Unlike many of his fellow Jews, Paul believed that God had already begun to intervene decisively in history in the person of Jesus. His ethical instruction develops the social and political consequences of this intervention. Through the death and resurrection of the Messiah, God has brought into being an alternative community whose new life together already stands over against the kingdom of darkness—as Walsh and Keesmaat rightly emphasize (cf. 156).
But Paul also affirmed that the end had not yet come. In this respect Paul adhered to an apocalyptic eschatology like that of many of his Jewish contemporaries who knew that all was not yet as it should be and waited in hope for the redemption of creation (Rom 8:18-25; cf. Col 1:27). In the meantime, there are political and social implications of the “not yet”: On the one hand, the fact that “the day has drawn near” (Rom 13:12) and that Christ is Lord (13:14) qualifies submission to the governing authorities. On the other hand, Paul still affirms that in this in-between time, at the dawn of salvation, the political authorities that exist remain servants of God (13:1-7) to whom it is necessary to submit “because of conscience” (Rom 13:5). The Paul of 1 Corinthians 7 commends the unmarried life in light of the impending end (1 Cor 7:25-35); he also counsels slaves to remain in the condition in which they were called for the same reason (1 Cor 7:20, 24). The fact that “in the Lord” relativizes hierarchical relationships does not, for the Paul of 1 Corinthians 11, entail the eradication of the natural order. Paul still expected his instructions about appropriately gendered behaviour in public worship to be observed by the church in Corinth even though he added that women are not independent from men or men from women “in the Lord” (1 Cor 11:11).
Near the end of their book, Walsh and Keesmaat ask:
Does Paul’s teaching about the structure of a Christian household stand in fundamental tension with the rest of Colossians? Are the injunctions to wives, children and slaves legitimated by a language of transcendence that is oppressively hierarchical? And if so, then does our whole reading of Colossians as a text subversive of empire—both ancient and contemporary—come crashing down under the weight of a repressive household ethic? (202).These are rhetorical—and loaded—questions. Walsh and Keesmaat, obviously, answer them with a resounding “no.” I am persuaded that we should answer a qualified “yes” to the second question: “Are the injunctions to wives, children and slaves legitimated by a language of transcendence that is oppressively hierarchical?” Yes, Paul’s instructions are hierarchical, although I would not say they are oppressively so. It seems to me that—whether or not Paul was conscious of it—Colossians 3:11, and its fuller expression in Gal 3:28, stand in tension with the instructions in the household code for wives to be subject to their husbands and for slaves to obey their masters (Col 3:18, 22).
However, I wonder whether the tension between “there is neither male nor female” and “wives, be subject to your husbands” needs to be preserved in our twenty-first century context. Since we stand closer to the end than Paul did, perhaps we can let our union in Christ relativize the hierarchy of the household code to a greater extent than was possible in the first century. Perhaps we can say with Jesus, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment” (Mark 10:5) and move on to live out in our context the mutual self-giving love that Paul was calling for.
Update: I should add that my wondering is more than rhetorical. Comments, questions and other (friendly) challenges are welcome.