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Published Date: July 30, 1991

Published Date: July 30, 1991

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On the Meaning in Context of those Troublesome Verses on Women in 1 Peter (And a Gentle Warning about Cross-Referencing Too Quickly)

In various cultures around the world, sermons, supposedly based on 1 Peter, are preached on “How all wives must obey their husbands.” As the sermon develops, the preacher brings up numerous verses from other passages to buttress his message. But the idea of evangelistic witness to an unsaved husband is not brought out. And because this key part of 1 Peter 3:1-7 is missed, the message is built on a shaky exegetical base.1 The accompanying barrage of proof texts and weak arguments only make things worse.2 Listeners leave with the impression, “There was something wrong with that message, but I’m not sure I can put my finger on it.”

Often Ephesians 5:22-32 is used as a cross reference in sermons on “How all wives must obey their husbands.” But Ephesians 5 doesn’t teach anything even close to the that idea.3

The following thoughts are presented to draw attention to the main thrust of 1 Peter 3:1-7. It is hoped that after reading the following article, whenever these verses are studied, the main ideas of the passage won’t be smothered by other ideas that are illegitimately imported from somewhere else.


It is often helpful, when studying a particular New Testament writer and his various writings, to ask the question, “What kind of a writer is this?” This helps in studying the action oriented Gospel of Mark or the Gospel of Matthew which is filled with material significant to readers with a Jewish background. Scholars debate the useful question, “How Jewish or how Greek was Paul’s thought?” Or they ask, “How did Luke’s medical background influence his way of writing history?” These questions are not asked to throw into question the inspiration of the inerrant Word. Rather they help the reader to understand illustrations and allusions made by the New Testament writer to Old Testament verses or to cultural practices.4

Peter is an entirely different New Testament writer and writes in an entirely different way. Always a man of action, he had been influenced in his style of teaching, no doubt, by what he had observed from Jesus himself. In his later years, Peter had obviously read Paul’s letters,5 and was exposed to an even deeper realization of who the Messiah was, how he fulfilled prophecy and how the church as God’s chosen people was to live in the world. The Epistle called “1 Peter” reflects a mature Peter. Many terms in 1 Peter are similar to those used by Paul. There are touches in the way Peter writes his epistles that reflect Paul’s influence and perhaps a general influence from the Jewish and Greek literary practices of the day. However, the differences between Peter and Paul are great. Peter is more direct. He may use similar terms and lists of terms, but he does so in different contexts and invests them with different meanings appropriate to what he has to say.

Confusing 1 Peter with Ephesians 5

There is an uncanny way in which 1 Peter 3 has influenced commentators of Ephesians 5-6. An understanding of what 1 Peter says for itself must be allowed to stand alone and speak clearly to its own self-circumscribed issues before being compared to Paul’s writings. Likewise, an interpreter of 1 Peter should check the teaching of Paul only after making sure Ephesians has spoken for itself in its own literary context.6

For example, even though similar terms are found in Ephesians 5-6 and 1 Peter 2-3, the terms are not being used by a single author reflecting a precisely shared logic or idiolect. Peter is not Paul and vice versa. When 1 Peter 3:6 is compared with Ephesians 5:15-6:9 there are a large number of terms that are found in both passages. Just exactly what they mean in each book can only be discovered by a study of each group of words in their own context.

Some of the terms from 1 Peter 3:1-6 are listed below, followed by verses from Ephesians 5:15-6:9 where a corresponding term7 is used:

1 Peter 3:1-6                            Ephesians 5:15-6:9

“(dis)obey” (vv. 1, 6)              “obey” (6:1, 5)

“submit yourselves” (v.1)        “submit yourselves” (5:21-22)

“lord” (v.6)                              “Lord” (5:17, 19, 20, 22; 6:1, 4, 5, 8, & 7, 9)

“children” (v.6)                       “children” (6:1, 4)

“fear”8 (v.2, 6)                         “fear” (5:21, 33 and 6:5)

Because these two passages from 1 Peter and Ephesians “sound” so similar to the untrained ear, all the more caution should be used when doing any cross referencing between them. Too often, one passage, incorrectly understood, skews the interpretation of the other. And in these two passage especially, this is not legitimate biblical interpretation.

Let’s take a look at these various terms from 1 Peter and Ephesians:

obey – In the first six verses of 1 Peter 3 the discussion centers not on all women, all wives and not even on all Christian wives. It is addressed to Christian wives who had unsaved spouses. These verses focus on Christian wives living a holy life in front of an unsaved husband in such a way as to win him to Christ (v.1).

