Commentary on 1 Peter 3:1-7

Notes (NET Translation)

3:1 In the same way, wives, be subject to your own husbands. Then, even if some are disobedient to the word, they will be won over without a word by the way you live, 3:2 when they see your pure and reverent conduct.

This passage is addressed to all wives, but especially wives of non-Christians (those “disobedient to the word,” the gospel, 1:23, 25; 2:7-8; 4:17). Most Hellenistic writers addressed wives indirectly through their husbands, while Peter addressed wives directly as independent moral agents (Elliott 552). “The term [in the same way] does not suggest that the relationship between wives and husbands is like that of slaves and masters. Instead, it should be understood as ‘a connective’ meaning no more than the conjunction ‘and'” (Schreiner 148). Peter envisions the conduct of the wives, not their words, to be the primary means of winning over unbelieving husbands.

Just as Peter begins his instruction that slaves submit themselves to their masters in all fear of the Lord (2:18), he begins his instructions to believing wives with the same qualification: “Likewise [with all respect], wives, be subject to your own husbands” (3:1; see additional note on 2:18 for a discussion of the imperatival participle). The wife’s reverence for God is her motivation for submitting to her husband, regardless of whether the husband is harsh or kind. The antagonism her faith might produce is to be endured for the sake of Christ and for the possible conversion of her husband. Why would a wife’s conversion likely provoke antagonism from her husband? In Greco-Roman society it was expected that the wife would have no friends of her own and would worship the gods of her husband (Plutarch, Advice §19). If this expectation is applied to a Christian wife, it might result in trouble for several reasons. First, the very fact that a woman would adopt any religion other than her husband’s violated the Greco-Roman ideal of an orderly home (Oborn 1939: 133). Because prosperity and well-being were seen as dependent on religious forces, disorder in the home was a threat not only to the family but to society. Christians were frequently blamed as the cause of public calamity because they introduced a new god, upsetting the religious status quo of the empire (Oborn 1939: 137; Colwell 1939; Frend 1967).

Second, the husband and society would perceive the wife’s worship of Jesus Christ as rebellion, especially if she worshiped Christ exclusively. If the wife persisted in her new religion to the extent that others outside the household learned of it, the husband would also feel embarrassment and suffer criticism for not properly managing his household. This could seriously damage his social standing, even to the point of disqualifying him for certain honors and offices. Third, the wife’s attendance at Christian worship would provide the opportunity for her to have fellowship with other Christians who possibly were not her husband’s friends. Depending on the specifics of social expectations, a wife’s conversion to Christ could potentially have far-reaching implications for her husband and family. (Jobes loc. 3164-3177)

We can also infer from this that the submission of wives is not absolute. If husbands require wives to disobey moral norms or follow another religion, then wives should disobey. The exception implied here would be extraordinarily important to Peter’s readers, for wives were expected to adopt the religion of their husbands in the Greco-Roman world. Plutarch said: “A wife should not acquire her own friends, but should make her husband’s friends her own. The gods are the first and most significant friends. For this reason, it is proper for a wife to recognize only those gods whom her husband worships and to shut the door to superstitious cults and strange superstitions.” The wives Peter addressed, then, would be considered socially radical in Peter’s day since they had adopted a different religion from their husbands. They are encouraged to submit to their husbands wherever possible, but there are limits to their submission. Even if it causes their husbands displeasure, they should continue to be part of the church of Jesus Christ. (Schreiner 152-153)

The metamessage of Peter’s instructions is probably not lost on the husband, who could see in it two points: (1) This apostle of Jesus Christ instructs the Christian slave and wife, a role that is normally the prerogative of the husband. (2) This direct instruction to slaves and wives implies that both have a measure of moral responsibility and choice unprecedented in Greek thought. The husband or slave master cannot object, since Peter does indeed affirm the man’s authority. On the other hand, he also sees in this affirmation that his wife’s or slave’s submission is motivated no longer by the expectations of Roman society or the principles of Greek moral philosophy but instead by the authority and example of the crucified and resurrected Christ. In a masterful move, Peter both upholds and subverts the social order. (Jobes loc. 3183-3187)

3:3 Let your beauty not be external – the braiding of hair and wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes – 3:4 but the inner person of the heart, the lasting beauty of a gentle and tranquil spirit, which is precious in God’s sight.

