Beyond the Lectionary Text: 1 Peter 3:1-12
by Heidi De Jonge
When we pick up the text at 1 Peter 3:1, it’s pretty clear that Peter is right in the middle of saying something quite long and profound. He is calling the believers in Asia Minor – many of whom were new converts – to good lives – to lives that are so good that they beckon others to give glory to God (1 Peter 2:12). 1 Peter 3 begins with the word, ‘wives’, but it is settled squarely in the context of the broad mission of God.
All things that get in the way of the mission of God, the apostle speaks against. It is the case that even our freedom in Christ, even our zealous participation in the mission of God can get in the way of the mission of God. So Peter warns us in 1 Peter 2:16, “Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil.”
When exegeting and applying the household ethics of the New Testament, it is very helpful and centering to remember the broad goals of God – broad goals that aren’t simply in the background of this text, but explicitly stated. 1 Peter 2:12 says that we are to “live such good lives among the pagans that…they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” This is the point and the goal of apostolic instruction – that we may be reconciled to God and that others may be reconciled to God when they observe the life of God in us.
The life of God in us looks like a life of submission. This should be no surprise to us. Jesus himself was obedient and submissive to death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8). Submission should show up in all kinds of relationships. In 2:13 all believers are to submit to every human authority. In 2:18, slaves are to submit themselves to their masters. In 3:1, the beginning of our passage, wives are called, in the same way, to submit to their own husbands, and in 3:7, husbands are called, in the same way, to live with their wives. Later in 5:5, Peter calls the younger ones to, in the same way, submit to the older ones.
Margarat Mowczko writes a couple of helpful articles on 1 Peter 3, and draws attention to the fact that the word, ‘submit’ (Greek: hupotassō), has a military meaning and a non-military meaning. According to Thayer’s Bible Dictionary http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/hupotasso.html, hupotassō is a “a Greek military term meaning ‘to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader’. In non-military use, it was ‘a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden.’”
Doesn’t that sound like the life of God and the life of God in us? Cooperation. Assuming responsibility. Carrying a burden. This is what we do for each other in the body of believers – and it is what we do for those who we live closely with, who do not yet believe. We submit, in order that the life of God might be seen in us and that those who see that life might glorify God on the day he visits us.
There may be some of us who are tempted to read the first six verses of 1 Peter 3 through the idealized, romanticized, domesticated lenses of some current Christian traditions – wherein the woman is called to be someone not unlike a Stepford wife. I do not believe that this is the call for Christian women today, nor do I believe that Peter was asking this of the newly converted Christian women in Asia Minor. These women were independent moral agents, who had responded to God’s offer of salvation. Some of them had unbelieving husbands, and Peter is calling them to live such good lives with their husbands, that their husbands may be won over by their actions – the life of God in them.
These good lives were to be lives clothed with reverence and purity, gentleness and peace. Apparently the temptation then, as now, was to place focus on other adornments – fine clothes, gold jewelry, elaborate hairstyles. This may have been how these women won their husbands to themselves in the first place – but winning them to Christ was going to take a new kind of effort.
If the new Christian women needed any inspiration, they could look to the holy women of the past – namely, Sarah, the obedient wife of Abraham. Margaret Mowczko’s article on these holy women is a fascinating little read http://newlife.id.au/bible-study-notes/1-peter-3_1-6/. She searches the stories of Sarah and notes that Sarah’s obedience is clear and commendable, but that Abraham actually listened to (obeyed) the voice of Sarah in 16:2, and God himself commanded Abraham to obey the voice of Sarah in 21:12.
Furthermore, the rest of the holy women in Scripture are about as far from Stepford wives as you can get! The women in Scripture were brave and bold. They took initiative within their patriarchal society to get the jobs done that needed doing. The messengers of the Lord often showed up to them and gave them divine revelation, without the presence of their husbands or other male guardians. These holy women even disobeyed their husbands when necessary. (See Mowczko’s article for specific examples.) Is it simply the case that well-behaved women rarely make history, and we only read about the extreme women of the Bible? Perhaps Peter was thinking of other, milder holy women when he encouraged these wives to emulate them in verse 5? Or could it be that the characteristics of bravery, courage, confidence, and initiative are not incompatible with the clothing of reverence, purity, gentleness, and peace? “You are [Sarah’s] daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear” (3:6). We were all made to be courageous.