To illustrate his advice on how to wisely and successfully win a recalcitrant spouse to Christ, Peter brings up the “women of old” (v.5), who lived in a sensitive and exemplary way. Peter, the Big Fisherman from Galilee, picks Sarah as a representative of this group. As he describes her, he refers to how Sarah “obeyed” (v.6) her husband Abraham. This well-known reference to “obeying” is only an illustrative point being made by Peter in the context of witnessing to an unsaved husband. It is not a normative principle for all marriage situations. Even the idea of being like “the holy women of old” is not the main point of the passage.9

To illustrate the type of submission he has in mind in verse 5, Peter refers to Sarah’s example. Only in this illustration does the word “obey” come up. The point it is used to illustrate is appropriate submission that accomplishes the salvation of an unsaved husband.

Gilbert Bilezikian finds this illustration by Peter to be humorous, if one were to take it further than the point he uses it for. He writes:

The use of Sarah as an example of obedience shows that Peter was not devoid of a sense of humor. In Genesis, Abraham is shown as obeying Sarah as often as Sarah obeyed Abraham – once at God’s behest as he was told, “Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you” (Gen. 16:2, 6; 21:11-12). Moreover, Sarah referred to Abraham as “lord” in a monologue to herself, when he was out of earshot (18:12 “lord” or “master” in the Hebrew text). If the designation of “lord” was intended as a compliment, Sarah’s assessment of Abraham in the same verse was hardly calculated to boost his self-confidence.10

A reference to obedience, or more precisely disobedience is found at the beginning of the pericope in 1 Peter 3. In verse 1 it is the unsaved husband who is in view whenever he disobeys the word [of God]. The Christian wife does not obey or disobey anybody in Peter’s passage.

Paul isn’t talking to wives at all in Ephesians 6:1 where the word “obey” first occurs. Rather he is addressing how wives and husbands are to be obeyed by their children: “Children, obey your parents.” In verse 5 the subject is the obedience of servants to their masters. Once again, this is a subject not addressed by Peter in 1 Peter 3:1-7 and thus should not be used in cross referencing.

submit yourselves – In 1 Peter the verb “to submit oneself” is used at first in the normal sense of the word: an inferior person submits to one of superior rank. Peter doesn’t address himself to the “superiors” in chapter 2 saying, “Kings, governors and masters – make sure you keep your subjects in their place.” But he does speak to those who are to do the submitting, and says “submit yourselves.” This is to be done with a specific purpose in mind. 1 Peter 2:15 explains the purpose, “…that with well doing you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” Winning those foolish people is not addressed, but glorifying and pleasing God is (vv. 2:12, 20).

Then Peter shifts to those in “mixed” marriages (where one spouse is a believer and the other is not). Gone are the servant/master overtones. He speaks first to the wives in verses 1-6 and then “Likewise” to the husbands in verse 7. Continuing his shift away from the traditional meaning of submission in verses 8-11, he then speaks to all Christians and uses synonyms for this in-the-family type of submission. The NIV translates 1 Peter 3:8 as follows: “Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.” He still has witness to the unsaved in the back of his mind, as he refers to it again in verse 15.

By contrast, in Paul’s chapter in Ephesians 5, this element of witnessing to the unsaved is absent. Here is a different context for the use of the word “submit.” Not only is the context different (in Ephesians 5 life within the body of Christ, as members of that body, is considered), but the verb itself is grammatically structured in a different way. In Paul’s Epistle the normal idea of an inferior submitting to a superior is radically changed. It is impossible to read Ephesians 5:21 and 22 in any other way than as a description of how equals are to get along among themselves. Any hierarchical interpretation is rendered impossible when Paul uses the reflexive participle (mutually submitting) and adds the reciprocal pronoun (to one another). He wants members of the church “to be submitting themselves to one another.” He then adds a third modifier. They are to submit to one another as fellow members in the body of Christ, or in the fear of Christ. The parallel passage in Colossians uses only this third modifier to express this same type of Christian submission: [only] as is fitting in the Lord.”

