Wives Like Sarah, and the Husbands Who Honor Them 1 Peter 3:1-7
(1)Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, (2) when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. (3)Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. (4)Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. (5)For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful. They were submissive to their own husbands, (6)like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear. (7)Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers. [1 Peter 3:1-7, NIV]
This is a magnificent text for understanding God’s plan for an ideal marriage. In a few verses Peter describes the complementary responsibilities of husbands and wives and guards against common abuses.1
I. Directions to Wives
A. What Submission Does Not Mean
Because there is much misunderstanding today about what the Bible means when it says that wives are to “be submissive” to their husbands, this text is very helpful for correcting wrong understandings and practices. While Peter tells wives to “be submissive” to their husbands, the text also gives several indications of what such submission does not mean.
1. Submission does not mean putting a husband in the place of Christ.
The whole context assumes that allegiance to Christ takes priority over all human allegiance. The larger section begins, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men” (1 Peter 2:13), and affirms that the Christian life above all means that we should look to Christ and follow in his steps (2:21).
2. Submission does not mean giving up independent thought.
Peter speaks directly to wives, not to the husbands so that they can tell their wives what he says. Peter assumes that they will hear, ponder, understand, and respond to God’s Word themselves. Moreover, Peter knows that some wives have chosen Christ even though their husbands have not, and this was good for them to do. They have thought the matter through and departed from their husbands’ way of thinking on this issue of supreme importance in life.
3. Submission does not mean a wife should give up efforts to influence and guide her husband.
The Christian wife should try to influence her husband to become a Christian. Peter helps her to do this; he does not tell her not to.
4. Submission does not mean a wife should give in to every demand of her husband.
If he should say, “Stop being a Christian, be like me,” she will have to humbly say, “I cannot. My conscience must answer to a higher authority.” If he should tell her to steal, or lie, or do something else contrary to the clear moral teachings of Scripture, she must refuse, thereby following Peter’s command to maintain good conduct among the Gentiles (1 Peter 2:12). Moreover, the word hagnos, chaste (RSV, NASB; the NIV has “purity”) means pure, free from moral defilement, and serves as another reminder that the submission Peter commands must never go so far as to include obedience to demands to do something that is morally wrong.
This is consistent with other parts of Scripture where God’s people have disobeyed some human authority and have been approved by God for so doing. Consider, for example, the Hebrew midwives in Egypt (Exodus 1:17), Esther before King Xerxes (Esther 4:16), Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3:13-18), the prophet Daniel (Daniel 6:10-14), the apostles (Acts 4:18-20; 5:27-29), and Moses’ parents (Hebrews 11:23). The principle to be drawn from all these passages is to obey except when it would be sin to obey, which is consistent with Peter’s general statement that it is “for the Lord’s sake” (2:13) that all our submission to lesser authority is to be given.
5. Submission is not based on lesser intelligence or competence.
In fact, where there is a Christian wife with a non-Christian husband, she is shown to have greater spiritual insight than he does—she has seen the truth of Christianity, and he has not.
6. Submission does not mean being fearful or timid.
Peter tells wives to “not give way to fear” (verse 6). Thus the reference to the wife as the “weaker partner” (verse 7) cannot be due to any inherent lack of inner strength or courage in the face of danger or threat.
7. Submission is not inconsistent with equality in Christ.
We must remember that submission in regard to authority is often consistent with equality in importance, dignity, and honor—Jesus was subject both to His parents and to God the Father, and Christians who are highly honored in God’s sight are still commanded to be subject to unbelieving government authorities and masters. Thus the command to wives to be subject to their husbands should never be taken to imply inferior personhood or spirituality, or lesser importance. Indeed, Peter affirms just the opposite: wives are “heirs with you of the gracious gift of life” (verse 7).
It is important to note the relationship between this passage and Galatians 3:28-29:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.
This text is often played off against submission as if the “neither … male nor female” in Galatians 3:28 ruled out any commands for submission within marriage. But 1 Peter 3:1-7 shows that the apostolic pattern of thought in Scripture did not feel any tension between a call for wives to submit to their husbands (verse 1) and a clear declaration that husbands and wives are joint heirs of the grace of life (verse 7). This is Peter’s way of saying, “There is neither male nor female …” you are all one in Christ Jesus, and the context shows that it is not inconsistent with female submission and male headship in marriage. Submission in role and equality in dignity and importance stand side-by-side in apostolic thought. In fact, the parallel between Galatians 3:28-29 and 1 Peter 3:1-7 is even closer when we see the theme of being “Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29) compared to the theme of being daughters of Sarah in 1 Peter 3:6.2
A wife’s submission to her husband therefore is more like the submission of Christ to God the Father (1 Corinthians 15:28), the submission of one to another who is equal in importance and essence.
B. What Submission Does Mean
1. Submission is an inner quality of gentleness that affirms the leadership of the husband.
“Be submissive to your husbands” means that a wife will willingly submit to her husband’s authority and leadership in the marriage. It means making a choice to affirm her husband as leader within the limits of obedience to Christ. It includes a demeanor that honors him as leader even when she dissents. Of course, it is an attitude that goes much deeper than mere obedience,3 but the idea of willing obedience to a husband’s authority is certainly part of this submission, as is clear from verses 5-6. There Peter illustrates being “submissive to their own husbands” with the example of Sarah, “who obeyed Abraham,” thus showing that obeying (hypakouo) is the means by which Sarah was being submissive (hupotasso, the same word used in verse 1). Moreover, this submission is a respectful affirmation, for Peter recalls that Sarah obeyed Abraham and “called him master” (verse 6).
Further understanding of the nature of this submission is gained from Peter’s description of the beauty that accompanies it, the beauty of “a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (verse 4). The adjective gentle (praus) only occurs three other times in the New Testament, twice referring to Christ (Matthew 11:29; 21:5; also 5:5), but its related noun, translated “gentleness” or “meekness,” is more frequent (Galatians 5:23; 6:1; James 3:13; etc.). It means “not insistent on one’s own rights,” or “not pushy, not selfishly assertive,” “not demanding one’s own way.” Such a gentle and quiet spirit will be beautiful before other human beings, even unbelieving husbands (verses 1-2), but even more important, it “is of great worth in God’s sight.” Why? No doubt because such a spirit is the result of quiet and continual trust in God to supply one’s needs, and God delights in being trusted (cf. 1 Peter 1:5, 7-9, 21; 2:6-7, 23; 5:7).
In describing the things that accompany this submission, Peter focuses on the inward attitudes of the heart. When he says that a wife’s source of beauty should be “the inner self” (verse 4), he is speaking of her inward nature, her true personality. It is not visible in itself, but it is made known quickly through words and actions that reveal inner attitudes. Unfading (Greek aphthartos) is an adjective that the New Testament uses consistently to speak of heavenly realities, things that are not subject to aging or decay, things that will not fade away with the passing of this present world.4 Peter uses this adjective without a noun following it, so the noun he intends must be supplied by the reader from the context. Various suggestions have been made (RSV, “imperishable jewel;” NIV, “unfading beauty;” NASB, “imperishable quality”), but the sense is roughly the same in all of them: a gentle and quiet spirit is something that has beauty that will last for eternity, in contrast to the fleeting beauty of jewelry or clothing.
