Colossians 3:18-21 18Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19Husbands, love your wives and do not become bitter against them.
Paul now illustrates ways to live out the commands he gave in the earlier section. These are practical ways the Colossians could do everything in Jesus’ name (verse 17). These verses are much briefer versions of what is giving in Ephesians 5:22-6:9. By following these simple guidelines, the Colossians would experience better relationships with others. There are some cultural features behind these directions, particularly the implied hierarchical structures. These guidelines fit especially the typical Greco-Roman household that would be found in the area of Colossae. These directions should be interpreted through the filter of living with the abiding Christ within us. Christians are part of their cultures but also follow a different standard that causes them at times to critique these cultures.
Paul’s first command is to wives and how they are to relate to their husbands. In Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures, men were dominant and considered the head of the household. Women were to submit to their authority. There were exceptions and women who pushed the typical boundaries in a form of ancient women’s liberation. The key word for wives is be subject (hypotassesthe), which can mean submit or be subordinated. This is not slavish submission but is qualified by the significant phrase as is fitting in the Lord. Jesus sets the standard by how he submitted to the will of the Father, became a servant to humanity, and died on the cross (Philippians 2:5-8). This willing submission to husbands should be done out of love for Christ and not out of fear of the husband. Christian wives should live differently from the typical women of the culture because they have Christ within them.
The next directions to husbands has two parts. First, husbands must love their wives. In some cultures, wives are more for convenience, procreation, or pleasure but not as companions. In a Christian marriage, a husband and wife should see themselves as brothers and sisters in Christ. Each must do whatever is possible to help the other grow spiritually and be all who God has created them to be. Love within the marriage will bring unity (verse 14) and create a situation for mutual honor and respect. In Greco-Roman culture, husbands had a unique power and position to make this possible. Second, husbands should not become bitter against their wives. Bitterness is a negative feeling that begins when a person does not experience what he or she wants or needs. It can fester and grow until it consumes a person can leads to other problems. The answer to bitterness is forgiveness and learning to give each other some space (see verse 13).
It is not clear why Paul chooses this particular challenge for husbands but perhaps they could become bitter because of the new freedom their wives were experiencing because of the work of Christ within them. Christ brings liberation and this could have created tension within the household. Husbands needed to see what God was doing in their wives, embrace the change, and love their wives even more because of it. When Christ is at work in a marriage, both wives and husbands experience a special freedom to love and help one another. Although the directions in these two verses are simple, their application can fit any culture and any time. If husbands and wives would practice even these simple directions, they would find their marriage grow stronger.
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