1 Peter 3:1-7 – Living as an Exile with an Unbelieving Spouse

Imperial residents, submit to the empire.

Slaves, submit to your masters.

Wives, submit to your husbands.

“In the same way” (homoios) heads the Greek sentence and connects Peter’s advice to the wives to the same ethic as his directives to slaves and imperial residents. This places the whole discussion under 1 Peter 2:12-13, that is, how to live as aliens and exiles among the nations so that the gospel has a witness within the culture.

Each of these “submissions” are shaped by the exilic and alien nature of the Christian existence within Roman culture. They submit as exiles and aliens (1 Peter 2:12-13). In other words, their lives respond to the imposed authority of emperors, masters, and unbelieving husbands over which they have little or no control.

Revolt was not an option in the empire for residents, slaves, or wives. Violence was not an option for Christians. What they could do—and did—was to “do good” and subvert the dominant culture by living exemplary, kind, and gentle lives without returning evil for evil. Since, generally, they had no legal recourse, Christian residents, slaves, and wives suffered abuse and they could not escape their circumstances. Instead, they suffered, following the model of Jesus.

Peter, is important to note, addresses key stress points for Christians living in a hostile environment. This is probably why normal “Household Code” elements are missing here–he does not address parents, children, or masters, and even husbands only get a brief word. He addresses groups who are living under particular stress given their powerlessness within the culture.

The Social Circumstance of Wives with Unbelieving Husbands

Within Roman culture, the general expectation was this: the household (including wives, children, slaves, and even employees) would follow the religion of the head of the household. The husband set the boundaries of acceptable faith and religion. When a wife converted to Christianity, for example, outside of her husband’s permission or authority, this generated an unacceptable circumstance, or at least it created tremendous tension within the household.

As Karen Jobes notes in her commentary on 1 Peter, Romans generally believed it violated good order if a wife “adopted a religion other than her own husband’s,” and the adoption of Christianity also involved conflict with the husband’s allegiance to the state where Caesar is Lord. Further, her association with other Christians in their familial community would probably violate standards of propriety where, as Plutarch advised (Advice, 19, writing about 90-100 A.D.), wives should have no friends independent of her husband and worship no gods but those of her husband (cf. Balch, Let Wives Be Submissive, 99ff).

So, given this situation, what kind of “submission” does Peter intend? On the one hand, it is parallel to submission to the empire and masters. Given the cultural circumstances and mores, wives with unbelieving husbands must situate themselves appropriately within the cultural order. They “submit” in order to function within the prevailing order. This is not an endorsement of the prevailing order anymore than submitting to the emperor endorses imperial government or submitting to masters endorses slavery. Instead, it is a pragmatic, but missional, response within the system so that believers might bear witness to the reality of the gospel within the culture.

On the other hand, they subvert the prevailing order by how they live. Peter uses a key term, prominent in the first section of the letter and rooted in the paragraph heading this section. With their “lives” or by their “lifestyle” (anastrophes, 1 Peter 3:1-2; cf. 1 Peter 1:15, 18; 2:12)—their way of living within the culture—they will subvert the dominant “order” within a Roman household. In other words, their lives might even win their husbands to Jesus, even without words. They, then, might reverse the order within the household. Instead of the husband leading the embrace of religion, the wives will influence the husbands.

Peter’s exhortation is not absolute. Just as with the empire and slaves, so with wives, Peter is locating believers in their social situation. They submit for the sake of God’s mission, but they also live in such a way as to subvert the prevailing cultural expectations. In no way, then, does this legitimate male abuse or demand husbands force their wives into submission. Wives voluntarily submit for the sake of the gospel, but they do so in a subversive way.

In a different cultural setting, such as in the United States, women have more legal options and resources. They do not have to submit to abuse when they have peaceful and legal means to avoid such. “Submission” in 1 Peter does not legitimate abuse, and neither does it demand women to remain in abusive situations when they have other peaceful resources and legal options.

What does Peter expect unbelieving husbands to see (observe, or notice in a supervisory manner) in their Christian wives. He identifies two characteristics: (1) purity and (2) fear. A godly wife’s lifestyle is identified by these two particulars. It is a life “in fear [and] purity.”