2. Submission involves obedience like Sarah’s.
There have been several attempts to avoid the conclusion that Christian wives today are to imitate Sarah’s obedience to Abraham, which Peter gives here as an example of the “holy women of the past who put their hope” in God (verse 5). One prominent approach is taken by Gilbert Bilezikian, who attempts to deny the force of Sarah’s example of obedience in two ways: (1) He apparently takes Peter’s statement as a joke, for he says, “The use of Sarah as an example of obedience shows that Peter was not devoid of a sense of humor. In Genesis, Abraham is shown as obeying Sarah as often as Sarah obeyed Abraham,” and he points to Genesis 16:2, 6; 21:11-12.5
(2) Bilezikian also denies that Sarah is a model for Christian wives to follow, “for the point of Peter’s reference to Sarah is that wives in the new covenant can learn from their spiritual ancestress … who lived in the ‘dark side’ of the old-covenant compromise, when she had to ‘obey’ her husband… . Sarah obeyed Abraham, but Christian wives … are never told to ‘obey’ their husbands neither here nor anywhere else in the Bible.”6
These statements are very troubling. (1) To say that a straightforward Biblical statement is an example of humor is simply an easy way to avoid the force of a verse whose plain meaning contradicts one’s position. But is this the kind of argument that reflects submission to Scripture? As for Abraham’s “obeying” Sarah, Genesis 16:2 is a classic example of role reversal leading to disobedience to God, for in this verse Abraham gives in to Sarah’s urging and has a son by Hagar. In Genesis 16:6, Abraham does not obey Sarah but is clearly the family authority who (again wrongfully) gives in to Sarah’s recriminations and allows her to mistreat Hagar and Ishmael. Why does Bilezikian refer to these examples of sin as positive examples of a husband’s obeying his wife? To use such a procedure is to contradict the force of these passages.
In Genesis 21:11-12, God tells Abraham, “Listen to whatever Sarah tells you,” but this was specifically with regard to casting out Hagar and Ishmael. It was not because of any general principle that husbands should obey their wives, but because of God’s specific purpose for Isaac, for the verse continues, “… because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned” (Genesis 21:12). Abraham did what Sarah asked here not because he was being an example of a husband obeying his wife but because at this specific point God told him to do what Sarah said. God here used Sarah to convey His will to Abraham, but no pattern of husbands obeying their wives is established here. (Note, for example, that a child can call his or her father to supper without any implication of authority over the father.) In fact, the exceptional intervention of God here suggests that Abraham would not ordinarily accede to such a request from his wife.
(2) Although Sarah was not always a model wife, Peter does not choose to exploit that fact. However, whereas Peter uses Sarah as a positive example for Christian wives to imitate, Bilezikian uses her as a negative example showing what Christian wives are not supposed to do. Peter tells wives to act like the “holy women of the past who put their hope in God” and “were submissive to their own husbands” (verse 5), but Bilezikian says this was on the “dark side” of the “old-covenant compromise” (p. 191). Peter tells wives to act like Sarah, who “obeyed Abraham” (verse 6), but Bilezikian says that this verse does not tell wives to obey their husbands.
Readers should note carefully the result of Bilezikian’s analysis of 1 Peter 3:1-7, because at several points he ends up denying what the text does say and affirming an opposite concept that the text does not say. Peter says that wives should be submissive to their husbands, but Bilezikian says that the motivations for a Christian wife’s behavior should “have nothing in common with submission defined as obedience to authority” (p. 190). Peter does not say that husbands should be submissive to their wives, but Bilezikian says that husbands should be submissive to their wives and undergo a “traumatic role reversal” whereby they bestow honor on their wives “much like a servant to his master” (p. 192). Peter says that Sarah obeyed Abraham, but Bilezikian emphasizes his own claim that Abraham obeyed Sarah. Peter says that wives should follow the example of Sarah who obeyed her husband, but Bilezikian says that wives are nowhere told to be obedient to their husbands. We may well wonder if this can any longer be called simply a difference in interpretation of Scripture, or if it isn’t rather a refusal to submit to the authority of Scripture at all, hidden under the smoke screen of “alternative interpretations”—which turn out on closer inspection to have no legitimate basis in the actual data of the text.
3. Submission acknowledges an authority that is not totally mutual.
Although Peter is speaking specifically to wives in this section, many people today object to any kind of submission that is required of wives and not of husbands. In order to avoid the force of any command that would tell wives to be submissive to their husbands’ authority, evangelical feminists frequently talk about “mutual submission” within marriage. The phrase itself is slippery, because it can mean different things. On the one hand, it can mean simply that husbands and wives are to be thoughtful and considerate toward one another and put each other’s interests and preferences before their own. If people use the phrase to apply to such mutual consideration and deference, then they are speaking of an idea that is fully consistent with the teachings of the New Testament and that still allows for a unique leadership role for the husband and a unique responsibility for the wife to submit to his authority or leadership. “Mutual submission” would then mean that the husband is to be unselfish in his exercise of leadership in the family and the wife is to be unselfish in her submission to and support of that leadership. Although we might think that this is using the word submission in a rather unusual way, we would probably agree that this is a possible sense of “mutual submission.” We would then say that there is “mutual submission” in some senses in marriage, but not in all senses, because the wife still has to submit to her husband’s authority and leadership in a way that the husband does not have to—indeed, should not—submit to his wife’s authority or leadership. He has a unique leadership role in the family that he should not abdicate.
But the standard claim of evangelical feminists today is that “mutual submission” in marriage means something far different. They apply this slippery phrase to all the texts that say wives should submit to their husbands and deny that any submission to authority is in view. This is how they avoid the force of Peter’s command, “Wives … be submissive to your husbands” (verse 1), if they discuss it at all. They say that mutual submission in marriage means that wives are to submit to husbands and husbands are to submit to wives in exactly the same way.7 According to this view, the husband has no unique authority or leadership responsibility in the marriage. Usually Ephesians 5:21, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” is claimed to support this view.8
But in order to make this argument, evangelical feminists must take two steps in the interpretation of Scripture that are simply incorrect and that show their position to be contrary to Scripture. First, they fail to account for the fact that, while wives are told several times in the New Testament to submit to their husbands, the situation is never reversed: husbands are never told to submit to their wives. Why? In fact, it is very significant that the New Testament authors never explicitly tell husbands to submit to their wives. The command that a husband should submit to his wife would have been highly unusual in that male-dominated culture, and if the New Testament writers had thought Christian marriage required husbands to submit to their wives, they certainly would have had to say so very clearly in their writings—otherwise, no early Christians ever would have known that that was what they should do. It is surprising that evangelical feminists can find this requirement in the New Testament when it is nowhere explicitly stated (with the possible exception of Ephesians 5:21, to which we now turn).
