Editor’s Note: This article is one of a nine-part series on difficult Bible passages titled “What to Say…”
1 Peter 3 is a tricky passage. It’s often been twisted to pressure abused women to stay with their husbands as a sign of submission. But this passage is not meant to subject women to fear or violence. Rather, the passage is supposed to encourage primary loyalty to Christ, not to husbands.
So, what should you say when someone tries to use 1 Peter 3 to suggest that wives should endure abuse to win over husbands?
The Purpose of 1 Peter
The situation of 1 Peter is a crisis—the persecution of the church (1 Pet 4:12). Slander and suffering are major themes in this letter. 1 Peter also teaches that Jesus is in authority over all things. Suffering can have dignity because the all-powerful Christ suffered on the cross and rose. However, human suffering doesn’t accomplish redemption. Only Jesus’ suffering can do that.
In the same way, submit yourselves to your own husbands (3:1)
Reading passages about women in isolation often leads to confusion. Verbal clues like “in the same way” point us back to another part of the argument. This helps to understand the reasoning and context.
1 Peter 2 is a long discussion of suffering and submission in persecution. The author tells these persecuted Christians to submit to human authorities to “silence ignorant talk” (2:15). In Greek, the verb “to submit” in 2:13 is then referred to by three participial phrases: “slaves submitting to your masters” (2:18), “likewise wives submitting to your own husbands” (3:1), and “likewise husbands living with your wives…assigning honor to them as a weaker vessel” (3:7). These are instructions to persecuted Christians to keep them safe and make the gospel look good. The goals are the same for all three groups, tailored to their social position.
So that if any do not believe (3:1)
The reason for the command to submit is so unbelievers can be “won over” to the faith. This is consistent with the rest of the letter. These Christians are to live with normal, proper social behavior, and submit to human authorities (2:13). This will attract people to the gospel and silence those who slander them. This isn’t because all authority is just. It’s for the sake of the persecuted church. Being able to identify with Christ’s suffering is a comfort but suffering itself isn’t inherently good.
A gentle and quiet spirit (3:4)
“Quiet” here does not refer to silence, and has nothing to do with husbands. The Greek word hesuchia is an inner calm, the kind that is “still” before the Lord. This word is used in 1 Timothy 2 as well. In the context of 1 Peter, this is the kind of spirit that Jesus exhibits. It’s evidence of surrender and trust in God. This kind of “stillness” is necessary for strength in persecution, for men and women.
The holy women of the past (3:5)
This is an illustration of the larger point. These women should submit to their unbelieving husbands to clear the easiest possible path for the gospel.
People feared Christians because the power distinctions of this world didn’t matter to them (Gal 3:28). Still, Christians would have to submit to earthly authorities anyway. But doing so enthusiastically could show that Christianity was not dangerous to the Roman Empire. Persecuted, first-century Christians were not out to change social rules. It was important to make the gospel as attractive as possible.
In the end, of course, Christianity was dangerous, and Rome did fall. But sadly, when the church came to power, it didn’t change the rules.
Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him her lord (3:6)
In the time Genesis was written, ’adon, “lord,” was also one of a couple of words for “husband.” Sarah is not doing anything extra submissive when she calls Abraham “lord.” She’s actually not being very nice to him either (Gen 18:12)!
But the specially odd thing about this example is that for most of Sarah and Abraham’s story, he’s the one obeying her—God even tells him to do this (Gen 21:12). God uses Sarah to accomplish his purposes for his people—while Abraham becomes the obedient one (Gen 21:12). This is an apt illustration for 1 Peter. Wives will win their husbands over to their own way of thinking, so that God’s purposes will succeed.
Do not fear any terror (3:6)
During times of persecution in the early church, there are many examples of women whose husbands or parents threatened to kill them if they did not deny Christ. Greco-Roman culture encouraged men to control their wives’ religious behavior. Sometimes, they were supposed to kill them if they joined in “dangerous” religions.
Women also couldn’t go to the law for help. Men had the same control over their wives that the government had over its citizens. The non-Christian household is where Christian women would see persecution first. This verse is one of several in 1 Peter that remind persecuted Christians that it is better to suffer for doing what’s right. Like everyone, persecuted women should fearlessly do what’s right.
The weaker vessel (3:7)
The commands to husbands in this chapter begin with another “in the same way.” This probably means that this verse is directed at husbands with unbelieving wives. They are to be considerate and show them honor as joint heirs of life. The “weaker vessel” probably means one of two things. It may refer to physical weakness. Or, it might mean that they are “weaker” because they are not believers. By treating them with respect, instead of the typical practice of terrorizing wives with different beliefs, husbands will draw their wives to the faith.
Implications for Abuse
It’s crucial to understand that 1 Peter is written for a very specific situation. The only way to escape persecution would be to deny Christ. If there were just laws in place, a persecuted Christian would be able to sue the government for cruelty and discrimination. A persecuted Christian wife would be able to prosecute her husband and divorce him. 1 Peter 3 is not about general domestic relationships. It’s about one of the many forms of persecution Christians were encountering.
When there’s no way out of persecution, identifying with Christ is a powerful, redemptive idea. But there’s nothing redemptive about Christians suffering. When there is a way out of persecution, we should take it (1 Cor. 7:21). All abuse is evil, and we should help and encourage abuse victims to escape. This includes physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse.
1. Since they are being persecuted, the recipients of 1 Peter should do everything they can to make the church look good.
2. The instructions to spouses are for those who are married to unbelievers. Women were more likely persecuted by non-Christian husbands.
3. Sarah is a good illustration because God used her influence on Abraham to further his purposes.
4. Persecuted women should stand firm and not deny Christ because of any terror—and they should not submit to their husbands’ religions.
5. Christian husbands should not terrorize non-Christian wives like non-Christian husbands were doing to Christian wives.
6. This passage doesn’t teach that abused women should stay with their husbands. Rather, it teaches that loyalty to Christ is the most important thing for any Christian.
More from the “What to Say…” series:
Bruce C. E. Fleming, “On the Meaning in Context of those Troublesome Verses on Women in 1 Peter: And a Gentle Warning about Cross-Referencing Too Quickly” Priscilla Papers 5, no. 3 (1991): 8 (endnote 20), accessed July 31, 2018.