moo, 303] Men have a particular problem with anger or temper and that tendency is explicitly addressed here and that behavior explicitly forbidden. It is not worthy of a Christian man. It is not fitting in the Lord. Whether it is bitterness or anger caused by the wife’s behavior or simply directed toward her because she is an available target is immaterial. He is not to be a bitter or angry man and he is not to afflict others with a harsh tone or temper. This double command — to love and not to be harsh — is of immense practical importance. Men will often protest their love for their wives even though their wives are spiritually and psychologically exhausted from having to endure their temper and their harshness day after day. No; you are not loving your wives if you are a harsh husband. Marriage is to make you — if you are not already — a gentle, patient, caring, affectionate man. If you are married and are not such a man, you are living in open disobedience to the commandments of God and it is time you stopped doing that, no matter the blow to your pride it will be to admit your failure to your wife.

Now, I am perfectly well aware that the statement Paul makes in v. 18 sounds simply ludicrous to a great many younger men and women of the modern western world. For a generation now it has been taken as axiomatic that the old order of the sexes, the timeless assumption of male authority, was a primitive feature of social life rightly discarded by our more enlightened age. In business, in government, in the military, in sports (when I graduated from High School in 1968, my school, and this was typical, had no interscholastic sports for girls), and in the home the age-old distinctions between the sexes and forms of separation between them are disappearing, and if they don’t disappear rapidly enough, they are abolished by law or corporate regulation.

Satisfied as our culture is at having orchestrated this revolution, hardly anyone is prepared to face the fact that these profound changes in our social order may have much to do with the catastrophe that has overtaken American and European marriage and family life. It is not as if anyone can say things are going well in American and European social life! We have experienced utterly unprecedented levels of divorce, out-of-wedlock childbirth, and of precipitous population decline due to falling birthrates. Our civilization is, in fact, slowly dying, and in some places not so slowly. Americans are less happy now than they have been in the past, as virtually every data point of the Social Survey confirms. So, before we glibly set aside the teaching of Holy Scripture, let us remind ourselves that this is the Word of God, the Maker of heaven and earth, whose goodness faileth never. Perhaps the modern “experts” who have gotten us into this mess know less than they think about what makes for happy and fruitful human life.

The fact is there is a τάξις, an order in life as God created it. The word “submit” in v. 18 literally means “to order under.” [Moo, 299] That order is fundamental to human well-being and flourishing. We recognize this as an utterly uncontroversial observation except in revolutionary periods and when it happens to pinch in some way that we think limits our freedom. We understand that citizens must obey their government, that children must be subject to their parents, that students must be subject to their teachers, that workers must work in subjection to their employers and their bosses, that soldiers must respect the chain of command, and so on. All social relationships require some sort of order. The abandonment of this order leads inevitably not to greater freedom and social wholeness but to the disintegration of a society and the misery of human beings. History has proved this with relentless and pitiless consistency. The communist revolution, for example, theoretically egalitarian at its core, was to usher in a period of unprecedented human flourishing. The result was something closer to despair.

In Christian understanding the order that God has built into human relationships is both ineradicable, on the one hand, and essential for the proper flourishing of human relationships and the proper functioning of human society. That is, we cannot really successfully obliterate God’s order and replace it with one of our own; impose our own order on society; the most we can do is flail against an order we resent, damage it to the point that it no longer bestows the blessing it was intended to bestow, but we cannot destroy it. When we attempt to destroy it all we manage to do is harm to society and to individual human beings. When we attempt to destroy God’s order society inevitably disintegrates. We have been experimenting in the modern west with the overturning of the divine order imposed on human life, especially as it relates to men and women, and the results have not been encouraging. We are witnessing at one and the same time the demise of masculinity and femininity — as a society we are getting the worst of each sex and less and less of the best — we are witnessing as well the disintegration of other family relationships, the ordered happy life in which children ought to grow up, and the loss of societal interest in preserving its own existence. Women have indeed unhitched themselves from committed relationships to responsible men, but what has been the result? An astonishing number of them are alone or living in serial cohabitation with a number of men who are perfectly content to live without making a lifelong commitment to one woman — a larger number, a far larger number than has ever been seen in the western world, perhaps ever in world history — a horrifying number of them either never will marry or will have become or will become divorced single mothers, and ever increasing numbers of them, while despairing of love and a happy home are finding that their jobs or their careers — “career” sounds so much grander than “job” — are unable to fulfill the longings of their hearts.