In verse 22, which serves to illustrate how such a type of submitting to one another can be done, Paul refers to the married couple. The verb for submission in verse 22 is only implied in the Greek text from the previous verse. It is not changed in any way from verse 21 except that this time it is situated in a marriage where the equal believers are also married to one another.11

lord – in 1 Peter 3:6, Peter refers to Sarah calling her husband “lord.” In the society of Abraham’s day this was one of the habitually used terms for “husband.” In Ephesians 5:15-6:9, Paul does not use “lord” in that way. He uses “Lord” to mean the Savior, Christ Jesus. He does so in this particular passage nine times. Twice, in Chapter 6, Paul uses “lord” or “lords” to refer to the master(s) of a slave. Paul does not use the term “lord” for “husband.” When Peter does, it is necessary to remember that in his illustration drawn from the Old Testament he uses the term in a way Paul does not. Paul’s clear use of the term should not be obscured by importing and combining the ideas of “husband” and “lord” in Ephesians.

children – Juxtaposed  immediately after reference to Sarah’s obedience in 1 Peter 3:6, “children”12 are mentioned. Peter’s use of these two words does not imply any equation of a woman’s status with that of the status of her children in the family.13 In 1 Peter, adult believing descendants of Abraham are referred to as “children.”14Paul addresses wives in Ephesians 5:33 and in the very next verses he mentions children. The close juxtaposition of wives and children in Paul in Ephesians 5:33 and 6:1 teaches nothing which indicates that wives are to obey like children are to obey, for in those verses (6:1-3) he tells children to obey their parents, their mothers and fathers. And yet, often wives and husbands are taught by modern day expositors and theologians,15 that wifely obedience is enjoined by Paul. It is not.16

fear – Another example of a shared word from 1 Peter 3:6 is the word “fear.” In Ephesians, Paul uses the term “fear” in two ways. One way, in Ephesians 5, has more to do with relational “respect.” The other way is positional, in reference to children17 and to slaves (6:5).18Peter refers to “fear” in 1 Peter 3:2 as well as verse 6. The NIV translates the occurrence in 3:2 as “reverence” (“the purity and reverence of your lives”). The “reverence/fear” intended in this verse is the “fear” of God, not any fear or reverence of a husband or another human being. Bilezikian looks at verse 6 and Peter’s use of the word “fear” there in 1 Peter 3 and concludes

…Peter reminds us that the lives of subservient people can be dominated by fear. It is a frightful thing to be at the mercy of the unmerciful powerful. Peter forbids Christian wives to submit out of fear. His last word to them is “let nothing terrify you” (literally, “fearing no terror” v.6).19

In Ephesians 5:21, Paul encourages submission to one another precisely because of “fear” (“in the fear of Christ”). Obviously Paul and Peter in this case, as with many of these inappropriate and misleading comparisons, are dealing with “apples and oranges.” Peter says do not submit to one’s own husband out of fear of him. Paul says do subject yourselves to one another out of fear of Christ. To compare the parts of these passages without close regard for their context can lead to significant misinterpretation.20

The literary/theological context of the pericope: 1 Peter 2:11-3:12

Chris A. Holck21 proposes the limits of the pericope found in this section of the Epistle to be 2:11 to 3:12.22 He distinguishes a break in content in the letter from “the before” – “who Christians are and what they’ve come from” (described in the Epistle prior to 2:11), and “the after” – “how Christians should now live and why” (described from 2:11ff.). Taking 2:12 as the key thought, Holck argues that Peter turns to the theme of “Doing good.” As all believers implement this instruction and “do good” there will be two results: God will be praised; non-believers will be converted.

Starting with verse 13 of chapter 2 Holck sees Peter describing “How submission and respect for others is central to a holy life style.” The overarching principle is the first one given in verse 17: “Honor everyone.”23 Under this necessarily all-inclusive statement24 are six (or seven) ways in which, while showing honor to all, Christians are to submit and show respect especially in the context of glorifying God by their faith. The first three are taken from 1 Peter 2:17. The others come from the remainder of the pericope (2:18-3:12). Slaves submit to masters according to 1 Peter 2:18-25. And wives and husbands, or spouses, are considered in 3:1-7. Holck chooses the term in verse 7, following “likewise,” to represent this section – “be considerate” (NIV). With the word “Finally” in verse 8 Peter sums up how believers should submit to each other. He points out that all six instances are parallel and enriched synonyms for “submission.”

