This section of the Epistle is parallel to Ephesians 3:18-4:2. The sequence of the three pairs of mutual submission is the same, but the explanation in Ephesians is twice as long. There is a much fuller description of the new kind of relationship between husbands and wives.
The key to both versions is "Be subject to one another out of reverence for the Messiah" (Ephesians 5:21). This makes it clear that the three pairs of mutual submission are particular examples of the mutual submission of all members of a church to one another. The form of submission is different, as with parents and children, or slave owners and their slaves (employers and employees), but every part of the body is in some kind of submission to every other part. When we play ball, our brain is in submission to our eyes. Then our bones are in submission to the muscles that move them, and the muscles depend on blood cells, and these depend on the heart to keep pumping them into every capillary.
Having noted the close similarities in the three pairs of mutual submission in the two Epistles, we can also see that the reason for including these mutual submissions is different in the two letters. In Ephesians Paul is concerned about "making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:3). The church in Ephesus was facing the danger of being divided. The Spirit can only do his creative work in animating the body (Ephesians 4:4-12) when "the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love" (Ephesians 4:16).
The problem that Paul faced with the other religion that had infiltrated the church in Colossae was quite different. They were rejecting the simplicity and power of the good news to pursue a philosophy (2:8), and live by some rules about diet and purity (2:20-21). The illumination that was offered them had to be pursued by an individual alone. This is typical of many forms of new age and individualistic religion in our day. It may be learned in a class, or by reading a guru's book, but the discipline has to be practiced by depending on one's own strength.
When people quit church they do not become irreligious. They may adopt a form of meditation or astrology for guidance. And they may be nice, loving, caring persons. But they look to their own self-discipline and efforts to achieve what they want for themselves. They are self-centered (not in the sense of being selfish) rather than God-centered. So there is no need for them to be part of the church. And they don't relate personally to Jesus the Messiah, except as an example of an enlightened good person.
Nor do false religions look to the Holy Spirit to work in you "both to will and to do" (Philippians 2:13). And they can offer no resurrection or the perfect love of heaven. At most there is the hope that the soul might survive and come back in some form of reincarnation for another round of striving for illumination.
As a total contrast to this kind of personal religion by self-effort, Paul recognizes the many complex interrelationships within the church as a body, and he gives three examples of the kind of mutual submission that are needed.
3:18 - The subjection of wives to their husbands is required in all male chauvinistic religions. Paul does not deny that there is a submission involved for a married woman, but it is "in the Lord" which means that it is part of all the other submissions in the organic life of his body. We need to read this in the context of Paul's picture of mutual submissions in marriage : "The husband should give his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does . . . The unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband . . . Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife" (1 Corinthians 7:1-16).
There were many cases of women who came to faith, and had to live with unbelieving husbands. Referring to Jesus's example, "when he was abused, he did not return abuse" (1 Peter 2:23), another apostle wrote to Christian women "In the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives' conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives" (1 Peter 3:1-2). That kind of advice may seem patriarchal to women in our day, but their sisters two thousand years ago had little alternative to submission. What Christian women were given was a meaning for their submission, and the eventual hope of a complete transformation in their husbands' behavior.
3:19 - The husbands also have their form of submission. "Love your wives." That is one of the most radical remarks in the ancient world. Love is not just a romantic feeling, as in the beginning of a relationship, but a decision to love. In the parallel Epistle the love is to be "just as the Messiah loved the church and gave himself up for her" (Ephesians 5:25). And "husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies" (Ephesians 5:28) . That would suit most women quite well. Certainly Paul is rejecting the system of patriarchal male chauvinism in which he was raised.
It is interesting that the apostle Peter speaks of the submission of husbands "in the same way" as their wives submit to them. Show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honor to the woman as the weaker sex, since they too are also heirs of the gracious gift of life - so that nothing may hinder your prayers" (1 Peter 3:7). In our day feminists have shown us that in many ways women are far stronger than men, but in New Testament times women were certainly "the weaker sex" economically, socially, politically, physically, and due to their childbearing and nursing functions. So the word consideration is very appropriate. The importance of husbands and wives being able to pray together also occurs in the mutualities mentioned by Paul (1 Corinthians 7:5).
And for husbands he adds "never treat them harshly" (3:19) In those days, and often still in our modern situations, a man can force his wife to submit by harsh words and brutal treatment. Paul wants love to find a way for a dialogue to enable both to come freely to an agreed solution.
3:20 - The submission of little children to their parents is necessary in all cultures. But obeying "your parents in everything" cannot mean obeying orders to do wrong, or to submit to demanding parents throughout life. Perhaps "in all situations" would be a good translation. Again the submission is "in the Lord" as an important part of the many mutual submissions in the body of the church.
The parallel passage quotes the fifth of the ten commandments, "Honor your father and your mother" which has the promise that "it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth (Ephesians 4:1-3). As in the case of the other commandments, we are given the principle but we are given no guidance about what honoring means. The minimum is that we have to honor the fact that every gene in our body came from one or another of our parents. And most of our earliest education came from them. If we do not honor what we have been given, many things go badly wrong.
3:21 - Parenting is one of the most demanding skills in the world. Discipline which is erratic or unfair leaves a permanent scar in the lives of children. In the parallel passage Paul says "Bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4). That does not mean ruthlessly forcing children into our Christian norms. Rather, we are to be the same with our children as God is with us. In a loving community we are given ideals, stories and parables, and there is a lot of freedom for us to learn the consequences of various alternatives. The art is not "to provoke your children, or they may lose heart" (3:21). As opposed to being heavy-handed and insensitive, we give encouragement in every good direction. That is what we ourselves experience as children of God.
3:22 - In the ancient world some slaves had very responsible tasks to perform The essential difference between slaves and servants was that employees were free to move and work for another employer. Slaves were meant to obey their "earthly masters in everything," but there was a huge difference between slaves who could be trusted in financial matters (Matthew 25:14-15) and those who merely did what was needed to avoid a beating.
As in the case of wives and children, Paul asks them to do their work "in the Lord" (3:18, 20, 23). In the parallel Epistle he says : "Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women" (Ephesians 6:7).
3:23 - Slaves who did good responsible work often became accepted almost as family members, and given many privileges. Some were given their freedom. In any case their faithful work, in what could be oppressive and abusive situations, was counted as work in the body of the Messiah. This was a very important part of the witness of churches in the Roman empire. And many in high places came to faith through the gracious lives of their slaves.
3:24 - Paul then reminds the Colossians that the Messiah is ultimately in control and rewards his servants in his own way.
3:25 - The Colossians were being tempted to leave their place and function in the church as the body of the Messiah. But outside what the Messiah is doing, there is only a limited temporary world of self-effort and wrath consequences.
4:1 - The submission of slaves, servants, and employees is easily visible in all countries. But for Paul the submission of employers to their employees was in a way far more awesome. "Masters, do the same to them." The reason for treating their employees "justly and fairly" was that "you know you also have a Master in heaven" (4:1). And the same words in the other letter. "Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven" (Ephesians 6:9). Jesus had himself explained, "You know that among the Gentiles (nations) those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom (to give freedom) to many" (Mark 10:42-45).
In our day we still have the old styles of government, business, and church hierarchies, based on those at the top "threatening" (Ephesians 6:9). The style of management of our "Master in heaven" and which operates in the church as his body, is very different. When all are freed to work together in mutual submission, employees in government, business, and church situations, are not only happier but far more productive.
Chapter 7 .....