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Journeying through Paul’s letter to the Colossians, in chapter three he turns his attention from general thoughts about living out life in Christ to specifics about particular relationships. Having addressed, in broad terms, how we can “put on Christ” in the way we relate to others (in the first half of Colossians 3), he begins addressing family relationships, beginning with wives.

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

We’ve noted that submission is not a “bad word.” Although it suffers from unfavorable press in our day and age, the word is used to describe Jesus’ relationship with the Father (1 Corinthians 15:27-28).

In a previous post, Peter’s living in submission to the governing authorities (drawing on 1 Peter 2:13-17 and Acts 4) served as a case study for how we can understand submission. Based on that case study, we could describe submission as the disposition of heart: 1) that affirms God has set life up in a certain way that should be honored, 2) that willingly communicates openly and honestly about issues that pertain to the relationship in view in submission, and 3) that does not withhold honor nor respond in bitterness when the way things play out under God’s designed order is not what might be best hoped for–there is a willingness to live with the consequences.

So now we can attempt to unpack a bit more of what it means for a wife to “be subject” (or “be in submission to”; two English translations of the same Biblical word) to her husband.

Like with Peter and the governing authorities, it might not be mere obedience. Peter didn’t simply do what the authorities said, but that doesn’t mean he was not submissive. It is important to note that “obey” and “obedience” are not the words typically used in Scripture for a wife’s relationship to her husband. In contrast, obedience is the word used to describe how young children are to live in relationship with their parents; they are not called to submit.

Obedience has to do with conforming behavior to commands. It is an outward, external thing. Young children can (and should) learn to obey. But they typically do not have the capacity to orient their hearts in the right way, yielding to the Spirit. So, they can’t truly be in submission to their parents. Submission has to do with orienting the heart rightly around how God has ordered life. And this is at the heart of the call to wives. It is not primarily about “hearing and doing” but about living with a proper attitude and disposition of heart.

There is yet more to be explored in understanding what this looks like “in real life,” but pulling together the strands of thought woven into the previous posts on this topic, it could be said that a wife’s submission is that disposition of heart  1) where she affirms God has placed her in this relationship with her husband and that relationship must be honored, 2) where she willingly communicates openly and honestly about issues that pertain to the relationship because she recognizes God has so arranged things in her life, and 3) where she does not withhold honor nor respond in bitterness when the way things play out under God’s designed order is not what might be hoped for. Thus, although lived out in relationship with others–and for the wife, in particular, in relationship with her husband–submission really is about living well in one’s relationship with God who is ordering and orchestrating our lives.

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