Many writers in the Greco-Roman world encouraged women not to be overly concerned with external appearances. Thus, Peter’s advice is not radical in its historical context. Peter is not forbidding all concerns about hair, jewelry, and clothing. He is prohibiting the spending of excessive amounts of time and money on such things (Schreiner 153-154).

The point is rather that the attraction of the Christian wife to her pagan husband is to consist not in external adornment but in the more important internal qualities outlined in the following verse [v 4]. Only in that way will the virtue of the Christian faith become evident, and, more importantly, will the wife act in accordance with the divine will, and so be pleasing to God. That in the end is the purpose of the wife’s inner adornment, as v. 4b makes clear. The wife, acting within the limits imposed on her by the social order that in this case urges modesty in apparel also appropriate for Christians, must nevertheless have as her primary intention activity that is pleasing to God. (Achtemeier 212-213)

Peter’s instructions against outward adornment make sense if a Christian wife is attending Christian worship outside her home, and especially if doing so without her husband. Society would perceive that act alone as questionable. By leaving her home unadorned, her intent to attend worship and not a tryst would presumably be all the more clear. (Jobes loc. 3201-3202)

The “inner person of the heart” refers to a person’s thoughts, dispositions, and intentions (Elliott 565). The Greek word praus means “gentle,” “humble,” “modest,” “unassuming,” and “meek” (Elliott 566). The Greek word hesychios [tranquil] denotes “a state of inner peacefulness and calm, quiet serenity, and tranquility, unruffled by the vicissitudes and disturbances of the daily round” (Elliott 566).

3:5 For in the same way the holy women who hoped in God long ago adorned themselves by being subject to their husbands, 3:6 like Sarah who obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. You become her children when you do what is good and have no fear in doing so.

We should notice the logical connection between v. 5 and v. 6. The holy women of old “submitted” to their husbands “as” (hos) Sarah “obeyed” (hypekousen) Abraham. The comparison demonstrates that the word “submit” includes the idea of obedience (cf. Luke 2:51; Rom 8:7; 10:3; 13:1; 1 Cor 14:34, etc.). Some object that obedience is an example but not a definition of submission. Surely submission includes more than obedience, for the right spirit and attitude are also commended in v. 4. What must be noticed, however, is that nothing less than obedience is required. In other words, submission does not merely involve being considerate or adapting to one’s husband. It is crucial to note that obedience and submission are different in various spheres. Peter was hardly suggesting that wives submit and obey in the same way as children, for the relationship is between two adults. We also learn from Paul that mutuality also characterizes the marriage relationship (1 Cor 7:3-5). Reading the whole marriage relationship through the lens of submission is liable to distort significantly the Scriptures. Nevertheless, what cannot be washed away is the responsibility of wives to follow their husbands’ leadership. (Schreiner 156)

The reference to Sarah alludes to Gen 18:12 LXX, where she laughs when the three visitors tell Abraham that he will have an heir. In the ancient Israelite and Greco-Roman worlds a woman was always under the authority of a “lord” (e.g., husband, father) and this is why Peter takes Gen 18:12 to imply that Sarah obeyed Abraham (Elliott 571; cf. Gen 12:13; 20:5, 13). One may also note that Abraham obeys Sarah on three occasions (Gen 16:2, 6; 21:12).

