Recently I read an article on 1 Peter 3:1-7, which passage contained advice to Christian women married to non-Christians. In this passage the apostolic author counselled the women to “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 behaviour of their wives as they observe your chaste and respectful behaviour…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. Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him ‘lord’, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear” (NASB translation).
The author of the article observed that “many interpreters stumble over these passages and reject the teaching on submission. One especially striking reaction was written by Kathleen Corley: ‘Of all the Christian testament texts, the message of 1 Peter is the most harmful in the context of women’s lives. Its particular message of the suffering Christ as a model for Christian living leads to precisely the kind of abuses that feminists fear…The basic message of 1 Peter does not reflect God’s liberating word’”.
I note that Ms. Corley’s problem is not confined to the offending verses which open chapter 3 of the epistle, but includes the notion that the suffering Christ should be a model for Christian living itself, and that therefore for her 1 Peter “does not reflect God’s liberating word”. Presumably both men and women should reject the notion that the suffering Christ offers us a model for Christian living, especially in the midst of a hostile, non-Christian world.
It is, of course, not simply 1 Peter 3 that offends the likes of Ms. Corley. The New Testament is replete with such exhortations to wives. St. Paul, for example, taught that the husband is the head of the wife (1 Corinthians 11:2-16), that wives should submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-33; Colossians 3:18), and that older women should encourage younger women to be subject to their husbands (Titus 2:3-5). Presumably these passages also lead to precisely the kind of abuses feminists fear. The feminists’ Bible begins to remind me of Marcion’s Bible: after the offending passages have been removed, the volume is somewhat slimmer. One supposes Marcion also felt that the Old Testament passages did not reflect God’s liberating word.
In any exegesis worthy of the name, it is important to first situate the passage in the culture of its day and to observe that the New Testament writers shared many of the cultural assumptions about husbands and wives common in their day. But it is also important to observe that those writers had no problem contradicting and outraging some of the cultural assumptions of their day, such as the notion that food offered to idols was no problem. By refusing idolatry and by worshipping Jesus the Christians were flying in the face of the culture surrounding them and creating immense ill will among their neighbours. I suggest that if the notion of wifely submission was truly offensive to God’s liberating word the apostles would have rejected it as soundly as they rejected other offensive cultural practices.
However unwelcome and inconvenient it may be today, the fact is these passages are a part of a literature the Church has always considered as authoritative Scripture, and Christians have no right to excise them simply because they do not conform to current cultural trends. The secular world today of course will reject this teaching in the same way as it once rejected the Christians’ refusal to eat meat sacrificed to idols. But Christians are supposed to be different than the world. For us the Scriptures are authoritative—and also the test of our humility.
In this regard one thinks of the quote ascribed to St. Augustine: if you only believe the parts of the Gospel you like, it’s not the Gospel you believe in, but yourself. A truly humble spirit will prefer the consistent teaching of the Church over two millennia to the views of feminists asserted only from the latter part of the twentieth century. One asks these feminists: how do you know you are right and the majority of Christians over the past twenty centuries were wrong? You can denounce the apostolic teaching saying that the apostles were creatures of their time. But are you not also creatures of your time? How do you know that you are not being blinded by the spirit of the age?
It is important, however, to understand just what the apostles are counselling. For all sorts of abuses have been defended by people twisting the meaning of the Scriptures to justify their own errors. Women have indeed been badly treated in the past—as have been children, impoverished men, slaves, and foreigners. But the abuse of Scripture does not mean that the Scriptures thus abused should be scrapped. It is the abuses that should be thrown on the scrap heap, not the Scriptures. We must therefore examine what the Bible actually means when it counsels the submission of wives to their husbands.
Perhaps the first thing might be to examine the English word “submission”. In our culture the word savours of involuntary subjection, of slavery, of something degrading. Counselling wives to submit to their husbands sounds to many as if one is counselling them to grovel, to become mindless slaves with no will of their own, to deny any claim to dignity, authority, wit, or initiative.
That is emphatically not what the apostles are counselling. In some places “submission” has become “the ‘s’ word”. So it must therefore be categorically stated that what is being counselled by the apostles is not such abject subjection, but the wife’s recognition of her husband’s leadership within the family. His leadership does not mean she is not consulted as someone with wit and gifts of her own, nor does it involve the rejection of partnership and a division of responsibility and authority. One can readily see this with other forms of leadership: the leadership of a general does not concentrate all authority in this one person as if no other authority in the army exists apart from him; nor does the leadership of the king undermine the authority of his queen.
