Reflection | Even though it is the beginning of a new chapter and Peter turns to address a specific group within the Christian communities of Asia Minor, Peter is actually in the middle of a broader and more profound point. Just in case we forgot what that point is, Peter stated it all the way back in chapter 2, verse 12: ““live such good lives among the pagans that…they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” What Peter has been doing ever since that declaration is providing specific examples of what it looks like to follow Jesus in such a way that our lives lead others to Christ.
Thus far, Peter has addressed the realm of government as he has instructed Christians to submit or to be subject to those who occupy positions of civic authority – such as emperors, kings, and governors. He then moved from the public sphere to the workplace as he told Christians who were slaves or servants to submit to and faithfully serve their masters. Previously, we wrestled through how to best understand Peter’s troubling counsel in this regard given our current worldview about slavery.
Now Peter turns his attention to applying this call to submission to the home front, specifically the marital relationship between a husband and a wife. First, Peter speaks to the latter as he writes, “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands…” (verse 1). Yet again, we confront a passage very much at odds with much of modern thinking. At the same time, we also must acknowledge the baggage that now comes with these verses due to a long, tragic history of misinterpretation and therefore, abuse within the Church.
In various Christian cultures around the world, sermons based on this passage from 1 Peter, have communicated in no uncertain terms how all wives must obey their husbands. Based on texts like this one, women who have found themselves facing domestic violence have been pastorally counseled to remain with their abusive partners – sometimes at the cost of their own lives and the wellbeing of any children born of the marriage. Therefore, let us carefully consider what Peter is and isn’t saying here and even more importantly, pay attention to whom he is saying it.
Both the rest of verse 1 and overall context of this passage make it clear to whom Peter is speaking. It is not all women. It is not all wives. It is not even all Christian wives. Peter is addressing to Christian wives who are married to husbands who do not share their faith in Jesus. Hence Peter writes “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own 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, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives” (verses 1-2).
To further understand exactly whom Peter is talking to, let’s briefly consider the role of women in Ancient Rome and in particular, the situation for Christian women. Women at that time in Asia Minor had more freedom in society than we might imagine. Women were able to vote and even to hold public office. Women were enabled to run their own businesses and hold property rights as well. We witness a biblical example of such a woman in Lydia, an affluent businesswoman who became the first European convert to Christ and subsequently opened the home that she owned to house the first community of Christians in the Roman province of Philippi (see Acts 16:11-15).
Despite all of this, women in the ancient world still remained subject to a patriarchal system and thus, if married, they were expected to follow the lead of their husband. For a Christian woman married to a non-Christian man this created a challenging situation. In the first century world, a wife was expected to adhere to her husband’s religion. The Greco-Roman philosophers wrote at length about a perceived household code – a strictly defined, hierarchal network of relationships within a family that maintained social stability. Practicing the religion of the head of the house was seen as one of many core factors that bound a family and thus held society together.
For a wife to pursue Christianity apart from her husband would have been viewed both as threatening the harmony of the home and undermining the collective social order. So, is Peter in calling Christian wives to submit to their husbands advocating that they forsake following Jesus? If submission is short for obedience, as many have wrongly interpreted, then wouldn’t this be the logical conclusion? Then again, as we’ve learned previously in this devotional series, submission and obedience are not the same thing in scripture.
While submission and obedience do bear some resemblance to each other, they are not the same kind of response to authority. Obedience apart from submission is involuntary – it is motivated by coercion or manipulation. Those who obey apart do so negatively – out of fear and avoidance of a stated consequence. Such obedience is purely external. One is not submitting by choice but due to force. Therefore, someone may obey in the sense of doing what they are told and yet not submit as they maintain their resistance to accepting or agreeing with what they are being commanded to do.
Biblical submission, on the other hand, is a voluntary attitude – choosing to yield – not out of fear or threat but rather out of willingness and love. True obedience flows out of true submission. This is why Jesus repeatedly calls us to abide – to release our worries and burdens – our efforts to control what is beyond our control to Him. God doesn’t desire our obedience borne of our fear of Him but rather out of our submission or deference to His love for us.
Likewise, this is how we ought to understand Peter’s call to submit. The Greek word Peter employs here, translated as “submit” has a military usage in the sense of one being a subordinate AND a non-military usage in the sense of being humbly cooperative and respectfully deferential. Sadly, much, but not all of the history of interpretation in regards to this passage has leaned into the military usage of this term rather than its non-military meaning, which I would argue is more applicable to the intimacy of the marriage relationship. We need to hear Peter’s counsel not through the distortion of a patriarchal mindset but rather the mind of Christ – in which there is no male or female, slave or free, Jew or Greek – but only one Body in Him.
