Pursuing Partnership Part 16A: Why the Confusion? The Interpretive Difficulties in 1 Peter 3

By Heather Althoff, ThM (Dallas Seminary), LifeWay Church – Missions Pastor

This article is part of the series Pursuing Partnership: Men and Women in Ministry.

Part 16A: Why the Confusion? The Interpretive Difficulties in 1 Peter 3

The Disputed Passages: Taking a Second Look at 1 Peter 3:1-9

Part A – Context

In my last post, I attempted to introduce some of the exegetical and interpretation issues found in Ephesians 5:21-33. I argued that it was worth diving deeper into the various viewpoints to understand the issues. For the next three weeks, I would like to engage another passage that speaks specifically to husbands and wives: 1 Peter 3:1-9.

Complementarian scholar Wayne Grudem has said of this passage that it “is a magnificent text for understanding God’s plan for an ideal marriage.”[1] Others acknowledge the context of this passage presents far from ideal circumstances. Once again, there are several issues of approach, context, and meaning that encourage us to take a second look at this passage and engage in robust, God-honoring discussion of its intent and application for us today.

For some, 1 Peter 3 describes the complementary responsibilities of husbands and wives, while guarding against common abuses.[2] In essence, these verses can be seen as supporting the traditional complementarian view that the husband has a unique leadership role within marriage and the wife has a unique responsibility to submit to his authority. From this perspective, the passage flows like this:

  • Wives should submit to their husbands (demonstrating that the husband has authority and leadership responsibility). This submission holds the potential to win unbelieving husbands through the wife’s behavior.
  • The nature of this submission is shown in her gentle and quiet spirit, the kind illustrated by the holy women of the past (in particular, Sarah) who submitted themselves to their husbands.
  • Husbands should be considerate in the practice of their leadership and authority, treating their wives with respect. They need to remember that their wives matter to God, so harsh or disrespectful treatment will hinder their prayers.

Others see Peter’s words being written to a specific time and situation, and thus dealing with a more nuanced issue than God’s plan for an ideal marriage. Once again, over the next three weeks, I will highlight some of the major issues and suggest some resources to explore. Today we will focus just on the context of 1 Peter 3.

Context

Everyone acknowledges that this passage takes place in an evangelistic context. The goal stated in chapter 2 is that Peter’s listeners would “live such good lives among the pagans that…they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:12). This desire permeates Peter’s words of exhortation to submit to human authorities (2:13), for slaves to submit to their masters (2:18), for those who are younger to submit to their elders (5:5), and presumably here, where wives are instructed to submit to their husbands (3:1). This is further supported by the phrase, “if any of them do not believe the word” describing the wives’ husbands in 3:1.

However, some scholars see another dynamic in the context that they believe informs the intention of Peter’s words: power differentials. Roman culture was one dominated by honor, shame, and patronage. The paterfamilias, or head of the household, ruled over his family including his wife, children, and slaves. In each relationship that Peter speaks to, the Greco-Roman culture of the day allotted great power to one person over the other and saw this power differential as an appropriate foundation for an orderly society. Roman magistrates, governors, and ultimately the emperor had great power over the general population, whether they were citizens or conquered people. Slavery was common practice, and masters (male or female) literally had the power of life and death over their slaves. Young people, especially children, had very few rights, and required the patronage of those who were older and more established in the political and social hierarchy of Roman culture. Finally, women were legally considered property that had to be under the care and oversight of a husband or male relative, who legally had the power to divorce, beat, or even kill them. When she was married, control over her life passed from father or brother to her new husband. A woman could not speak for herself in court, and important for this passage, was expected to worship the same gods as her husband.

So, imagine a scenario where a wife becomes a follower of Jesus, but her husband continues to worship the Roman gods. The wife is expected to participate with the rest of the household in daily rituals as well as feast days and celebrations in order to ensure blessing on the family, but she is convinced that worshiping other gods is a sin against the one true God. Depending on the temperament and piety of her husband, she will be, at the very least, in an uncomfortable situation, and in the worst cases, in significant danger if she refuses. She, like the slaves and children around her, has a legitimate reason to be afraid.

In light of this context, the instruction for the wife to submit becomes a thoughtful solution for a very touchy problem. It protects the wife and gives her hope that her respectful behavior might ultimately honor Christ as her husband is won over by her actions. We will explore submission more next week, but for now, it is helpful to understand that some scholars see great meaning in the specific situation that Peter was addressing in this passage. They argue that, far from a blueprint for a perfect marriage, submission protected these wives from imperfect, and possibly even abusive husbands. 

Next week we will address the issues of ‘the weaker vessel’ and ‘submission’ in this passage.

For Discussion:  What aspects of context in this passage give you helpful insight into the author’s intent? What new thoughts might you have?


[1] Grudem, Wayne. “Wives Like Sarah, and the Husbands Who Honor Them” pgs 194-208 in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Crossway 1991, p. 194.

[2] Ibid, p.194.


This article is submitted by Wendy Wilson of Missio Nexus and of Women’s Development Track.  Women’s Development Track is a Missio Nexus member.  Member organizations can provide content to the Missio Nexus website. See how by clicking here.


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