Jesus submitted to His Father by actively and freely choosing to yield to weak politicians and wicked soldiers. And now Peter says likewise? Is a woman to submit to God by yielding to ungodly husbands the way Jesus willingly yielded to ungodly men? Yes.1
After reading these words from an assigned reading as a master’s student, I began to question much of what I’d learned in the church about the Bible’s teachings on gender. Did the verse this quote refers to (1 Peter 3:1) really mean women should passively submit to abuse? If not, what is it about?
Let’s look at the passage, starting a few verses earlier:
Servants [some manuscripts say slaves], be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. . . . When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. . .
Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. (1 Peter 2:18–19, 23–24, 3:1–2 ESV, emphasis mine)
These verses are very difficult to understand. To pretend otherwise is naive or arrogant. Should we conclude that slavery is a good thing? This and other passages were used to justify slavery in the United States for over 150 years, but today most people would agree that was a mistake. We would be wise to remember that mistake when interpreting verses regarding wives and husbands, rather than jumping to a simple conclusion. Was Peter’s intent to keep a hierarchy between men and women in place?
Be above reproach
Going a back a bit, we can get a better idea of Peter’s goal in this passage. In verses 13–14 of chapter 2, Peter writes, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (ESV, emphasis mine). Peter says to be subject to every human institution. He does not say that every institution is good or treats people justly. Rather, even within a broken and oppressive system, he says to live above reproach. He has a very specific reason.
In verse 12 of chapter 2, he gives the reason: “so that when [the Gentiles] speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (ESV). It’s easy to miss, but this comes up again when he is talking to wives in 3:1–2: “be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct” (ESV, emphasis mine).
During Peter’s time, women had little power. They stayed in the home and ran the household and were considered little more than the husband’s property. Peter is writing from within this cultural framework. His goal is not to maintain a hierarchy, but to win people to Christ by living above reproach, even in oppressive situations.
Challenging the status quo
I believe that Peter, like Paul and Jesus, envisioned a time when women holding positions of authority would be commonplace. In fact, the basic ideas of Jesus’ new kingdom tore down hierarchies and threatened the social order, and non-Christians recognized it. This threatened the safety of Christians.
Women and slaves were already challenging the social norms by following a religion other than their husband’s or master’s. Probably, their lives and well-being were already in danger. Peter encouraged them not to jeopardize their own safety or survival by being even more subversive than they had to.
Peter does not only talk to women and slaves, though. He has more subversive words for men. Verse 8 says, “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (ESV).
Men were the ones with power and privilege in the ancient world, hence Peter refers to women as the weaker vessel. Women had little to no power, and men were the ones who benefitted from hierarchy. These words might not seem radical to us, but for men to act in this way would undermine the social hierarchy that defined their way of life.
We see examples of this new way of life in the early church, where women worked alongside men. The Bible mentions women missionaries like Priscilla, women apostles like Junia, and women church leaders like Phoebe.
What about us?
If Peter was not supporting slavery or patriarchy, but instead calling Christians to live above reproach, how can we make sense of these verses today? Of course, it depends on our culture. Almost every culture in the world is patriarchal, some more than others. In many cultures, women are still oppressed. Peter’s words can bring encouragement and strength as they face oppression however, even in very oppressive cultures, you find strong women fighting for equality with dignity, grace, and boldness.
Others of us live in cultures where women have much more freedom and opportunity, with access to jobs outside the home, education, and opportunities to hold positions of authority in the private and public sector. In these cultures, the church is one of the main forces restricting the freedom of women, and dishonoring God’s name. By creating space for women to lead, and by undermining the patriarchy that oppresses women, we respond faithfully to Peter’s words.
1. Larry Crabb, Fully Alive: A Biblical Vision of Gender That Frees Men and Women to Live Beyond Stereotypes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 59.