St Peter on Submitting Wives

Having instructed believers on living as servants of God, and to be respectful of governing authorities (1 Pet. 2:11-17), St Peter then instructs Christian slaves to freely and willingly embrace the authority of their masters "with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh." (1 Pet. 2:18) In this cultural context, and within the Christian principle of accepting wrong treatment and persecution on account of following Jesus, the apostle argues: "For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain and suffering unjustly." (1 Pet. 2:19) The apostle Paul maintains the same kingdom principle. (Rom. 12:12, 14, 17, 19; 1 Cor. 6:7) This teaching derives directly from Jesus. (Matt. 5:11, 12, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42)

But already we are aware of a cultural context that has no relevance to ours: the notion of slaves and masters. (1 Pet. 2:18, 19, 20, 21) Though such is not commanded in Scripture, meaning we are not commanded to keep slaves, a regulation is imposed on slaves who follow Jesus: if your master is harsh and cruel then do not retaliate. In our egalitarian culture, we have difficulty imagining keeping slaves, not to mention Christian slaves accepting the abuse of their masters. While some may apply this passage to an employer/employee motif, and of course Christian employees should obey their employers (unless they are being asked to do something unjust or illegal), the comparison minimizes the horror, degrading, and demeaning nature of slavery.

The apostle continues his train of thought: "Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of [ὑποτασσόμεναι, lit., to place or rank oneself under, submit to, obey] your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives' conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives." (1 Pet. 3:1, 2) In this patriarchal context, wherein woman are deemed as property and, to a great degree, without rights, one might understand this line of reasoning from Peter. But questions still emerge that require sufficient answers.

If wives submitting to their husbands is a Christian norm in this patriarchal culture then why is St Peter instructing women to do that which they are already practicing? Could a potential answer not be that, in Christ, men and woman are equal (Gal. 3:28); that Christ reversed the curse of the Fall (Gen. 3:16), restored the male-female relationship back to one of equality (Gen. 1:26, 28; 2:20), whereby neither one lords authority over the other (Matt. 20:25; 1 Pet. 5:3)? For example, St Paul acknowledges that neither the wife nor the husband maintains authority over their own body but, rather, an equal mutuality exists in their relationship. (1 Cor. 7:4) Are there exceptions?

In Peter's first-century culture, and the situation being restricted to the context of a believing wife and an unbelieving husband (1 Pet 3:1: "if some of them do not obey the word"), he commands the wife to heed the so-called authority of her husband in the hope that he will, by her loving submission, be won over to faith in Christ. (1 Pet. 3:2) She is not to think that because he is an unbeliever then she is free from respecting and loving and submitting to her husband (though, in a healthy Christian context, both are to mutually submit the one to the other, 1 Cor. 11:11). But note carefully what the apostle does not write: he mentions the unbelieving husband in the framework of his unbelief and not the pretext of an abusive husband. Why is this distinction important?

Wives (and women in general) are not called by God to endure physical and/or emotional or psychological abuse from their husbands (and men in general). One complementarian pastor demanded that a woman, Doris, remain loyal and submissive to her abusive husband; divorcing him is a sin, which angers God, and she may be provoking her husband to be abusive (this is called blaming the victim). Heeding the advice of this pastor led to her death. (link) J. Lee Grady notes: "Those who counsel abused women say this story is not as unique as it sounds."1 Have we learned nothing from history, whether we consider treatment of women, or the culture of the Bible?

Among many of my critiques of complementarian theory is the complaint of cherry-picking. Complementarians demand that wives submit to their husbands, using Ephesians 5:22 and 1 Peter 3:1 as proof-texts, while conveniently yet hypocritically neglecting to follow other "biblical" norms such as wives calling their husbands "lord" (1 Pet. 3:5, 6) and enforcing wives to wear a head covering in the worship assembly (1 Cor. 11:5, 6, 10, 13). They assume that the latter two notions are merely cultural and optional while insisting that the notion of female submission is "biblically" obligatory. This specious interpretive process is what I call overt hermeneutical insanity.


So, to be clear, women wearing head coverings, wives calling their husbands "lord" and owning and keeping slaves are irrelevant first-century cultural practices, but wives submitting themselves to some imagined male authority is biblical. Upon what basis? At what point in history will complementarian theorists embrace the fact that the Bible is situated within its own historical context(s); and we do ourselves and others the greatest benefit when we respect the words therein without assuming every word written applies to us today. Why does this matter? What are the implications?

The notion of male headship and male authority over women contributes to the following statistic: "an estimated four million women are assaulted each year by their current or former [evangelical] spouses."2 Again, that number is four million in the U.S. alone, and among evangelical so-called Christians. Complementarians like John Piper can confront men or husbands about abusing women or their wives as much as his energy will allow (link); but this will in no sense be a cure for the very systematic complementarian reasoning that fuels the abuse and assault of women/wives.

J. Lee Grady writes, and I agree with him, "The [evangelical, complementarian] church has, unknowingly, created an environment that encourages abuse."3 If not "encouraged" then certainly granted the platform for abuse. We, simply, cannot and, I think, are not to be expected to apply patriarchal views in our avowed egalitarian culture; especially not in light of the fact that in Christ all social imagined distinctions are abolished. In this way we acknowledge the cultural practices inherent within the lives of people in biblical times without enslaving ourselves to their frame of reference and manipulating others into thinking that adopting their cultural norms is biblical.

Jesus demands that strict lordship not be implemented in our Christian context. (Matt. 20:25) St Peter echoes Christ's teaching. (1 Pet. 5:3) St Paul commands husbands to life-giving headship and redemptive-affirming equality for their wives. (Eph. 5:25, 28) He insists that the body of the husband belongs to the wife and vice versa. (1 Cor. 7:4) He states that woman is not independent of man nor man independent of woman. (1 Cor. 11:11, emphasis added) He explicitly notes equality in Christ. (Gal. 3:28) So why the obsession with female subservience? The husband and the wife cannot be equal in Christ if the wife is supposed to submit to her husband like a boss or a priest.

I think the situation at 1 Peter 3:1, 2 is simple: when addressing Christian wives who are married to unbelieving husbands, he calls for them to be submissive (and not dismissive and disrespectful) to their husbands, even though he may not behave in like manner. Were he also a believer then he would behave with his wife in mutuality. Such is not the case within the context of St Peter. This is the absolute most we can conclude regarding his words. What we are not permitted to insist, in my opinion, is that all Christian wives are to submit to their Christian husbands in whatever manner of thinking or behaving he engages. This, I think, is to abuse the words of the apostle.

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1 J. Lee Grady, 10 Lies the Church Tells Women: How the Bible has Been Misused to Keep Women in Spiritual Bondage (Lake Mary: Charisma House, 2006), 182.

2 Ibid., 181.

3 Ibid., 182.

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.