As for Ephesians 5:21, the misunderstanding comes when the verse is read apart from its context, which shows what Paul intends. He goes on to explain that he means that wives are to be subject to the authority of their husbands (verses 22-24), children to parents (6:1-3), and servants to masters (6:4-8). In each case Paul tells those in authority how they are to act, in love and thoughtfulness and fairness (Ephesians 5:25-33; 6:4, 9), but he does not tell them to submit to their wives, children, or servants respectively.9
Second, evangelical feminists take another illegitimate step in Bible interpretation when they change the meaning of the word hupotasso (“submit to,” “be subject to”), giving it a meaning that it nowhere requires, something like “be thoughtful and considerate; act in love” (toward another), without any sense of obedience to an authority.10 This is not a legitimate meaning for the term, which always implies a relationship of submission to an authority.11 It is used elsewhere in the New Testament of the submission of Jesus to the authority of His parents (Luke 2:51); of demons being subject to the disciples (Luke 10:17—clearly the meaning “act in love, be considerate” cannot fit here); of citizens being subject to governing authorities (Romans 13:1, 5; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13); of the universe being subject to Christ (1 Corinthians 15:27; Ephesians 1:22); of unseen spiritual powers being subject to Christ (1 Peter 3:22); of Christ being subject to God the Father (1 Corinthians 15:28); of church members being subject to church leaders (1 Corinthians 16:15-16 [with 1 Clement 42:4]; 1 Peter 5:5); of wives being subject to their husbands (Colossians 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:5; cf. Ephesians 5:22-24); of the church being subject to Christ (Ephesians 5:24); of servants being subject to their masters (Titus 2:9; 1 Peter 2:18); and of Christians being subject to God (Hebrews 12:9; James 4:7).
Note that none of these relationships is ever reversed; that is, husbands are never told to be subject to wives, nor government to citizens, masters to servants, disciples to demons, etc. In fact, the term is used outside the New Testament to describe the submission and obedience of soldiers in an army to those of superior rank (Josephus, Jewish War 2:566, 578; 5:309; cf. the adverb in 1 Clement 37:2; also Liddell Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, rev. Jones, p. 1897, which defines hupotasso [passive] as “be obedient”).
Now we must recognize that submission to different kinds of authority may take many different forms. Members’ submission to church leaders is far different from soldiers’ submission to a general in the army, and both are far different from the submission of children to parents or of employees to employers. Within a healthy Christian marriage, as we explain elsewhere in this book, there will be large elements of mutual consultation and seeking of wisdom, and most decisions will come by consensus between husband and wife. For a wife to be submissive to her husband will probably not often involve obeying actual commands or directives12 (though it will sometimes include this), for a husband may rather give requests and seek advice and discussion about the course of action to be followed (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:8; Philemon 8-9). Nevertheless, a wife’s attitude of submission to her husband’s authority will be reflected in numerous words and actions each day that reflect deference to his leadership and acknowledgment of his final responsibility—after discussion, whenever possible—to make decisions affecting the whole family.
What does Peter mean by the word likewise (RSV) in verse 1 (NASB, NIV, “in the same way”)? Some have objected to Peter’s teaching here, saying that he is viewing wives in the same category as servants and saying that wives should act toward their husbands as servants act toward their masters. But this is to misunderstand Peter’s words. The word likewise (homoios) usually means “in a similar way,” but the degree of similarity intended can vary greatly (cf. Luke 10:32, 37; 16:25; 1 Corinthians 7:22; James 2:25). Here the word might mean (a) similar to the example of Christ (2:21-25), or (b) similar to the way in which servants are to be submissive (2:18). A third possibility is (c) that homoios simply means “also,” introducing a new subject in the same general area of discussion (relationships to authority), without implying similarity of conduct (see Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich/Danker, Greek-English Lexicon, rev. Danker, p. 568, and 1 Peter 3:7; 5:5).
The second option is best here. Likewise modifies “be submissive,” and the reader would naturally make the connection with 2:18, the last time Peter used the verb “be submissive” (hupotasso): “Slaves, submit yourselves . … similarly, wives be submissive” (2:18; 3:1). (The form of expression is exactly the same in the Greek text, with the unusual use of a participle to express a command in both cases.) The point of comparison with Christ would be imitation of His patient endurance of suffering, but that is not what Peter commands in this sentence. And homoios never seems to mean merely “also” when a suitable referent for actual similarity is near at hand (as there is here), for then the idea of comparison can hardly be kept from the reader’s mind.
Nevertheless, Peter does not use the stronger term kathos, “even as, in the same way as,” nor does he say “in every way (kata panta, Hebrews 4:15) be similar to servants in your submission.” The similarity intended is apparently in motive ( “for the Lord’s sake,” 2:13), in extent of application (to good or harsh masters [2:18] or husbands13 [3:1]), and in attitude (with proper respect, 2:18; 3:2), as well as in the main concept of submission to an authority (2:18; 3:1).14
C. The Old Testament Examples of Submission
Peter illustrates what he means by submission by referring to the lives of holy women who hoped in God. Although he specifically mentions Sarah in verse 6, the plural “women” refers to godly women generally in the Old Testament. The pattern of their lives was that those who were hoping in God (the present participle suggests continuing in hope over time) used to adorn themselves “in this way,” or “so” (houtos, “thus,” referring to adorning with a gentle and quiet spirit). The word “adorn” (RSV; kosmeo) is the verb related to the noun “adorning” in verse 3, and its imperfect tense indicates continuing or repeated action over time in the past, “they were repeatedly or continually adorning themselves” in this way.
“They were submissive to their husbands” (verse 5) brings us back to the theme of verses 1-2 and indicates the relationship between such submission and the inward beauty of verses 3-4. Quiet confidence in God produces in a woman the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, but it also enables her to submit to her husband’s authority without fear that it will ultimately be harmful to her well-being or her personhood.
Peter uses Sarah’s submission to Abraham as an example of such submissiveness to a husband. Wives are to be submissive to their husbands (verse 5) as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him her master (or “lord”). Peter does not seem to be referring to any one specific incident here, for the main verb and both participles in verse 5 all indicate a continuing pattern of conduct during one’s life (see above).15
The example of Sarah’s obedience would be an appropriate encouragement to the wives to whom Peter was writing, for Sarah became the mother of all God’s people in the old covenant (Isaiah 51:2; cf. Galatians 4:22-26), even though there had been many times in which following Abraham had meant trusting God in uncertain, unpleasant, and even dangerous situations (Genesis 12:1, 5, 10-15; 13:1; 20:2-6 [cf. verse 12]; 22:3). Yet Peter says believing women are now her children (or “daughters”), the true members of her spiritual family.16 To be Sarah’s daughter is to be a joint heir of the promises and the honor given to her and to Abraham.
The condition for being Sarah’s “daughters” is “if you do what is right and do not give way to fear” (verse 6). Both verbs are again present participles indicating a pattern of life continued over time: “If you are doing what is right and not giving way to fear,” then you are (more accurately, “you have become”) Sarah’s daughters. Peter’s insistence on doing what is right is a reminder that no acts of disobedience in Sarah’s life are to be imitated by Christian wives (cf. Genesis 16:2, 6; 18:15; perhaps 20:5); it is her submission to her husband and her trust in God that Peter commends. The condition “if you … do not give way to fear” is another way in which faith finds expression. A woman with a gentle and quiet spirit who continues hoping in God will not be terrified by circumstances or by an unbelieving or disobedient husband (cf. Genesis 20:6).
