Showing Honor to the Woman: Reflections on Marriage in 1 Peter

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Showing Honor to the Woman: Reflections on Marriage in 1 Peter

In today’s culture, households are usually either hierarchical or egalitarian institutions. Unfortunately, when some read the New Testament (NT) they misunderstand and misappropriate the divinely inspired counsel overemphasizing either of these modern notions of society. One concept that is misunderstood and misused is the concept of submission. The word “submit” upotasso must be understood in the honor-shame societal context in which Peter wrote, where the subordination expressed may be either compulsory or voluntary.[1] Voluntary submission seems to cut against the grain of a lot of modern thought. Yet, in the NT, the verb is always used in the context of social relationships. In other words, all women are not to submit to all men just by virtue of their gender. Peter is describing social relationships, i. e. how a society operates in the main. He doesn’t get into specifics that modern readers sometimes try to force him into. NT times were neither of the Victorian-morality stripe nor a post-modern feminist society. Their society functioned on various codes of ethics that tried to create and sustain an ordered society as they understood it, especially in a world of warfare where its consequences of social upheaval and chaos created by war were markedly problematic. To take the counsel NT writers give without understanding how they intended their audience to hear it is not only irresponsible, but also dangerous because it has a form of godliness that can justify heinous behavior.[2]

Submission: Slavery or God-ordained?

In biblical Hebrew culture, there was a patricentric society, where men predominantly led out in public affairs and had experience in military matters. Patricentrism is characteristic of a form of social organization in which the male is the family head and title is traced through the male line.[3] This is different from the usual notion of patriarchy, which is a social system in which males hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property. In the domain of the family, fathers or father-figures hold authority over women and children. The difference between the two is the notion of power. In patricentric societies the husband was understood as the head: protector, provider, servant leader responsible for the welfare of their family and providing an atmosphere of security and trust. In patriarchal societies, the inordinate emphasis tends to be on the authority of the husband. Within this cultural matrix there was a substantive difference between the public and private. In ancient times, in the public sphere, when dependence on men in battle ruled out participation of women, and generals, including monarchs, often led their armies into battle (e.g., 1 Kgs 22:29-35), a ruling queen could not project the national strength that a king could.[4] As Israel degenerated morally they moved toward patriarchy.

In Greco-Roman culture, there was a similar notion of hierarchy that operated on the rule of law.[5] At the top of the hierarchy was the husband. The husband was in a position of authority over his wife and slaves. The wife was usually in a position of authority over the slaves as well. The clients of a man were also in a position where they needed to please and honor their master or their patron. So, as the people of God transitioned from a theocratic monarchy to the subjugated “land-bridge” of the nations and from predominantly Jewish to include “Greeks” (a general term for non-Jews) it was necessary to bear witness to Christ’s Lordship over life in that context.

Submission in Context: Status—Christian or Roman

Peter moves from the most general to the most intimate of relationships—from politics to family. Peter already made it clear our citizenship is in heaven, for on earth we are resident aliens, temporarily residing, i. e. “elect exiles” (1:1, 2, 17) awaiting our end-time inheritance (1:9). So, his notion of citizenship on earth was that Christians should be known for their pure conduct more than political or social activism. I say that because by virtue of hailing Jesus as King, Christians were gaining a reputation as a subversive movement, but that was not their intent. As long as Christianity was understood as a Jewish sect it retained the protection of Roman law (religio licita). But Christians who were saying everyone was equal in the eyes of God (Gal 3:28) would, as you can imagine, upset the apple cart. In Colossians 3, Paul outlines a similar notion of societal codes (Col. 3:18–4:6). While he uses the worship of Christ “Whatever you do, whether it’s in word or deed, everything is to be done in the name of Jesus Christ.” (Col. 3:17) as a justification for an ordered society in a sinful world, Peter uses the honor/shame paradigm to convince us to be good citizens (1 Pet. 2:12, 17, 18; 3:2) in this world that is passing away (1 Cor. 7:31; 1 John 2:17). It is true that these three social systems were unfair—autocratic government, slavery, and male domination in marriage. Peter was not trying to overthrow society, but sought to have Christians under the Lordship of Christ uphold and instill these biblical principles for the sake of the Lord and His gospel (1 Pet. 2:13).

