Submission and Respect from Wives – 1 Peter 3:1-6

By Margaret Mowczko

For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear. 1 Peter 3:5-6

I’ve read this scripture countless times and have never questioned what Peter wrote.  I just accepted that there must be numerous “holy women of the past” who were examples of the kind of wifely submission that is promoted in many churches today.  I had also simply accepted that Sarah must have been a particularly good example of wifely submission.

Just recently though, I’ve been taking a closer look at 1 Peter, and I’ve started asking some questions about the text.  For example: Who were these “holy women of the past”?  And: In what way was Sarah  submissive to Abraham?  Here are some of my findings and thoughts.

The Holy Women of the Past

In 1 Peter 3:1ff, Peter addressed the Christian women of Asia Minor and he urged them to be submissive to their (mostly unsaved) husbands.  He also wanted them to focus on their inner beauty rather than on their outer beauty and live their lives in purity.[1]  The purpose of Peter’s instruction was evangelistic.  Peter hoped that the virtuous behaviour and lifestyle of the Christian wives might be persuasive and ”win” (a missionary term) the husbands.  These men had been unpersuaded by the Word (logos); however  Peter suggests that they may be won to the Christian faith without a word (logos) from their godly Christian wives.

Peter used the examples of the “holy women of the past” to illustrate how the women should behave.  But who exactly were these women who Peter had in mind?

As I go through the list of Bible women in my mind, apart from Sarah, I cannot find one single clear example of a  woman who submitted to her husband.  On the contrary the Bible gives us numerous examples of holy women who did not behave in (what much of the Church would consider) a submissive manner towards their husbands.[2]

Several holy women took the initiative in significant situations, without apparent permission, protection or cooperation from men.  These women include Moses’ mother (Exodus 2:1-3);  Rahab (Joshua 2:1-6); Deborah (Judges 4-5); Ruth  (Ruth 2:2-3; 3:1-6); Hannah (1 Samuel chs 1-2); and a well-to-do Shunamite woman (2 Kings 4:8-37); etc. [3]

Several holy women were the primary or first recipients of divine, angelic or prophetic visitations without the intervention or presence of a husband or male guardian. The following are just a few examples where God, an angel, or a prophet spoke directly to a woman: Rebekah (Genesis 25:22-23); Samson’s mother (Judges 13); the “Wailing Women” (Jeremiah 9:17);  Mary, the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:26-38); Mary Magdalene (Mat 28:9-10; Mark 16:9-11; John 20:17-18), etc.  Moreover Huldah, Miriam, Deborah and Anna are themselves acknowledged as respected prophetesses in the Bible.  Philip’s daughters also seem to have been recognised as prophetesses.

Several holy women went against authority figures, disobeyed laws and disregarded the wishes of their own husbands.  Shiphrah and Puah disobeyed Pharoah’s command, and God blessed them for their disobedience (Exodus 1:15-21).  Rebekah and Abigail went against their husband’s wishes.  There is no hint of censure against Rebekah in the Bible (Genesis 27:1-28:2); and Abigail was commended for her wise and brave actions (1 Samuel 25).  Queen Esther, in order to save the Jewish people, disobeyed a law and risked her life by coming into her husband’s presence without being summoned (Esther 4:11; 5:1).

It seems that Peter may not have had any specific woman in mind (apart from Sarah) when he mentioned “the holy women of the past who submitted themselves to their husbands”.  It seems he may have been writing about godly women in general.

I am actually amazed that there are so many women mentioned in the Bible who took the initiative and acted  bravely and independently in what was a very patriarchal society.  I am equally amazed that there are almost no  women mentioned in the Bible who are obvious examples of wifely submission.   I guess women who lead nations (Judges chs 4-5) and ward off aggressive armies (1 Sam ch 25), etc, are more interesting than women who lead quiet lives in the home; and so the more interesting women and their stories have made it into the Bible.

Sarah’s Submission

Sarah is the only Bible woman who clearly submitted to her husband’s wishes (Gen 20:13b).  On two occasions Sarah complied with her husband’s request to deceive a foreign king.  (See Genesis 12:10-20 and 20:1-18.)  Abraham was worried that the kings would kill him in order to clear the way to his beautiful wife.  Sarah must have been a stunner.  Abraham asked Sarah to go along with the ruse that he was her brother and not her husband (Gen 12:11-13; 20:13b).  This was a half-truth as Sarah was Abraham’s half-sister (Gen 20:12).

