What if Peter is simply stating the Roman law for clarity, and then giving a Christian teaching on how to make the most of it. In a sense to give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but then adding a new dimension to transform their understanding of marriage. By doing so he gives a framework in which wife and husband are able to fulfil the law while also providing an example of a good Christian marriage. Paul states the overarching law, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21). Mutual submission applies to all. Christ’s example of service means we must all serve each other. This is to follow the example of Jesus “… in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:3–4)
Further, Peter provides a deeply spiritual reason for keeping the Roman law, because it may help their non-Christian husbands come to faith. Peter’s reiteration of Roman law would not have stood out to his early readers, but his advice to husbands would have, “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, …” (1 Peter 3:7). “Weaker partner” refers to physical strength where often men had the advantage. Peter’s revelation that husbands should treat their wives as co-heirs was counter cultural. Beth Barr wrote …. not only did early Christians place women in leadership roles; they met together on equal footing—men, women, children, and slaves … Christianity was deviant and immoral because it was perceived as undermining ideals of Roman masculinity. (The making of Biblical Womanhood) It was at this point – equality of the sexes, that the “Christian way” challenged the “Roman way”.
It is frustrating with passages like 1 Peter, because of misunderstanding, we have to spend time explaining what “wives submit” means rather than focusing on what was truly revolutionary; that men needed to treat women as equals. This biblical principle remains true today in terms of equality of pay, equality of opportunity, equality in education.
What difference does this make to us? Should wives submit to their husbands? Yes, but not in the sense many people understand submission today. This is her opportunity to use her freedom to serve her husband in love. This is not submission because women are considered inferior, rather it is her gift, given freely in a relationship of respect where a husband also submits. Jesus Christ expects his truth to enter our lives, our thinking and our relationships. He expects us to follow his example of submission as an expression of love where we seek the best for others. At times the modern emphasis on individual rights robs us of the joy of putting others first. If you think submission is negative and oppressive you will find this abhorrent. But if you see submission as positive, a free choice to serve and put others first, then this is liberating and fulfilling, part of living a truly good life.
- Read 1 Corinthians 7:12–14. What was the problem facing Christians who were married to non-Christians?
- Peter tells Christians to submit to all human authority (1 Peter 2.13), part of which was to obey Roman law. Why might it have been important for wives in those times to obey this law?
- Does your understanding of this passage change if the idea of wives submitting to the husbands is 1) the commonly held Roman law that lapsed when the Roman Empire crumbled; or 2) a new idea generated by Christians to be applied in every generation?
- Why might Peter's instruction to husbands - to treat their wives as co‑heirs - have been a challenge to the norms of their society?
- What might our society be like if we more fully embraced the Christian ideal of equality of the sexes: different, but equal?
Rev John Malcolm