Counter-cultural in every age

 “The clear evidence of the mental health ill-effects of discrimination against LGBT people should firmly banish outdated policies to the past where they belong.” [1]

So concluded an article in The Guardian on the issue of our marriage plebiscite in 2017. It’s a common argument: the traditional definition of marriage is so, well, traditional. Clearly it’s the way that people did think in the past. But it’s not the way most people think now. It doesn’t fit this day and age. It’s outdated.

But it’s not just one’s definition of marriage. Many people, perhaps even many Christians, feel very similar with the whole set of instructions on household relationships in passages like Colossians 3:18-4:1. Instructions to slaves and masters, with no condemnation of slavery as an institution? An instruction for wives to submit to their husbands? It just doesn’t seem to fit our times. No one really thinks like this any more. They did in the past, clearly. But not any more.

It’s important not to dismiss this response too quickly. Although we’ll keep an eye on the whole passage, our focus in this article will be particularly on the instruction to Christian wives and husbands. Some of the hesitations people have in this area will, in all likelihood, reflect legitimate concerns. In the context of growing awareness of issues like domestic violence, it’s crucial to recognise this. It demands us to clarify what Paul’s words do mean, and what they do not mean.

At the same time our reaction to this passage inevitably reflects our own cultural biases, and we must recognise this too.But what if I told you that Paul’s message was justas counter-cultural in his day as it is in ours?

Our difficulties with Colossians 3:18-4:1

There are at least four reasons Colossians 3:18-4:1 can be difficult for us. The first three are deeply cultural. First, as Australians, we love equality. In fact, I think this may be our very highest cultural value. We love the idea that we’re all equals, that we’re all as good (or as bad!) as each other. Second, we love self-determination. We instinctively think that the path to our greatest happiness and fulfilment is to be completely free from restraint: to do our own thing in our own way at our own time. Third, our cultural habit is to equate activitywith value. This is why, when we meet someone new, it’s normally only about three questions in before we’ve asked them what they do for a living, and then almost as an unthinking reflex, we calculate where we both fit on the invisible, unspoken ladder of social standing.

None of these things sits easily with a passage that puts all sorts of constraints on our behaviour, and where different people receive different instructions depending on their particular role in a particular relationship. To say that it’s foreign to our ears is an understatement.

But there’s one more reason Colossians 3:18-4:1, and especially the instruction to Christian wives, can be difficult for us. It’s more important than the first three put together. It’s the fact that each of us is biased by sin, with the result that each of us reads this passage with a deep conflict of interest.

Once when I was preparing to speak on this passage to a family congregation, I visited the youth group and handed out slips of paper with Colossians 3:21 written on the top: “Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged”. Beneath that was the sentence, “My parents embitter me when…”, and then some blank space for them to write an answer.

The answers were wide-ranging and it was not a happy list: My parents embitter me when… they don’t listen to my side of the story and make assumptions that aren’t true; they go on the iPad during dinner; they belittle my achievements, and always tell me “but you still could have done better”; they are quick to anger; they make jokes about things that mean a lot to me; they tell me I’ve put on weight or judge my clothing; they compare me to my siblings.

But it’s not just children who can produce such a list. Could we not do exactly the same exercise with the wives among us? Or with the husbands? Or with the children? Because the sad reality is that all of these relationships are deeply affected by sin, on both sides of every relationship. Because of sin, our marriages and families are not always the places we long for them to be, or that we sometimes pretend they are.

Can you see the conflict of interest that our sin creates? For example, God wants children to obey their parents. But a sinful father can so easily completely disregard God’s wordto himabout not embittering or discouraging his children, and cruelly enforce his children’s obedience for his sake, rather than to please the Lord.

We typically have a keen interest in seeing the person at the other end of one of our relationships meeting God’s instructions to them, but we have a deep blindness to how we ourselves are going at heeding God’s instructions to us. We are biased by our own sin.

At the same time, it’s not as if we come to this passage as neutral observers, who can calmly and objectively assess its teaching. No, we come to this passage as people whose lives are deeply shaped by sin. Each one of us, therefore, needs to keep being shaped and re-shaped and completely re-oriented by the reality of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ.

The goodness of Christian family life

But isn’t that the wonderful promise of a passage like Colossians 3:18-4:1? This passage assures us that godly Christian families can be a living expression of the gospel.

This is why it’s so important to set the instructions in Colossians 3:18-4:1 in the context of teaching that begins with Colossians 3:1-4. Here, Paul reminds the Colossians that since they have died and been raised with Christ, so they are now to set their hearts not on earthly things but on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. And it’s this message that governs the whole passage.

So the putting to death of the old way of life and the clothing ourselves in the new way of life is only ever about the manner of our lives catching up with the reality that is already there through our trusting in Jesus’ death and resurrection. In other words, through trusting in Christ, we already have the real gift of new life. That’s why Paul says we’ve been raised with Christ, who sits at God’s right hand in heaven. Our godly lives now, therefore, are the practical catching up, in life, to that reality. They are an outward expression of the gospel’s achievements.

And even our family lives can be part of this! Ultimately, this is what makes Colossians 3:18-4:1 so profoundly counter-cultural. It’s not that it’s a clash between ancient and modern, between 1st century patriarchy and 21st century egalitarianism. No, it’s a clash between the gospel and everything else. And that’s why this passage was as counter-cultural in its own day as it is in ours.