Several translations render “fear” as respectful as if this is respect for the husbands. However, “fear” in 1 Peter is primarily, if not exclusively, directed toward God (cf. 1 Peter 2:17). It is reverential piety, a trusting disposition awed by God’s majesty. It is the path of wisdom in Hebrew literature. In other words, when a wife is both devout (fully surrendered to God) and pure (loyal to her husband, both emotionally and sexually), this kind of life has the potential to win the heart of an unbelieving husband.

Peter calls wives to live in such a way to win their husbands to faith is itself a rather significant confrontation with cultural expectations. Generally, such encouragement would have been regarded as subversive of the good order within a Roman household.

Peter Calls Wives to Inner Beauty Rather than Outward Show

Peter’s contrast between the inner life and touter appearance is fairly typical among Greco-Roman moralists as well as within the Hebrew scriptures (cf. Isaiah 3:18-26; Revelation 17:4; see also 1 Timothy 2:9-10). Gold, braided hair, and expensive clothing reflect one kind of “precious” commodity whereas a “gentle and quiet spirit” reflects another kind of “precious.” The former reflects ego, status, and power while the latter has “lasting beauty,” valued by God. The former assumes choices wealthy women enjoyed (unavailable to poor and enslaved women), while the latter assumes a pious devotion.

Some read this as a kind of absolute prohibition—Peter does use an imperative: “do not adorn yourselves outwardly” with braided hair, gold jewelry, or expensive clothes. However, that would absolutize what is actually quite contextual or relative to the situation addressed. These were symbols of wealth, power, and status in the Roman world. If they symbolize something else in another culture (gold wedding rings in Western culture or braided hair in many African cultures), then to apply the imperative without adjustment to the culture does not match Peter’s intent. The prohibition is relative to its cultural context. So, also, “submission” is relative to the societal order in which early Christians found themselves.

The true value is a “gentle and quiet spirit.” This is what is really “precious.” Indeed, this spirit is not unique to women, even submissive women. Rather, all believers are invited to pursue this lifestyle, especially those who suffer unjustly (1 Peter 3:160-17).

Like other moralists in his day, Peter invokes an example from an honored past.  Pete appeals to “holy women” in the past who hoped in God. Hope is an important feature here since the women Peter addressed were subject to significant fear (see the end of verse 6). God is our hope when injustice abounds and we have no resources of our own to address it. Sarah, the wife of the father of faith, is his example. She is the mother of women who live in a fearful and uncertain system or order.

Where did Sarah address Abraham as “Lord” in the Hebrew Scriptures? It is not there (though it is in the Testament of Abraham, 6). Sarah refers to Abraham as “Lord” (kyrios) in Genesis 18:12 (LXX), but she does not address him as such.

Why choose Sarah as a prime example? Other women might have suited Peter’s purposes better, if the point is submission in the abstract. But Sarah actually fits the circumstances of many women among the scattered believers in Anatolia.

Where did Sarah obey Abraham in circumstances where fear might have been a natural response (cf. verse 6)? Two occasions are rather obvious. Sarah obeyed when Abraham gave Sarah to two different rulers. He claimed she was his sister instead of his wife in order to preserve his own life. Those must have been frightful moments in Sarah’s life, but nevertheless she obeyed and followed Abraham’s lead, and she did this for Abraham’s sake, to save his life.

Sarah’s obedience in Genesis 12:13, when she cooperated with Abraham’s deceit, reflects her willingness to save her husband’s life even as Abraham fails to trust God with the situation. One can imagine Sarah, living as an alien and stranger in Egypt, was terrified by her situation, and this is exactly the sort of situation in which wives of unbelieving husbands found themselves. Though unbelieving husbands might abuse their wives or treat them in ways that demean them, Peter asks them to submit, and Sarah is their model.

