Why does Paul say wives should be submissive to their husbands?

Like all of the human authors of the Bible, Paul writes from his particular cultural context of life in the first century Roman Empire. He lived in a hierarchical, patriarchal society that presumed the rightness of a woman’s subordination to a man, a child’s subordination to a parent, and a slave’s subordination to a master. In fact, there are several places in the New Testament (Col 3:18-4:1, Eph 5:21-33, 1 Timothy 2:8-15, Titus 2:1-10, 1 Peter 2:18-3:7) where such “household codes” mirror secular lists of the ancient world. We can say that Paul “never tries to change the existing social conditions in the name of Christian teaching” (Joseph Fitzmeyer).

Still, it’s not hard to be puzzled or even offended by his instructions. One way to help temper the harsh patriarchal nature of these passages is to notice the addition that Paul gives to these common codes. He adds that a person’s duty and responsibility to another is to be exercised “as is fitting in the Lord” (Col 3:18). Clearly, Paul does not presume that being abusive to one’s spouse or slave would be “fitting in the Lord”. Also, many household codes of the ancient world would not have included exhortations to the husbands (“Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly” Col 3:19) or to the masters (“Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly” Col 4:1). In this way, Paul calls for both members of the relationship to be conscious of their duties to one another.

Ann Naffziger

Ann Naffziger

Ann Naffziger is a scripture instructor and spiritual director in the San Francisco Bay area. She has has written articles on spirituality and theology for various national magazines and edited several books on the Hebrew Scriptures.