I just wrote three thousand words on the Colossians household codes (3:18—4:1) for school – “Wives, be subject to your husbands . . . Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything.” It was interesting work because Paul essentially reinforces the social roles that he destroys in Gal 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” I can’t help but ask, “Come on Paul. Which is it?”
Paul wrote during a time when patriarchs held unquestioned dominance over the women, slaves, and children in their broadly defined households. This unchecked power led to terrible abuse. Clearly Paul held all people as equal and sought to do away with that abuse. However, the church was oppressed and powerless, and the Roman government placed enormous value on the stability existing social structure provided. If Paul had written rebellious codes that threatened that stability the resulting persecution would have costs many lives and significantly hampered the church’s primary mission – spreading the Good News of salvation through Christ.
Instead, Paul wrote to alleviate the abuse while minimizing persecution. His codes upheld the existing social structure, but they also provided equal value and demanded fair treatment for all based on love, identity in Jesus, and the ultimate lordship of God – “Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly . . . Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.” This is where things get really interesting. Division of labor (specialization of roles) is not a bad thing. It has provided increased efficiency and effectiveness for humankind since the “hunter gatherer” days. The problem is that human culture insists on differentially valuing roles in favor of those traditionally dominated by men. Paul’s divinely inspired system can work wonderfully, but we refuse to use it. Instead, we devalue women and the abuse continues. It continues not because society condones it directly but because seeing women as less than men invites and encourages it.
This leaves the church in a very tough spot. We love and value everyone equally, but those codes (and a few others verses) indicate that senior leadership roles should be filled by men. How do we lead biblically when many inside and outside the church take our adherence to those principles as a devaluation of women? There is more at stake than who gets to preach on Sundays. The church is no longer powerless and oppressed. The bible was not written as a rule book by scholars but by missionaries and pastors intent on encouraging God’s people to live out the epic story of God’s relationship with people. That story is about abiding love, grace, and seeking God in community rather than a trying to find God in strict adherence to law. Since Christians are now the dominant faction in society, if the Church adopts equality of roles, will society need to follow?
What do we do?