D. The Rewards of Submission
Peter holds out one reward that wives are ordinarily to expect from this submission to their husbands: the unbelieving husband may be won to Christ.17 Those who “do not believe the word” are husbands who are unbelievers; the present tense verb (apeithousin) suggests a pattern of life characterized by unbelief or rejection not only of the gospel but also of God’s standards in other areas of life. The word does not mean just that they “do not believe the word” (NIV); it has a much stronger sense of active disobedience to the standards of Scripture and even rebellion against them. Note the use of this same word (apeitheo) in Acts 14:2; 19:9; Romans 2:8; 10:21; 11:30, 31; 15:31; Hebrews 3:18; 1 Peter 3:20; 4:17.18 Some of these unbelieving, disobedient husbands (not all) would have been harsh and unkind to their Christian wives, but Peter says that even such husbands can be won for God’s kingdom (note the same word for “won” in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22 (five times); also Matthew 18:15, and in a commercial sense, Matthew 16:26; 25:20, 22; James 4:13.19
These unbelieving husbands can be won without a word—that is, not by continually preaching or talking about the gospel, but rather simply by the behavior of their20 wives, their Christian pattern of life. The word behavior (anastrophe) is frequent in Peter’s writings (eight of the thirteen New Testament occurrences are in 1 and 2 Peter). He uses it to refer to the evil pattern of life of unbelievers (1 Peter 1:18; 2 Peter 2:7) and the good pattern of life of believers that is intended to lead to the salvation of others who observe it. Peter does not exactly say that Christian wives should never talk about the gospel message to their unbelieving husbands (indeed, it is hard to imagine that the Christian wives among Peter’s readers would never have explained to their husbands what it meant to become a Christian), but he does say that the means God will use to win their husbands generally will not be the wives’ words but their behavior. This knowledge should increase prayer both for grace to live rightly and for God’s silent working in the husband’s heart.
Another reward is to be daughters of Sarah (verse 6). As explained above, this certainly means being a member of the people of God, an heir of all the blessings of salvation. But it probably also includes a suggestion of sharing in Sarah’s special dignity and honor, imitating the pattern of submission and trust in God that Sarah exemplified, and similarly receiving God’s special approval as a result.
Finally, the greatest reward will be the combined joy of honoring God and receiving His favor. Dorothy Patterson rightly says of this passage, “Submission primarily honors the Lord who established the relationship.”21 Yet in honoring the Lord a Christian wife will also know His special favor. Peter says that the gentle and quiet spirit that accompanies such submissive behavior “is of great worth in God’s sight” (verse 4). God will look on this behavior, which springs from a heart of faith, and will delight in this daughter of Sarah and show her His favor.
E. The Universal Rightness of a Wife’s Submission to Her Husband
When Peter says that unbelieving husbands may be “won over” for Christ “by the behavior of their wives” when they are submissive to their husbands, there is a significant implication for the question of whether such submission is appropriate for all cultures and all times. The attractiveness of a wife’s submissive behavior even to an unbelieving husband suggests that God has inscribed on the hearts of all mankind the rightness and beauty of role distinctions in marriage (including male leadership or headship in the family and female acceptance of and responsiveness to that leadership). Someone might object that female submissiveness is attractive to the unbelieving husband only because he is selfishly interested in gaining power for himself or because it fits his culture’s current (and presumably wrong) perception of appropriate male-female relationships, and in either case—this position would argue—such role distinctions are still wrong or still incongruent with God’s ideal plan for marriage. A similar objection would be made by those who say that this command was only a missionary strategy for that culture, to make the gospel inoffensive to non-Christians, but that it is not universally binding today.22 In fact, those who make this objection would often say it would be wrong today to require all Christian wives to be subject to their husbands—it would fall short of God’s ideal for marriage.
However, this position is unpersuasive because Peter would not encourage a morally objectionable behavior pattern (whether in the culture or in the husband himself) to continue in order to bring someone to faith. It is pure behavior, not behavior that falls short of God’s ideal, that attracts unbelievers to Christ (1 Peter 3:2). And this pure behavior (verse 2), Peter says, especially involves wives being subject to their own husbands. The unbelieving husband sees this behavior and deep within perceives the beauty of it. Within his heart there is a witness that this is right, this is how God intended men and women to relate as husband and wife. He concludes, therefore, that the gospel that his wife believes must be true as well.23 Perhaps, indeed, he sees his wife’s submission to him in contrast with his own refusal to submit to God, who is infinitely more worthy of his submission, and is convicted of his own sinfulness by it.
Two other approaches that evade the implication that wives should submit to the authority of their husbands today are represented by Ruth Tucker and Walter Liefeld, who suggest that Peter’s directions here are culture-specific and therefore need not apply today. They note that some maintain that “although Sarah is said to have expressed her submission to Abraham by obeying him and calling him ‘lord’ (or ‘master’), that certainly does not mean that submission is expressed in every culture by obedience and calling one’s husband ‘lord.’ Few would insist on the second part of Sarah’s submission.”24 They also note that another way some argue that these injunctions are not binding on Christians today is to realize that they belong to a form of instruction known as a “household code” that was common in the ancient world and was included by the New Testament authors as a reminder that Christians should act in ways that would not give offense to unbelievers, but that the New Testament does not imply that these “household codes” were to be followed by all Christians in all cultures.25 Although both of these approaches are simply presented as possible interpretations on pp. 81, 83, Tucker and Liefeld seem to adopt them as their own in the discussion of exegetical issues in Appendix B (pp. 462, 463).
The problem with the first argument is that it fails to recognize that Peter is requiring a general pattern of behavior (submission that results in obedience) rather than a carbon copy imitation of every word Sarah said (such as calling Abraham “lord” or “master”). The point is that Sarah gave respectful obedience to Abraham even in the words she used to refer to him, and so should Christian wives today be respectful (whatever words may be used from culture to culture to signify that respect). To say instead that submission itself is the general pattern and obedience to a husband’s authority is the specific form that may vary from culture to culture (as Tucker and Liefeld do on p. 463) is to neglect the fact that submission in the New Testament (expressed by the word hupotasso) is always submission to an authority, and, therefore, the idea of obedience to authority seems inherent in this type of submission. Moreover, they neglect that it is not Sarah’s specific words but her general obedience itself that Peter refers to when he says that Old Testament women who hoped in God were submissive to their husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham (verses 5-6). Obedience is one form that submission took for all of those referred to, but the mention of Sarah’s words is simply a reminder of a specific example in Sarah’s life.