The trouble all of this visits upon America’s children is almost too painful to consider. We were talking this afternoon at table about life in some Tacoma schools and the situation that prevails for so many of the children in those schools. In one particular school the turnover was 130% in a single year. Senator Moynihan thought it perilous to the nation’s welfare when years ago the illegitimacy rate in the African-American community had reached 40%. It is now almost 80% and the rate for all American babies is pushing past 40%. Everyone knows and studies have confirmed with dismal regularity that children born and raised without fathers are far, far more likely to live in poverty, far more likely to spend large portions of their lives in prison, and to die when comparatively young. The breakdown of the American family — the term of art employed nowadays is “family fragmentation” — is a more important political and social fact with far more serious ramifications than anything made an issue in the recent presidential campaign. It has much more to do with educational failure — concerning which there is an immense amount of national hand-wringing — than competing educational theories or school funding. And the number of the poor, predictably, continues to increase both in absolute terms and as a percentage of the population no matter all the efforts made to reverse it.

There were, to be sure, some early feminists who boldly and unashamedly called for the end of marriage, for the creation of alternative forms of family life, and even for the end of romance between men and women as it has been experienced through the ages because, so it was thought, romantic love brought women into bondage. But the brutal fact is that if most people who meekly submitted to the feminist propaganda thirty or forty years ago could have seen what the result would be of this destabilizing of man-woman relationships, they would never have consented to the revolution that is now virtually complete in American society and is complete in European society. We have ruined the lives and blasted the hopes of vast multitudes of people with these changes. But, then, that is what always happens when men defy the wisdom and the law of God.

There should be nothing surprising, of course, in this modern distaste for such subordination or submission as Paul requires of women here. Mankind, since the Fall, has never liked to acknowledge that he is not the master of his fate. Sin has made him a rebel and rebellion is his natural tendency. Men have embraced feminism as enthusiastically, if not more enthusiastically as women, and for the same reason: it liberates them from the obligations of life as God defined those obligations. I wonder if you young people realize how dramatically the understanding of manhood has changed in a single generation in the United States. Nowadays virtually any romantic comedy one sees trades to some degree in the supposed fact that men are reticent to commit themselves to marriage and the responsibility of a life-long relationship with one woman. Go back to the romantic comedies of the 40s, 50s, and even 60s, however, and you won’t find any of that commitment-phobia that is supposed to be a feature of the male personality. No one had heard in those days that it was typical of men to avoid commitment. In those stories of just a generation ago, the man was the pursuer; he was seeking to woo and win a woman precisely so that he might marry her and commit himself to her for life. How do we explain this dramatic change in the nature of masculinity in a single generation (and it is but one such radical change)? We explain it as a change easy to make because it serves so well the interests of the sinful male: a life without accountability, a life in which he is not responsible for the lives of others. When society expects manliness of its men and responsible masculinity, it gets more of that. When it tells men instead that masculinity as a positive ideal is no longer to be desired in modern social life, men will take heed and embrace their freedom to be irresponsible and uncaring of others. Sinful rebels always take the easy way out.

After the Fall Adam became a buck-passer, a blamer of others for his problems, disinclined to meet his God-given responsibilities. There may be a better man inside him, the man he was created to be, but if society encourages him, actually nowadays, even orders him by law and regulation to opt-out of his masculinity, he will do so gladly. So let us look again at these short statements in vv. 18 and 19, statements that seem to so many nowadays to reach out to us from some dark age of ignorance and primitive superstition.

  1. The first thing to notice is that this command that women submit to their husbands, does not suggest or imply the inferiority of one human being relative to another, it concerns only the proper ordering of the relationships of human life.

In fact, there is such a τάξις in the life of the Triune God himself. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are related to one another in a certain order, an order intrinsic to the divine life and reflected in the divine work of salvation: the Father sent the Son, the Son came to do the Father’s will, the Spirit comes at the will of the Father and the Son, and so on. And by a principle long observed in all Christian thought about the Triune God — that his works in the world and his works in redemption especially reflect the intrinsic nature of the triune life — this order reflects the way things are in the life of God. It could not have been otherwise. The Son could not have sent the Father, the Holy Spirit could not have sent the Son, the Holy Spirit could not have come as the Incarnate Savior of mankind. This is the way it had to be given the order of life in God. This order is found frequently in the New Testament, but so is the teaching that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one God, the three persons the same in substance and equal in power and glory. We are as likely to hear the Son of God say “I have come to do the will of him who sent me” as to say “I and the Father are one.” It is not an either/or but a both/and. There is no inferiority in submission! There may be humility, there may be wisdom, there may be a proper respect and regard, but in this world submission is very often the path to true greatness of life, as it was for the Son of God himself.

