It is not hard to understand these instructions to the Colossians, a city that may very well have been destroyed by an earthquake in AD61. It is more difficult to know how to apply them. In the early 1800s, Colossians was one of many texts that those who opposed the abolition of slavery used to show that the New Testament accepted slavery as an institution. Certainly “there is neither… slave nor free” in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28). But Paul could reconcile this principle with the existence of slavery in the meantime. Sure, a time was coming when there would be no slaves, but for the time being each should “remain in the situation God called him to” (1 Cor. 7:24). “Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so” (7:21).
Of course Paul also thought that Christ would return far sooner than he has. In that same passage in 1 Corinthians, Paul wrote that “the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none” (7:29). In 1 Corinthians, Paul does not think we have time to worry about our social location in society. Slavery would not exist in the kingdom of God, but he had more pressing things to do in the immanence of Christ’s return than work to free slaves.
Colossians does not have this same sense of urgency, and we should recognize the distinction. Social structures that were temporary in 1 Corinthians have become an accommodation to the structures of the age in Colossians. Although women will not be subordinated to husbands in the kingdom—they are not given in marriage there (e.g., Mark 12:25)—Colossians acquiesces to this social structure of the ancient world. And although there will be no slaves in the kingdom, Colossians assumes its continued practice in the meantime.
Indeed, Colossians only puts into effect one of the equal pairs in Galatians 3:28, namely, that of Jew and Greek. Colossians addresses Gentile believers, since in Colossians 2:13 Paul speaks of how they were uncircumcised in flesh when they believed. Colossians thus tells a Gentile audience not to worry about keeping the Jewish particulars of the Law. But slaves are still subordinated to masters, and wives to husbands.
Therefore, the entire Western world—not only the Western church—moved closer to the kingdom of God when it did away with slavery here on earth. It may be hard for us to feel how the church of two hundred years ago struggled with this question. Many Christians argued that slavery should be reformed rather than abolished, and they came to this conclusion from a fair reading of the biblical texts. We now recognize that it was those who looked more to the spiritual principle of “neither slave nor free” who were the true prophets of that day, not those who argued over the specific instructions like those in Colossians, given in specific ancient situations and cultures.
We believe it is the same today with regard to wives and husbands. On the one hand, those who merely try to reform the hierarchical relationship between husband and wife are to be commended for their piety and attention to detail. They want to ensure that husbands do indeed love and not abuse their perceived position of authority. Similarly, wives are affirmed as equally valuable in God’s eyes, only with a different God-ordained role to play. They are like those who preached against masters who abused their slaves but who still taught slaves to be obedient to their masters, as the Bible teaches.
In the end, however, those who merely want to reform marriage while retaining the hierarchical relationship are spiritually short-sighted. Like those who affirmed slavery as biblical, they are correct in the letter but incorrect in the Spirit. There is nothing about the structure of this world that implies a wife needs to be or should be subordinate to a man. Male anatomy and physiology does not automatically make a man a better thinker or leader than a woman, just as female anatomy and physiology does not make women worse thinkers or leaders. Logically, husbands and wives should cooperate in leadership, deferring in love to the needs and desires of the other, deferring to the gifts and expertise of the other.
We know from Scripture that God is leading women in this direction anyway. The kingdom will afford women complete equality with men. We know from practice that one cannot single out a person for leadership or insight on the basis of his or her gender. We know from Scripture that God has used both women and men both in prophetic and leadership roles. In short, if we can move closer to the kingdom now, why would we not?
The instructions of Scripture were not given for their own sake. They were given in a context and must be applied with careful consideration of how the principles might apply today. To work within the structure of a husband-wife hierarchy was already in Paul’s day a concession to the structures of this world. For us to perpetuate them now, however, is for us to move backward, away from the kingdom. In a time when the secular world has enacted the structures of the kingdom, how ironic it would be for the church to resist!