Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. -- Col 3:18, NRSV
There is a great deal of controversy over, criticism of, and animosity toward this Bible verse.
I don’t think this passage would have received the same response if St. Paul had written, “Privates, be subject to your Sergeants” or “Journalists, be subject to your editors.” We understand that in organizations some form of hierarchy is needed in order to advance the goals of the organization. Someone has to set direction and deploy resources among groups that might not always be in agreement. And, certainly, marriage is an organization, even if just an organization of two.
If hierarchy isn’t the problem, then perhaps it’s gender specific roles. Someone shouldn’t be assigned a role simply because of their sex. Surely the rule ought to be “the best person for the job.” Of course, this begs the question, “what is the job and what constitutes best”? As just one example, women are typically concerned with security, while men are often risk takers. What is the optimum balance of the two in a marriage? I won’t pretend to know the answer. I will, however, opine that it’s my experience that if fathers want happy, well-adjusted sons that they will have to loosen the wife’s apron strings on the boys.
Yet when St. Paul dictated this letter to his amanuensis, I don’t think he was giving consideration to these or similar factors. Instead, I think he based his admonition based on Genesis 3:16 [NRSV]:
That mankind fell in Eden is one of the central doctrines of Christianity. And while Jesus came to redeem not just man, but all of creation from the Fall, that redemption is not yet complete. I think Paul is saying, in part, to not run ahead of God’s redemptive timing.
To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
I also find it interesting that the other consequence of the Fall for women was pain in childbirth. Today we use a number of techniques such as breathing exercises or modern medicine to lessen labor pain. In a similar vein, I think that Paul realized that love would ease the pain of the marriage hierarchy because he immediately commands husbands to love their wives.
We all know of hierarchies run by selfish individuals. The CEO’s who line their pockets at the expense of their workers; the workers who negotiate their benefits at the expense of future workers; the managers who expand their empires solely for the sake of status or supposed job security; the husbands who are tyrants to their wives. The litany of the evils of selfishness is endless.
In the end, perhaps that’s one reason why this passage is so disliked. Selfish people do not do well in hierarchies unless they are at the top, or can force the top to do their bidding. But that is not how relationships based on love are supposed to be.