Reflection | In the first six verses of this chapter, Peter addressed Christian wives, specifically Christian spouses who are married to unbelieving husbands. His encouragement to them in the midst of such a precarious situation is to submit to their husbands. Instead of focusing on external appearances – perceiving their beauty via outward appearances – Peter redirects these women to focus on their internal character. The overall goal of such a focus and approach is evangelistic – to lead their husbands to Christ.
Sadly, the evangelistic focus of this passage historically has been overshadowed by a perceived biblical endorsement of a marital hierarchy – the subordination of wives to their husbands. As I’ve previously argued, this is a dubious assertion given that Peter is not in this chapter addressing all Christian wives but those who are “unequally yoked.” In addition, it should again be noted that the Greek word translated as “submit” has both a military usage and a non-military meaning. On the one hand, this word can refer to a division of troops being under the command of a leader. In its non-military usage, this word conveys a voluntary posture of giving in and cooperating, of assuming responsibility and carrying a burden with and for another.
Inexplicably, many scholars have decided to interpret Peter’s word here through the lens of its military application– of an imposed subordination – rather than in the spirit of a volition decision – an act of intentional, purposeful deference. Such an interpretation is reading the Bible through a patriarchal lens rather than allowing the message of the Gospel to challenge the foundation of the patriarchy. The life we share in God is not hierarchical. It is as the apostle Paul once so emphatically stated a life in which “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Peter has not instructed these wives to reject their faith in Christ. Peter does not admonish wives to reject or merge their Christian faith in obedience to their husband’s authority over them. He is encouraging these women to remain committed completely to their faith in Christ even as they stay committed completely to their husbands.
Now, however, with verse 7, Peter turns his attention from Christian wives to Christian husbands as he writes, “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives…” Again, given the context of this section of the letter, Peter is not speaking to all Christian husbands per se. Just as he previously addressed Christian wives who were married to unbelieving husbands, he is now talking to Christian husbands who are married to unbelieving wives. More on this in a moment.
For the time being, let us notice Peter’s use of the phrase “in the same way” – sometimes translated as “likewise.” Does Peter mean these Christian husbands are to likewise submit to their unbelieving wives just as he directed Christian wives married to non-Christians? It can be argued that is exactly what Peter intends since he uses this same phrase “in the same way” three times in this letter (3:1, 3:7, and later in 5:5). In each case, this phrase is employed in the context of submission. More than this, if we carefully follow Peter’s train of thought as he provides instruction to different groups of Christians (from 2:13 – 3:8), submission is the ongoing theme.
Peter begins by instructing his listeners to submit to all civic authorities (2:13). Then Peter directs all slaves and servants to submit to their masters (2:18). Next, Peter goes on to tell Christian wives to “in the same way” submit to their unbelieving husbands (3:1). Now, he turns to Christian husbands and charges them “in the same way” live with your unbelieving wives. For those of us who might push back and argue that Peter tells these husbands not to submit to their wives but “to be considerate” of them, this is an added phrase that does not appear in the original Greek. In other words, this is an example of interpretative license being taken in order to reinforce the conventional assumption about what Peter must have meant here. But Peter has not been talking about being considerate prior to this verse. He has been emphasizing the call to submission.
That the biblical focus remains not on one-sided but mutual submission is evidenced by the words of the apostle Paul. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul admonishes both husbands and wives – not just those who are “unequally yoked” but all Christian spouses – to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (see Ephesians 5:21). Perhaps we might wonder then, why isn’t Peter more explicit rather than implicit in directing husbands to submit to their wives.
The answer to the question becomes obvious when we again remember the social ranking that dominated Greco-Roman society. According to the household codes of that time, husbands and fathers were considered the highest level of authority. Women, children, and servants were expected both to fear and to obey the paterfamilias, the “father of the family.” For Peter to directly come out and literally tell Christian husbands to submit to anyone would have made no sense given that in the 1st century Greco-Roman domestic chain of command there was no one above them.
With this in mind, Peter’s guidance for such husbands to treat their wives “with respect (or honor)” is both a radical statement and a strategic piece of advice. It is, on the one hand, a tactical word, given that if a Christian husband is married to a wife who is not a believer, the cultural norm would dictate that he, as the head of the household, could forcibly convert her to Christ. By default, she, along with the whole household would be expected to become Christians. Of course, making such a move would not result in a conscious choice to follow Jesus – true submission to Christ – but rather adhering to a religion in which the wife did not actually believe.