Six Types of submission in 1 Peter

  1. love the brotherhood of believers (2:17)
  2. fear God who saved us (2:17, and 3:2)
  3. honor the king (2:17)
  4. respect your masters (2:18) [Jesus delivered himself up to the righteous Judge, 2:23]
  5. be considerate of your spouse (3:1,7)
  6. be humble among the believers (3:8; cf. 5:5-6)

In Ephesians 5, a different constellation of ideas in which the word “submission” appears is developed by the Apostle Paul. There, Paul makes a list,25 combines a number of terms to amplify just what he means when he uses the word “submission.” Peter has written primarily in the context of glorifying God in a pagan world of cruel rulers, harsh masters, and unsaved spouses. Paul writes primarily on the subject of harmony in the church and how one might envisage “submitting yourselves one to another in Christ.” (This is not a long excursus on marriage, as many claim, where Paul addresses himself to how spouses should get along.) In Ephesians 5:22-31 Paul gives a two-part and a three-part illustration on how fellow Christians can behave. These ideas on how to get along in Christ’s church are labeled as such by Paul in 5:32 where he states that “all of the above” has had to do with Christ and the church.

Here are two illustrative points and their key terms that form Paul’s constellation of words that flesh out his doctrine of mutual submission in the church:

The 2 illustrative sections on mutual submission in Ephesians 5:21-32

  1. submit – v. 22 (wives to their own husbands but only as delimited)26     
    submit – v. 24 (wives to their husbands)27  
  2. love – v. 25-27 (Love! an imperative to husbands followed by examples of how Christ loves the church)     
    love – vv. 28-30 (Another imperative to husbands who “ought to love.” Here three body images are used.)       
    love – v. 31 (Husbands – the verse speaks of the  man’s part – love your wife as did the first bridegroom before the fall.)28

The two constellations of words and ideas related to submission turn out to be very different in the writings of the two Apostles. In Ephesians, Paul is talking about mutual submission of believers in the body of Christ. In 1 Peter, Peter is writing about submission in the context of action that bears witness to a nonbelieving world. The topics are separate and distinct. Any cross referencing should be made with great caution. The safest observation to make is that both writers feel the need to use a constellation of terms to express the ideas they have in mind: “mutual submission” in Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians; “submission” in 1 Peter.

The constellations of theologically parallel words to “submission” used by Peter, and “mutual submission” used by Paul, are the following:

Peter – 1 Peter 3                     Paul – Ephesians 5

Submission =                           Mutual Submission =

love                                         submit as Christians

fear                                          submit only as the church

honor                                       love!

respect                                     love!

be considerate                         love as in Eden

be humble


  1. This article is drawn from Africanization of the Divine Revelation or Theology and Clan – friends or foes of Christian marriage in NW Zaïre?, Fleming’s doctoral dissertation at the University of Strasbourg, France, and insights from a sermon on 1 Peter by the Reverend Chris A. Holck, at First Evangelical Free Church, Minneapolis, MN on November 11, 1990.
  2. As the philosopher said: One weak argument is not worth much, and many weak arguments piled on top of one another make one big weak argument!
  3. See footnote 11 below.
  4. For example, one has to know something about clothing worn at that time to understand what is meant by “gird up the loins of your mind” (1 Peter 1:13, AV).
  5. 2 Peter 3:16.
  6. Note the six sections of Ephesians 4-6 based on the use of “therefore walk.”
    the parænesis in six sections:
    ​          4:1ff                therefore (ou/n) walk worthy
              4:17ff              therefore (ou/n) walk not in vanity
              5:1ff (2)           therefore (ou/n) walk in love
              5:7ff (8)           therefore (ou/n) walk as children of the light (not darkness)
              5:15ff              therefore (ou/n) walk circumspectly
              6::10ff             therefore (ou/n) stand against the devil
    The fifth major pericope is Eph. 5:15-6:9, “Walking circumspectly.” Three major sections emerge:
    Exhortation to live circumspectly –
              A)   in communion with the Spirit: 5:15-20 (21)
              B)   in communion within the church: 5:21, 22-32
              C)   in communion in the household  5:33, 6:1-9
    Note that verses most commonly appealed to for teaching on marriage deal primarily with church fellowship. Many of the verses in that section do not deal with marriage at all. Only verse 33 in section 3 directly addresses itself to life within the married couple. Those two in the couple then interact with those under their authority in 6:1-9. The husband and wife are the parents (vv. 1-4) and they are the masters of the slaves (vv. 5-9).
  7. “Corresponding” does not mean “similar” or “used in the same way.”
  8. 6) “Submitting” and 7) “honoring” are also ideas found in the immediate context of 1 Peter 3:6. Similar, though not identical, to what Paul describes, wives are sub-mitting to their husbands. This is not a servile act in 1 Peter. It certainly is not so in Paul. As for “honoring,” the thoughts are very different in the two Epistles. It is the children who honor their father and mother in Paul. In 1 Peter it is the husband who is to honor his wife (1 Peter 3:7). 
  9. If sanctification of women or men is an issue, one need turn to some other passage in Scripture that addresses the issue head on, as in Romans 12 for example.
  10. Gilbert Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles: What the Bible Says About a Woman’s Place in Church and Family (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985) p. 191.
  11. This is another one of Paul’s many lists found through-out his writings. Verse 32 restates that he has been summing up how Christians under Christ are to get along. To see this passage as a long excursus on marriage leads to excessive literalism and confusion. Husbands are equated with Christ and wives are equated with the Church. Just because the Church is called Christ’s bride doesn’t mean it is like a man’s bride! Men are not required to present their wives without spot or wrinkle. That is how Christ shows his self-giving love. Such a self-giving love is how Christians are to implement submitting themselves one to another, as per verse 21.
  12. or daughters.
  13. In certain animistic groups in Africa, women are classed with children, or even below male children. The tendency can be to “baptize” this idea and claim that it is taught in the Bible.
  14. Paul makes the same point in Galatians 3:7. “Understand, then, that those who believe are the children of Abraham.” NIV
  15. And even by the wording of the venerable marriage vows. These vows saw the addition of the word “obey” (a wife should love, honor and obey her husband) only late in the reformulation of the vows in English in the Anglican Church. These vows are not quoting any biblical verse. They have no more “biblical” weight than does the saying, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”
  16. Bilezikian treats this passage in 1 Peter in some detail, pp. 189-193, 239.
  17. In 6:1-4 there is the implied relationship, as in Leviticus 19:3, of children who “fear” their parents.
  18. Here it is linked to “trembling” in reference to one to whom obedience is required. The obedience required here is also to Christ.
  19. Italics added. Bilezikian, p. 191.
  20. And what about the interpretation of 1 Peter 3:7? Have interpreters given full weight to the word “likewise” that introduces Peter’s brief remarks to men in this pericope, or to the content of the verse?

