This blog continues my translation with comment on the Letter to Colossians
Wives, subordinate yourselves to your husbands, as is appropriate in the Master. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be bitter towards them.
Children, be completely obedient to your parents, for this is agreeable to the Master. Fathers, do not exasperate your children, in case they lose heart.
Slaves be completely obedient to your flesh and blood masters, not with fake service like those who want to gain favour with human beings, but with sincere hearts, out of reverence to the Master. Whatever the task, work from the soul, as for the Master and not for men, knowing that the Master will reward you with an inheritance. You are slaves of Messiah the Master. For God will pay back the wrongdoer for his wrong and he has no favourite faces.
Masters, offer your slaves justice and equality, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.
Page from the MS of the Woman’s Bible by Elizabeth. Cade Stanton 1885
Many scholars have treated this as a reaffirmation of the hierarchical norms of Greek society. It seems to me a bit subtler than that. There is a clear structure to the passage: those who are asked to be subordinate are not told to obey social norms but to do what is fitting, agreeable or pleasing, “in the Master.” There is an unspoken understanding here that the Master, Jesus Messiah, himself accepted subordination and worse. The wives, for example are not told that God has made them inferior to men, or that something in their experience of life makes them unfit to act as equals to men. Rather they are asked to accept their subordination as “fitting” rather than good or right. What does this suggest? My guess is that some women in the Assembly had seen their independence as a clear consequence of “all being one“ in Messiah, and had perhaps acted upon this deduction. In response the leaders of the community had decided that such a social revolution would not benefit the Assembly, but bring it under suspicion and scrutiny; and therefore, while maintaining that all were one, expected wives to subordinate themselves to their husbands, for the good of the Assembly, which may be the practical meaning of “in the Master.” I or women today may see this as cowardice, which permitted male domination of women in the church for centuries. Paul of course had boldly written that “in Messiah there is neither male nor female,” but seems to have found difficulty with this in practice.
A similar discretion is seen with regard to children and slaves. Jesus had given children a special place before God and had himself, according to the gospel writers, been a little negligent in the ‘complete obedience” department. Nevertheless the writer requires complete obedience by children (including adult children) while warning parents not to exasperate them by overuse of their authority.
In the case of slaves, again the Assembly did not call the institution into question, but recommended that slaves see their position as service to Jesus, who in a hymn used by Paul in writing to the Philippians, was compared to a slave. Slavery to human beings means a loss of dignity, but if it is offered God, it has the dignity of a freewill offering.
Did the free members of the Assembly have the right to ask this of those who were slaves? Did the Disciple of Paul who wrote this letter have that right? It seems unlikely to me, but I am not trying to work out the meaning of Jesus for slaves who were essential to almost every operation of ancient societies. As with the issue of women’s and children’s rights, the advice given in this passage was used to justify slavery in Christian societies well into the 19th century.
Interestingly the Masters of slaves are told to offer them “justice and equality,” the Greek for the latter being “isotetes” which clearly implies equality. Here is the evidence that the writer understood that in the Master, the social distinction had no force. Indeed he writes that God has no favourites.
To sum up: I think it’s likely that some Assemblies of Jesus recognised that the message of Jesus created a radical equality amongst men and women, parents and children, slaves and free persons. Some, including one or two Pauline Assemblies, may have put this equality into practice. I can see how difficult that would have been and what anxieties it may have caused. The writer to Colossians obliquely recognises equality in Jesus, but asks the subordinated groups in Jesus’ name not to insist on on it. That is no shame to him; the church’s shame is an uncritical use of his words over the best part of two millennia, as the Word of God.