Colossians 3:18-21 by Robert Dean
Critics discredit this verse as something out of the culture of Paul’s time that has no impact in our culture today. But scripture’s clear idea of gender roles had been revealed since Genesis 1. The world tries to define equality through roles while God defines equality in our very essence. The argument has been extended to the absurd in discussions about the gender of God. We are in the image of God. God is not in the image of man. There are references to God in masculine, feminine and neuter forms. Apart from Jesus in His incarnation, God doesn’t introduce himself as a man or woman, but as the leader, Almighty God. Learn about role distinction, authority and equality within the Godhead and how that has application in the structure of marriage relationships.

Marriage and Family. Colossians 3:18


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


When it comes to what Paul says about marriage there things that are very difficult for contemporary Americans and many contemporary Christians to comprehend because it runs so counter to the message of our culture.  In fact, the message of our culture has been so brought into the church that in discussing many of these passages with many Christians they come to the apostle Paul's teaching on this from the vantage point that Paul is just repeating his culturally bound ideas that were influenced by rabbinic theology, the culture of his time, or his own misogynist ideas, whatever it might be. There are many excuses that they use to discredit what Paul says.

The reality is that what Paul says about marriage, about the roles and responsibilities of men, husbands, fathers, women, wives and mothers, is not anything new. It is part of the broad context of what was revealed beginning in Genesis chapter one. It is i9mportant for us to understand what God's original intent was in creating human beings as male and female, and what that implies. Because the very fact that God emphasises this male-female distinction in the very first chapter of the Old Testament, in the chapter on creation, indicates that there is a distinction between what it means to be a male, a man, and what it means to be a female, a woman; and that there is an emphasis in Scripture on biblical manhood and biblical womanhood, or biblical masculinity and femininity. So we need to understand that in the context of the Scripture.

The unfortunate thing is that there are certain ideas that have been picked up through the last two thousand years that have been picked up from the culture, not from the Scripture, and that have been assimilated to certain biblical teaching. And so when we come to certain ideas from issues and ideas from which we understand the concepts of masculinity and femininity we need to make sure that we are not adding culturally-based ideas to biblically revealed ideas. Unfortunately, because these have been wedded together in minds or in tradition (not biblical but in tradition) often things that were wrong, unjust, unfair, distorted in the tradition that wasn't biblical has often been thrown out and the biblical teaching has been thrown out as well. So we need to see what the Scripture does indeed teach.

Scripture clearly teaches that God has a distinction in role for men and women. The message that has been voiced over the air waves, by the media and by the proponents of social change for the last fifty years is that equality means no role distinction. That message has been repeated and repeated to the point that even if at one level we don't agree with it we have heard it so much that it has become part of the overall thinking of our culture, and it has had a drastic impact on the way Christian men and women think about who they are as men and women and who they are in their relationship together in marriage. If we are going to get rid of the negatives that are there that are truly destructive to a healthy marriage, to a biblically grounded marriage, then we have to lay this groundwork very carefully as we go through Scripture. Because on the one hand we have to understand what the Scripture teaches but we also have to surgically remove a number of misconceptions that we all have about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman.

It is suggested from what Scripture teaches that if we as men and women don't first understand who we are as men and women then when we come together in a marriage we will not be able to properly relate to one another within that marriage and there will be tension and conflict and difficulty. We as Christians come into a marriage where our thinking is still influenced by the world around us, by the thinking of Satan's cosmic system, and we bring that with us into any relationship. To the degree that we do not face it, deal with it and remove it we are going to continue to experience conflicts and problems.

It is interesting to look back over the last fifty years as we have had the rise of the feminist movement, the women's liberation movement, with all of the emphasis that has been there—in some cases justified and in other cases not justified—something else has increased. That which has also increased has been an increase in abuse (not that abuse didn't exist before that), a radical increase in the rate of divorce. Inside and outside the church studies indicate today that the divorce rate among Christians is no different from the divorce rate among those who are outside the church. What that indicates is that those who are Christians, who claim to be believers in the Lord Jesus Christ and dedicated to God's Word, have no clearer idea of how to apply God's Word in terms of their marriage than an unbeliever does. They use and operate on the same principle and ideas within their marriage that unbelievers do—which indicates that we have marriages based on cosmic thinking rather than the clear teaching of Scripture.

One of these issues that we come to is this whole issue that underlies everything that Paul says. The underlying doctrine is the doctrine of authority, and this must always be understood in relation to humility and in relation to leadership. And whenever we talk about this idea of authority we also have to talk about the way authority has been corrupted by the entrance of sin into the world. This is why we go back to Genesis chapter one to understand this. 