In the same way, the true equality that the gospel proclaims, such a statement as we had earlier in Col. 3:11 — a similar statement in Gal. 3:28 explicitly stipulates also the equality of male and female — is in no way nullified by the requirement that we honor the Lord in the particular stations or roles that he has assigned to us. A Christian king and a Christian peasant stand on equal footing before the Lord, each is responsible for his life to the Lord, but each is required to serve the Lord in the station to which he has been assigned. A peasant may answer his call far better than the king and will have the reward of his obedience in the world to come. And so with every Christian.

Nothing in the teaching of the Bible suggests that men are more valuable to God than women, or parents than children, or bosses than workers. Quite the contrary. The Bible is more likely to say that “to whom much is given, much is required” or “let few be teachers for theirs is the greater judgment.” A Christian is someone who knows enough not to grasp for more power or authority because he or she knows full well that God will require an accounting of the exercise of that power and authority on the great Day. A Christian wisely does what he or she is told, uses his or her gifts as God has supplied them, and seeks to serve the Lord in the sphere, in the station in which the Lord has placed him or placed her. If God makes a man a king, or a woman a wife, or a man a father, that is the calling for which he or she will be judged. Every calling involves some measure of subordination, some measure of obedience to someone higher than oneself, some measure of submission of one’s will to that of another, and every calling is a matter of the total submission of one’s life to God.

It is always an act of obedience to the Lord to honor the order he has established for the life of a marriage and a home. Do you see the implication of that “fitting in the Lord” with which v. 18 ends. “…there is no possibility of a married woman’s surrender to the heavenly Christ which is not made visible and actual by some submission to an earthly husband..” [Lucas, 161] But then, it is always harder for a Christian woman to embrace her place in a marriage when her husband does little to deserve her loyalty. So Paul has an equally important and equally demanding word for the man, the husband.

  1. The second thing to notice is the difference in the command given to each sex, to the wife and to the husband.

It is a question worth asking, of course, why these specific commands, so different from one another. After all, it is not as if wives are not supposed to love their husbands! Indeed, in the Haustafel in Titus Paul specifically says that wives are to love their husbands. The most likely answer is that these two quite different commandments address the particular susceptibilities of each sex. [Moo, 303] It is the woman’s tendency to chafe in her role as the weaker, subordinate partner in her marriage. In fact, we have the prediction that it would be so as far back as the curse pronounced on the woman in Genesis 3. Hence the commandment to her is that she must be submissive. She is told that because she is likely not to want to do that.

And in the same way, the husband is told to love his wife, but he is not told, he is never told to rule her. His tendency is to abuse his position of leadership rather than to recognize what a great responsibility he bears for the happiness and spiritual welfare of his wife and children. His tendency is to treat his position as a personal advantage rather than as a stewardship and responsibility. Hence the commandment that he must love his wife and not be harsh with her. That is what he needs most to hear because that is the responsibility he is most likely to shift.

  1. But finally take note of this. These commandments are, in fact, rooted in the very nature of things, in the way men and women are!

They are not the echo of some primitive, unsophisticated period of human history. They are an honest, realistic approach to life as we know life to be.  There is something profoundly real about these two different commandments that we have in vv.18 and 19. There is an order in the life of men and women; everyone knows it and no amount of corporate or government effort can eradicate the differences that put man first and woman second.

I remember reading an observation of Harvey Mansfield — the Harvard professor of government whose book Manliness was published a few years ago — that he had met many men and women who had been at one time or another intimidated by a man’s words spoken in a man’s way, but he couldn’t come up with a case of anyone being intimidated by a woman’s words, however spoken.  Or consider this: everyone knows and understands that a woman wants to look up to her husband, not down at him — a fact that has had increasingly sad consequences for American marriage as the acid of feminism has eaten away at masculine virtue. Even Hollywood — as feminist a culture as exists or has ever existed in the history of the world — doesn’t make movies in which the male hero is finally carried off into the sunset by the stronger female hero. For example, imagine Demi Moore carrying Arnold Schwarzenegger off in her arms. Why? Because no one will pay to watch such movies! Particularly when tickets cost $12.50!

Everyone knows as well — however afraid they may be to state such things publicly — that fundamental differences, physically, mentally, and spiritually, render women subject to men in a way that men are not subject to women. A few women can be very great athletes, we know that, very much better than the majority of men in fact; but the world’s best women sprinters would always finish last in a race against the world’s best men sprinters. It is a fact so obvious that no one thinks twice about the fact that men and women are invariably separated in sports. No woman plays for a Major League Baseball team; no woman plays in the NFL or the NBA. Women have their own teams and play other women.

