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From time to time I come across an egalitarian perspective in a source I don’t expect to. Awhile back I read through Richard Foster’s classic book Celebration of Discipline, in which there is a chapter on the discipline of submission. He emphasizes how submission must be carefully considered, as humans have the tendency of taking good teaching and using it for the worst ends. He does a good job expounding the concept of submission and it being for all believers, but that would be another post! For now, I want to focus on what he shares about the controversial passages in Colossians (and Ephesians) on women, slaves, and children. He begins with this statement:

The discipline of submission has been terribly misconstrued and abused from failure to see the wider context. Submission is an ethical theme that runs the gamut of the New Testament. It is a posture obligatory upon all Christians: men, as well as women, fathers as well as children, masters as well as slaves. We are commanded to live a life of submission because Jesus lived a life of submission, not because we are in a particular place or station in life. Self denial is a posture fitting those who follow the crucified Lord.

Foster goes on to make the excellent point that the epistles first call to subordination is to those who by the virtue of the culture were already subordinate! Read that sentence again. Think about it a minute. Paul’s commands to women (and slaves/children) were redundant. Women, slaves and children were already subordinate in first century culture!

Here are a few observations:

  • It is unusual that Paul even includes instructions for the lesser people of first-century culture. This was not the norm, as they lacked legal and moral status in their culture. Yet Paul addresses women, slaves, and children as free moral agents, and gives them personal moral responsibility. Paul makes decision-makers of those who were forbidden to make decisions! Why?
  • Because in the revolutionary Gospel of Jesus Christ all were equal. As Galatians 3:28 states: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  In the early Christian house churches, all people (regardless of their station in life by first-century standards) participated and intermingled freely. By the virtue of the gospel message, they had come to see themselves as free from a subordinate status in society. The gospel challenged the status quo.
  • Yet, Paul urged voluntary subordination not because of their status in the culture, but because it was “fitting in the Lord.” (Col. 3:18) All Christians are to live a life of submission as they imitate the Lord Jesus Christ.
  • Next Paul does address the culturally dominant partner – the husband – and calls him to the cross-life of Jesus too. The imperative to subordination is reciprocal. Men are called to love their wives, not provoke their children, and treat their slaves fairly. We can fail to see how much submission these commands required from a man in first-century culture! As Foster states:

For a first-century husband, father and master to obey Paul’s injunction would make a dramatic difference in his behavior. The first-century wife, child, and slave would not need to change one whit to follow Paul’s command. If anything the sting of the teaching falls upon the dominant partner.

I know that some will point out that men are not actually told to submit. (C’mon, give me a break!) The words Paul uses are just another set of words to convey the same truth. For a first-century man to so carefully consider the needs of his wife, children and slaves involved submission on his part! The New Testament epistles were not endorsing or encouraging the hierarchical social structure of that time. Rather, they were undercutting it! It is easy to miss this from our modern day perspective.

-The quotes and paraphrased content are from pages 102-104 in my edition of the book (Harper & Row, 1978).

**This morning I noticed that Marg at New Life shared an older post of hers on submission. Check out her worthwhile and explanatory post on mutual submission: Mutual Submission is not a Myth.

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