Two vastly different views of family: Paul vs. Aristotle

To see this, we only need to compare Paul’s instructions to another ancient view of family relationships that has survived down through the ages: that of Aristotle, described in Book II of Politics:

Of household management we have seen that there are three parts – one is the rule of a master over slaves… another of a father, and the third of a husband.

The freeman rules over the slave after another manner from that in which the male rules over the female, or the man over the child; although the parts of the soul are present in any of them, they are present in different degrees. For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature.

Notice three things:

  1. Aristotle speaks of the man as the central figure from which the whole family unit is considered.
  2. The whole family unit is described in terms of hisruleover the others—over his wife, over his children, over his slaves.
  3. The reason he is to rule over them is because they are inferior to him. In contrast to the husband, the wife has a deliberative faculty but it is without authority. In contrast to the father, the child has a deliberative faculty but it is immature. In contrast to the master, the slave has no deliberative faculty at all.

See the vast gulf that separates this view of family with Paul’s instructions in Colossians 3:18-4:1:

  1. It’s not the man who is the central figure from which the family unit is considered, but rather the Lord Jesus. That’s why four of the six instructions have explicit reference to him in the reasons they give for the particular behaviours they identify.
  2. There’s not a single instruction anywhere in this passage for the man to ruleover anyone: not over the wife, nor children, nor the slave.[2]
  3. There’s no suggestion anywhere in this passage that the that the wife, children or slave are inferior to the man. Rather, each one is addressed right alongside husbands and fathers and masters, clearly showing that each is as morally responsible before God as the other, and just as fully capable of responding to the lordship of Christ.

Paul’s teaching in this passage bumps up against ancient culture just as much as it does against ours. From our vantage point, it might seem easy to dismiss this teaching as simply reflecting the patriarchal views of his culture. But nothing could be further from the truth. Paul is teaching about gospel culture, gospelfamily life. It was just as counter-cultural back then as it is now. 

The instructions to Christian wives and Christian husbands

Paul’s teaching to Christian wives and Christian husbands is remarkably straightforward:

Wives submit to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands love your wives and do not be harsh with them.

Notice that it’s wives and husbands that Paul is addressing, not women and men in general. That is, Paul is talking about how a wife relates to one particular man—her husband—and how a husband relates to one particular woman—his wife.

A wife is to submit to her husband. To submit to someone means willingly to order yourself under them. It’s a relational deference that grants to the other person authority and responsibility. It’s the kind of thing Christians are told to do regularly in the New Testament, to Christian leaders and governing authorities. So prominent is this theme that some have suggested the New Testament teaches a ‘submission ethic’. We might even say that if we have an objection to the idea of submission in and of itself, we will find it very difficult to live as Christians! Here, though, the focus is particularly the way that a Christian wife is to relate to her own husband. Paul says this is fitting in the Lord, which means that ultimately, the wife’s submission is not for his sake or because of his worthiness, but rather springs from considering Christ the Lord.

A husband is to love his wife. To love someone means willingly to act for their good at sacrificial cost to the self. It’s a relational service that always seeks the benefit of the other. This too is something Christians are told to do regularly in the New Testament, especially towards fellow believers, in imitation of the love that Jesus displayed by laying down his life on the cross. As with submission, so prominent is this theme that some have suggested the New Testament teaches an ‘ethic of love’, and if we have an objection to the idea of loving-through-sacrifice, we will find it very difficult to live as Christians! Here the focus is particularly the way that a Christian husband is to relate to his own wife, acting for her good and benefit at sacrificial cost to himself.

To the instruction for Christian husbands, Paul adds that a husband must not be harsh with his wife. This shows that the instruction to wives is never intended as a means of justifying the deplorable, authoritarian bullying that some wives experience from their husbands. That is not biblical marriage. We must all hear the word of God that says such husbands are in grave disobedience and must repent, both for the sake of their own salvation as well as for the good of their wives and children, for God shows no favouritism (cf. 1 Pet 3:7).

Here, then, is Paul’s picture of marriage: a wife ordering herself under her own husband; a husband sacrificially losing his life to serve his own wife. There’s no fleshing out of the details. Specific answers will be different from marriage to marriage. But the big picture is clear. And when we hold the two instructions together it’s not hard to see how they will advance peace, harmony, gentleness and grace within marriage. The ‘battle of the sexes’ which is so characteristic of sinful humanity, even within marriages, gives way in the willing acceptance by both wives and husbands of Jesus’ total lordship.

It is not simply a traditional view. It is a gospel view. And it will be distinct in any and every age.

[1]Kaman Ahmed, ‘A yes vote is vital for the mental health of LGBT Australians. That’s a fact’, The Guardian, 17 September 2017 (viewed 15 June 2019).

[2]This is not in any way to deny the teaching of a husband’s headship in marriage, which is clearly taught in Ephesians 5:21-24, for example. Even there, however, I contend that a husband’s headship in marriage is taught primarily to wives, as a reason for their willing submission to their own husbands. As in Colossians, though, the only command for husbands is to love, as defined by Christ’s self-sacrificing service.