Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Husbands: “Love your wives” (Col. 3:19)

In my previous post, I looked at the instruction given to wives in Colossians 3:18, especially the phrase “as is fitting in the Lord.” In this post, I look at Paul’s equally brief instructions to husbands in verse 19.

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

As in Ephesians 5:25-33, where he uses the word “love” six times when addressing husbands, Paul emphasises love in Colossians 3:19. This focus on love is in contrast to other ancient writings on marriage. David Pao remarks that “Love is largely absent in Hellenistic and even Jewish discussions of marital relationships.”[1]

Much of Paul’s letters, including the household codes, are about how the new Christians were to live beside their pagan neighbours without doing damage to the fledgling Christian movement.[2] Paul wanted the Christians in Colossae to conform to broader social standards where possible, but he also wanted the community of believers to demonstrate the command of Jesus that we love one another.

“I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” John 13:34-45 CEB

Paul appreciated the breadth and power of the love that Jesus demonstrated, taught, and commanded. He understood that love was the supreme ethic (Col. 3:14 NET) and that it was to be evident in all Christian relationships including marriage.

Lynn Cohick writes that the verb agapaō [“love”] is never used elsewhere in Greco-Roman household codes, probably because the nature of this love upends the patriarchal construct of marriage.[3] There is no mention in Colossians 3:19 of husbands having authority. Neither Jesus, Paul, Peter, or any New Testament person, ever tells husbands to lead or to have unilateral authority over their wives. Not once. Rather, Paul’s directive is for husbands to love their wives.

Husbands: “Do not be bitter with them” (Col. 3:19)

Paul goes to some lengths in Ephesians 5:25ff explaining how husbands should demonstrate their love for their wives. There is no such explanation in Colossians 3:19. (He probably expected the Christians in Colossae to have access to the letter to the Ephesians.)[4] But Paul does add the phrase, “and do not be bitter with them.”

The Greek verb for “be bitter” in Colossians 3:19 is pikrainō.[5] This verb can refer to bitter tastes, tempers, and circumstances, and there is a sense of “sharpness” in its usage. It is the opposite, literally and metaphorically, of being sweet. It’s also the opposite of the virtues of the “new person” (“new humanity” or “new nature”) in Christ which are given in Colossians 3:9-17.

Pikrainō occurs four times in the New Testament, three times in Revelation and once in Colossians. In Revelation 8:11, 10:9, and 10:10, the verb refers to a bitter taste and a bitter stomach ache. But this is not how the word is used in Colossians 3:19 or in the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. Pikrainō is typically used in the Septuagint in the contexts of angry tempers or of harsh, miserable circumstances.[6]

With these uses in mind, Colossians 3:19 most likely means, “Husbands … don’t be angry, or harsh, with your wives.” This phrase might be a short way of saying, “Get rid of all bitterness (pikria), rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (Eph. 4:31 NIV).

These kinds of behaviours have no place in any Christian relationship, yet Paul felt the need to remind husbands about not being harsh.[7]  Chrysostom, commenting on Colossians 3:19, similarly felt the need to remind husbands not to domineer (authenteō) their wives. The verb authenteō also occurs in 1 Timothy 2:12 where it refers to a woman and her domineering, self-serving behaviour towards a man, probably her husband.[8]

Harsh, domineering behaviour is unacceptable from men and from women, from husbands and from wives.

The Social Context of Paul’s Household Codes

One of the aims of the Colossians and also the Ephesians household codes was to mitigate and minimise harsh treatment by the people with greater power in Greco-Roman households (husbands, parents, and male and female slave owners) towards people with less social power (wives, children, and slaves).

Despite this aim, Paul stopped short of calling for a social revolution. Christian teaching that undermined or openly subverted the social structures of the day could have been disastrous for the new Jesus movement. Roman rulers were suspicious of new groups, movements, and religions that had the potential to threaten social stability. They did not tolerate what they saw as subversive teachers or disruptive groups. The Christians needed to work out how to follow Jesus and his teachings in this hostile environment.[9]

The household code in Colossians 3-4 contains concessions to a culture that was highly stratified in terms of power. Nevertheless, within the community of believers, and within Christian marriages, mutual love and consideration was the ideal.

It is significant that Paul’s words to wives and husbands in Colossians 3, and in Ephesians 5, are prefaced by instructions to his whole audience, including married men and women, for behaviours that foster kindness, patience, unity, and mutual participation in ministry. And, above all, love.