This is exactly what Peter is seeking to avoid. His goal, as it was for Christian wives married to unbelieving husbands, is for Christian husbands to treat their unbelieving wives in such a way that draws them (and all others in the house) to follow Jesus, not unwillingly but willingly. Hence, Peter’s counsel is not only calculated; it is also highly counter-cultural.
Peter refers to the wives of these Christian husbands as being “the weaker partner.” He makes this designation not as an insult or a diminishment but rather in observance of how women were perceived in Greco-Roman society at large. Peter is acknowledging more than just then cultural assumption that women are physically weaker than men. He also is recognizing the greater vulnerability and thus disadvantage of women – socially, politically, legally, and economically. In doing so, Peter is calling for these Christian husbands to remember this as well.
In a culture where women had considerably less privileges and rights than men, where wives could be considered property and chattel, Peter subverted basic societal customs. Instead of exploiting or domineering over their wives, which again they had full cultural license to do, Peter directs these husbands to treat their spouses with respect and not as social inferiors. The word translated as “respect” is actually the word in Greek for “honor.” It is the very same word Peter applies to how all Christians should treat the emperor in 2:17. In other words, he is telling husbands to bestow their wives with the same honor demanded of the Roman emperors! Rest assured, Peter’s words here would have perked up the ears of many in the church of Asia Minor let alone the surrounding ancient world.
Some, even within the Church, might have challenged the basis and the validity of Peter’s guidance. But Peter offers the rationale for giving such direction when he goes even further in telling these husbands to view their wives “as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life.” Rather than endorsing or supporting the case for male dominance or husbands ruling over their wives, Peter stresses that both husband and wife are co-heirs of God’s grace and of equal standing before the Lord. At the tail end of verse 7, Peter adds a final warning. To those husbands who resist or refuse to treat their wives as inferiors rather than as equal partners, Peter cautions, such an attitude, such behavior will hinder their prayer life. In other words, failure to treat their wives as Peter outlined would negatively impact their relationship with God.
The teaching of some within the Church that marital submission is the sole responsibility and duty of wives alone is not biblical. In these verses, Peter doesn’t just imply that submission is to be mutual, he explicitly comes out and declares a picture of Christian marriage marked by mutuality and equality – rooted in our shared identity in Christ. More broadly, Peter sums up his thoughts on submission in writing, “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble” (verse 8). From this verse to the end of the chapter, Peter’s instruction will expand its focus from specific relationships to all human relationships in general. The content of those verses will be our focus next time.
For now, however, the point is clear. Mutual submission is not just the pattern of Christian marriage. In a world, still today, where our engagement with and treatment of each other is based on power dynamics borne of various social hierarchies, Peter is insisting that mutual submission is the posture and the pattern for all relationships between God’s people. Regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, or socio-economic status, be it as husbands and wives, parents and children, teachers and students, citizens and government authorities, or as employers and employees, the way of Christ is one not of dominance over but humble service towards each other. When we mutually submit to each other – not out of obligation but in love, such a witness has the potential and the power to open the eyes of those who do not believe to the living presence of Jesus.
Consider & Discuss | Given a biblical understanding of submission as a voluntary attitude of cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden out of love rather than coercion,
what does exhibiting a life of submission practically look like? In what ways, can we look to and learn from Jesus about living a life of submission? What can block submission from working and being exhibited in one’s life?
When you examine submission in your relationship with God and with those around you, where is there resistance? Where is their room for growth? Where can you initiate submission in your life, and discipline yourself to carry it out this week?
Prayer Focus | Merciful Lord, forgive me for my rebellious spirit. Submission is not something that comes easy to me. I prefer to be in charge. I confess that sometimes the need to be right overshadows my willingness to learn. Jesus, You lived a life of total submission – to the Father and even to us – lowering yourself to wash our feet, to carry our cross, to bear the burden of our sin and death. You did not lord over us. You did not force our obedience. You called us to follow You – to serve each other as You served us. Your commands are not grounded in fear but in love. Teach us how to mutually submit to each other out of Your love and through Your Spirit. Transform our knee-jerk reactions from being defensive and combative to graciously yielding with respect, to humbly deferring to the needs of others for sake of leading them to You. Amen.