We have made the point that the purpose of marriage is not so we can be happy. That runs counter to a lot of modern thinking. Like everything else in the Christian life happiness and joy is the by-product of our consistent walk with God. It is not the goal. The goal is to glorify God. When we glorify God we can have tremendous joy in life no matter what the external circumstances might be. And so foundational to having a truly biblical marriage and experiencing what God would have us experience in the context of a marriage ultimately comes down to the spiritual life of each individual within that marriage. It has often been said that it takes two people to make a marriage work and it only take one person to make a marriage not work. That is true in many different areas of life. One person operating on selfishness and self-absorption, not giving rein to their sin nature but being undisciplined in relation to their own self-centeredness, is all it takes to destroy a marriage.

Whenever we come together in a marriage as a man and a woman in the post-Genesis 3 fallen world we always have to deal with the fact that there are two sin natures that have to live together. And the battle cry of everyone's sin nature is, "Me first." Living in that kind of an environment there are always going to be conflicts. The Scriptures says there is only one way to truly overcome that and that is within the spiritual life. That is why both in Colossians chapter three and Ephesians chapter five these strong passages related to marriage and the roles and responsibilities of husbands and wives are given as a result of either the filling by means of the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18) or letting the Word of Christ richly dwell within you. If those two things, which work together—it is the Word of Christ that the Spirit fills us with—are not there first then what comes after that can't truly be applied and implemented.

And what underlies this is the whole idea of authority orientation and thus humility. It comes down to understanding the fact that in authority relationships, when one person is placed under the authority of another person, that does not imply inequality at all. That has been the battle cry of radical feminism since the early sixties, and that is completely fraudulent. So we have to address that because in some ways that has affected every one of us. 

As we have pointed out, marriage is in a crisis in western civilization. It is in a crisis in the rest of the world as well but the rest of the world does not have the foundation of Christianity. In the rest of the world—those civilizations that are grounded upon non-Christian religions—there is a recognition in all cultures of the institution of marriage. Marriage is an institution that God ordained and established from the very beginning of creation before there was any sin in the world. So therefore marriage was not created for the purpose dealing with sin problems. Divine institutions are laws that are built into the social fabric of the human race. And when we think about that we do so because we recognise that God created us in His image and in His likeness. That means that human beings as human beings are a finite representation of God.

One of the things we see in the biblical view of God is that God is not a unitary being. By that is meant He is not a singular unity in the sense that Unitarian theology would teach, in the sense that Islamic theology would teach, or in the sense that post-Christian rabbinic Judaism would teach where you have a solitary God that does not exist as multiple persons. Only with biblical teaching do we have a Trinitarian concept. That doctrine of the Trinity is one that has profound implications in many ways. We would suggest that most of us have not heard too many messages on the Trinity, especially in terms of its implications and especially if our background relates to many mainstream Christian denominations. And that is because many of the concepts related to the Trinity came under attack within the mainstream denominations in the late 18th century and through most of the 19th century, and there is very little that has been written and developed in the 20th century in terms of our understanding of the implications of the doctrine of the Trinity. There are some good things done by some conservatives but when we are talking about mainstream Christianity that has rejected the ultimate authority of God then we don't run into a lot of thought or development in these areas.

God is a Trinity. This means that in eternity there has been a society. A society is the interaction of a group of persons. The Trinity itself is a social entity. There is the Father, there is the Son, and there is the Holy Spirit. The Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit loves the Father and the Son; there is a social integration there between these three persons. And so God in Christianity is essentially social. By contrast a Unitarian god, as there is in Islam, in Unitarian theology or post-Christian rabbinic theology, is a god who exists as one person in isolation for all eternity. How can he have a social dimension if for all of eternity there is no one, no being with him to associate, with whom to love?  This is why at the very core of Unitarian theology is the fundamental problem of saying that God is love when there is no one to love. If the god of Islam is a god of love (which he is not—the word "love" is never applied to Allah anywhere in the Quran) then he has to create in order to fulfil his need to love someone. That makes him dependent. By definition a god is independent, not dependent. So either you have a god who is love with no one to love—which means he is dependent upon creatures to love them—or he is really not truly love; whereas the God of Christianity existing as a triune being is a God of love. And so there is a social dimension there—society. There are aspects of that society that have existed throughout all of eternity that are reflected in His creatures: human beings who are created in His image and likeness. That means that we can learn something about this original creation of man, prior to sin, by looking at the person of God. 

So since we have taken God out of our culture we recognise that by removing God from our thinking we have no frame of reference to really understand many of these things. This is why marriage, as well as many other aspects of culture, are in collapse. The belief to day is that everything we have is simply by accident; it is all the product of chance in terms of evolution, so that marriage becomes a pragmatic institution invented by human beings over time in order to establish some kind of social stability. Today, in terms of the arrogance of modern contemporary western civilization, that idea has been rejected. We are redefining marriage in our culture and we are wrestling with this issue of same-sex marriage. Once you redefine marriage, where do you stop? That is a part of the problem. Why stop with one man and one woman? Why not have polygamy? Where do you stop once you start changing the definition?