Sarah’s example is not an absolute legitimation of a husband’s authority. Instead, it recognizes submission is a Christlike response, given certain circumstances. Just as Sarah submitted to Abraham, even when it was a fearful thing to do, so wives with unbelieving husbands, should do what is right despite potential fears. In other words, these wives should obey their husbands without fear in their circumstances because it is the right thing to do. They are to “do good” despite their fears, and they are called to act without fear because they are “doing good.” In this, they follow the example of Jesus.

Peter’s Call to Husbands

The primary burden of 1 Peter 3:1-7 addresses wives, and only a single verse addresses husbands. The relative space given to each identifies Peter’s focus.  Peter recognized the relationship of wives to unbelieving husbands as a significant issue among  “aliens and exiles” in Roman culture. Peter focuses on the potentially explosive situation of marginalized women in marriage relationships, but he does not ignore the responsibility of Christian husbands in relation to their own wives. Indeed, he reorients the cultural dominance of the husband toward mutuality within the relationship.

The cultural perception of a husband’s authority created the opportunity for spousal abuse, and few in the culture would question it. The husband, as the stronger sex (both physically and culturally), had the power to dominate and rule his wife.

Peter’s language, in its own way, subverts the dominant cultural perceptions of the relationship between husbands and wives.

  • Live in the house with (syn) your wife in an understanding way.
  • Show her honor as an heir with (syn) you in the kingdom of God.

Peter calls for shared life, that is, life together.

Two verbs describe Peter’s point. The first is “live with” (synvoikountes), which is derived from the combination of “with” (syn) and “house” (oikos). In other words, live in the same house with your wife, and treat her with honor as a “weaker” member. The description of women as “weaker” reflects ancient perceptions. Karen Jobes, for example, cites Xenophon (Oeconomicus, 7.23-28) who argued that men are stronger and more courageous. These attitudes are embedded in cultural expectations and traditions.

Peter’s specific point, however, is not to put down the woman by identifying her as weaker. In fact, he may mean it in a way that deserves quotation marks as if he is using it the way the broader culture does. Despite the denotations accompanying the word “weaker” within the culture, husbands should treat their wives “according to knowledge,” that is, according to what is true, real, and known within the Christian worldview. Marginalized, “weaker,” women should not be patronized as weaker, inferior humans. Instead, they should be treated according to the values of Christian ethics (“knowledge,” new life through new birth) so they are no longer regarded as “weaker” (inferior) or no longer marginalized in these relationships.

The second verb is “to show,” which means to apportion or to give. In other words, husbands are to honor their wives, to give them honor. The kind of honor is significant here. It is the kind of honor that entails a “withness” or “shared” reality because they are fellow heirs (sygkleronomois) of the kingdom of God. They are co-heirs. This kind of honor underscores their togetherness.

It appears Peter intentionally uses language to stress the shared life of husband and wife, that is, there is a “withness” in their relationship. Living with (syn) each other, they honor each other as co-heirs (syn). In other words, rather than the husband dominating his wife, he shares his life with his wife. This shared life, honor, and inheritance reflect mutuality. It transcends the expectations of Roman culture. Indeed, it actually subverts it!

Conclusion

Like imperial residents and slaves, wives are called to a submissive lifestyle where they accept their position within the prevailing cultural order for the sake of the gospel.

Likewise, holy women, according to Peter, do not adorn themselves with braided hair, gold jewelry, or expensive clothes in a culture where these are symbols of power and status.

Peter’s instructions are not absolute, timeless, a-cultural injunctions. Quite the opposite, they are pragmatic instructions for godly people living in a hostile order or environment. And his words are rooted in key theological values: inner beauty, the example of Jesus, and a missional motive.



3 Responses to “1 Peter 3:1-7 – Living as an Exile with an Unbelieving Spouse”

  1. Profile photo of limb2016  R. Limb Says:

    Good article. Citing some more examples from “Greaco-Roman moralists” would be helpful

  2.   rich constant Says:

    John mark
    I personally would like to know what knucklehead Advised You that 2000 words was long for post by you, 2000 words should get you into about second Gear.
    remember the words of the Lord.
    elevate the norm!
    I think that would be found in second Hezekiah v.
    I actually got a preacher to try and look that Up.
    😉
    Richard

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