Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Wives: “As is Fitting in the Lord” (Col. 3:18)

Colossian 3:18-19 contains these short instructions to wives and husbands.

Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives and don’t be bitter towards them.

Up until now, I haven’t written an article that focuses on these two verses, mainly because I’ve regarded them as an abbreviated version of Ephesians 5:22-33, and I’ve written several articles on this longer passage. (See here.)

However, there are two phrases that are unique to Colossians 3:18-19: “as is fitting in the Lord” and “don’t be bitter towards them.” In this 2-part series, I look closely at these phrases beginning with the one in verse 18.

“In the Lord”

Jesus is referred to as “Lord” numerous times in the New Testament. Jesus is our Lord, our master and authority, but he is more than that. He is also our redeemer, our role model, our guide, support, and friend in every aspect of life. Everything we do as those who have been baptised and clothed in him is “in the Lord” (cf. Col. 3:17).

“In the Lord” (Greek: en kyriō) is very much Paul’s expression. It occurs 46 times in his letters[1] where he uses it for people, activities, and ministries that are “in the Lord.”[2] Paul typically uses the phrase, and also “in Christ,” about our state of being and belonging. Our very identity is “in the Lord.” We are “in the Lord.”[3]

Here’s another verse where Paul uses the phrase: “In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, and man is not independent of woman …” (1 Cor. 11:11).

“As is Fitting”

“In the Lord” qualifies, or tells us something, about the verb “is fitting.”[4] The Greek verb anēkō (“is fitting”) occurs three times in the New Testament, only in Paul’s letters where he encourages wholesome, proper, seemly, suitable, and dutiful behaviour from Christians.

As well as Colossians 3:18, it occurs in Ephesians 5:4 where Paul says that “obscene and foolish talking or crude joking is not anēkō. In Philemon 1:8, Paul tells Philemon that welcoming back Onesimus is anēkō (cf. Phlm. 1:17).[5]

With these three texts in mind, Elizabeth Johnson observes that, for Paul, fittingness is determined by social convention as well as by proper reflection of Christian community standards.[6]

The tiny Greek word hōs, frequently translated as “as,” often has a sense of comparison. This particle also occurs in Ephesians 5:22 and 24 where it describes how wives are to submit to their husbands: “as to the Lord” and “as the church submits herself to Christ.”

In respect to the last phrase in Colossians 3:18, David Pao writes that “if we note the common function of the comparative particle ‘as,’ it seems best to take the entire phrase as indicating manner, with ‘is fitting’ (anēken) denoting a sense of propriety.”[7]

Pao understands the phrase as saying, “… submit in a manner that is appropriate for those who are in the Lord.” Accordingly, the CEB translates Colossians 3:18  as, “Wives, submit to your husbands in a way that is appropriate in the Lord.”

Seemly Submission

Submission to husbands was expected of respectable first-century wives in Greco-Roman society.{8] In the three passages where Paul mentions it, however, he reframes it in Christian terms (Eph. 5:22-24; Col. 3:18; Tit. 2:4-5 cf. Eph. 5:21). By Christianising it, Paul makes it applicable to Christian wives and he puts limits on it.[9] The submission of Christian wives was not to be unbecoming or inappropriate, but seemly.[10] Furthermore, as with all Christian behaviours, it was to be done with love.

I define Christian submission as “humble, loyal, loving deference and cooperation” with the ideal being mutual submission (Eph. 5:21).[11] Demeaning, servile submission to an unkind, selfish man is not what Paul had in mind. That is not “fitting in the Lord.” That is not an expression of Christian marriage.

Note that Colossians 3:18 says that wives are to submit themselves to their husbands, not to men in general. There is no Bible verse that says women owe men submission above the mutual submission (humility, deference, cooperation) that all Christians are to demonstrate towards each other regardless of sex.

Unity is the Aim

The words to wives and husbands in Colossians 3:18-19 are prefaced with instructions for compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, love, and peace which foster unity (Col. 3:11-17). The aim of Christian submission, likewise, is unity, not subordination. This is clearer in Paul’s discussion in Ephesians 5:22-33 where he uses a head-body metaphor that signifies unity (cf. Col. 3:14-15).

While many people assume submission is the counterpart to authority, Paul nowhere tells husbands they are the authorities or leaders of their wives. Instead, he tells them to love their wives. I look at Paul’s instructions to husbands in the next post.


Footnotes

[1] Revelation 14:13 is the only non-Pauline verse in the New Testament to use the phrase “in the Lord.”

[2] See Rom. 16:2, 8, 11, 12, 13, 22; 1 Cor. 4:17; 7:22, 32; 9:1-2; 16:19; Gal. 5:10; Eph. 4:1, 7: 5:8; 6:9; Php. 2:29; Col. 4:7, 17; 1 Thess. 5:12; Phil. 1.20, etc.

[3] More on being in Christ and in the Lord here: https://margmowczko.com/being-in-christ/

[4] The verb, which is impersonal (“it is fitting”) and absolute, appears to be in the imperfect form in Col. 3:18: anēken. This would usually have the meaning “it was fitting” in the past tense. But this doesn’t make sense. Some suggest it is a customary imperfect which indicates the submission of the wives in Colossae had been happening in the past and, by implication, should continue to happen. Somewhat along similar lines, A.T. Robertson writes that “This is an idiomatic use of the imperfect indicative with verbs of propriety in present time” (Robertson, Grammar, p. 919). (Source: Study Light) Others suggest the verb is actually in the perfect tense. The tense of the verb has been discussed in scholarly literature and I’m not fussed one way or the other since the intention of Col. 3:18 is reasonably clear: wives should continue to submit to their husbands.