We live in a culture today that has basically rejected any of these eternal established truths. We live in a culture where there are certain cultural elites who set out to change the very structure of society. Betty Friedan was one of the foremost leaders and thinkers and influential people within the radical feminist movement coming out of the sixties. She made an interesting statement in 1970: "Presciently, I think that the great debate of the 1970s will be Is God He?" That has been the story of the debate within the last forty years. We have seen Bible translations come out that have adopted a gender neutral view. Some have words where they changed the pronouns around and have he/she, or they refer to God as she. We have to understand some of the implications of these things because if man is created in the image of God we have to understand the nature of God. The fundamental aspect of God as presented in Scripture is that God is not like His creatures. We may be in the image of God but God is not in the image of man. God is the creator; we are creatures. There is a radical distinction between human beings and God. Human beings have sexual or gender distinctions that were created by God. We have to understand that the Scripture language uses gender identification. 

This is one of those funny things that people lose sight of: gender and language really doesn't have anything to do with the sex of an object. For example, English doesn't really have gender associated nouns. Gender is really a grammatical category to simply identify three different classifications of nouns. We have identified them as masculine, feminine and neuter but they don't have anything to do with the sexual identity of these particular things. So when we loom at gender inflected languages such as the Scripture it does not necessarily mean that when God is referred to by a masculine pronoun it means God is a male. It doesn't mean that when the Holy Spirit is referred to by a feminine noun in the Hebrew that the Holy Spirit is feminine. It doesn't means that when the Holy Spirit is referred to by a neuter noun in the New Testament Greek that pneuma [pneuma] means the Holy Spirit is somehow neuter. There are some indications that gender does play a role. For example, in normal grammar a neuter noun has to be referred to by a neuter pronoun. The Holy Spirit is not usually referred to by a neuter pronoun but by a masculine pronoun, which is significant because the implication is that the Holy Spirit is a person. That is one of the arguments for the personhood of the Holy Spirit. There are a lot of different aspects of masculinity as well as femininity applied to God, but God is never identified as a man or as a woman; He is God. There are words for God such as Elohim, titles such as El Shaddai, names such as Yahweh and Adonai that are masculine. The word for "Spirit" in the Hebrew is feminine.

The grammar is less significant than how God is represented. God reveals Himself as a male. Does that mean He is male? No, because that is applying a creaturely category to God. God reveals Himself as a male because within creation He has designated the role of the male as the leader, and so God represents Himself as male because He is the overall authority and leadership. He adapts when He takes on the form of a man within creation when He takes on that form. He came in the form of a man in terms of the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

You will often hear people who are trying to prove the femininity of God emphasizing certain illustrations in Scripture such as the Spirit hovering over the darkness in Genesis 1:2. The verb there for hovering is the word of a mother hen wrapping her wings around her eggs for protection. It is using the illustrating the actions of a mother but it is not claiming that the Holy Spirit is a mother.

In Isaiah 66:12, 13 God says that He comforts Israel like a mother comforts her children. But that is not saying God is a mother; that is making an analogy on the basis of the idea of comfort. Isaiah 46:3,4 refers to God giving birth to His people. Again, this is using a feminine analogy but it does not mean that God is a woman; it is simply illustrating the principle of origination. These are nothing more than analogies. Paul compares himself in his care for those in the congregations to whom he ministered as a mother caring for his people; yet we would say that Paul was claiming to be a woman. That is not how language is used but this is often what we find today, the distortion of language. Language is very important.

Genesis 1:27 NASB "God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." The word there for man in the first line refers to mankind or human beings. We have this funny gender neutral game in books today where publishers have to be gender neutral, and so we say "God created humankind." The reason that we always use the term "mankind" is not out of some kind of male chauvinism, it is because the first human being created was a male—Adam. So everyone comes out of the man. This is why we have the arguments that Paul has in Romans chapter five related to the original Adam as the first Adam and Jesus as the second Adam. Once you start attacking these notions of gender and role distinctions you really end up eviscerating the basic doctrines of Christianity: Christology and salvation. Both male and female are created in the image of God. That means in terms of their personhood, their being, their ontology. They are equal before God; there is not one superior to the other.

They are given a single task. Genesis 1:28 NASB "God blessed them; and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'" There is a joint task.

In Genesis chapter two we see this developed in a little more detail. First God created Adam from the chemicals of the soil, and then from his side He creates Isha, the woman. He creates her from Adam to show this unity of being; they are of one substance. It also emphasizes the role distinction of the woman. The woman is created to be a helper to the man.

