How does being subordinate to her husband in the context of his leadership within the family unit benefit a wife?
Colossians 3:18 Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
The Greek word used in (Colossians 3:18) for the ESV’s “submit” is a passive form of “ὑποτάσσω”, [ee-poe-tássoe, according to the modern Greek pronunciation as recorded in Bible.is] and is translated in the NIV as, “submit yourselves.” The NAU says, “be subject to”, and the NET “submit to.” The Message Bible, a newer paraphrase, translates the entire verse, “Wives, understand and support your husbands by submitting to them in ways that honor the Master.” My own translation would be, “Wives, yield your right of way to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” Yielding one’s right of way is a phrase which I think best captures Paul’s use of the Greek word “ὑποτάσσω”. Let’s take a closer look at the word.
First of all, the Greek word does not mean what our collective cultural dictionary says concerning our words “submit” and “submissive”. English vernacular has developed over the generations a negative connotation for these words, which includes the image of someone who is spineless, a wimp, passive, dependent, and possibly even cringing. I believe that much of this connotation has developed as a backlash to the Christian right’s interpretation of this very verse.
“‘Uποτάσσω” is built of two parts–the prefix “ὑπο” (hupo, as it is often pronounced) and the root “τάσσω” (tássoe). “τάσσω” alone means “to place or station a person or thing in a fixed spot,” (Greek-English Lexicon, Arndt and Gingrich) as, for example, in a business or governmental position or office. A second, similar meaning is to “order, fix, determine, appoint.” The Greek meaning and context carry no negative connotations. Order is the rule of society. In society, organizations, businesses, institutions of health, the military, the government, the court system, a classroom, a school, a district, states, the nation, and so on, must be ordered or they cease to function. Nearly everything one can think of carries the quality of order with it. We live in an ordered universe.
Next, “ὑπο” is a prefix that means “under.” “‘Uποτάσσω” (hupotάssoe) in the passive imperative (command) form found in Colossians 1:18 means to be “subordinated” under someone else in the hierarchy of order, just as a nurse is subordinate to a physician, a private to a sergeant, the vice president to the president, and Christ the Son to God the Father. Negative connotations in the context of Colossians, as in all of Paul, are not intended. Neither Christ nor Paul were against women; they highly favored them. (See the Conversation with the woman at the well, and Paul’s commendation of Euodia and Syntyche as “fellow workers”.)
Paul’s grammar says that women should submit themselves as an action of their own free will, not that men should force them to submit.
(NIV) Colossians 3:18 Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. [The NIV correctly catches Paul’s passive command to wives.]
Here are other verses which use the Greek word “ὑποτάσσω” (hupotάssoe).
1 Corinthians 16:15 Now I urge you, brothers–you know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints– 16 be subject to such as these, and to every fellow worker and laborer.
1 Corinthians 15:27 For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. 28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.
There is a quote by Eric S. Gray that is making its rounds on the internet, “Whatever you give a woman, she will make greater. If you give her sperm, she’ll give you a baby. If you give her a house, she’ll give you a home. If you give her groceries, she’ll give you a meal. If you give her a smile, she’ll give you her heart. She multiplies and enlarges what is given to her. So, if you give her any crap, be ready to receive a ton of shit!”
In much the same vein Francis Frangipane in his book, This Day We Fight, speaks of God creating man to be the one who brings order and structure to the world. God himself is a God of order and structure, man having been created in his image. Frangipane continues by describing the woman as the life bearer, the one who makes new life. God himself makes life; in him there is life (John 1:4). Both man and woman were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), yet with different functions, or roles. They are a team, the one complimenting the other and the first providing for, loving, nurturing, and caring for the other as though she were his own flesh (Genesis 2:23).
Just as a team of horses or sled dogs has a single leader, or a sports team has but one captain, a nation has but one queen or king or only one president, a car only one steering wheel, an airplane one pilot and a copilot, so the team of man and woman has one leader, the one who interfaces with the world to provide order and structure for the family unit, which leads to nurture and safety for the woman, who brings life to the home and bears and raises the children. The human body has two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two hands, two feet, and only one mouth. In an analogy to marriage, the husband is the mouth and the wife his breath.
Paul wasn’t writing legalistic, dictatorial law; he wasn’t saying, “One size fits all.” Paul was describing God’s blueprint, the way God designed the OS for humanity. God designed humans after his own nature. God is a triune God, three-in-one. The Father is head; the Son is the full expression of the Father and the bearer of life for the world. He carries out his Father’s will. Human marriage is God’s blueprint for the church and Christ, Christ the head in relation to the church and the church his bride. The church carries out her Savior’s will.
Applying the Above to This Verse
So how does being subordinate to her husband in the context of his leadership within the family unit benefit a wife? As shown above, the woman by creation, that is, the biology of the way things are, is the life-bearer and physical nurturer of the baby in the early months/years of life. The husband brings the external order and structure to the home–its sustenance (income) and protection. This frees up the woman from those concerns and gives her the security and restfulness necessary for her to provide for the family–her children, her spouse, and herself–in an atmosphere of peace and joy. It’s division of labor, just as in the human body.
Immediate Biblical Context
The immediate context of Colossians 3:18-4:1, in which Paul addresses the order that is to exist in the Colossian households regarding 1) the husband/wife relationship, 2) the children/parent relationship, and 3) the slave/master relationship, is–
L-O-V-E, Peace, and Joyful Thanksgiving.
Colossians 3:14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
Colossians 3:15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.
Colossians 3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
Colossians 3:17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
And, it’s a two-way street:
Colossians 3:19 Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. (I.e., you must love your wives in such a way that you are willing to die for them– )
Colossians 3:21 Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.
Colossians 4:1 Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.
It is interesting to note that in this entire passage, Paul’s heart seems to be burdened most heavily with the plight of the slaves in his society. Whereas he devotes one sentence each to wives and husbands and one sentence each to children and parents, he devotes four sentences (verses) to his encouragement of slaves, and one sentence to their masters. Clearly, Paul has no chip on his shoulder against any of these six social groups, and his emphasis is NOT on wives. After his brief comments on household order, he switches immediately to prayer and Christian behavior toward outsiders.
Everyone is aware of how imperfectly the church has accomplished Christ’s commandment to spread the good news of his kingdom salvation to the whole world. The relation of wives and husbands is no different–it’s something that the church has botched over the years. Nevertheless, it is the Christian nations in which the movement for social equality for women has gained the most ground. I know of no other world religion that favors women as highly as biblical Christianity. And, the Bible teaches this without demeaning men.