As for the “household codes,” there were lists of expected behavior for husbands and wives, parents and children, and servants and masters in the ancient world, but close comparison of ancient lists with those in the New Testament shows very few exact parallels except that these various groups are named.26 The “form” (if the New Testament authors were even conscious of using such a form) was extensively “Christianized,” so that few similarities remain. And at any rate, what we have in Scripture now is the morally binding authority of God’s own words. If we say that no unique authority or leadership for husbands in marriage was the ideal, but that Peter gave in to cultural expectations and failed to teach that ideal, this would seem to impugn Peter’s courage and integrity, because it implies that Peter was willing (and Paul, too!) to command Christians to follow a sinful, sub-Christian pattern of behavior in their homes—a most unlikely course of action for those accustomed to running against the tide! Moreover, it implies that God would command Christians to follow a sinful pattern of marriage just to attract unbelievers to the gospel—something inconsistent with God’s own pattern of telling His people to use morally righteous means to achieve righteous ends. We may conclude that both of these attempts to avoid the force of Peter’s directions today fail to be persuasive.
Another way that people sometimes have tried to avoid the permanence of these commands is to look at the commands about hair and jewelry and say that those are no longer binding today. This view says that Peter is forbidding the wearing of gold or braiding of hair when he writes, “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes” (verse 3). This view reasons: (a) these commands are for that culture only, and cannot apply today; (b) therefore the other command in this paragraph, that a wife should be subject to her husband, does not apply today either.
But this view is certainly incorrect, because it misunderstands Peter. In this section Peter emphasizes not external, visible things that perish but unseen spiritual realities that are eternal, just as he has done frequently in the letter to this point (see 1 Peter 1:1 [“strangers”], 4, 7-9, 18-19, 23-25; 2:2, 5, 9, 11). “Let not yours be the outward adorning” (RSV) gives the sense of the phrase quite well and prepares the reader for the contrast with “inward adorning” (RSV) in verse 4. “Adorning” refers to what one uses to make oneself beautiful to others. The point is that Christian wives should depend for their own attractiveness not on outward things like braiding their hair, decorations of gold, and wearing fine clothing, but on inward qualities of life, especially a gentle and quiet spirit (verse 4). Furthermore, although the RSV and NIV speak of “fine clothing,” the Greek text does not include an adjective modifying himation, “clothing,” and the text literally says, “Let not your adorning be the outward adorning of braiding of hair and wearing of gold or putting on of clothing.” It is incorrect, therefore, to say that this text prohibits women from braiding their hair or wearing gold jewelry, for by the same reasoning one would have to prohibit “putting on of clothing.” Peter’s point is not that any of these is forbidden, but that these should not be a woman’s “adorning,” her source of beauty.
In fact, we should rather note that Peter in this very text is opposing dominant ideas in that culture. When he rejects the use of hairstyle, jewelry, or clothing as a means of winning the unbelieving husband, Peter writes counterculturally.27 He commends not just any behavior or dress that would be approved by the culture, but a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious (verse 4). Peter goes right to the heart of the Christian faith—hope in God (verse 5) and the gentle and quiet spirit that stems from faith and “is of great worth in God’s sight” (verse 4). Peter is functioning from the center of the Christian faith here; he is not merely adapting to culture.
F. The Beauty of Submission
In an age when submission to authority is frequently denigrated and thought to be degrading and dehumanizing, Peter’s words remind us that submission to rightful authority is beautiful and right in God’s world. It is “for the Lord’s sake” (2:13) that Christians are to be subject to God-ordained authorities, whether in civil government (2:13-17), in employment (2:18-20), in the family (3:1-6), or in the church (5:5). Specifically within marriage, the beauty of a wife’s submission to her husband is evident to unbelievers, who are attracted to Christ through it (verses 1-2). Peter also expects this beauty to be evident to believing husbands and to other people generally, for this is the beauty that he tells Christian women to make their “adorning”-their source of beauty (verse 4). This is the beauty that adorned women of the Old Testament who “put their hope in God” and “were submissive to their own husbands” (verse 5). This beauty also ought to be seen and felt by the Christian wife herself, for it is not accompanied by fear (verse 6), but by reverence, purity (verse 2), moral uprightness (verse 6), quietness of spirit (verse 4), and hope in God (verse 5). Finally, the beauty of this submission is evident to God, for the gentle and quiet spirit that accompanies this submission in God’s sight is “of great worth” (verse 4).
II. Directions to Husbands
A. What Considerate Leadership Is Not
Peter tells husbands, “Live considerately with your wives” (verse 7, RSV; similarly, NIV), or, more literally, “Live with your wives in an understanding way” (NASB). This is the husband’s counterpart to his wife’s submissive attitude, and Peter here warns husbands against some potential abuses of their leadership role within the marriage. Because this section is the counterpart to Peter’s command to wives to be submissive to their husband’s leadership, we can speak of “considerate leadership” as a summary of the husband’s responsibility.
1. Considerate leadership does not mean harsh or domineering use of authority.
Peter tells husbands to “be considerate” to their wives and says they should “treat them with respect as the weaker partner” (verse 7).28 Peter does not specify how he understands the woman to be the “weaker partner,” but the context would make it appropriate for him to have in mind any kind of weakness that husbands would need to be cautioned not to take advantage of. This would certainly include physical strength (most men, if they tried, could overpower their wives physically). But the context also shows that women are weaker in terms of authority in the marriage (verses 1, 5, 6), and Peter therefore tells husbands that, instead of misusing their authority for selfish ends, they should use it to treat their wives with respect. Yet there may also be a third sense of weakness that would fit the context (because it is something husbands should not take advantage of), namely, a greater emotional sensitivity (perhaps hinted at in Peter’s admonition to godly wives, “do not give way to fear,” verse 6). While this is something that is also a great strength, it nonetheless means that wives are often more likely to be hurt deeply by conflict within a marriage or by inconsiderate behavior. Knowing this, Christian husbands should not be “harsh” (Colossians 3:19) or fill their marriage relationship with criticism and conflict, but should rather be positive and affirming, living together in an understanding way and bestowing honor on their wives.
The word translated partner in the “weaker partner” is skeuos, which often means “vessel, jar, container,” but is also used in the New Testament to speak of human beings as “vessels” created by God and intended for His use (Acts 9:15; Romans 9:21; 2 Corinthians 4:7; 2 Timothy 2:21). There is no derogatory or misogynistic nuance here, since the fact that the woman is called the “weaker vessel” (that is, the weaker of the two) implies that the man is also viewed as a “ves”sel. The term recalls God’s creation of all people, both men and women, and is a reminder both of human frailty and of obligation to God our Creator.
2. Considerate leadership does not imply equal sharing of leadership in the family.
Although Peter tells husbands to act in a thoughtful and understanding way toward their wives, he never tells husbands to submit to their wives or suggests that roles in marriage are interchangeable. Considerate leadership is how the husband exercises leadership in the family; it does not contradict his headship.
The phrase “in the same way” in verse 7 has the sense “also” or “continuing in the same area of discussion” (see note above on the word at 3:1; also, Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker, p. 568, and 1 Peter 5:7), for the idea of similarity in submission is excluded by the fact that here (unlike 2:18; 3:1) Peter does not command submission to any authority but rather the considerate use of that authority.