In modern feminist thinking the role of being a helper indicates slavery, lesser significance, the idea of subordination indicating that you are not as important or significant. A helper, a servant, an assistant is someone who is of lesser significance and importance than the person they are helping. That is not a biblical idea. Jesus came to serve! He is the God of the universe. One of the primary pictures that we have of Jesus in the New Testament is that He is a servant. Leadership in the New Testament is presented as primarily the concept of being a servant to others. God Himself is the only other being who is consistently referred to as a servant, a helper. There is a theological implication. If you say to be a helper and an assistant is somehow of lesser significance you have just blasphemed the essence and character of God. Embedded within the very thinking of the feminist movement and this concept of role identification, equality and the idea that subordination somehow means less equal is a concept that if applied to God is of the greatest blasphemy one can commit. It is essentially a theological error and heresy because of its underlying assumption.

Scripture teaches that God is one, that there is this multiplicity of personhood in God. In Deuteronomy 6:4 Israel is given  the shamah. NASB "Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!" That last word "one" [echad] has been understood in rabbinical thought for centuries and has been interpreted in a way that is hostile to Christianity to mean a singularity. It is very simple to show that Scripture demonstrates that that is not the core meaning. At the end of Genesis chapter two God said: "For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh." It is two in one. There is a recognition of multiplicity within the unity. In fact, the context of Deuteronomy 6:4 makes it very clear that what is being emphasized here is not the singularity of God but that God is exclusively and only God; it is in contrast contextually to the idolatry of those nations around them.

We see a similar use in 1 Chronicles 29:1 NASB "Then King David said to the entire assembly, 'My son Solomon, whom alone God has chosen …'" It is showing a distinction there between Solomon and everybody else. It is the same word. The word that we find in Deuteronomy 6:4 is the word that emphasizes the exclusivity of God. He alone is God; it is not talking about His singularity.

The Old Testament clearly teaches that there is multiplicity within the Godhead. For example, Isaiah 48:12ff NASB "Listen to Me, O Jacob, even Israel whom I called; I am He, I am the first, I am also the last." So the person who is speaking here is clearly Adonai Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. [13] "Surely My hand founded the earth, And My right hand spread out the heavens; When I call to them, they stand together." This is God speaking. [14] "Assemble, all of you, and listen! Who among them has declared these things? The LORD loves him; he will carry out His good pleasure on Babylon, And His arm {will be against} the Chaldeans. [15] I, even I, have spoken; indeed I have called him, I have brought him, and He will make his ways successful." God is still speaking and He is speaking here of His servant. [16] A new personage is speaking here. "Come near to Me, listen to this: From the first I have not spoken in secret, From the time it took place, I was there. And now the Lord GOD [God the Father] has sent Me, and His Spirit [a distinct personage, the Holy Spirit]." Who is the one who is sent from the Father? That is the Son. So here we have three distinct personages, divine personages, mentioned in verse 16.

1 Corinthians 8:6 NASB "yet for us there is {but} one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we {exist} for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we {exist} through Him." We see that there is a subordination there. This is the point: within the Trinity where the Father is fully God, the Son is fully God and the Holy Spirit is fully God they are equal but there are role distinctions. So to say that role distinction is inequality is an attack on the Trinity.

Jesus Christ is eternally the Son of God. The term "Son" and the term "Father" are utilitarian terms that God chose to describe their relationship so that we would understand a role distinction and an authority distinction. And yet the Father and the Son are identical in essence. John 3:16, 17 – "God did not send His Son into the world to condemn …" The Father sent the Son. Galatians 4:4, "God sent His Son." There is an authority relationship there. There is also an implied delegated authority in terms of creation—John 1:3; Colossians 1:16. But even within that subordination there is a recognition of specific authority distinctions that go along with it but not a denial of equality. Colossians 1:18 NASB "He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything." The same terminology is used in 1 Corinthians 11:3 NASB "But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ."

It is clear that the term "head" refers to authority, not to origination. God has an authority structure. Any relationship, any society, any group has to have some sort of an organization, some sort of structure and some sort of purpose. Somebody is the designated leader and some are the designated doers and followers. How that is manifested is the issue, not the existence of that authority structure. Jesus clearly indicated He was under the authority of the Father. John 5:19 NASB "Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless {it is} something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.'" And yet, in John 10:30 He says, "I and the Father are one."

We have the existence of God. Scripture teaches He exists as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and that each person—God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit—is equally divine. But the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father. There are three distinct persons. They are one is essence and equality, but they are distinct persons. And within that distinction of their personhood there is an authority relationship. The Father sent the Son, the Father and the Son sent the Spirit. There is an authority structure and what we have to understand is how that authority works. Because after Genesis 3 and the introduction of sin authority really gets corrupted, and it is because of that corruption we have a problem. But the problem isn't authority; the problem is how we distort authority. We have to come back and recognize that there is a perfect environment where that authority exists. Only through redemption and sanctification can we begin to turn back the consequences of that sinful corruption. That is how we can understand how marriage is supposed to work.