Abraham’s motives appear to have been completely selfish.  His only concern was for his own safety.  He does not seem to have been concerned about his wife who was taken by foreign kings, twice (Gen 12:15; 20:2-3).  The Bible is clear that on the second occasion Sarah was spared from being sexually violated by the king, but it is seems that she actually became the first king’s wife for a short time (Gen 12:19 cf 20:4-6).[4]

Sarah did not submit because Abraham was her master; she submitted because she wanted to protect her husband.  Sarah, however, did not always go along with what Abraham wanted.  For instance, Sarah wanted to dismiss Hagar and Ishmael, but this idea distressed Abraham.  On this occasion, God said to Abraham (literally): “. . . in everything, whatever Sarah says to you, listen to her voice.” (Genesis 21:12b, translated from the Septuagint).  In Genesis 16:2 it says that Abraham (literally) obeyed Sarah’s voice.  The Greek word hupakouō used in this verse is a common word in the Septuagint (The Greek Old Testament) and the Greek New Testament and is usually translated as “obey”.  Conversely, nowhere in the Genesis narratives of Abraham and Sarah does it actually state that Sarah “obeyed” her husband. “Nevertheless, the submission of Sarah to Abraham was a long-standing element of Jewish traditions.” (Jobes 2005:205)[5]

Sarah’s Respect

Peter also mentions that Sarah called Abraham her “lord”.  The Greek word for “lord”, kurios, is common in the Septuagint and New Testament.  Kurios is usually translated into English as “lord”, “master” or “sir”.[6]

Sarah refers to Abraham as her kurios in Genesis 18:12 in the Septuagint, “. . . though she does not address him directly by that term.  This noun [kurios] is the only lexical connection between the story of Sarah and Peter’s claim.” (Jobes 2005:205) (Interestingly, Rebekah calls Abraham’s servant ”sir” [kurios] in Genesis 24:18.)

In our culture it would be very odd for a wife to call her husband “lord” or “sir”.  Sarah (and Rebekah), however, was simply using a polite term of respect that was appropriate for the culture of that time.  The New Testament has clear instructions for husbands and for wives to treat their marriage partners with honour and respect.  (See 1 Peter 3:7 and Ephesians 5:33).

Sarah’s Courage

I suspect that Peter’s use of “the holy women of the past” as examples was to highlight their faithfulness and trust in God, more so than their submission to their husband.  Many Old Testament women showed great faithfulness to God and displayed considerable courage in difficult circumstances.[7]  An important part of Peter’s advice is for wives to do what is good, or what is right, and not to be afraid.

You are [Sarah’s] daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear (1 Peter 3:6b, NIV 2011.)[8]

Sarah was fearless because she trusted in God.  When she heeded Abraham’s request, she wasn’t trusting in her husband but trusting in God to take care of the situation.  Sarah was courageous and willing to mislead the kings, putting her wellbeing in jeopardy, in order to save her husband’s life.

Sarah did not always comply with her husband’s wishes.  Sarah used her own wisdom and discernment when deciding whether or not she would do what Abraham wanted.  While husbands, as well as wives, should always be seeking to support, help and accommodate their spouse, they also need to be sensible and wise, and do the right thing.  Sometimes doing the good and right thing may mean not complying with the request of your spouse.

Real Submission

The purpose of this article is not to say that women do not need to be submissive to their own husbands.  In fact, the New Testament is clear that humility and submission are Christian virtues for men and for  women (Eph 5:21).[9]  The purpose of this article is to show that women can have a humble and submissive attitude and still use their intelligence, influence, initiative and individual abilities without artificial limitations.  This becomes evident when you use real Bible women as examples of submission, rather than the idealised, romanticised or overly domesticated versions of womanhood promoted by some churches.

I actually think that the church’s view of wifely submission has been distorted by a patriarchal mindset, combined with a  misunderstanding of the Greek.  The Greek word for “submit” (hupotassō) has a military usage and meaning of “subordinate”, and a non-military usage and meaning of “cooperate”.[10]   It is tragic that the church has taken the more severe military meaning of hupotassō and applied it to the precious and intimate relationship of marriage.