3. Considerate leadership does not imply lesser importance for a wife.
The fact that husbands are to treat their wives with “respect” does not mean that the wife, who has less authority, is less important. Peter’s telling husbands that their wives are joint heirs of the grace of life reminds them that, even though they have been given greater authority within marriage, their wives are still equal to them in spiritual privilege and eternal importance. Here as elsewhere the New Testament authors couple their treatment of differences in roles of husband and wife with an implicit or explicit affirmation of their equality in status and importance (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:3, 7, 12; Ephesians 5:22, 33; Colossians 3:18, 19).
4. Considerate leadership does not mean always giving in to a wife’s wishes.
Just as wives are not to obey their husbands when commanded to disobey God, so husbands must never allow love for their wives to become an excuse for sin—a principle tragically ignored by Abraham himself when he followed Sarah’s urging and decided to have a child by Sarah’s maid Hagar (Genesis 16:2, 5). The principle was also ignored by Solomon (1 Kings 11:1-3, 8), Ahab (1 Kings 21:25), and perhaps even Adam (Genesis 3:6). The mere fact that one’s wife—even a godly, believing wife—wants to do something morally wrong does not mean that a husband is free before God to endorse or participate in that wrong. To do so would be to abdicate the leadership God has given the husband and would be the opposite of the righteous leadership God requires him to exercise. In actual practice, it will often take much prayer and knowledge of Scripture for a husband to be able to tell the difference between a morally wrong choice being urged on him by his wife and a morally right choice that just differs from his personal preference or judgment of how things should be done. But there will be times in every marriage when a godly husband simply will have to make decisions that affect the whole family, that go against his wife’s desires and preferences and that he nonetheless is convinced, before God, are right.
5. Considerate leadership is not optional for husbands.
Just as submission to one’s husband is not optional for Christian wives, so the considerate leadership that Peter commands is not optional for Christian husbands. Husbands cannot rightly opt out of family leadership and become passive non-participants in decisions and activities. Neither can they rightly make the opposite mistake and exercise harsh, selfish, domineering authority in their families. They are rather to live considerately and bestow honor. Yet in doing this they cannot escape the responsibility to lead that is implicit in the command for their wives to submit to them.
B. What Considerate Leadership Is
“[B]e considerate as you live with your wives” is literally, “living together according to knowledge.”29 Peter does not specify what kind of knowledge he means by “according to knowledge,” so some general phrase like “in an understanding way” (NASB) is a good translation. The RSV’s “considerately” (similarly, NIV) is generally acceptable, but it probably gives too much emphasis to a considerate attitude while neglecting the focus on actual “knowledge” or information that is implied by Peter’s word. The knowledge Peter intends here may include any knowledge that would be beneficial to the husband-wife relationship: of God’s purposes and principles for marriage; of the wife’s desires, goals, and frustrations; of her strengths and weaknesses in the physical, emotional and spiritual realms, etc. A husband who lives according to such knowledge will greatly enrich his marriage—yet such knowledge can only be gained through regular study of God’s Word and regular, unhurried times of private fellowship together as husband and wife.30
“[G]rant her honor” as “a weaker vessel” (NASB) affirms a theme found frequently in the New Testament. God is often pleased to honor those who are weaker or less honored in the eyes of the world (cf. Matthew 5:3-12; 1 Corinthians 1:26-30; 12:22-25; James 2:5; 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5).31 In this case, such honor may include kind and affirming words both in private and in public, as well as the highest human priority in allocation of time and money. (The NIV’s “treat them with respect” is too weak—one can treat another person with detached, formal respect and yet give no special honor.)
In the phrase, “Bestowing honor on the woman” (RSV), the word “woman” translates to gunaikeio, a rare word that is used only here in the New Testament. It means more literally “the feminine one,” and suggests that Peter is looking to the characteristic nature of womanhood or femininity and seeing in it an appropriateness for receiving honor. It is appropriate that those who are “feminine,” those who give characteristic expression to “womanhood,” should receive special honor, for this is what God has directed.
C. The Reasons for Considerate Leadership
The first reason for such considerate leadership is that there are differences between husband and wife: the wife is the “weaker vessel” (NASB) or “weaker partner” (NIV) and thus more vulnerable to being hurt by a selfish, domineering husband.
The second reason for considerate leadership is the equality between husband and wife: “since you are joint heirs of the grace of life” (RSV).32 One who has equal standing in God’s kingdom is certainly worthy of equal honor and thoughtful, loving attention.
D. The Rewards of Considerate Leadership
At the end of this passage Peter indicates a reward for husbands who live considerately with their wives, but he does so by giving a warning of what will happen if they do not live this way: “so that nothing will hinder your prayers.” The implication is that if they do live in a considerate way with their wives, their prayers will not be hindered but helped, and God will answer them (compare 1 Peter 3:12, where Peter says, “… the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer”).
Some think that “your prayers” in this verse refers only to times when the husband and wife pray together, but this view is unpersuasive because Peter is addressing this sentence to husbands only, not to both husbands and wives. “Your” must refer to the “you” to whom Peter is writing: the husbands. The reference therefore is to the husbands’ prayers generally. This hindering of prayers is a form of God’s fatherly discipline, which Hebrews 12:3-11 reminds us is for our good and is given to those whom God loves. So concerned is God that Christian husbands live in an understanding and loving way with their wives that He interrupts His relationship with them when they do not do so! No Christian husband should presume to think that any spiritual good will be accomplished by his life without an effective ministry of prayer. And no husband may expect an effective prayer life unless he lives with his wife “in an understanding way, bestowing honor” on her. To take the time to maintain a good marriage is God’s will; it is serving God; it is a spiritual activity pleasing in His sight.
Copyright 1997 Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. All rights reserved.
1 Several sections in this chapter are adapted from Wayne Grudem, The First Epistle of Peter: An Introduction and Commentary (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, and Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), pp. 134-146, and are used by permission.
2 Note also in this regard Colossians 3:18, “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” How can it be fitting “in the Lord” if there is neither male nor female in Christ ? Only if we understand Galatians 3:28 to be talking about spiritual benefits and blessings of salvation, not about all created sexual differences and God-ordained differences in roles.
3 Dorothy Patterson says of this passage, “Submission actually is above and beyond obedience, which in itself could be the forcing and coercion to outward conformity.” “Roles in Marriage: A Study in Submission: 1 Peter 3:1-7” in The Theological Educator (New Orleans, LA) 13:2 (Spring, 1983), p. 71. This entire article provides an exegetically-based perspective on submission as seen through the eyes of a wife who delights in her calling.
4 The New Testament uses aphthartos only of eternal heavenly realities, such as God Himself (Romans 1:23; 1 Timothy 1:17), God’s Word (1 Peter 1:23), and our resurrection bodies (1 Corinthians 15:52; compare 9:25; 1 Peter 3:4).
5 Gilbert Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 19902), p. 191. Patricia Gundry, Woman Be Free! (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1977), also says of this passage, “The point is, Sarah and Abraham responded in the same way to each other. Abraham did what Sarah requested, and she did the same for him” (p. 83).
6 Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles, p. 191.
