Over the last several posts I have argued that the NT elevates the role of women as equals alongside men. This is expressed most clearly in Gal 3:28:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Despite the NT’s consistent stress on the elevation of women in roles that clearly equate them with men, many evangelicals continue to assert that the NT advocates for the subordination of women to men. One of the popular passages cited to support this is 1 Peter 3:1-6, 7.
Religious liberties for women in 1 Peter 3:1-6
In 1 Peter 3:1-6, Peter asserts,
“In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior. Your adornment must not be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands; just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear.”
The context for understanding Peter’s instructions begins in the exhortation of 1 Peter 2:11-12. There Peter states, “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.”
The use of “beloved” in 1 Pet 2:11 marks the beginning of the section, which opens by affirming our identity in Christ as “aliens and strangers” (1 Pet 2:11; cf 1 Pet 1:13-2:10).
Peter, then, follows this with a series of exhortations (2:13-3:12): he addresses:
- all believers (2:13-17): who are to submit themselves to “every human institution” (2:13).
- slaves (2:18-20):
- wives (3:1-6):
- men (3:7-8):
- and all believers again (3:8-12).
In all, Peter addresses these various subgroups as those who constitute “aliens and strangers.” In doing so, Peter illustrates what it means to live as “aliens and strangers” in the world.
Peter’s exhortations to each of the subgroups is summarized in his opening statement in 1 Pet 2:12: the people of God are called to live “excellent” lives in the midst of a hostile pagan culture, even though such behavior will lead to suffering—which in 1 Peter is primarily slander or shaming—so that unbelievers may be won over to the faith.
In the midst of these exhortations, Peter presents Jesus as the model of one who suffers unjustly (cf 2:21-23).
The passage dealing with women (3:1-6), which on the surface certainly looks as though he is ordering women to be submissive to men, must be understood both in light of this larger context of 1 Peter 2:11-3:12, as well as the socio-religious context of the Greco-Roman world.
The Greco-Roman context behind 1 Pet 3:1-6
In the Greco-Roman world, a family’s religion was mediated through the male (the paterfamilias), who was the chief priest of the household. Once a woman entered into marriage, she was expected to renounce her families’ religion and worship her husband’s gods.
Women were not expected to have any friends outside of her husband’s circle of influence. In Roman times, this was not a minor set of religious convictions.
For the Romans, the well-being of the community and the nation was at stake. Neglecting the gods could lead to societal ruin.
The conflict for many women in the early church was created when they came to faith in Christ and their husbands did not. These Christian wives had, in effect, adopted a god different from their husband’s—which was not culturally acceptable.
Moreover, a wife’s attendance at a Christian worship would suggest that she had friends that were not her husband’s—which also was not culturally acceptable.
All of this would lead to her husband’s public dishonor. The significance of this is hard to overstate. This means that for a woman to become a Christian when her husband was not, may have been viewed as her rebelling against both her husband and the larger Roman society.
In 1 Peter 3:1-6, Peter instructs women how to live in such a situation. Note that Peter’s addressing women in this letter is itself problematic. After all, her receiving instructions from another male was also culturally unacceptable.
This means that Peter’s instructions were actually very liberating and non-conformist. After all, the women were receiving instructions from an apostle, who is a male and not her husband.
Peter’s instructions affirm the independence and moral capacity of women to determine their own religion.
The difficulty of the situation would have been exacerbated by the wife’s desire for her husband to come to know Jesus as well. The problem would have been that if she were to instruct her husband regarding Christianity it would be further viewed as undermining both her husband and the societal order.
When it came to religion, women were to be instructed by their husbands and not the other way around. The consequences for a woman’s attempt to persuade her husband could well have led to physical abuse—which was permissible by Roman law.
Peter’s exhortation, then, to the wives to “be submissive to your own husbands” must be viewed in light of this background. Peter is, at the same time, instructing her to assert her independence, but to do so with restraint.
