Fr. Patrick Sheridan, O.S.B.
When the modern Feminist movement began, sometime in the 1970s as I recall, men who thought women should not have equal rights were often referred to “male chauvinist pigs.” Does today’s passage from Colossians indicate that St. Paul was a chauvinist; that he thought of women as not equal in value or in dignity to man? I have heard people, men and women, answer “yes” to that question.
What about slavery? Paul seems to be comfortable with the fact that some human beings are slaves. Does Paul support the institution of slavery? Certainly in times past many so-called Christians have used Paul’s words to justify slavery.
So what was Paul saying about wives, about husbands, about children and about slaves to the Colossians? More importantly, what do Paul’s words tell usabout how we should treat the people in our lives?
I think most of us know that the Greco-Roman culture, as well as the Hebrew culture of Paul’s time, was male dominated. A command to women to be submissive was entirely unnecessary; the male dominance of the time was unquestioned. Everyone knew that women were to be subservient to their husbands. Paul is referring to a different type of submission here. Paul adds the words “as is fitting in the Lord.” All that is to be done is to be done in the light of the Lord Jesus. The Greek word that Paul uses for “submission” is “hypotasso,” which refers specifically to the act of voluntarily placing oneself in service to another for the mutual benefit of both. In the context of the Ancient Greek world it refers to the formation of a military unit in which its members, all male, take on voluntary ranks and submit themselves to one another for the benefit of all. The Ancient Greeks and Hebrews would understand this sense of the term and would not consider someone who “hypotassoed” oneself to another to be inferior or in generically submissive position. What Paul is talking about here is a type of service to another that Jesus spoke about when he said that the greatest among us is the one who serves another, as he himself did in his life and especially in his death. Wives are to place themselves voluntarily in the service of their husbands out of love-not in obedience to any legal or cultural mandate.
What about Paul’s advice to husbands to love their wives and to not treat them harshly? This also is a radical stand against the dominant culture of the day. In Ancient Greece, which had a tremendous influence on the culture of Paul’s day, women were considered the property of their father or husband. So while we might read Paul’s words and see the error of male domination being supported, the response of Paul’s readers would be quite different. They might very possibly see these words as calling for the overturning of male dominance. Paul tells husbands to love their wives. Until the 19th Century, love had little to do with marriage. Marriage was a contract that had to do with producing children, legal rights to property and having someone to run the household. If the couple eventually fell in love, well, that was nice too. Paul says that husbands should never treat their wives harshly but love them. In this context Paul would be speaking of love in the sense of agape. Agape love does not foster domination but self-sacrifice. The kind of self-sacrifice Jesus embraced by his death on the cross.
When we hear Paul saying that children should obey their parents, we don’t have much of a problem with that; children in our time are expected to obey their parents.
But remember that even here Paul is continuing to speak of a relationship in the family based upon mutual submission. This was a time when the father, aspaterfamilias, the head of the family, had absolute authority over family members, extending even to life and death. In theory a father could kill a wife or child without fear of legal consequences. Paul writes, “Father, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” This is quite a departure from the absolute authority of the paterfamilias.
Now to the subject of slavery. Slavery was commonplace and accepted in the ancient world. Perhaps this incident will illustrate how radical Paul’s words to masters and slaves were.
Because the slave population overwhelmingly outnumbered Roman citizens, there existed a deep fear of slave uprisings. There had been three major revolts, the most famous being the one led by Spartacus. Because of this fear there was a law which mandated that all slaves of a household would be crucified if a slave murdered its master. The idea was that the slaves would rat out the murderer before he or she could follow through with the murder. This was in the interest of self-preservation. During the reign of the Emperor Nero, which was around the time that Paul was martyred, a slave killed his master, one Lucius Pedanius Secundus.Lucius owned huge estates and had hundreds of slaves. There were many family units among them. Many Roman citizens, as well as a large portion of the roman Senate, were outraged that all of Lucius’ 400 slaves, including families with toddlers and infants, would be executed so horribly. There was a furious debate, but the law and pragmatism carried the day; they couldn’t take the risk that other slaves would see that Lucius’ household would get away without punishment and start getting dangerous ideas. So all 400 slaves were crucified—men, women and children, including infants and toddlers. Take a moment to let that sink in. Imagine the horror of such a deed. To a society with such values, Paul not only tells slaves to serve their master wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord, but he also tells masters to treat slaves just and fairly. In a culture that dehumanized millions of human beings Paul says that all are servants of The Master. Husbands, wives, children, slaves and masters are to value all as God values all.
So far from criticizing Paul for his attitude toward some members of society, we should take his words to heart. As Christians we can’t look at our gardener, our mechanic, our spouses or our children and see someone whom we can dominate. We must see everyone as beloved of the Lord, whom we are called to love and to serves as Christ loves and serves us.