This time of year, there’s a good chance thar your social media feed is full of advice for living well in the year ahead. The New Testament reading set for Morning Prayer today included these verses, from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, chapter 3:
18 Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19 Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.
20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord. 21 Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart.
It is always hard to translate and apply advice for living well across ages and cultures, and these verses—verse 18 in particular—have been badly mishandled by conservative men and women. But these verses are worthy of a second look.
In the Genesis account of the first man and woman, we are presented with an undifferentiated human, made from the clay of the earth, who is then separated into two equal and non-hierarchical humans: the man, to be the gardener; and the woman, to be the warrior-deliverer, given to rescue the man when he is overwhelmed. The role-description of the woman—Hebrew: ezer, active intervention on behalf of another, especially in military contexts—is one shared by the Lord God.
The word translated ‘submit’ in Colossians 3:18 is a compound of the Greek word for ‘under’ and the word for ‘to arrange.’ Moreover, the word for ‘to arrange’ is used almost exclusively in a military context, for how soldiers arrange themselves in formation. In other words, the form this submission is to take is concerned with fulfilling the vocation to be a warrior. Women are warriors, who fight in all kinds of arenas to deliver, or bring liberation to, men, women and children who experience injustice and oppression. But if you are married, don’t allow the long list of good causes to fight for to come between you and your marriage, which is meant to be a lifegiving and lifelong relationship.
The word translated ‘love’ in verse 19 means to prefer another over yourself. Husbands, prefer your wife over yourself. Put her first, before you. That sounds a lot more like submission, as we would understand the term today, than ‘wives, don’t allow yourself to be distracted out of military formation’ does. Moreover, the advice to husbands—again, lost in translation—goes on to deal specifically with warning against nurturing the fruit of bitterness. In other words, this is a gardening metaphor, addressed to the gardener. If you are married, the primary garden which you are to prefer over your own clay is the clay of your wife’s life, giving yourself to nurture every good fruit that grows there, and to guard against sowing seeds that will produce bitter fruit.
To those given as warriors, remember the focus of who you are called to fight alongside. To those who are given as gardeners, commit yourself to bringing out the very best fruit of the life you care for.
That is pretty good advice, that stands the test of time, and which we disregard at our peril, and great relational cost.
The word translated ‘obey’ in verse 20 is another compound, of the words for ‘under’ and ‘to listen’ conveying the meaning, ‘children, listen carefully to your parents.’ Listen to your parents, they may actually know what they are talking about.
And in verse 21, advice to fathers (advice mothers don’t need reminding of in quite the same way?) not to provoke their children to anger, because the long-term consequence of such provoking will be to dishearten them.
I am a dad. And I would love my children to learn that their mum and dad might actually know what we are talking about when we give them advice...But until they discover this for themselves, I need to take on board the wise advice not to provoke them to anger or dishearten them. Some days I need to hear this more than others, but in any case, I need to be reminded of this on a regular basis.