Husbands are told to live with their wives in the same way. Does this mean that they are to submit to their wives? Some say that it is implied by the homoiōs (in the same way). There is certainly a call to mutual submission in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (Eph 5:21). In that culture, the male was the unquestioned authority figure in the household and everywhere else, so Peter is taking a pretty gigantic step, even if he is not implying that the husbands should submit to their wives in the very same way that he calls the wives to submit to their husbands. The fact that he tells them to live considerately with their wives is startling enough, and shows the trajectory of the kingdom – away from domination and toward cooperation.
Peter Davids notes that “the expression ‘showing honor,’ which appears only here in the New Testament, is a common classical expression also used by Clement in 1 Clem. 1:3, ‘paying all fitting honour to the older among you.’ It includes honoring (rather than running down) a person verbally, but also indicates deeds that show that the person is honored, a proper respect and deference to the person” (The First Epistle of Peter, NICNT, p. 122).
Compare this call to the sexual roles of women in the Greek world, as explained in Apollodorus’ oration, Against Neaera (c340BC): “We have hetaerae (mistresses/courtesans) for pleasure, pallakae (concubines/prostitutes) for the daily [sexual] service of our bodies and gynaekes (wives) to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households” (Against Neaira 59.122, as quoted by Margaret Mowczko in her online article, Submission and Respect from Husbands in 1 Peter 3:7-8 http://newlife.id.au/bible-study-notes/1-peter-3_7-8/).
Peter is telling his Christian brothers to think of their wives much differently than they might naturally have considered them. Their wives are their partners in life – honoured and cherished.
Though women are often weaker than men, physically, and though their place in society is most often a weaker place, this only means that husbands should be even more intentional about respecting and honoring their wives. I really appreciate Eugene Peterson’s translation: “Be good husbands to your wives. Honor them, delight in them. As women they lack some of your advantages. But in the new life of God’s grace, you’re equals. Treat your wives, then, as equals so your prayers don’t run aground.” (1 Peter 3:7, The Message). The failure to treat their wives this way had implications for their relationship to God.
Peter’s continued instruction in verses 8-12 expands the focus from specific relationships to relationships in general. All relationships should be saturated with the pattern of Christ. When I preached on this text, I made sure to address the power dynamics that are present in most of our relationships – as parents and children, employers and employees, citizens and governing officials, teachers and students, pastors and parishioners. The Christlike disposition of servanthood and submission can and should manifest itself in every relationship. And this disposition, perhaps even more than our words, has the power to persuade those who might not have otherwise believed.
My husband and I, both ordained ministers in the CRCNA, preached a message on 1 Peter 3:1-12 together. We spoke candidly, in the end, about how mutual submission and shared leadership in the home functions in our marriage. Interviewing congregants who exemplify this model could be a powerful living illustration for the congregation.
I’ll never forget the story that Neal Plantinga told in one of his seminary classes at Calvin Theological Seminary. It’s a story that opens an article he wrote 25 years ago on headship:
At a young age, Neal’s dad “then explained how these things [submission and love] go among devout and well-married people. The ordinary rhythm of Christian marriage, he said, is one of full equality and mutual submission. We submit to each other, even as husbands and wives: it’s a sign that we have the Spirit of Christ. In fact, as overture to the husband and wife passage in Ephesians 5, Paul himself remarks, ‘Submit to one another, out of reverence for Christ.’ Accordingly, we might suppose, in some areas a husband will submit to a wife’s natural superiority of judgment and expertise, and in others she will submit to his. Neither is worried that the other will take advantage: each knows that the other is a Christian person. So far as possible, then, each tries to let the other have full sway. After all, as Paul says in the exquisite hymn of 1 Corinthians 13, love ‘never insists on its own way.’ But then, my dad explained, one day a real disagreement arises. Peripheral issues are pared away one at a time, and a truly basic disagreement is exposed. Husband and wife assume their natural rhythm, each attempting to submit to the other’s judgment. So the husband says, ‘Dear, we’ll go your way on this.’ ‘O no,’ she says, ‘you’re right and we’ll follow your lead.’ Back and forth they go, till the deadlock is obvious to both. Finally the husband draws himself up to his full height. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘for once in our marriage I’m going to have to break the tie. I hereby invoke the headship principle. You are right, we’re going to do it your way, and I don’t want to hear another word about it.’”
Davids, Peter, The First Epistle of Peter, New International Commentary on the New Testament, 1990.
Mowczko, Margaret, Submission and Respect from Wives: 1 Peter 3:1-6, 2012.
Mowczko, Margaret, Submission and Respect from Husbands: 1 Peter 3:7-8, 2012.
Plantinga, Cornelius, Jr. “You’re Right Dear – or how to handle headship”. The Reformed Journal 40 No. 15 May/June 1990, p. 15