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

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

Part C – Sarah and the Holy Women of the Past

Last week we jumped into 1 Peter3:1-9 by investigating the nature of Peter’s instructions to husbands and wives in his description of wives as weaker vessels and in authority/submission as a universal ideal or as a concession to fallen realities. This week we will look at how Peter might be using Sarah and the other holy women of the past as examples of how these concepts look in the lives of his people.

An often-confusing part of this passage is the reference to Sarah and the holy women of the past. Their example is connected through the ideas of adornment, submission, hope, and fear. Sarah, specifically, is said to have obeyed her husband and called him lord.

For some, the connection seems quite obvious: holy women of the past (presumably those we know from the Old Testament) adorned themselves with a gentle and quiet spirit, which is closely associated with submission. They should be used as an example of submission and obedience for both the women of Peter’s day and the women of today, who like Sarah, should respectfully obey their husbands. For example, Wayne Grudem connects submission and a gentle and quiet spirit by saying, “submission is an inner quality of gentleness that affirms the leadership of her husband.”[1]

Other scholars argue that the point of Peter’s example can be found, once again, in the precarious situation he is addressing. As opposed to examples of total submission, Peter says that Sarah and the holy women are examples of people who put their hope in God (3:5). Their submission demonstrates the hope they have placed in God himself, often in difficult or dangerous situations. In the case of Sarah, we specifically see her submit to her husband three times in the Old Testament: once to leave her home and go with Abram on a journey to the unknown (Genesis 12:15), and twice to deceive a foreign king (Genesis 12 and 20). In each case, Abraham put her in a difficult and dangerous position. Twice Sarah even suffered injustice at the hands of her disobedient husband. Both foreign kings Abraham asked her to deceive made her a part of their harem, and it was only though God’s intervention that she was released. In only one of those cases does the Bible specifically state that the king hadn’t touched her.

As far as the other women of the Old Testament, it is difficult to find an example of a woman who specifically submitted to her husband. There are, however, women who were praised for taking the initiative, and at times, going against authority figures, and even their own husbands, in order to demonstrate their hope in God and his plan.[2] This understanding would certainly fit with Peter’s admonition to do what is right and not give way to fear (3:6).

As far as Sarah calling Abraham “her lord,” scholars note that this occurs only once in the Old Testament. Rather than an example of submission, it is an off-handed comment in Genesis 18:12. It appears to be a simple term of respect, used also by Rebekah for Abraham’s servant in Genesis 24:18. If Sarah could be respectful to a husband that put her in such dangerous situations, she certainly could be an example to wives seeking to win over their unbelieving husbands.   

Finally, scholars note that gentleness and quietness, often linked to wifely submission, are not simply personality traits for proper women, but spiritual qualities that should be cultivated by all Christians. Twice in Matthew’s gospel Jesus describes himself as gentle. Galatians 5 lists gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit that should be evident in the lives of all Christians. Paul instructs the readers of three of his letters to be humble and gentle, while also listing gentleness as a qualification of overseers/elders.[3] Peter encouraged wives to win over their husbands with unfading, inner qualities because those qualities were valuable to God and enduring examples of his Spirit at work in them.

Once again, readers vary widely as they understand and apply this passage to Christian husbands and wives today. While some see Peter’s admonition as a support for specific roles and authority differentials between men and women in marriage, others see Peter calling husbands and wives to radical respect and honor that went beyond societal norms. While some see Peter prescribing an ideal marriage, others see Peter instructing wives in a perilous situation to be quiet about their faith in order to win over their more-powerful husbands through respectful attitudes and actions. Take some time to look into the various views using the starting points below and consider the implications of 1 Peter 3 for your own life and ministry. Next week we will dive into 1 Timothy 2:8-15, often considered one of the most complicated passages in the New Testament.

For Discussion:  What ideas are most helpful to you about what God is communicating through the examples of these women? Why?

Resources to consider:

Complementarian Perspective

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

Barrett, Matthew. God’s Design for Marriage: Celebrating the Beauty of Gender Roles in 1 Peter 3, Blog Post, May 27, 2015 https://cbmw.org/2015/05/27/from-the-sacred-desk-gods-design-for-marriage-celebrating-the-beauty-of-gender-roles-in-1-peter-31-7/

Alternative Perspectives

Glahn, Sandra. Is Peter Insulting Women? (Part 1), Blog Post, November 26, 2013

Is Peter Insulting Women? (Part 2), Blog Post, December 10, 2013

Peter to Wives: Put Off. Put On. Watch This. Blog Post, December 8, 2015

Mowczko, Marg. Submission and Respect from Husbands – 1 Peter 3:7-8, Blog Post, September 11, 2011

Submission and Respect From Wives – 1 Peter 3:1-6, Blog Post, April 24, 2012

A “Weaker Vessel” and Gender Justice (1 Peter 3:7), Blog Post, April 12, 2015

[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. 196.

[2] Mowczko, Marg. Submission and Respect From Wives – 1 Peter 3:1-6, Blog Post, April 24, 2012

[3] See Ephesians 4:2, Philippians 4:5, Colossians 3:12, and 1 Timothy 3:2.

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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