    The women in view in verses 1-6 were Christians with unsaved spouses. Does “likewise” mean Peter is now going to give consideration to Christian husbands who had unsaved spouses? The Christian wives receive counsel to live wisely and witness to their spouses by the way they live before them (vv. 1-4). Verse 7 tells the Christian husband to live wisely with his spouse (KJV – dwell with them according to knowledge). The Christian husbands in verse 7 are told to go out of their way to give honor to their wives. Would they have been tempted not to if their spouses were only unbelieving sinners? Perhaps even their sexual relationship is included in Peter’s advice to “dwell in consideration” with a wife who was unsaved, or, the weaker spouse (vessel).

    The Greek does not clearly say that they prayed together, although most interpreters to date have assumed verse 7 refers to couples praying together. It is obvious that the men being addressed were praying. Have interpreters of this verse taken into account that the husbands in verses 1-6 were not praying, as those husbands were yet unsaved. Verse 7 only describes the wife as a full human being, sharing with her husband the grace of life (this does not necessarily refer to eternal life). If she were yet unsaved, what would her husband be praying about? Her salvation? What would an unwise way of living before his spouse, by not honoring her, etc., do to lessen the chances that his wife would be saved through his witness? It certainly would not facilitate the answering of his prayers. One could say that his most important request in prayer might be long in coming, or even hindered.

    Are verses 1-7 addressed to Christians, both men and women, who had unsaved spouses? It seems so. The weaker vessels of verse 7 would be the, as yet, unsaved wives.

  21. Rev. Chris A. Holck is Pastor of the Evangelical Free Church of Austin, MN.
  22. 3:13ff. is related to witness and suffering, but the word “submission” is left behind.
  23. Peter is not so refined in his writing as Paul. He flatly gets his point out and marches on to the implications. It is not appropriate to seek the subtle transitional phrases that are found in Paul’s writing at such a point as this in the development of a teaching point by Peter.
  24. which is somewhat reminiscent in its implications for what follows it in the text to the more limited statement of Paul in Ephesians 5:21.
  25. much like in 1 Peter. Or perhaps it is more correct to say, Peter (in 1 Peter, written after Peter had read Paul, likely Ephesians) was developing a list “like Paul does” but in addressing a different subject.
  26. by the word as used in verse 21 upon which this illustration depends grammatically.
  27. only as the church is subject.
  28. Love (1) socially declared, that deals with (2) commitment and lastly (3) physical union. On the second verb “to cleave,” compare Ruth 1:14, 16-17.