“Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” (Colossians 3:18)

Having gathered up his exhortations from 3:12-16 and given one overarching exhortation to close in verse 17, Paul now shifts his thoughts to the various kinds of relationships which make up the church (3:18-4:1).  One should compare Paul’s statements here with their close parallel in Ephesians 5:22-6:9.  We have here three groupings of two pairs of relationships, each one beginning with the subordinate in the relationship (wives, children, slaves) and then addressing the one in authority (husbands, fathers, masters).  In each case Paul makes compliance a matter of Christian duty (“in the Lord,” v.18; “this is well-pleasing to the Lord,” v.20; “fearing the Lord,” v.22; “as for the Lord,” v.23; “from the Lord you will receive the reward,” v.24a; “It is the Lord Christ whom you serve,” v.24b; “you too have a Master in heaven,” 4:1).

He begins with “Wives.” The word can refer to women more generally, but here it seems to mark off “wives” more specifically.  Note the use of the definite article to mark off the wives as a distinct grouping under present consideration.[1]

These are to “be subject.” The verb is a compound arising from “under” and “appoint” or “order.”  It is a word that bespeaks authority and submission.  It was a military word which described the ranks of soldiers arranging themselves under the leadership of their commander.  Here the decision as to whether it is a middle or passive voice is difficult.  If passive it may have a reflexive sense to it and thus in either case it shows that it is a voluntary and personal choice of the wife.[2] The present tense reveals that the wife is to choose this as an abiding attitude, not simply when such feelings may arise. Such submission is to be the on going pattern of a wife’s relationship to her husband.  And of course the imperative mood makes this obligatory.  She is to willingly obey this injunction of God.

A broader look at the New Testament reveals that such submission to authority is required not only of wives, but of all.  All people are subject to the governing authorities (Rom. 13:1-5; Tit. 3:1).  Believers are subject to one another (Eph. 5:21).  Children are subject to their parents (Lk. 2:51).  Slaves are subject to masters (2:9).  The church is subject to Christ (Eph. 5:24).  All things are subject to Christ (1 Cor. 15:27-28; Eph. 1:22; Phil. 3:21).  Indeed, no one is exempt from submission to authority.

In this case the submission is of the wives “to your husbands.” As with the previous noun, this word can be used more generally, in this case to describe males.  Here, however, it is clear that it is “husbands” who are in view.

The imperative of a wife’s submission to her husband is sounded throughout the New Testament (Eph. 5:22-24; Tit. 2:4-5; 1 Pet. 3:1-6).  This is troublesome to many in our contemporary culture with its egalitarian impulses.  Some have sought to alleviate their concerns by looking to the parallel passage in Ephesians 5 and citing verse 21: “. . . be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.”  They contend that this verse, coming immediately before the instructions for a wife to submit to her husband (v.22), truly reveals the apostle’s intent.  He does not, they say, envision a male-led relationship, but a mutually submissive one.  And this is correct, if we allow the rest of Ephesians five to inform what Paul meant by his words in verse 21.  In what sense is submission a responsibility of both husband and wife?  The text seems to make clear the answer.  The husband submits himself to his wife by lovingly, selflessly taking the initiative of putting her needs before his own (Eph. 5:25-32).  This is Christ-like leadership.  But let us be clear—it is leadership.   Robertson quips that while the New Testament pictures the husband as the head of the home, it does so assuming “the husband has a head and a wise one.”[3] The wife subjects herself to her husband by way of submissive respect (Eph. 5:33).  This affirms that both husband and wife submit to one another, but it rightly distinguishes the way in which each does so according to the wise order established by God.

Such subjection by the wife is to take place “as is fitting in the Lord.” The comparative particle (“as”) indicates “the manner in which someth[ing] proceeds” and can be rendered “in such a way.”  The verb describes what is proper or fitting.[4] It is used only three times in the New Testament, all by Paul (Eph. 5:4; Col. 3:18; Philem. 8).  Here the imperfect tense has a present tense meaning to express “necessity, obligation, or duty.”[5] It may express the notion that this is behavior which has been and continues to be “fitting.”[6]

This obligation is not the Apostle’s way of asking believers to simply conform to current cultural customs.  Rather he is reiterating what God had established long before.  Paul elsewhere makes clear that God has established from creation a hierarchical order which is reflected in marriage (1 Cor. 11:3, 7-9) and that He has maintained this in the new order established by Christ (Eph. 5:23-24).[7] Thus Paul can also say here that this necessity and obligation is pressed upon us “in the Lord.”  By “Lord” Paul is referring to the Person of Jesus.  This is in keeping with his Christological focus throughout this letter.  Paul consistently grounds these relational instructions in our relationship to the person of Christ (vv.18, 20, 22, 23, 24).  Our vertical relationship to Christ rules our horizontal relationships within society.  Christ, not current, popular culture defines what is “fitting” and proper in our relationships.

[1] Robertson, 4:506.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Robertson, 4:506.

[4] BAGD, 66.

[5] Rienecker, 582.

[6] Harris, 179; Moo, 302.

[7] O’Brien, 222.