7 See, for example, Bilezikian, pp. 189. His section on 1 Peter 3:1-8 is titled, “Again, Mutual Submission—1 Peter 3:1-8.”
On page 190, Bilezikian sets up a dichotomy between what he calls “submission that is mere obedience” and “servant submission that walks the extra mile and turns the other cheek.” He approves only the second kind and says of this “servant submission” that “the motivations for such submission have nothing in common with submission defined as obedience to authority” (p. 190). Such opposition to any idea of “obedience to authority” runs throughout Bilezikian’s book and is a fundamental theme in his writings. (On p. 249 he says that the introduction of any authority into marriage “would paganize the marriage relationship and make the Christ/church paradigm irrelevant to it.”)
Bilezikian seems unable to understand that it is possible to have obedience to authority together with an attitude of love and concern for the one in authority. How does he think Jesus was subject to the authority of His parents, for example (Luke 2:51), or how should Christian children today be subject to their parents’ authority, or how should we all be subject to God (James 4:7)? An attitude of love and willing submission characterizes all of these kinds of obedience to an authority. Further, Bilezikian seems unable to understand that someone in authority can act with love and consideration toward another who is under that authority (as God does with us, Christ does with the church, and Christian parents often do with their children).
Moreover, Bilezikian’s argument on 1 Peter 3:1 is inconsistent with an earlier statement in his book. On p. 154 he says that the word for “submit” (hupotasso) means “to make oneself subordinate to the authority of a higher power… . [w]herever the word appears in the NT, except where its meaning is deliberately changed by a modifier such as in [Ephesians 5:21].” But here in 1 Peter 3:1 there is no such modifier (such as “to one another”), yet he still says that “mutual submission” is in view.
Finally, the fact that his definition of “mutual submission” without any obedience to authority is unworkable in the real world is seen in a self-contradiction on p. 155. He says, “The church thrives on mutual subjection.” But then he says, “In a Spirit-led church, the elders submit to the congregation in being accountable for their watch-care, and the congregation submits to the elders in accepting their guidance.” In a footnote to this sentence, he says, “The congregations submit to their leaders by obeying and accepting their guidance” (p. 289, emphasis mine). He wants to speak of “mutual submission” without obedience to authority, but he knows the church will not work without obedience to the authority of those in leadership. We must ask, if obedience to leaders is required in a Spirit-led church, then why not also in a Spirit-led marriage?
8 So Bilezikian, pp. 153-173.
9 The unsupported assumption in the feminist view of Ephesians 5:21 is that the word allelous, “one another,” must always mean “everyone to everyone.” Of course, the word often takes that meaning, as in Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind and compassionate to one another,” or John 15:12, “Love each other as I have loved you.” In these cases the sense of the sentence shows that “everyone to everyone” is meant by “one another.” But in other verses the word simply cannot take that meaning, and the sense “some to others” is required instead. For example, in Revelation 6:4, “men slay each other” means “some men slay others” (not “every man slays every other man,” or “those people being slain ‘mutually’ slay those who are slaying them,” which would make no sense); in Galatians 6:2, “Carry each other’s burdens” means not “everyone should exchange burdens with everyone else,” but “some who are more able should help bear the burdens of others who are less able”; 1 Corinthians 11:33, “when you come together to eat, wait for each other,” means “some who are ready early should wait for others who are late”; etc. (cf. Luke 2:15; 12:1; 24:32; there are many examples where the word is not exhaustively reciprocal). Similarly, in Ephesians 5:21, both the following context and the meaning of hupotasso seem to require allelous to mean “some to others,” so that the verse could be paraphrased, “those who are under authority should be subject to others among you who have authority over them.” Therefore, according to this interpretation, it would seem best to say that it is not “mutual submission” but submission to appropriate authorities that Paul is commanding in Ephesians 5:21.
10 Bilezikian, pp. 154-155, clearly opposes the existence of any obedience to authority in Ephesians 5:21-24.
11 Interestingly, Bilezikian admits that hupotasso in the New Testament “means to make oneself subordinate to the authority of a higher power … to yield to rulership” (p. 154). He says, “This is the natural meaning of ‘submit’ wherever the word appears in the New Testament, except where its meaning is deliberately changed by a modifier such as in verse 21 of [Ephesians 5]. The addition … of the reciprocal pronoun ‘to each other’ changes its meaning entirely… . By definition, mutual submission rules out hierarchical differences.” Bilezikian sees the issue clearly: if “submit” (hupotasso) means to submit to a higher authority, then in that sense there can be no mutual submission. He also recognizes that this is the usual meaning for hupotasso in the New Testament. But his error is to assume that the meaning of the word must be changed when the expression “to one another” (allelous) follows it. This is certainly not necessary, since allelous can often mean some to others, as explained in note 9. Then Ephesians 5:21 would be paraphrased, “Submit to one another (that is, some to others), out of reverence for Christ.”
It is incorrect exegesis for Bilezikian to say that in Ephesians 5:21 a word must take a new meaning that has been nowhere else attested when a perfectly good sense for both words fits well in the context. Why should we assign hupotasso a meaning here that it is nowhere else shown to have? Even in Ephesians 5:22-24, wives are not to be subject to everyone or to all husbands, but to “their own husbands”—the submission Paul has in mind is not general thoughtfulness toward others but specific submission to a higher authority. But should not the verb hupotasso in verse 22 (whether implicit or explicit; it appears in some Greek manuscripts but not in others—in the latter, it clearly is understood as to be inferred by the reader) take the same sense it does in verse 21? Therefore it seems to be a misunderstanding of Ephesians 5:21 to say that it implies mutual submission. And it is certainly incorrect to use Bilezikian’s doubtful interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 to contradict the other four texts in the New Testament (Ephesians 5:22-24; Colossians 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:1, 5-6) that speak clearly and explicitly of a wife’s obligation to submit to her husband.
12 This is probably why the New Testament authors use the broader term submit when referring to wives in relation to husbands, rather than the specific term obey as they do with children and servants. The absence of the term obey (except in 1 Peter 3:6) with respect to wives does not mean that the idea is not there, only that the idea is included in a broader attitude of support for the husband’s leadership.
13 However, nowhere does Scripture condone or support the abuse of wives by husbands, but explicitly forbids even harsh attitudes (Colossians 3:19; 1 Peter 3:7), and therefore certainly condemns any physical violence used by husbands against wives. Evangelical churches have a strong responsibility to prevent such abuse and to protect those threatened or harmed by it.
14 At this point Bilezikian apparently agrees, for he says about this word, “The servant attitude modeled by Christ and required of slaves is also the example for wives” (p. 189).
15 The aorist tense here for “obeyed” need not refer only to one incident, for the aorist indicative is used frequently in a constative sense simply to say that something “happened,” with no implication of whether it happened at one point in time or over a very long period of time (cf. the aorist indicatives in Ephesians 5:25, “Christ loved the church”; Romans 5:14, “death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses”; Revelation 20:4, “they reigned with Christ a thousand years”; also Blass-Debrunner-Funk, Grammar, sec. 332).