So then, as chosen of God, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with hearts of mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,
bearing with one another, and forgiving one another if someone happens to have a complaint against anyone: forgive others just as the Lord has forgiven you.
And above all these virtues, clothe yourselves with love which is the perfect bond.
Let the peace of Christ be the deciding factor in your heart—as members of one body who were called to peace. And be thankful.
Let the word of Christ dwell among you richly, teaching and exhorting one another with all wisdom, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, all with grace in your hearts to God.
And whatever you do in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Colossians 3:12-17 (own translation).


Footnotes

[1] David W. Pao, Colossians and Philemon (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012). Pao goes on to say that Paul’s note in Colossians 3:19 on the Christian virtue of love “highlights the newness of Paul’s vision of marriage. In Colossians, this new vision is based on the creation of a ‘new humanity’” (Col. 3:10).

[2] Lesslie Newbigin noted that “The New Testament assumes a missionary situation in which the Church is a small evangelizing movement in a pagan society.”
Lesslie Newbigin, How Should We Understand the Sacraments and Ministry? (London, 1983) 1.88. (Unpublished paper written for an Anglican-Reformed commission.)
Craig S. Keener writes, “As many scholars have pointed out, members of the Roman elite suspected Christianity, like several other non-Roman religions, of subverting Roman family values. By upholding what was honorable in Roman values, the Christians could try to protect themselves from undue persecution and from misunderstandings of the gospel.”
Keener, Paul, Women and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990), 133

[3] Lynn H. Cohick, “Loving and Submitting to One another in Marriage” in Discovering Biblical Equality, Ronald W. Pierce, Cynthia Long Westfall, Christa L. McKirland (eds) (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021), 183- 204, 202.

[4] Ephesians, with the longer discussion on marriage, was probably a circular letter meant for the churches in Asia Minor. Some scholars suggest Ephesians is the letter to the Laodiceans referred to in Colossians 4:16: “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.”

[5] Pikrainesthe (second person plural present middle/ passive imperative) is the exact form in Colossians 3:19. The LSJ entry for pikrainō is here.

[6] Pikrainō is used in the Septuagint in the following contexts:
~ Moses is angry with the Israelites’ disobedience (Exod. 16:20).
~ Naomi is distressed because of her misfortunes (Ruth 1:13, 20).
~ Job identifies the source of his troubles (Job 27:2).
~ Israel’s enemy will receive an unpleasant welcome in Hades (Isa. 14:9a).
~ God is provoked by the wickedness of Israel and Judah (Jer. 32:32; 39:32LXX).
~ Nations are vexed when they hear about the good things God has done for his people (Jer. 33:9; 40:9LXX).
~ The rulers of Jerusalem are fed up and angry with Jeremiah (Jer. 37:15; 44:15LXX).
~ Zion grieves over her desolation (Lam. 1:4).
~ Apame, the king’s mistress, is cross at the king (1 Esdras 4:31).
~ Judas Maccabeus makes life miserable for foreign kings (1 Macc. 3:7).

[7] Similarly, Paul reminded fathers not to provoke their children to anger (Col. 3:21; Eph. 6:4). Wives should also love their husbands and not treat them harshly, and mothers should also not provoke their children; however, Paul seems to have seen a need to single out men with these instructions.

[8] Authenteō refers to a behaviour that is unacceptable among believers, both in the church and in marriage. I’ve written on this verb used in Chrysostom’s commentary on Colossians 3:19 and in 1 Timothy 2:12 here.

[9] Lynn Cohick writes,

… the major goal of the New Testament household codes [including the Colossians 3-4 passage] is to explain how Christ followers could reshape their actions and thoughts toward godly living, given the cultural realities they faced in pagan cities. These realities included patriarchy, slavery, paganism and a heightened imperial propaganda. Paul pushes against these manifestations of domination and idolatry, and shows special concern for the subordinate member of the pairs: wife, child, and slave.
Lynn H. Cohick, “Loving and Submitting to One another in Marriage” in Discovering Biblical Equality, Ronald W. Pierce, Cynthia Long Westfall, Christa L. McKirland (eds) (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021), 183- 204, 192.

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A Close Look at Colossians 3:18 (Wives)
All my articles on the New Testament household codes are here.
All my articles on Ephesians 5:22-33 are here.
All my articles on mutual submission are here.
The Household Codes are Primarily about Power
God Wants Women to be Happy in Marriage
All my articles on 1 Timothy 2:12 are here.

