The surprising reason Peter told wives to submit to their husbands

Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

Do you agree or disagree with Fred Flintstone that a woman’s place is in the home?  Check out yesterday’s post for more on that.  This week we are studying what Peter says about roles in marriage, as found in 1st Peter 3:1-7.  Give it a read.

There you’ll find that Peter says, “Wives, be submissive to your husbands.  You are free in Christ, but still submit.”  Peter is using the same principle as he did when he taught slaves that they should submit to their masters.

Likewise in Jewish and in Roman society it was expected and commonplace that wives were to submit to their husbands.  In some cases the understanding of marriage roles was so severe that wives were considered the property of their husbands.  Wives, for example, were expected to conform to the religion of their husbands.  They didn’t have a choice.  And here come the Christians into that society teaching that in Christ men and women are equal (Galatians 3:28), and that all are free in Christ?  To us that equality and freedom is normal.  That has been the norm for us for a long time.  But in the society of the First Century Roman Empire, Peter’s teaching was radical.  More on that to come.

So here is Peter saying to these Christians wives, “Follow the cultural assumption.”  But why?  He goes to explain himself, “in order that you might win over your husband.”  The implication is clear.  If you don’t submit, you could seriously damage the possibility that you could help your husband become a follower of Jesus.  The cause of Christ, Peter is saying, should be more important than our personal freedoms! Peter is being very wise here.  He knows that if the wives rise up and say to their husbands, “I’m free and I am equal with you buddy,” they will be in a very precarious position with their unbelieving husbands who totally disagree with the idea of women’s equality.

Peter is concerned that their husbands will either severely mistreat their wives, or will want nothing to do with those wives. Husbands might divorce them, life will be miserable for the women, and Christians will be seen as people who are crazy.  In other words, in that culture, because it was so deeply patriarchal, Christianity needed to work within the patriarchal marriage system in order to survive.  Christianity didn’t yet have the stature or influence to change the system.

It is just like missionaries who go into a new culture and work within that culture.  There are ways that my sister-in-law, who lives and ministers in Malaysia, dresses differently, for example, than she would in our culture.  Her family has to approach the expression of the faith with caution as well.  They wouldn’t get a megaphone and go out on the street corners loudly proclaiming that Muslims are repressing women.  They have to be more wise than that.

What Peter is teaching, then, is in the same vein as his teaching to slaves.  There we saw that he was not saying that slavery is okay.  Instead he was teaching Christians who were already slaves to advance the cause of Christ within the culture in which they live.  Same thing for married women.  He is not saying that the repression of women is okay.  Rather he is saying, wives, you can submit or obey your husbands in order to advance the cause of Christ.

Peter and the other apostles had to work within the system, seeking to win as many people as possible, so that the Kingdom of God would advance.  The best approach at that moment in time, then, was for the wives to submit to their husbands.

But look at what Peter says next, “Win them over without words.”  Additionally he adds the qualifying phrase in verse 1: “if any of them do not believe the word”. This indicates that some Christian women were married to non-Christian husbands.  Those unbelieving husbands had heard the message of the good news about Jesus, but they chose not to agree with it.

As Peter continues his teaching through this passage, this unique situation is what he is talking about: how should a person handle their marriage role and responsibility when they are married to a non-Christian spouse?  It seems that there were husbands in that society, just like there are husbands and wives in our day, that hear about Jesus and say, “No. I’m not into that.”  Once the husband says that, Peter teaches here, it is time for the wife to stop preaching the words.  But that doesn’t mean the unbelieving spouse is a lost cause, or that the wife no longer has to submit.  Why?  Look at what Peter says next.

He says, those unbelieving husbands “may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives!” Actions speak louder than words.  This is so instructive to sharing the Gospel.  Peter says that there is a place for sharing the words. Peek ahead to verse 15 of chapter 3 where Peter teaches, “Always be prepared to give an answer…But do it with gentleness and respect.”  So while the primary purpose of verses 1-6 are to give believing wives with unbelieving husbands some very important instruction about how to win over their unbelieving husbands, there is a principle embedded here that applies to all relationships between those of us who are followers of Jesus and those who are not.

Share the words of the Gospel with gentleness and respect.  Win them over without words, but with the right behavior.  Words alone will rarely, rarely win people over.  Gentle, loving, respectful behavior is vastly important, therefore, for winning people over. And that is what this submission passage is about.  Whether slaves to masters, or wives to husbands, Paul wants them to see the mission of God as of utmost importance!

There needs to be balance when it comes to sharing the Gospel.  The Gospel is a message that can and should be told with words.  “Always be ready” means we should be willing to share the words of the gospel all the time.  And the Gospel is a message that can and should be told without words.  Peter says, “share the words and yet win them over without words.”

How do we know when the time is right to share the words?  Pray about it. Ask God to open a door of opportunity and give you the words, because it can be very scary.  Then maybe if face to face is too scary or confrontational, how about writing to them?  Make sure it is with gentleness and respect.  Tell the story of how Jesus has changed your life.

And that is exactly what he goes on to describe in verses 2-6, again talking to Christian wives, which we will look at tomorrow..

Published by joelkime

I love my wife, Michelle, and our four kids and two daughters-in-law. I serve at Faith Church and love our church family. I teach a course online from time to time, and in my free time I love to read and exercise, especially running,

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