E. G. Selwyn, The First Epistle of St. Peter (London: Macmillan, 1949), p. 185, and J. N. D. Kelly A Commentary on the Epistles of Peter and Jude (London: Black, 1969), p. 131, together with several other writers, say that Peter is referring to Genesis 18:12, the only place in the Old Testament where Sarah is reported as using the title kurios, “lord” (or “master,” “sir”—it is a polite term of address when used of human beings in a position of leadership or authority, as is the Hebrew term adoni behind it). It is possible that Peter is referring to this passage, but the difficulty is that no obedience to Abraham is mentioned in that immediate context. It is more likely that Peter deduces from this one example that Sarah ordinarily referred to Abraham as her “master” or “lord,” and that this indicated her attitude of submission and respect for Abraham. This understanding would still mean that Peter is referring to Sarah’s whole pattern of life, not only to one incident of obedience.
16 This is consistent with Peter’s practice throughout the epistle of seeing the church, not those descended physically from Abraham and Sarah, as the new Israel, the true people of God (see, for example, 1:1 and 2:4-10).
17 Some commentators affirm that many or most of the wives to whom Peter was writing had unbelieving husbands. For example, Mary J. Evans, Woman in the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), p. 118, suggests that “Peter’s primary concern is for those whose husbands are not believers” (p. 118). Similarly, E. Margaret Howe says of 1 Peter 3:1, 6, “Here it is implied that the wives addressed are those whose husbands are not Christians” (Women and Church Leadership [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982], pp. 55-56). But the Greek text implies just the opposite: “So that even if some do not obey the word,” and the phrase “even if” (kai ei) suggests that this would be an unexpected or uncommon occurrence. It implies that Peter expected that most Christian wives among his readers had Christian husbands.
18 F. J. A. Hort, The First Epistle of St. Peter 1:1-2:17 (London: Macmillan, 1898), says, “On the whole . . . the biblical use is best expressed by ‘rebel’ or ‘be rebellious’” (p. 122). Although some have argued that this term can mean simply disbelieve, be an unbeliever (especially in John 3:36), such a sense is not required in any of the word’s occurrences. Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed., trans. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, rev. F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), accepts the sense “disbelieve” in John 3:36; Acts 14:2; 19:9; Romans 15:31, but adds that this meaning is “greatly disputed” and “is not found outside our literature” (p. 82). Moreover, it must be noted that to “disobey the gospel” in the New Testament can mean not just to “disbelieve” it but actually to “disobey” it: to refuse to respond to its command to repent and believe in Christ.
19 See note 13 on wife abuse.
20 The Greek text includes no word for “their” (Peter could have made it clear with auton), leaving open the possibility that Peter intends to say that unbelieving husbands will be won not simply by seeing the submissive behavior of their own wives but by observing the pattern of Christian marriage exemplified by wives generally within the Christian community. But we cannot be certain of this, for Greek often omits possessive pronouns when the author thinks the meaning will be clear to the reader.
21 Patterson, “Roles in Marriage,” p. 73.
22 Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church: Women in Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987), say, “This passage seems to present fewer problems, because the submissive attitude required of the woman has a clear purpose. The believing wife of an unconverted man is to fulfill the expectations of submission in order that she might win him to the Lord” (p. 462).
But it is certainly incorrect to say that this is Peter’s only purpose (if they are implying that), for Peter is addressing all the Christian wives in all the churches in four Roman provinces (see 1 Peter 1:1), not just the wives of unbelieving husbands. (See note 17 on the fact that Peter expected most of the wives to have believing husbands.) Moreover, the fact that such behavior would win the unbelieving husband does not imply that it was less than God’s ideal, but quite the opposite. Finally, Peter’s reference to Sarah (whose husband was hardly in need of saving) would ill suit a command to submission that was only a temporary expedient because it would help missionary work in that culture.
23 Someone might respond that a wife’s submission was not exactly sinful but just morally neutral, something that might be adopted in one culture and not in another. But this is hardly persuasive, because it is not morally neutral behavior that wins the unbelieving husband, but morally “pure” (Greek hagnos) behavior—it is the positive moral beauty of Christian behavior that attracts the unbeliever. Moreover, if it were simply the fact that the believer was unselfish that would win the unbelieving spouse, it would not explain why Peter does not say the same to husbands as well. There seems to be something morally beautiful—not just neutral—in a wife’s submission to her husband.
24 Page 82.
25 Pages 82, 83. This “household code” argument was extensively developed by David L. Balch, Let Wives Be Submissive: The Domestic Code in 1 Peter (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1981). Balch sees these New Testament teachings entirely in sociological terms, analyzing the possible motives for them as Christians attempted to avoid offending secular society. He does not consider the possibility that these New Testament standards are in fact divine commands with absolute divine authority attaching to them.
26 See further the discussion of this issue in chapter 2 of this volume, Question 17. Balch, Let Wives Be Submissive, especially pp. 96ff., lists several significant differences, even in form, with many pagan codes. He also adduces several parallel ideas (pp. 98-109), if not in actual household codes, at least in some ancient Platonic and neopythagorean literature, as well as in Jewish literature. Of course, this is what we would expect even from pagan Greek culture because of the influence of conscience and common grace. But direct borrowing of pagan Greek “household codes” simply did not occur.
27 Though a few ancient philosophers can be found with views similar to Peter’s; see Balch, p. 101.
28 It should be noted that it is also possible to understand the two phrases “the woman” and “the weaker partner” as relating to the command “live together” rather than to “bestowing honor.” This would give the sense, “live together with your wife according to knowledge, as with the weaker sex, the feminine one” (cf. NASB, TEV). It is not possible to decide between this reading and that of the RSV (and NIV, AV) on grammatical grounds alone; neither do the arguments from context seem to be conclusive on either side. But there is not much difference in the end since the commands to live together and to bestow honor are both part of one large command, and the husband’s knowledge of the fact that Peter calls the wife “the feminine one” and “the weaker vessel” should in any case modify the whole complex of actions included in “living together in an understanding way” and “bestowing honor.”
29 For the use of the participle as an imperative see 1 Peter 2:18; 3:1, 7; 4:8, 10; also David Daube, “Participle and Imperative in 1 Peter,” in Selwyn, First Epistle of St. Peter, pp. 467-488.
30 One book that deserves mention here (simply because it contains so much practical wisdom on this subject) is James Dobson’s What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1977).
31 Bilezikian states that the command for husbands to “bestow honor” on their wives indicated that Peter was commanding a “traumatic role reversal,” since bestowing honor meant acting “much like a servant to his master” (p. 192). But this is simply false: when God bestows honor on His people, it does not indicate a “traumatic role reversal” whereby He becomes subject to our authority. Again Bilezikian refuses to admit that those in authority can act unselfishly and with love toward those under their authority, and this refusal skews his entire discussion.
32 The RSV’s “since” expresses a possible relationship between this statement and the rest of the verse, but it could also be translated, “bestowing honor … as to those who are joint heirs …” (compare NASB). This would give slightly more emphasis to the way in which honor is bestowed instead of the reason for bestowing it, but the difference in meaning is not great.