NT scholar Joel Green notes that Peter is both “upholding and subverting the social order.”
This means that though Peter empathizes with a women’s desire to witness to her husband, he exhorts them to not use words, which would be culturally very problematic and potentially dangerous, and might possibly lead to physical abuse, but, instead, they should attempt to win him over by their “behavior” (3:1).
1 Peter 3:1-6, then, not only does not teach the subordination of women, it actually affirms a woman’s rights. She may choose her own religion, have friends outside her husband’s circle, and receive instruction from a man who was not here husband.
Women as weaker vessels? 1 Pet 3:7
Peter’s instructions to the men (1 Peter 3:7) are also problematic for many readers today. Peter commands them, “You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered.”
What does Peter mean when he refers to women as “weaker” and that their prayers may not be hindered?
In response, we must observe that although every major English translation has Peter addressing “husbands,” there is good reason to suggest that Peter was addressing men in general.
Though Peter uses the general term for husband (aner), which may also mean “men,” he does not use the standard Greek word for wife (gune) but instead employs the more general term for women (gunaikeios).
This likely indicates that the address to men is in regard to women in general—or perhaps, at least to the women within a man’s extended family.
With regard to Peter’s instructions to men, the first thing to observe is his conciseness. Why is he so brief?
In response, it is important to be reminded that the context was set in 1 Pet 2:11-12: the people of God are called to live “excellent” lives in the midst of a hostile pagan culture, even though such behavior will lead to suffering.
Peter’s conciseness in his address to the men was likely the result of the fact that in the first-century Greco-Roman world men were not a good illustration of how to live out the Christian life in the midst of oppression. As a category, men were generally not oppressed. Slaves and women, the two groups that Peter addresses more extensively, were.
What about Peter’s reference to women as weaker vessels? Simply put, Peter was not indicating that women were inferior in role. As argued above, Peter has already affirmed the independence and equality of women when it comes to choosing their own religion. The fact that they were listening to his advice in this letter is an affirmation of their rights in Christ, which were often not granted to them in the Greco-Roman culture.
What, then, does Peter mean? Since the context of this main section of 1 Peter is referring to living godly lives among the pagans despite suffering, the best understanding of Peter’s reference to women as “weaker vessels” is in terms of their social status. Peter was informing the men on how to treat women. Namely, the men must be understanding towards the women who, because of their coming to church, were in a much more precarious cultural situation than they were. They were “weaker” with regard to their position in society.
Women in 1 Peter 3
Throughout this passage, Peter is affirming women. He was not putting them down or subjecting them to a patriarchal structure.
In fact, Peter exhorts the men to “show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life” (3:7). Women are “fellow heirs” and must be given “honor.” Peter, as with Paul, affirms that men and women are co-heirs in the kingdom of God. And, since she is a fellow heir, she must be given honor.
Peter closes his address to men by warning them that they must treat women this way, “so that your prayers may not be hindered” (3:7).
This may seem strange. However, it fits well with the historical and cultural context that we have observed. Throughout the NT, the proclamation of the kingdom of God includes God’s desire for justice among the marginalized.
In the cultural context behind 1st Peter slaves and women, but not necessarily men, were among the marginalized.
This is what “Thy kingdom come” in the Lord’s prayer means. Our prayers, in other words, are for the kingdom to come. If we fail to live in accord with the kingdom, most notably by not helping those who are marginalized, which in 1st Peter included women, then the result is unanswered prayers.
“This is all fine and good, but doesn’t 1 Cor 11:2-16 say that men are the head of women?” I will address this over the next several posts!
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 I will contend below that Peter is addressing “men” and not necessarily “husbands.”
 Physically abusing wives was permitted in the Roman world.
 Green, 1 Peter.
 Peter addresses everyone in a total of 10 verses (2:13-17 and 3:8-12); slaves in three verses (2:18-20); wives in a total of six verses (3:1-6); men/husbands in one verse (3:7). Note in the middle Peter presents Jesus as the example (2:21-25).