But it is true in other ways. Lawrence Summers was forced from the presidency of Harvard for suggesting at a conference that it might be innate differences that account for women lagging behind men in math and science. When his remark was reported the reaction was predictable, ferocious, and entertainingly confirming of the very point he was making. A woman teacher at MIT reported that she nearly threw up when she heard what Summers had said. Other female academics reported having cried at the news, delicious confirmation of sexual stereotypes if ever it were needed. The gap between boys and girls and men and women in math and science is a fact that has been long studied and confirmed. In revolutionary ages the first casualty is the truth! Men are, in fact, 13 times more likely to reach the highest levels of mathematical aptitude. No one familiar with mathematics believes that great achievement in that discipline can be affected by social encouragement, as if women would do better if only they were encouraged to believe that math was as much for them as for men. It is entirely typical that the Fermatof Fermat’s Enigma was a man and the person who finally solved the problem a few years ago was a man. It is entirely typical that Albert Einstein’s wife had a passion for math and physics and studied both through her university course, but that no one has heard of Mrs. Einstein.

And we are just getting started. We could speak about women as the victims of crime, especially spousal abuse. We could speak of the innate orientation of women to children. There is a reason why the crisis in our land is a crisis of un-wed or single mothers, not un-wed or single fathers. We could consider the vast differences in social organization that characterize female life, their orientation to relationships in a way very different from that of men.

And we could speak in similar ways about men: their far greater penchant for crime (if we had only women to think about we would have no crime problem in the United States), their far more persistent irresponsibility, especially in relationships, their more competitive nature, and so on. Men are typically the rulers. There have been some significant women rulers, of course, think of Queen Elizabeth I or Margaret Thatcher, but they are few and far between. “The degree to which women take power seems to depend on the extent to which men are absent.” [George Gilder, Men and Marriage, 21] It’s a thought to consider. Women are becoming more and more politically powerful in North American and European politics and government, both of which societies are dying. Or, take the church. Women now make up a majority of elders in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. But actuarial types can predict on precisely what day and what time the PCUSA is going to disappear from the face of the earth so steep and so regular is its numerical decline.

No culture has been identified in human history, not one despite what you sometimes will hear, in which both fighting and leadership were not associated with and almost the exclusive province of men. Thirteen men brought down the World Trade Center and of the 343 firefighters who were killed after going into those burning buildings before they collapsed not a one was a woman even though there are women in the NYC fire department.  The fact is we think of women not only as physically weaker, but as softer, more sensitive, and less direct; they cry more often, and not a one of these stereotypes has been disproved after a generation of social scientists has done its best to do so. We think of men as stronger, more direct, more adventurous, more prone to violence, more likely to take risks, and so on, and none of these stereotypes has been disproved.  Feminism has insisted on a sexually integrated military, but even aggressive efforts at recruitment in some modern European and North American armed forces can’t coax women — in many cases any single woman — into an infantry platoon.

There is more than a historical reason why of the 1,426 names found in the Old Testament, 111 of them are women (less than 8%). And that, frankly, is a much more generous percentage than you would find in any other record from ancient history and frankly from any record of the history of mankind written up to the present day. The Bible makes much, much more of women, than did the ANE in general, or, for that matter, much of the modern world. Once more, you can argue that all of this will now change and our society will successfully and happily obliterate the distinction between men and women. But you must hope against hope that the happy changes will appear before the civilization has died since its death throes are already with us.

Now hear me. I am not saying any of this to demean women or men or to compliment men or women. To be a man is not a virtue; to be a woman is not a curse; nor is the reverse true. The Bible never teaches us to take credit for something over which we have no control!  Women are often very smart, much smarter than many men, they have a kind of resolution and strength upon which the life of the world depends, their feminine qualities are beautiful and necessary for our common life. What good man among us does not treasure the feminine ideal? My point is simply that men and women are different, very different, and different in ways that have immense implications for human life and for social health. You know that. Everybody knows that except the ignoble whose commitments have blinded him to the obvious.

If you once honestly acknowledge that fact, for fact it is that men and women are profoundly different from one another in certain ways, you will read Paul in Col. 3:18-19 with a more receptive spirit, as he was read by many, many generations of men and women — Christian and not — who took his commands as a matter of course; generations that did very much better at marriage and family than we are doing today!

There is a calling here, brothers and sisters. You know very well what it is. It is to sanctify your sex to the glory of God and in the name of Jesus Christ. Anything less is not worthy of you because it is not worthy of him who ordered life in this way.

To the sexual liberal, gender is a cage. To the Christian it is a calling in which to serve the Lord who made us with the gifts he gave us and in the station to which he appointed us. I like that philosophy of life far better than one that summons me to deny the obvious and to struggle my whole life long against my own nature and the nature of the world.