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7 thoughts on “A Close Look at Colossians 3:19 (Husbands)

  1. Wish this would be preached far and wide in our churches and Christian communities. Excellent. So right on target; this could vastly improve so many marriages.

    1. Sadly, there are many Christian marriages that need a lot of improvement. Treating each other with loving kindness is a great place to start.

  2. Hi Marg,
    This question doesn’t have to do with Col 3. Is it okay to ask it here?
    You know how some manuscripts (the basis for the Byzantine type) have, in 1 Tim 2:12, Γυναικὶ δὲ διδάσκειν and earlier ones read διδάσκειν δὲ γυναικὶ. I have pointed this out to some other Greek scholars and their standard answer is that in Greek sentence order doesn’t matter. (This is not completely true, of course, because authors often put one word at the beginning or end of a sentence for emphasis.)
    My question is that if it does not matter grammatically, why change it?
    Also, woman is in the dative case and man is in the genitive case, so since the Greek for permit usually takes the dative, most conclude that Paul is precluding the woman from doing something. (I have found at least once, however, that the NT has epitrepo taking the genitive; and another place where didasko takes the dative. Acts 21:40 & Revelation 2:14 respectively)
    My second question is that doesn’t it make more sense that Paul says he does not give a (domineering) man permission to teach a woman? The context is about a woman learning, not teaching. And Paul’s culture (according to Keener) was that a woman and a man meeting together alone for more than 20 minutes means a sexual encounter has taken place. Isn’t that why Paul gives Titus instructions to teach young men, older men and older women, but not younger women.
    My imagination runs away with me, of course, but I think someday someone will discover a copy of Paul’s earliest form of this letter and find that it was tampered with!
    Sorry. That’d my thought for the day. I had to share it with you. Thanks, Dan

    1. Hi Dan, there are word patterns in Greek but, generally speaking, word order doesn’t change the grammar or affect the meaning. However, as you say, it can affect emphasis.

      Having the word for “woman” at the very beginning puts the emphasis on the woman rather than on her teaching. I believe Paul’s concern was her faulty, ill-informed teaching, not that she was a woman.

      In Acts 21:40, epitrepō (“allow, permit”) is in a genitive absolute construction. The words (in this instance, a genitive participle of epitrepō and a genitive pronoun autou) need to be genitive in this construction. Note that autou functions as the subject of the participle, it’s not the object: “And when he (autou) had given permission …”

      The rule that epitrepō typically takes a dative direct object (as in the previous verse, Acts 21:39) doesn’t apply to Acts 21:40 simply because there is no object for the participle of epitrepō in verse 40.

      I take didaskein as intransitive in 1 Timothy 2:12; it’s not uncommon for didaskō to be used without an object. In other sentences, it typically takes an accusative direct object. However, it can also be followed by a prepositional phrase in the dative case or, occasionally, in the genitive case.

      Authenteō typically takes a genitive which is what we have in 1 Timothy 2:12.

      I think it makes good sense that Paul is not allowing a woman, who needs to calmly learn, to teach. But whatever we might think about its meaning, the grammar tells us that Paul was not allowing a woman to teach …

      I have no problem with Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:12, only with how many people have misunderstood and misapplied them. I doubt the words have been tampered with. My basic take on this verse is here: https://margmowczko.com/1-timothy-212-in-a-nutshell/

      I’m happy to answer your questions, Dan. It keeps my knowledge fresh and sharp. But it might be better to have these discussions under posts that are related to the topic, e.g., https://margmowczko.com/1-timothy-212-and-1-corinthians-1434-epitrepo/ This way, they may be useful to others. 🙂

      1. Thank you, Marg. Your knowledge is probably always fresh and sharp. Thank you for taking the time to answer some of my ignorant questions. (In Greek, I have a little knowledge, which as the saying goes, is a dangerous thing!)
        When it comes to helpful blogs, you are the G.O.A.T.!

  3. Another example of the danger of bitterness is in Hebrews 12:14-17. It is not a household code per se but the writer reflects on the pikra that Esau held onto against his brother (within their household). I think the anger you described above is part of the root of bitterness. And that root grows when a person does nothing to purge that anger.

    1. Thanks Dan. Hebrews 12:14-15 is great advice.
      “Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness—without it no one will see the Lord. Make sure that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no root of bitterness springs up, causing trouble and defiling many.”

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