Should Christian wives submit to their husbands? — 1 Peter 3:1-7
Although Peter upholds societal norms for the purpose of the church’s witness in society, his sympathy here in 1 Peter 3:1-7 is clearly with the woman, as it was with the slaves in 2:18-25. He continues to advocate submission to authority for the sake of witness and silencing charges that Christianity is subversive; husbands were always in the position of authority in that culture.
“In the same way” refers back to the passage on slaves (2:18-25). Like Judaism and other non-Roman religions, Christianity spread faster among wives than husbands; husbands had more to lose socially from conversion to an unpopular minority religion. But wives were expected to obey their husbands in Greco-Roman antiquity, and this obedience included allegiance to their husbands’ religions. Cults that forbade their participation in Roman religious rites, including prohibiting worship of a family’s household gods, were viewed with disdain, and Jewish or Christian women who refused to worship these gods could be charged with atheism. Thus by his advice Peter seeks to reduce marital tensions and causes of hostility toward Christianity and Christians. Silence was considered a great virtue for women in antiquity. “Chaste and respectful” (NASB) is the behavior that was most approved for women throughout antiquity.
Hair was braided in elaborate manners, and well-to-do women strove to keep up with the latest expensive fashions. The gaudy adornments of women of wealth, meant to draw attention to themselves, were repeatedly condemned in ancient literature and speeches, and Peter’s readers would assume that his point was meant in the same way.
Ancients considered a meek and quiet spirit a prime virtue for women, and many moralists advised this attitude instead of dressing in the latest fashions to attract men’s attention, a vice commonly attributed to aristocratic women but imitated by those who could afford to do so.
Moralists normally added examples of such quietness to their exhortations; they especially liked to appeal to matrons of the distant past, who were universally respected for their chaste behavior in contrast to many of the current models in Roman high society. Jewish readers would think especially of the great matriarchs, extolled for their piety in Jewish tradition: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah, Sarah being most prominent. The readers may think in terms of head coverings that were prominent in much of the East, meant to render the married woman inconspicuous.
Although Peter explicitly advocates only “submission” (v.1), he cites Sarah as an example even of “obedience,” which was what Roman male society demanded of their wives. That Abraham also “obeyed” Sarah is clear in Genesis (the term usually translated “listen to” in 16:2 and 21:12 also means “obey,” and in both passages Abraham submits to Sarah), but this point is not relevant to Peter’s example for wives with husbands disobedient to the word.
One should not read too much into Sarah’s calling her husband “lord” here. The direct address “lord” may have been used in Hebrew to address husbands respectfully as “sir,” e.g., Gen 18:12; Hos 2:16, though it is especially in later Jewish traditions such as the Testament of Abraham that Sarah addresses Abraham in this manner. Even in the Testament of Abraham, Isaac also addresses his mother with a similarly respectful title and Abraham so addresses a visitor, unaware that he is an angel. In another Jewish tale, Asenath calls her father “lord” yet answers him boastfully and angrily, although Peter certainly does not suggest such behavior here. In the patriarchal period, it was a polite way to address someone of higher authority or one to whose status one wished to defer, e.g., Jacob to Esau in Gen 33:13-14.) Jewish people were considered “children” of Abraham and Sarah; on Christians’ ful filling such a role, d. 2:9-10.
Peter’s advice is practical, not harsh as it might sound in our culture. Although philosophers’ household codes often stressed that the wife should “fear” her husband as well as submit to him, Peter disagrees (v. 6; d. 3:13-14). Husbands could legally “throw out” babies, resort to prostitutes and make life miserable for their wives, although sleeping with other women of the aristocratic class or beating their wives was prohibited. (In a mid-second-century account, a Christian divorced her husband for his repeated infidelity, so he betrayed her to the authorities as a Christian.) Christian wives were limited in their options, but Peter wants them to pursue peace with out being intimidated.
Although his point is to address the many converted wives with unconverted husbands (3:1-6), he includes a brief word for converted husbands as well. Many philosophers, moralists and Jewish’ teachers complained about the moral and intellectual weakness of women; some referred to the weakness of their bodies. Women’s delicacy was considered an object of desire, but also of distrust; even the traditional Roman legal system simply assumed their weakness and inability to make sound decisions on their own. Much of this was due to the influence of
Aristotle, who argued that women were by nature inferior to men in every way except sexually.
Yet this weakness (Peter may apply it only to social position) was often cited as a reason to show them more consideration, and Peter attaches no significance to this common term except that requirement; the rest of the verse declares women to be equal before God, which ruined any arguments of their inferiority “by nature.” A husband who failed to recognize his wife’s spiritual equality jeopardized his own prayers, for the reason Peter gives in 3:12.