We move now to Chapter 3 and Peter’s instruction to wives and husbands, the more controversial portions of the passage.
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)
The Jesus Movement was appealing to influential Greek women (Acts 17:4, 12). The comments about braiding hair, wearing gold, and wearing fine clothing suggest that these women were of fairly high status. It appears that some of the women in this faith community had come to faith without their husbands. Keep in mind the context. The conversion of household members to non-traditional religions that challenge Roman hierarchy and status systems was threatening to influential men in the Empire.
Paul instructs the women to “accept the authority” of their husbands. Why? Because of creation order? Because of a divinely ordained hierarchy? No. “…so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives' conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.” The submission of wives is not conformity to a divinely prescribed order but rather missional response. Like the slaves, the women limit their freedom to give evidence of the new creation. They limit their freedom to win over their husbands. (vs. 1-2) They limit their freedom with regard to adornment so as not to draw undo attention to themselves. (vs 3-4) Paul instructs these women to exhibit other-centered care.
Peter’s following comments in verses 5-6 require some reflection. Peter alludes to Sarah who “obeyed Abraham and called him lord.” There is just one problem with this statement. Search the Old Testament and you will find one instance where Sarah called Abraham Lord.
After I have grown old, and my husband (adonai) is old, shall I have pleasure? (Genesis 18:12)
This passage has nothing to do with obedience and there is nothing remarkable about her use of adonai. To what is Peter referring? It is hard to say with certainty. Two possibilities come to mind. One is that Peter is referencing Sarah’s faithful partnership with Abraham through thick and thin even when he behaved less than honorable himself. Peter infers a relationship between Abraham and Sarah and exhorts the women to follow it. Second, I think Dr. Peter Davids may have part of the answer. Davids points out that at the time Peter was writing there was a popular extracanonical Jewish work circulating 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.” (Discovering Biblical Equality, 234) By following Sarah’s inferred or fictional example of submission, women could win over their unbelieving husbands. This mission took precedence over the exercise of her personal freedom.
Before we move on too quickly past verse 6, note the imagery, “You have become her daughters…” By behaving appropriately, these women become fictive daughters, not of Abraham, but Sarah! As we have seen throughout this series, fictive family was not a widely used metaphor outside the church. The idea of matriarchal descent is highly peculiar. Yet Peter elevates the status of women and their missional contribution when he establishes a fictive female lineage from Sarah.
Verse 7 instructs husbands to show consideration and honor to their wives. Any instruction about husbands ruling over their wives (or slaves for that matter) is absent. The woman is described as the weaker sex (or vessel) and rightly so. She is at a serious disadvantage in the Greco-Roman cultural world and vulnerable to abuse. Peter writes that women “too are also heirs of the gracious gift of life.” Let us remember how so. Whether Romans 4:1-18, 8:12-30, Galatians 3:6-4:7, we learn that Jew, gentile, free, slave, man and woman have all been made fictive brothers in the new creation (and women have the status of brothers as well.) As brothers we have been made brothers of Christ and joint heirs with him. Peter is drawing on a fictive family metaphor to undermine any inclinations toward domination of wives through status. At the end of the verse he goes so far as to suggest that if a husband will not abide by this fictive family attitude toward his wife, God will not hear his prayer.
Peter closes out this passage with exhortation to persevere through suffering. Listen once again to his vision of drawing others to God by giving no offense to the culture and enduring suffering with grace.
1 Peter 3:13-16
13 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15 but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.
Verses 18-22 focus largely on assuring the readers that God will see them through their trials but in the above passage we once again see a missional focus to Peter’s instruction: Be an other-centered priestly community. Do not needlessly give offense to the culture, even as you endure persecution, in the hope that you might be a transforming influence for God.
In the final two chapters of 1 Peter we see more exhortations toward holy living and the proper posture to take towards one another:
4:8 Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. 9 Be hospitable to one another without complaining.
5:3 [Elders] Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away. 5 In the same way, you who are younger must accept the authority of the elders. And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble." 6 Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time.
At end Peter, reminds them once again that they are members of a larger family:
5:9 Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.
Peter’s household code departs in very significant ways from the traditional Greco-Roman culture:
- The code is not based on a desire to protect the social order or gain conformity to some ordained order of the world.
- Nowhere is the paterfamilias told to rule his household.
- Members of the household, like women and slaves, are treated as free moral agents who have the ability to choose how to behave within the household.
Peter’s concern was not preservation of an unalterable divinely established order nor was it to establish egalitarian authority structures. The entire letter is about living an orderly life based on other-centered love instead of status and domination, even in the face of persecution. Living this way, as a missional community, they would draw others into their community.
And here is the ironic part. Peter was missionally concerned not to use freedom in a way that needlessly offended the host culture. Ironically, those today who insist on the subordination of women from this passage may be violating Peter’s teaching. Insisting that women be in subordination to men in a culture that does not practice subordination, may be giving offense to the host culture and preventing people from hearing the Good News.