The church has largely expected women to be subordinate and servile to men[11], rather than seeing men and women as true equals who are to mutually love and care for each other.  Moreover, contrary to the examples of godly women in the Bible, the church has tried to limit the parameters and opportunities for women to use their influence and abilities.  We must be very careful not to let a narrow, graceless and faulty concept of submission bind women and limit the use of their talents and skills – talents and skills that God may want use for his purposes.


Endnotes

[1] Interestingly, Sarah, who is the main example in this passage in 1 Peter, was very beautiful outwardly.

[2] Many Christians (who call themselves “Complementarians”) go further than what the Bible says, and they teach that all women should be submissive to all men.  (See chapter one of Piper, John, and Grudem, Wayne (editors), Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Westchester, Il: Crossway Books, 2006. Available online here.

[3] “Many Bible women displayed considerable courage as they helped others and were used by God to achieve his purposes.  Brave Bible women include: Jael (Judges 4:21; 5:24-27); the woman who killed Abimelech (Judges 9:53); Rahab (Joshua 2:1-6); Abigail (1 Samuel ch 25); the servant girl who was given a dangerous task (2 Samuel 17:17-18); the woman of Bashurin (2 Samuel 17:19-20); Esther (Esther, esp 4:11 &16); and Priscilla, who risked her life for Paul’s sake, as did her husband Aquila (Romans 16:3-4). . . . Other women also showed commendable initiative, shrewdness and courage; women such as: Tamar (Genesis 38, esp v26), Naaman’s wife’s servant (2 Kings 5:3); Ruth (Ruth, esp 1:15-18; 2:2); The Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah (2 Samuel 20:15-22), etc.”  From The Women who Protected Moses.

[4] Abraham’s deception had disastrous consequences for the unsuspecting kings (Gen 12:17; 20:17).  Abraham, on the other hand, did not experience any negative consequences from his deception; instead, he profited from the experiences (Gen 12:16; 20:14-16).

[5] Jobes, Karen H., 1 Peter (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005.

[6] The New Living Translation (NLT) has chosen what I think is the most severe of the three options and translates kurios as “master” in 1 Peter 3:6.  The NLT is known for the way it emphasises male authority.

[7] Life was difficult for the recipients of Peter’s letter.  The Christians in Asia Minor were being slandered and persecuted and they were fearful.  It would have been especially difficult for Christian wives with unsaved husbands. These women may have had no real alternative but to fully submit to their husbands, even when it jeopardised their safety.  Peter gives them the hope that their virtuous living may win their husbands for Jesus Christ.  (This seems to have been Peter’s main objective in his instruction.) In contemporary, Western society, women have more freedoms and  options.  Secular society does not expect wives to put up with foolishness or abuse from their husbands, and neither should the church.  Jesus came to bring freedom to those who are captive.  This is should be the church’s mission too.

[8] Literal translation: “whose children you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror” (1 Pet 3:6b).

[9] The ideal Christian marriage relationship is one of  mutual and reciprocal submission (i.e. loyalty, cooperation, deference and respect) between husband and wife (Eph 5:21; 1Pet 3:8).

[10] Thayers Bible Dictionary makes the distinction between the military and non-military usage of hupotassō. 

Hupotassō: A Greek military term meaning ‘to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader’. In non-military use, it was ‘a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden’.
http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/hupotasso.html

[11] Many churches associate wifely submission with wives being servile to their husbands,  yet both men and women are called to follow Jesus’ example of sacrificial and loving service.

© 1st of September, 2011, Margaret Mowczko

This artcle was first published at newlife.id.au here.

Part Two: Submission and Respect from Husbands – 1 Peter 3:7-8

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3 Responses to Submission and Respect from Wives – 1 Peter 3:1-6

  1. krwordgazer says:

    Excellent analysis. I also think the encouragement of Christians to submit to one another (including wives to husbands) does not trump the Christian duty to lovingly confront our fellow believers (even if they are our husbands) when they sin against us. If husbands are lording it over their wives, they are in sin and need to be told so– nor does submission ever mean enabling someone else to continue to sin.

  2. Pingback: Submission and Respect from Husbands – 1 Peter 3:7-8 | Christian Egalitarian Marriage

  3. Pingback: Double Standards in the Promotion and Practise of Submission | Christian Egalitarian Marriage

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