[5] Paul’s request to Philemon is indirectly supported by the customary obligation of reciprocity that was pervasive in the Greco-Roman world; Philemon owes Paul (Phlm. 1:19).

[6] E. Elizabeth Johnson, “Colossians” in Women’s Bible Commentary, Third Edition, Carol Newsom, Sharon Ringe, with Jacqueline Lapsley (eds) (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 586.

[7] David W. Pao, Colossians and Philemon (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012)

[8] In fact, authors such as Plutarch and Philo who were contemporaries of Paul, speak about obedience and a more severe degree of deference from wives than what Paul indicates in his letters.

[9] Pao writes, “It is also possible to take this clause as limiting the sphere in which the wife is to submit to her husband. She is to submit only insofar as the will of the husband aligns with that of ‘the Lord.’ Again, ‘the Lord’ is the center of one’s attention as he alone is the criterion through which to determine what is appropriate and acceptable.” Pao, Colossians and Philemon.

[10] All instructions in the New Testament should be applied with wisdom and common sense. There is no requirement to submit to foolish, selfish, or abusive behaviour in Christian relationships including Christian marriage. Furthermore, we need to pay equal attention to the words that preface Colossians 3:18-19 and Ephesians 5:22-33 which are about mutuality and partnership.

[11] Craig Keener asks the question, “Why does Paul, who calls for mutual submission [in Ephesians 5:21], deal more explicitly with the submission of wives than with that of husbands?” Keener answers his question, “’Because he was smart.’ His social statements are the most progressive of his day, but if he wanted the gospel to gain a strong hearing in the Greco-Roman world, he needed to temper his radicalism with prudent sensitivity.” Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990), 139. (More on this evangelistic concern and social context in part 2.)

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Explore more

A Close Look at Colossians 3:19 (Husbands)
All my articles on Ephesians 5:22-33 are here.
All my articles on mutual submission are here.
The Greek Grammar of Ephesians 5:21-22
The Household Codes are Primarily about Power

6 thoughts on “A Close Look at Colossians 3:18 (Wives)

  1. Paul would have written at more length on these things if he had any inkling that people would still be arguing about what he wrote 2,000 years in the future. A future he could not even imagine. He wrote for his time and place and that is the way the people who first received the letters took it. Is he up in heaven hiding his face in his hands, saying, no, no, that is not what I meant?

    1. I agree, Joanna.

      Also, I think Paul expected that the Colossians would have heard the letter to the Ephesians with the longer discussion. Ephesians was probably a circular letter meant for the churches in Asia Minor.

      Some scholars suggest Ephesians is the letter to the Laodiceans referred to here:
      “After this letter has been read to you [Colossians], see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea” (Col. 4:16).

      1. Thank you again for your thoughtful post. I am convinced that “Ephesians” must have been the Laodicean letter. It reads in a way that suggests Paul had not visited there yet. (I see this especially in his comments about giftedness when compared to Romans and Colossians.)

        You did not mention 1 Corinthians 7:39 in your post. The phrase μόνον ἐν κυρίῳ has certainly been twisted to conform to a doctrinal stance that a widow can marry only a Christian. It is usually paired with 2 Corinthians 7:14, a context that does not mention marriage at all.
        You have probably written on this subject. What are your thoughts about the Greek phrase in 1 Cor 7:39?

        1. Hi Dan, It makes good sense that Ephesians is the letter to the Laodiceans.

          I haven’t thought much about 1 Corinthians 7:39. What do you think “ἐλευθέρα ἐστὶν θέλει γαμηθῆναι, μόνον ἐν Κυρίῳ” means?

          I translate it (woodenly) as “she is free for whomever she wishes to be married to … only in the Lord,” meaning that a widow is free to marry again but only a Christian (cf. 1 Cor. 7:8-9).

          I take the backdrop of 1 Corinthians 7:1-16 and 25-40 as a Corinthian faction which was renouncing sex in marriage as well as marriage altogether. Paul was in two minds about this. He thought celibacy was good and preferable but not sustainable for most, especially for married couples. More on this here.

          I agree that 2 Corinthians 6:14ff is not primarily about marriage. It’s probably an invective against Paul’s opponents or perhaps a caution against demonic idolatry. Still, there is a principle we can draw more broadly from this passage: “what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?” 2 Cor. 6:15.

    2. Exactly. Where does this assumption come from??? Does Jesus’ submission mean a lack of authority? Everyone agrees wives should submit, the disagreement is whether husbands are called to do so likewise.

      1. It’s not clear what “assumption” you’re referring to, Jessica. Perhaps this article will clear things up.
        https://margmowczko.com/mutual-submission-early-christianity/

        Often submission is to a person in authority over others, or to a person with a higher status. Nevertheless, I stand by my statement, “While many people assume submission is the counterpart to authority, Paul nowhere tells husbands they are the authorities or leaders of their wives.”

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