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Is Peter teaching that women should refer to their husbands as if the women were the slaves and the men were their owners? Isn't the expression "master" offensive and demeaning to the woman? And what does not giving way to fear have to do with such a situation? Is Peter setting women up for second-class status and abuse?
The passage in 1 Peter is referring to Genesis 18:12, in which Sarah laughs and says to herself, "After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure [of having a child]?" The point is that Sarah (perhaps even in her thoughts) refers to her husband as "my lord" (not "my master"), showing a proper respect toward him. The irony is that in the context, while appearing to respect Abraham, she is laughing at the words of Yahweh himself; Peter, however, like most New Testament authors, is not concerned with the context, only with the single use of the term.
But what is the context in 1 Peter? The passage is addressed to upper-class Christian women with unbelieving husbands (a far more common situation in that culture than that of Christian husbands with unbelieving wives). These women are advised to be subject to their husbands, for it is their virtuous behavior that will convert them, not their arguments for Christianity or their fancy dress (the fact that fancy dress was possible points to their being upper-class women; peasant women typically had one decent set of clothing and virtually no expensive jewelry). Such submission was also the mark of "the holy women," that is, the Old Testament women, of whom Sarah is the chief. This submission will mark these Christian women out as being themselves holy (Sarah's children).
Notice what is not said. First, it is not being implied that this submission extends to giving up the practice of the Christian faith or compromising the standards of holy living laid down by Jesus. These women are to continue to "hope in God" and "do what is right." Their husbands, being unconverted, may in fact threaten them with punishment or divorce, demanding that they not go to the church gatherings or that they practice something Christ has forbidden, but these women are not to "give way to fear." Suffering for the name of Christ is honored in 1 Peter. Yet like all of those to whom 1 Peter is written, they should suffer because they are committed to Christ, not because they have broken cultural standards of which Christ would approve.
In other words, what we see here is that the submission of these women is not to be absolute. They have submitted to Christ first of all. That is the one absolute submission. Now they follow him and submit to their husbands. Their culture demanded absolute submission to their husbands, including in matters of religion. This epistle is calling for them to take an independent stand on religion and morality, but to be model wives in every other way, which means that Christ would not be blamed for what was not truly the result of obedience to him.
Second, this pattern is not presented as the ideal for Christian marriage. Only in 1 Peter 3:7, as we shall see in the next chapter, does the author get around to discussing Christian marriage. Given that he has so little to say about it, it is likely that either such marriages were not a problem or that they were relatively rare in the communities he is addressing. In a Christian marriage the wife is an heir with her husband "of the gracious gift of life." In other words, she is an equal partner in the gospel. The husband is to give her honor and treat her with consideration, "so that nothing will hinder your prayers."
In 1 Peter 3:1 Peter is doing three things. First, he is presenting an evangelistic strategy. People are won to Christ not by words alone and certainly not by rebellion, but by living to the fullest pagan virtue (when it is consistent with Christian virtue), so that the non-Christian will see that the effect of Christ in one's life is to make one able to live the ideals that pagans could write about but rarely live.
Second, he is noting that the normal Christian position is the way of submis- sion. No New Testament writer has a problem with submission, for it is what Jesus practiced, as Peter points out in 1 Peter 2:23. Liberation in the New Testament comes from the powerful giving up power, the wealthy sharing their wealth, not by the oppressed demanding their rights or the poor their share of the pie. The effect of the Spirit is seen in the act of giving up, not that of demanding. Thus Sarah's action shows an attitude consistent with New Testament virtue. This was especially important, given the role possibilities for women in that day.
Third, he is following the pattern Paul described in 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 (and illustrates in 1 Cor 7:12-16), that Christians should not try to impose their standards on non-Christians. After all, such people do not have the power of the Spirit to follow Christian standards. Thus this passage does not address the behavior of the unbelieving husband, only that of the wife. She alone can show Christian virtue. She can hope that her husband will in fact come to faith and, filled with the Spirit, in turn begin to treat her as an equal, as instructed in 1 Peter 3:7.
This passage illustrates the fact that the concept of marriage as an intimate relationship between husband and wife is a relatively modern concept. The Mediterranean culture did not expect emotional intimacy between husband and wife. A man was closest to his mother and siblings; he might also have male friends (the father-son relationship generally was not an emotionally close one). A woman was closest to her children and her siblings, perhaps having other women friends (although women were generally expected to stay at home). The emotional distance between husband and wife in this passage (which the term "lord" certainly indicates) would not have bothered Peter, for while there are a very few examples in Scripture of marital emotional intimacy, it was not a cultural expectation. Likewise, although it may be culturally desirable today, it cannot on biblical grounds be made the essence of marriage. The essence is the publicly sanctioned covenant or commitment of each spouse to the relationship.
The translation "my master" in the NIV is unfortunate in that it implies that Peter is thinking about women as slaves. In fact, he is following the Greek translation of the Old Testament in using kyrios, or "lord," which may mean simply the respectful "sir" or could imply superior status such as "my lord" would imply in traditional British usage. When Peter refers to the master of a slave, however, he uses a different term,despotes (1 Pet 2:18).
See B. Malina, The New Testament Word (Atlanta: John Knox, 1984), for a description of Mediterranean culture, and R. Paul Stevens, Married for Good (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1986), especially the first four chapters, on the concept of what marriage is (the rest of the book works out these and other issues in the context of the marriage pattern of the Western world).