Wives be subject, Husbands show honor…

If Peter’s objective was simply to set forth a Christian view of marriage irrespective of his cultural milieu why not go back to God’s original plan of patricentrism? Look at his reasoning; he makes a purpose statement: “husbands may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives.” Was Peter just telling women to listen to their husbands because they were supposed to, no questions asked, period? (a Greco-Roman way of thinking). No, his purpose is evangelism, just like being a good citizen could win people to Christ, being an honorable wife, of respectful and pure conduct, meek and mild in appearance could win a hard-hearted husband.[6] Why start with the wife? Notice Peter assumes that it would be the husband who is disobedient to the Word, why?

  • Christianity spread faster among women than men
  • Wives were expected to obey their husbands in Greco-Roman society, especially in matters of religion
  • Women faced the threat of death by refusing to worship the husband’s gods (via the charge of atheism)
  • Men’s economic welfare was more closely connected to his religious life than a women’s.

So, Peter’s sympathy is with the wife, understanding the physical and social ostracism she stood to receive by acknowledging Christ in defiance of worshipping another “god.” If that’s all Peter said I suppose many men would say “Amen!” but Peter gives men the harder counsel. Literally, “living together according to knowledge, as to the weaker, female vessel, show them honor as fellow heirs.” Let’s just say almost no one in the Greco-Roman was advocating this kind of care for a wife and no one saw husbands and wives as having the same status. Peter connects religious life to moral life. Unheard of! Aristotelian logic suggested women were by nature inferior to men in almost every way. But Peter’s suggestion that a man’s prayers were hindered because of how he treats his wife in a religious culture of libations and hero worship would seem ridiculous to non-Christians. But Peter warns husbands, no matter what society says Christian husbands better take care of their wives in accord with God’s will or He wouldn’t listen to our prayers. Showing honor to the weaker vessel notes the temptation to verbally or physically abuse someone weaker than yourself. Prayer, so neglected, is the linchpin to honor Christ and your spouse.[7]

Click the link to read the Sabbath School Lesson for this week, “Social Relationships.

Click here to read more commentaries on this quarter’s Adult Sabbath School lesson.

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Notes.

[1] Gerhard Delling, “Τάσσω, Τάγμα, Ἀνατάσσω, Ἀποτάσσω, Διατάσσω, Διαταγή, Ἐπιταγή, Προστάσσω, Ὑποτάσσω, Ὑποταγή, Ἀνυπότακτος, Ἄτακτος (ἀτάκτως), Ἀτακτέω,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 41.

[2] Southern slaveholders often used biblical passages like 1 Peter 2:18–25 to justify slavery. Those who defended slavery met the challenge set forth by the Abolitionists and Christian exegetes who tried to understand the words master-slave in a Greco-Roman context. Even today books are still being written to justify it. James and Ellen White were ardent Abolitionists. James White wrote a series of articles in the Review and Herald entitled “The Bible No Refuge for Slavery” that set forth a Biblical perspective on the issue.

 

[3] Daniel Block, “Marriage and Family in Ancient Israel,” in Marriage and Family in the Biblical World, ed. Ken M. Campbell (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 40–48.

[4] Cf. Judges 4, where Deborah was in overall command as a prophetess, but Barak led the Israelite troops into battle.

[5] Aristotelian “household codes” from the Politics saw the city-state, or the polis, as comprised of different individual households, where those who were able to function well contributed to the good of society. This view to a large extent was pervasive (though modified) and the standard approach to politics and society. Craig Keener, IVP Bible Background Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1993), 713. So, Peter is on the one hand speaking in a familiar format, but on the other hand turning Greco-Roman logic on its head by showing Jesus as our example to follow rather than a philosophical notion of societal ethics.

[6] Notice how he uses a heroine from the Hebrew Bible to make his point.

[7] Ellen White notes “To the man who is a husband and a father, I would say, Be sure that a pure, holy atmosphere surrounds your soul…. You are to learn daily of Christ. Never, never are you to show a tyrannical spirit in the home. The man who does this is working in partnership with satanic agencies. Bring your will into submission to the will of God. Do all in your power to make the life of your wife pleasant and happy. Take the word of God as the man of your counsel. In the home live out the teachings of the word. Then you will live them out in the church and will take them with you to your place of business. The principles of heaven will ennoble all your transactions. Angels of God will cooperate with you, helping you to reveal Christ to the world. (Adventist Home, p. 213) [Emphasis added]

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Jerome Skinner, earned his Ph.D as an Old Testament scholar at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. He focuses on the Psalms and Wisdom literature and on practical Christianity. Jerome is active in following American Christianity and social issues.