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International Women's Day

A Bit to Read

International Women’s Day

Earlier this year, March 8 to be exact, the (western) world commemorated the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of International Women’s Day.  We were told that much has been achieved in the course of the last one hundred years in terms of women’s rights, and told too that much still needs to be achieved.

We’re all children of our times, and so are touched by the thinking of the world in which we live – including the thoughts of the world about women rights and the place of the woman in home, marriage and the workplace.  This reality provides a catalyst to go back to the source of all wisdom, and learn from Scripture what the Lord would say about the relation between man and woman.  A good place to begin would be with the instruction the Spirit of the Lord moved Peter to write in 1 Peter 3.  Though Peter lived in a different cultural context than we do, the Lord’s unchanging Word remains valid for all people in all times and places.

The passage in question reads as follows:
Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, 2 when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. 3 Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. 4 Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. 5 For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful. They were submissive to their own husbands, 6 like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear. 
7 Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers. 

We’re immediately struck by a number of questions.  What actually is “submission”, and what is this meant to look like in our modern world?  Are the women of our day really expected to call their husbands “Master”?  Isn’t it condescending to say of women that they are the “weaker partner”?  There’s so much in this passage that very much runs against the grain!  In a series of three articles I propose to unpack what Peter is saying in these verses.

In the same way

The first item we need to grapple with in this passage is the manner in which Peter begins his instruction to women (in vs 1) and men (in vs 7).  He begins both verses with the phrase “in the same way”.  What, we wonder, is that phrase a reference to?  Standard rules for reading dictate that the phrase “in the same way” refers to something Peter wrote earlier.  One possibility is then to hook on to Peter’s words in 2:18 about slaves: “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect.”  Then “in the same way” means that wives need to “be submissive to your husbands” with the same respect that slaves have to show to their masters.  

There are two problems with this link.  The first is that Scripture never presents wives as if they are slaves to their husbands (or on the level of slaves) – and so needing to show husbands the same respect that slaves should show their masters.  On the contrary, the Scriptures present the woman as a “helper” to the man (Genesis 2:18) – and the word ‘helper’ appears elsewhere in Scripture to describe God’s function beside man (see Ps 121:2; 124:8).  The man needs the woman in the same way as people need the Lord God.  The woman is not a slave to her man, but a helper to him.  That women are seen as slaves is what you get when you disregard Biblical instruction about the place God has ordained for the man and the woman.  The place afforded to women in today’s Mid-Eastern society serves to illustrate the point.  The second problem with this link is that it simply does not fit in relation to husbands in vs 7.  Husbands too, says the apostle, are to do something “in the same way”, and submission (to their wives?) as per the slaves of 2:18 simply doesn’t fit the context.  We need to look further to appreciate what Peter wants to say with the phrase “in the same way”.

Peter’s instruction to wife and husband is part of a single flow of thought running from 2:11 through to 3:7.  The theme of this section appears in its opening verses, 2:11 & 12.  These two verses read as follows:
11Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

Note that Peter describes his readers’ identity: they are “aliens and strangers in the world.”  These “aliens and strangers” are also to live in a certain way, namely, they are to “live such good lives among the pagans that … they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits us.”  That principle has practical application in all of life, and Peter unpacks that application in the verses that follow.  In 2:13-17 Peter draws out what living good lives looks like in relation to the authorities of the land, and in 2:17-25 he draws out the same principle in relation to the way slaves are to relate to their masters.  Again, in 3:1-6 he works out what this same principle means in terms of how Christian women are to live with their husbands, and in 3:7 how Christian husbands are to live with the wife.  That is the point of the phrase “in the same way” in 3:1 and 7; as there is a particular way for Christian subjects to relate to authorities and Christian slaves to their masters, in the same way there is a manner for Christian wives and husbands to relate to their spouses.  This manner has an evangelistic, apologetic motif, for the child of God is to “live such good lives among the pagans that … they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits us” (2:12).


Peter’s instruction to women and men as found in 3:1-7 reached a people living, of course, in a particular context.  To appreciate Peter’s instruction in these verses, we do well to come to some understanding of what those circumstances were.  Peter himself gives indication in 4:3 and 4.  These verses read as follows:
3 For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. 4 They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you. 

The first five vices listed here centre on satisfying the urges of the body, be it in food, drink or sexuality.  These lusts of the flesh form “detestable idolatry” in the eyes of the Lord God.  We realize that the drives and behaviours mentioned here are not unique to Peter’s time, but characterize today’s western society too.  This is the context in which Peter’s readers grew up, and the sort of lifestyle to which they used to give themselves.  With the arrival of the gospel, however, “God’s elect” in “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia” (1:1) received “new birth” (1:3), and so their lifestyle changed dramatically.  Instead of continuing to “conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance” (1:14), these new believers denied self in order to be holy before God.  But if they no longer do “what pagans choose to do – living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing,” they can count on a predictable reaction from their old friends and workmates; their companions now consider them “aliens and strangers” (2:11) – funny people and weird because they no longer do the sorts of things they used to do, the sorts of things the folks of town still do.  And no wants to be different….


Now, it’s one thing to tell a person not to live as the world does, not to join in their parties, not to follow the passions of the flesh.  That’s negative, and sinners have no problem criticizing another for what he does.  It’s far harder to tell a (new) Christian what he ought, positively, to do instead.  If, as Peter says, “you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do” (4:3), what should Christians do instead?  In a culture given to debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing, where the (new) Christian is perhaps married to an unbelieving spouse who (as part of that culture) still gives himself to such vices, how is that Christian woman or man to act??  Should she divorce him?  Should he drive her out of his house and life?

This is the question that Peter answers in his passage about women and men (3:1-7).  He accepts that his readers are seen as “aliens and strangers in the world” exactly because they want “to abstain from sinful desires” (2:11).  So he tells them to “live such good lives among the pagans” to whom they are married, so that “they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits us” (2:12).  He fleshes out the details of this manner of living in the verses in question.  
With this background material in mind, we can turn next time to consider Peter’s instruction in detail.  
C Bouwman
April 8, 2011