This question of the submission of wives to husbands cannot be separated from the wider question of submission generally, for the same Scriptures that counsel wives to submit to their husbands also counsel all Christians to submit to others as well. All life is hierarchically arranged, and everyone has a head—including Christ. St. Paul not only says that the husband is the head of the wife, but that Christ is the head of the husband, and that God is the head of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:3). Obviously therefore headship has nothing to do with worth or ontological equality, for Christ is the ontological equal of God the Father (being homoousios with Him), and yet He still submitted to Him. Submitting to one’s head does not degrade, for Christ did not degrade Himself by submitting to the Father.
In fact in this hierarchically-ordered world, there are multiple and overlapping forms of submission. Children are to submit to parents (Ephesians 6:1), slaves to masters (Ephesians 6:5-8), laity to clergy (Hebrews 13:17), those in society to their rulers and to the king and his delegates (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14). In a fallen and imperfect world, of course some people in authority will abuse their authority. That is to be expected. That is just where the suffering of Christ provides a model for us all.
It was precisely because the world is fallen, sinful, and in need of saving that Christ suffered at the hands of those in authority. By doing this He left us an example, that we might follow in His steps, entrusting ourselves to God whose righteous judgment will eventually vindicate us and punish the abusive evildoer (1 Peter 2:21-23). The counsel of St. Peter to slaves living under harsh masters to model themselves after the suffering Christ was sensible as well as strategic. Suffering will always be our lot in this age. The only question is how we are to respond to it.
But let us be clear: submitting to those over us, whether wives submitting to husbands or slaves to their masters, or citizens submitting to the government, does not mean that we should not protest injustice or challenge abuse. When Christ was slapped unjustly after speaking with the high priest at His trial, He said to the person slapping Him, “If I have spoken wrongly, bear witness of the wrong; but if rightly, why do you strike Me?” (John 18:23) Submission to those over us does not mean we must become mindless doormats or masochistic cyphers. We may still protest injustice and seek to escape it and even ask for redress. It does mean, however, that such unjust abuses should not lead us to deny the authority of those over us.
What then of the wifely submission of which we spoke earlier? A few things may be said.
First of all, wifely submission does not involve accepting abuse or violence without protest or self-defence. When those with secular authority over Paul moved to have him illegally bound and scourged, he protested and defended himself (Acts 22:23-29). Another time he even insisted upon a public apology from those in authority (Acts 16:37-40). Submission therefore is consistent with challenge and self-protection.
Secondly, Paul’s counsel to wives to submit to their husbands is part of a larger passage in which he also counsels the husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church (Ephesians 5:25-30). In the same spirit, Peter counsels husbands to grant honour to their wives as fellow-heirs of the grace of life. To deny them this honour, he insists, would result in their prayers being hindered. The wifely submission counselled by the apostles is part of the larger domestic programme of mutual service. Paul began his exhortation to family members by saying, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
Thirdly, the submission of wives to their husbands does not negate the authority of the wife in the home. The wife has her authority there also. In 1 Timothy 5:14 Paul speaks of her as “ruling her household” (Greek οἰκοδεσποτέω/ oikodespoteo, blandly and misleading rendered in the NASB as “keep house”). The cognate noun in Matthew 24:43 NASB reads “the head of the house”. Wives are not slaves, mutely and passively subjecting themselves to every word that comes from the husband’s mouth. This understanding of submission is nothing but a crude caricature of Christian marriage—as any married Christian today can tell you. Domestic authority is nuanced and diffused.
Finally, in the many-sided relationship of marriage, wifely submission is but one element in the many-sided love between married partners in which mutual love predominates. The marital relationship described in Ephesians 5 is furthered described in the Song of Solomon. A feminist reading of the relationship between the sexes too easily falls into seeing it as adversarial, based on power, a war between the sexes in which women find themselves at a disadvantage as “the second sex”. A Biblical reading sees it as based on mutual love, a dynamic which transcends the struggle for power.
The submission of wives to husbands therefore finds its root in the service of husbands to their wives. Christ laid down His life for His bride the Church, and husbands are counselled to do the same for their brides (Ephesians 5:25). The wife declares to her husband, “I belong to my beloved”, because he first has said that he belongs to her (Songs 6:3). Transposing this relationship of love into one of power utterly distorts its dynamics. Submission is never demanded in a truly Biblical dynamic. It can only be offered freely, as a true gift. Thus Christ submits to the Father, and thus all His Church submits to Christ, and in this submission we find our true liberty. As Peter reminded us in the epistle he wrote reflecting God’s liberating Word, it is through our voluntary submission to God that we become His slaves and become truly free (1 Peter 2:16). Though the world will never understand this, His service is perfect freedom.