Peter isn’t directing Christian wives who are married to non-believing husbands to subordinate themselves to the false gods of their spouses at the cost of following Jesus. Peter IS commending Christian wives to live cooperatively with their unbelieving husbands – not out of fear but out of love. He is arguing both the purity and honor of such a witness – respecting and coming alongside rather than being antagonistic and working against one’s spouse – would be a proclamation of the Gospel that might lead their husbands to Jesus without ever having to say a word. Or to further reinforce the distinction between submission and obedience, whereas obedience would result in bowing down before a false God, submission will result in pointing their husbands to the one true God revealed in Christ.
With this understanding in mind, Peter redirects these Christian wives away from being overly focused on their external appearance – “from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes” (verse 3). Much like in today’s world, a woman’s worth was wrongly being reduced to how she looked and appealed to men. Certainly, how one looks both then as now seeks to convey or to gain a level of social status.
In Christian community, both our worth and our status are found in Jesus – in God’s forgiving, saving, and everlasting love extended toward us in Christ. In this we are all equals – equal both in our need for and our reception of God’s grace. Instead of seeking to gain favor through their appearance, Peter beckons these Christian wives, and in truth – all of us, to live out of the favor we have been given thanks to the Lord. We live out of the favor we have been given by focusing on our “inner self” or our character – by letting our transformation in Christ be reflected to others through “the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (verse 4).
Peter then offers the example of the “holy women of the past” to illustrate how these Christian wives in Asia Minor ought “to adorn themselves” through their hope in the Lord (verse 5). Specifically, he highlights Sarah, the wife of the Father of Israel, Abraham, as the representative of how to wisely and faithful submit to a husband who is obstinate when it comes to following God’s lead.
Peter’s choice of Sarah as an example is not without its intentional and insightful irony. For when we look back in the book of Genesis, Sarah did not always just comply with her husband’s wishes. For both good and ill, there were times when Sarah pushed back against both the decisions Abraham was making and the actions he was taking. There was even one time when God directed Abraham to submit to his wife, saying, in regards to the fiasco regarding Hagar and Ishmael, “Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you” (see Genesis 21:11-12). The point is, Sarah’s was not a blind obedience but one born of her submission – submission that she conveyed to her husband, Abraham, but ultimately was to the God who promised to provide for and take care of them as a couple. And when Sarah yielded before the Lord’s promise, she provided exactly what Abraham needed in order to follow the Lord’s direction.
Many Christians wrongly believe that submission in marriage is the duty only of wives. But as we will learn in the next passage, Peter’s instructions to Christian husbands are not as different from what he’s just told their spouses. But more on that later. For now, let us recognize and repent of a history within the Church of limiting the initiative, intelligence, influence, and God-given abilities of faithful women all on the basis of a faulty and frankly, graceless reading of a handful of verses like this one.
Peter’s final words in this passage which refer to following Sarah’s example are telling: “You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear,” (verse 6). As Sarah herself learned, sometimes doing the good and right thing means not complying with the request of your spouse. Biblical submission is not tacit subordination. Biblical submission is humble deference and cooperative service. Such submission – seeking to support, to help, and to accommodate the other – “being subject to one another” is in fact, a virtue for all Christians – both men and women – and that means it applies to husbands as well as wives. (See Ephesians 5:21).
Consider & Discuss | How have you understood this passage in the past? Do you agree with Pastor Chris’ interpretation of this text? Why or why not? Can you point to other scriptural examples or passages (remember to honor the context of those passages!) to support your point of view?
Besides Sarah, can you think and name some of the “holy women of the past” that Peter refers to? For any example you can think of, were those women of the Bible merely subordinate to their husbands or did they engage more in the spirit of what Pastor Chris presented as the biblical understanding of submission?
To whom are you submissive? How do you exercise and express this? Is your obedience to God and to others borne out of fear or out of love? How does this affect one’s posture of submission and service?
Prayer Focus | Gracious God, the more we meditate on the call to submission, the more we realize how much it is given the appearance of obedience even as we inwardly resist Your will and direction. Forgive us for our attempts to dominate what is not ours to control. Forgive us for seeking to compete rather than to cooperate with each other. Teach us to understand that You look not at what we appear to be but who we truly are – in our hearts. Guide us to be preoccupied less with maintaining our image and more with Your image seeking to be reflected through us. We long for the fruit of Your Spirit to blossom in our lives. Continue, by Your grace to refine our character to be more and more like Christ so that submission is not a call we avoid but one we embrace and thus more closely follow Jesus. Amen.