Following Christ’s example of faith and obedience is not difficult, but impossible in our human effort. And yet, in 1 Peter 2:21-25, believers are not only reminded of Christ’s life of suffering and servanthood, but urged to imitate it. It is against this extraordinary and extravagant model, that the exhortation to the believing wife married to an unbelieving husband is made (3:1-6).
Given current cultural sensitivities to understanding the teachings on women in the Bible, it is imperative to understand passages like 1 Peter 3:1-6 in context to Christ’s example. When we see the intimate relationship between the two, I believe, it leads us to deep awe and intimate worship of our God who sees, honors, and calls women to greater gospel hope.
The believing wife in the New Testament era lived among gentile neighbors and faced societal pressures to conform to the duties and customs of the dominant religion, which ran counter and hostile to Christ. But by addressing her, Peter affirms her influence and the significance of her role. Society deems her lowest in social standing and inferior to her husband, but this is not how Christ sees her. She has power to make an eternal kingdom impact. This is no small detail.
To contemporary readers, distantly removed from the honor shame code of ethics that strictly govern household codes and motivate compliance in the Greco-Roman world, it could feel as if Peter is not doing enough or doing too little, or even worse, being complicit in his lack of overt condemnation of injustice. However, he demonstrates competency of the ancient cultural customs by winsomely subverting them.1 By honoring the wife’s dignity as a co-heir (3:7) and naming her ability to make an impact, Peter challenges the social order and offers an alternative way of bearing witness to the gospel.
Graeco-Roman society expected wives to follow and adopt the religion of their husbands. Veering away from the established social norms put her in harms way. She would be the target of harassment, scapegoating, coercion, intimidation, and shame because she would be perceived as rebelling against the state quo and dishonoring her husband. Honor to her husband was obligated and even demanded, merely because he was higher in the sociopolitical hierarchy.
This is contrary to today’s value of individualism where the motto, “you do you” is pervasive. Resisting an imposed belief system or deconstructing expectations that restrict and limit one’s potential is celebrated, not scorned. Moreover, respect is earned by a pattern of honorable behaviors and a commendable character, not simply given.
In this passage, Peter understood that a wife’s conversion to the Christian faith made unjust suffering inevitable and unavoidable. She like Christ, will be wrongly reviled and shown contempt and yet, she can hope in her present union with Christ and the future salvation of her husband for she knows the struggle and pain is for “a little while”. Moreover, her actions will speak volumes; in the absence of words, she will bear witness to the Suffering Servant who is her chief example. He went before her and led the way by bearing her sins in his body on the cross so that by his wounds she would be healed and might live for righteousness.
Though Peter does not specify the particularities of what submission to her husband entails, he provides guiding principles. He thoughtfully considers the nuances of a patriarchal society where “it is shameful for the wife to presume to instruct her husband”2 and encourages her to pursue “respectable and pure conduct” (v. 2) over speech. He directs her to seek adornment that is of “imperishable beauty” (v. 4) characterized by a “gentle and quiet spirit” (v. 4) — same virtues marked also of Christ (Mt. 11:29) and that all Christians are called to (1 Thess. 4:11).
He does not counsel her to reject her faith and align herself with her husband’s religion, but calls her to persevere with hope alongside her husband because of Christ. He also connects her to the larger redemptive meta-narrative like the “holy women” (3:5) like Sarah, so that she is encouraged to be wise in her ethical choices, always keeping in mind her gospel witness.
Historically, passages like 1 Peter 3:1-6, where women are being instructed to espouse certain attitudes and behaviors can be contentious, sensitive, problematic, feel incredibly personal, and anticipated with dread. Unfortunately and all too tragically, texts like this have been used inappropriately to justify or instruct women to remain or even return to harmful situations, like an abusive marriage. However, Peter is not condoning nor supporting such actions or contexts. We can be assured of this from chapter 2, where he establishes citizen responsibilities to their system of government (vv. 13, 14).
There are civil laws that speak against unlawful behavior. Peter says, we are all subject to the governing authorities of the land. And in today’s society, they include but are not limited to, domestic violence, physical, emotional, verbal, sexual abuse and negligence of care toward dependents. If someone is found to have abused their power in any one of these situations, they are likely to face legal consequences.
Furthermore, Peter esteems the woman when he turns his teaching and attention to the husband (3:7). The husband’s actions are rooted ultimately in Christ’s example of servanthood. While the word “submit” is not applied to how the husband is to relate to his wife, we would be remiss if we assume that the exhortation to respect her is less significant or sacrificial.
According to ancient household codes, honor was reserved for superiors, like the ruling officials or the emperor, not one’s wife. So honoring her would not only be counter cultural, but scandalous. On the one hand, it rebelled against established social norms. On the other hand, it elevated the wife’s status on par with those higher up on the social hierarchy. Furthermore, husbands were to embrace her as an image bearer, co-heir of the promise of God, and co-laborer for the kingdom. In Christ, she is righteous, with inherent dignity, value, and worth, and fully known and deeply loved.
Understanding the role of the believing wife in its fuller context invites us to consider how God sees her. He knows the tensions she navigates, empathizes being the target of dismal, belittling, and insignificance, and cares about the insecurity and anxiety she bears in her body, and strengthens her because she is more than her circumstance, the definitions dictated by society, and the limitations imposed through cultural expectations and pressures. She is called to a greater kingdom purpose because of Jesus. And this same gospel hope is available to us today.
Where there was once dread, there is praise.
“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”3
1. Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 185.
2. Jobes, 1 Peter, 204.
3. Ephesians 3:20-21.