The wives in the Petrine community have become Sarah’s daughters if they imitate her godly behavior. The past tense of the verb “you have become” (NRSV, egenethete) is obscured by the NIV’s “you are.” The time of conversion was likely in Peter’s mind, though some think Peter simply referred to the kind of character required of wives. But how should we understand the two participles that follow? The NIV takes them as conditional, “if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.” The NRSV introduces a temporal idea, though it is also implicitly conditional, “as long as you do what is good and never let fears alarm you.” Some scholars reject a conditional idea, arguing that such a notion does not fit with the idea of conversion in the past and violates the teaching that conversion is God’s work. The participles could be construed as instrumental, “You have become her children by doing good and not fearing.” Or they could be understood as temporal, “You have became her children when you did good and did not fear.” The conditional notion is more likely in context. A conditional element does not sit awkwardly with conversion in the past. In fact, there are many statements in the New Testament where a past conversion is noted and then a conditional statement follows (e.g., Rom 11:21-22; 1 Cor 6:9-11; Col 1:21-23; Heb 3:14). What Peter said here is not unusual at all. Peter followed the standard New Testament view that perseverance is needed to obtain eternal life (cf. 2 Pet 1:5-11). Those who are Sarah’s children “do what is right” (agathopoieo). The term “doing good” (literally) is a favorite of Peter’s (2:15, 20; 3:17; cf. 2:14; 3:11, 16; 4:19), expressing the Christian character of believers. Not only should believers do good but they should “not give way to fear.” An echo of Prov 3:25 may exist here. In particular, wives of unbelieving husbands would be prone to fear their husbands, who could treat them rather harshly and perhaps even violently because of their faith. Believers are exhorted to fear God (cf. 1:17; 2:17-18; 3:2), but any fear of human beings, even in persecution (3:16), is to be avoided. The implication is that believing wives will not always behave in a way that pleases their husbands because at times their loyalty to God will transcend their duty to submit to husbands. In such cases they are not to fear but hope in God, trusting that he will vindicate them on the last day. The response of women to oppression by unbelieving husbands is exemplary and paradigmatic for all believers, just as the behavior of slaves points to the way all believers should react to persecution. (Schreiner 157-158)

3:7 Husbands, in the same way, treat your wives with consideration as the weaker partners and show them honor as fellow heirs of the grace of life. In this way nothing will hinder your prayers.

Peter spends most of his time in this section addressing those who are more likely to be oppressed (e.g., civilians, slaves, wives), but he provides one verse to husbands. As in v. 1, the phrase “in the same way” is a loose connective and does not imply husbands are to submit to their wives as people submit to rulers (2:12), slaves submit to masters (2:18), or wives submit to husbands (3:1). Husbands are to treat their wives with consideration of God’s will (Schreiner 159-160). The Greek term translated “wives” (gynaikeios) refers to females or women generally and not solely wives. This suggests the verse tells men how to deal with all the female members of their household, but especially his wife (Achtemeier 217). Women are generally physically weaker than men and were in a socially weaker position in Greco-Roman society. The notion that women are weaker intellectually, emotionally, morally, or spiritually is not found here. Women are fellow heirs of eternal life. According to Bechtler (via Schreiner 161), the admonition for husbands to honor their wives is unique in Greco-Roman literature. Husbands who fail to honor their wives will have their prayers hindered. “God does not bless with his favor those who are in positions of authority and abuse those who are under them by mistreating them. Perhaps this verse anticipates v. 12, where the Lord attends to the prayers of the righteous but turns away from those who practice evil” (Schreiner 161).

The essential incompatibility of the Christian ethos with that of secular culture is here once more clearly on display, and it is surely for that reason that this section on the Christian men and husbands is included, not because such advice was a normal part of household codes or specifically to address men who had pagan wives. Rather, it is included to warn men (and husbands) that the advice in 3:1-6 to be subordinate to their pagan husbands did not carry with it the kind of superior status for male members of the Christian community that it did in secular society. Reciprocity is the key to such relationships within the Christian faith. The discussion of the place of men could be somewhat more succinct than that of slaves and wives, however, since (1) men and husbands do not serve as examples to the Christian community of the way Christians are to react to the oppression of secular society, and (2) Christian men would also have had fewer difficulties in secular society than women, even when they lived out their Christian convictions, given the bias against women in that culture. Yet the section apparently had to be included, lest any notion of female inferiority infect the essential equality between men and women inherent within the Christian community: they are together and equally heirs of God’s grace that promises life in the age to come. (Achtemeier 218-219)

Bibliography

Achtemeier, Paul J. 1 Peter. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996.

Elliott, John Hall. 1 Peter. Yale University Press, 2007.

Jobes, Karen. 1 Peter. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 2005.

Michaels, J. Ramsey. 1 Peter. Thomas Nelson, 1988.

Schreiner, Thomas R. 1, 2 Peter, Jude. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2003.

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