Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. A Book Discussion. (Index here)
Part II: Looking to Scripture (The Biblical Texts)
Chapter 13 – A Silent Witness in Marriage: 1 Peter 3:1-7. By Peter H. Davids.
1 Peter 3:1-7
1 Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives' conduct, 2 when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. 3 Do not adorn yourselves outwardly by braiding your hair, and by wearing gold ornaments or fine clothing; 4 rather, let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God's sight. 5 It was in this way long ago that the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves by accepting the authority of their husbands. 6 Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him lord. You have become her daughters as long as you do what is good and never let fears alarm you.
7 Husbands, in the same way, show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honor to the woman as the weaker sex, since they too are also heirs of the gracious gift of life -- so that nothing may hinder your prayers. NRSV
Davids' notes at the beginning of his essay, “Craig S. Keener sees here a strategy for life within the Greco-Roman world, aimed at witness and reducing grounds for the charge that Christianity was subversive.” (224-225) This is a good one sentence summary of the position Davids takes in the article.
I especially liked this paragraph as Davids begins his survey of the text:
Language is an expression of a given culture existing in space and time. It takes its meaning from the definitions that culture gives to certain sounds and their associated graphic symbols. It is a truism that any given word, or its associated sound, in one culture may have a different meaning from the same word or sound in another. Furthermore, words in all languages change their meanings over time. In 1 Peter we have language (Greek) from a particular part of the first-century Mediterranean world. In interpreting it we are trying to understand what it meant as an expression of a given historical culture or social world. With this in mind, it is important that we see how the wives addressed in 1 Peter might have heard this instruction within their own social context. (225)
Davids draws two conclusions as he looks at the text.
“First, it is clear the 1 Peter is addressed to a largely Gentile Christian audience. …Their earlier state was 'ignorance,’ and they had ‘futile ways inherited from [their] ancestors.’ They were once ‘not a people’ and had ‘already spent enough time in doing what the Gentiles do.’” (225)
“Second, while it is clear that the wives in 1 Peter 3:1-6 are Christians, this is not evident regarding their husbands, who appear to be a separate group from the believing husbands addressed in 1 Peter 3:7. … the focus of the passage (1 Peter 3:1-6) is on women living with non-Christian husbands in the area of the Greco-Roman world to which the letter is addressed. And even if women with Christian husbands were also intended, their behavior would likewise be conditioned by the evangelistic motive of the text.” (225)
This passage is actually Peter’s version of a household code, which have discussed in earlier chapters. Davids draws our attention to the reason given for wifely submission in verses one and two. Davids points out that it was taken for granted that a husband would rule. He notes, “The unsual part of the our passage is the assumption that there is a reason for this behavior that goes beyond its fitting “women’s nature.” (227) In other words, why would Paul deem it necessary to explain the need behavior that was already assumed appropriate for the readers?
Davids pulls us back a little earlier in the book to Chapter 2 where Peter is introducing the household tables.
11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. 12 Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge. 13 For the Lord's sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, 14 or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. 15 For it is God's will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. 16 As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. 17 Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (NRSV)
It is clear here that Peter considers believers to be free people. They are aliens in another land who are free to use there freedom to win over others to Christ. From here he goes on to address two specific situations. First he deals with slaves and their relationships with their masters instructing them to behave in such a way as to win their masters over. Unlike Ephesians or Colossians there is not a reciprocal instruction to masters. The second issue is the issue of wife married to an unbelieving husband. She was already subverting her husbands authority by not worshiping his gods, so it was important the she conduct her life in such a way that should bring respect and honor. Again the motive is how to behave in such a way that wins him over. Surrendering freedom for the sake of Christian witness.
Davids also goes on at some length into the peculiar statement in verse 6, “Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him lord.” The reason it is peculiar is that in only one place, Genesis 18:12, does she call him “adonai.” “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” There is not hint of authority or obedience here. Peter is not referring to the Bible!
Davids points out that the time Peter was writing there was a popular extracanonical Jewish work called the Testament of Abraham. Davids notes that, “Here Sarah is depicted in terms of an ideal Hellenisitc wife, an illustration that serves Peter’s purpose.” (234) By following Sarah’s (fictional) example women could win over their unbelieving husbands.
In terms of application Davids notes:
One of Peter’s strategies is to minimize the tension between Christians and the surrounding society. He wants to make Jesus the issue, not unnecessarily divisive behavior. (234)
But as Davids goes on to observe:
However, unless we assume that first-century Greco-Roman society is the only form of society upholding virtues approved by God (an unlikely assumption), we may find that a direct application of Peter’s teaching in modern and postmodern societies would subvert his original intentions (235)
Ironically, interpretations that focus on the unilateral obedience or submission of wives to husbands, regardless of cultural context, achieve the opposite of Peter’s intention. Rather than promoting harmony with culture, they set Christian marriage partners at odds with culture and thus heighten the tension, and Christiantiy is perceived as undermining culture in a retrogressive way. This precisely what 1 Peter is seeking to minimize. (236)
In closing David’s makes four observations about verse 7
First, “…the majority of scholars have argued that the husbands in question are married to Christian wives.” (237)
“Second, there is no main verb in this sentence.” Davids believes the verb implied is “be submissive to” referring back to 1 Pet 3:1; 2:18; and 2:13. “Whatever the exact referent, the implication is that the husband is experiencing a limitation on his freedom parallel to that which the wife is experiencing.” (237)
Third, the husband needs to recognize that his wife is some how weaker or at a disadvantage. He is not to exploit that disparity. “Rather, he is to treat her as and equal, a ‘fellow heir of the grace of life” – a complementary equality. (237)
“Four, the reason for the husband’s need to do this is so that ‘your’ prayers may not be hindered. … In other words, a failure to treat his wife as an equal will, by implication, result in divine displeasure and a damaged relationship in which prayers are no answered.” (237-238)
Personally, I think that when 1 Peter 2-3 is combined with the observations from the household codes from Ephesians and Colossians, a wonderful picture is created of God’s vision for the household of God and the principles upon which it should operate. That these passages should be buried under such a load of hierarchicalist distortions is tragic for men and women. But even more tragic is the instruction that is lost about the nature of being the Kingdom of God.
Peter H. Davids received his M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Ph.D. From the University of Manchester. And ordained minister, he is presently scholar-in-residence at the Vineyard Church in Stafford, Texas. He also serves as adjunct professor of New Testament at Tyndale Theological Seminary near Amsterdam. This follows his recent service in Innsbruck, Austria, with International Teams in Europe as an educational missionary and church adviser. His publications include A Commentary on the Epistle of James (NIGTC), The First Epistle of Peter (NICNT) and half of the New Testament part of Hard Sayings of the Bible.
(This is the last post for "Part II: Looking to Scripture (The Biblical Texts)")
Before commenting please read Prefatory Comments.