Women in the Church: Why I am an Egalitarian
Part 9: Difficult New Testament Texts: 1 Peter 3:1-7
Today’s post is the second of three addressing key New Testament texts often cited to restrict or prohibit women from certain ministries in the church, such as teaching, preaching, and leadership. To see earlier posts in this series, click here.
Here in the book of 1 Peter (3:1-7) is another text that is sometimes used to support a complementarian position. The passage does not speak directly about women in ministry or leadership, but some folks do apply its instructions concerning wives and husbands more broadly to women and men in the church.
1 Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, 2 when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. 3 Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. 4 Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. 5 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, 6 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.
7 Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.
As with last week’s text (1 Tim 2:8-15), a surface level reading of this passage could be used to support a complementarian understanding of marriage (i.e., a God-ordained hierarchy of husbands over wives). Verse 1 plainly tells wives to submit to their husbands and verses 5-6 appeal to an Old Testament example (Sarah submitting to Abraham) to demonstrate the point. Husbands are then told to be considerate to their wives and to treat them with respect.
But let us look beneath and beyond the surface. To keep this post relatively brief, I won’t go into all the questions and details (there are many), but I will sketch a quick egalitarian response.
As always, and all would agree here, it’s important to note the context of these instructions. Right at the beginning, Peter (or his scribe) writes “Wives, in the same way . . .” This is a clue that we need to look at the previous chapter in order to discern the primary theme or issue this passage is addressing. When we do that, we notice a few things.
First, in the passage that immediately precedes this one (2:18-25), Peter gives similar instructions to slaves, telling them to submit to their masters as an expression of their reverent fear of God (v. 18). We’ll get back to that shortly. Going back a little further, he tells his readers more generally to “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority . . .” (see 2:13-17). And then, finally, we can trace the entire section—from wives and husbands to slaves to citizens under human authorities—all the way back to 2:11-12: “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” We see here in 2:11-12, from which everything else follows, that Peter’s primary purpose is to motivate his readers to live admirable lives amongst the pagans, so as to bear effective witness to Jesus and the gospel with their “good deeds” in the presence of non-believers. He then gives specific, concrete instructions, spelling out how to apply this principle contextually, including within ancient Greco-Roman social institutions such as slavery and the household codes. So the point of Peter’s instructions, the key principle, is for his readers to live as admirable and respectable Christian witnesses within the social conventions and institutions of their everyday lives. The specific instructions he gives to slaves, wives, and husbands are more direct ways to apply this principle contextually. Peter’s instructions to wives, accordingly, have to do with honouring their husbands so that, if their husbands are not Christians, they can win them over to Christ (3:1-2).
A second point to notice is that there are similarities and parallels shared by the instructions Peter gives in chapters 2 and 3. In 2:13, he tells his readers to submit to human authorities “for the Lord’s sake”; in 2:18 he tells slaves to submit to their masters “in reverent fear of God”; and in 3:1 he tells wives “in the same way” to submit to their husbands. Peter is not concerned primarily with the human institutions and conventions he mentions. He is not writing a set of treatises on marriage, slavery, politics, etc. He is not writing a “how to have a good marriage” self-help book for Christian couples. His primary goal is to exhort Christian believers to fear, honour, and represent God faithfully and winsomely in whatever human institutions and conventions they find themselves in, especially amongst non-believers to whom they are to bear witness with their lives. Peter does not instruct his readers to challenge oppressive social structures directly (other biblical texts may do so), but to be salt, light, and leaven within their sinful culture and its fallen structures. In other words, Peter is in essence saying, “Follow God . . . Be His servants/slaves, aiming to bring glory and honour to His name and reputation amongst the pagans!” And a major theme of the letter is that such lives of selfless discipleship and bearing witness will necessarily involve suffering and self-sacrifice, just as it did for the Lord Jesus (e.g., 2:21-25). “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (2:21).
Third, it is important to see that Peter treats three sub-topics (citizens submitting to government, slaves submitting to masters, wives submitting to husbands) together, and in pretty much the same way without distinguishing which instructions are timeless and universal and which are temporary and contextual. This is an important point, because those viewing the text from a complementarian perspective want to treat the patriarchal male-female social conventions in chapter 3 as timeless and universal and yet very few today (none that I know of) treat slavery the same way. But if Peter is here writing about universal, timeless, God-ordained institutions and social conventions, why would his instructions concerning slavery no longer be valid? Structurally, the arguments he makes are quite similar. In both cases (wives-husbands, slaves-masters), Peter appeals to his readers’ reverence for God, tells one group to submit to the other, and then backs up his argument with an appeal to a scriptural example (Sarah as the example to wives; Jesus as the example to slaves). Here’s what I suggest: Peter is not teaching that any of these customs and institutions are timeless and universal. He simply assumes that they exist and he tells his readers how to live Christianly within them. He does not have in mind a time and place where such conventions are very different (he was not and could not envision 21st century North America). What is timeless and universal about his instructions is the principle he gives: that Christians are to live respectable and winsome lives amongst non-Christians, in order to bear witness to Jesus and bring glory to God. His specific instructions to citizens, slaves, and wives, are time-bound, particular and concrete rules that apply the principle in context.
A final comment relating to my third observation. Christians are not called to be legalists. We are not called to follow rules for their own sake, without understanding why the rules exist or what they seek to serve. To understand why specific rules exist, we need to understand what principles they are intended to embody. Failure to understand the underlying principles often leads to failure in applying the rules correctly. In his Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), Jesus addresses a number of rules that were no longer being followed according to the spirit in which they were originally given (the underlying principles). For example, he criticizes the religious teachers and tradition for turning the lex talionis (“Eye for eye, tooth for tooth”) – originally meant to restrict retaliation to just proportion (i.e., you must only take eye for eye, tooth for tooth, and no more!) – into a formula for enacting vengeance. By following the letter of the law while dislodging it from and ignoring its underlying principle, Jesus’ interlocutors were guilty of violating the spirit of the law. I suggest that we are in danger of doing the same thing concerning Peter’s instructions to wives and husbands. Instead of woodenly following the letter of the rule while ignoring the spirit, we need to ask: how can we faithfully live out and embody the principle Peter teaches in our 21st century Canadian (or American, or…) context? How ought Christians husbands and wives to relate to each other – in terms of power dynamics, sacrifice, service, self-giving, etc. – in such a way as to glorify God and bear witness to the transformative power of Christ and the gospel amongst their non-believing friends, neighbours, relative, and co-workers?
In my view, following this principle faithfully today requires a different outworking of the rules and social conventions. In today’s context, a marriage relationship that demonstrates mutuality, equality, respect for each other’s relative strengths and weaknesses, gifts and shortcomings, desires and dislikes, and so forth – all in reverence for and in mutual submission to Christ as Lord – bears witness to Christ and his gospel most effectively and glorifies God most fully.