What’s an Exile to Do? Wives, Live a Holy Married Life

Posted by R. Fowler White

The exhortations in Peter’s “Survival Manual for Christian Exiles” just keep coming. He began by exhorting us, as the New Israel, to live lives of moral excellence among our Gentile hosts (2:11-12). He then walked us from the public civic sphere into the private household sphere, and in each he’s emphasized the Christian’s fundamental duty: “Live your life,” he says, “as freed servants of God for His sake and His favor” (2:12, 13, 16, 19-20). Consistently, his message has been “respect God’s ordinances and take responsibly your places within them to commend to others the ultimate lordship of Christ and our accountability to Him.” Having shown how our duty to “honor everyone” (2:17) is worked out in the ordinances of civil government (2:13-17) and of labor (2:18-20), he now shows us how it’s worked out in the ordinance of marriage (3:1-7). Stressing the parallels (likewise, 2:18; 3:1; 3:7) with our duties within God’s other ordinances and with Christ’s example, Peter calls on spouses to take their proper places within marriage. For perspective on this relationship—and especially since the Apostle’s commands offend many today, we need to appreciate the husband-wife relationship in Peter’s first-century Greco-Roman world.

Looking at the Greco-Roman view of husband and wife, it’s remarkable to see the extent to which the ancient world did and did not share the Apostle’s outlook. For example, students of Roman antiquity have found evidence from the early empire of the husband’s compassion for his wife alongside his children and slaves. Evidence has also been found of expanding roles for women in the affairs of the ancient household and in the public sphere, expanding roles tied to the rising status of men. Social change notwithstanding, the household remained the basic unit that ordered life within the empire: with places for everyone and everyone in their places, it was “the center that shaped the world.” Within the household, the husband’s place was one of head-stewardship (from which authority derived) and the wife’s place was one of submission (subordination), and one of her duties was to adopt her husband’s religion. Given this background and Peter’s specific interests in household relationships (2:18–3:7) and in social conduct in general (1:13–2:17), we have to ask: did the Apostle simply adopt and promote the marriage and family values of the Greco-Roman world? Or did he engage critically with them? The contexts preceding 3:1-7 make it clear that Peter has been engaging critically with or even undermining the values of his age. So, what can we say about his handling of the marriage ordinance?

The Apostle turns first to Christian wives (3:1-6), and he commands them: be subject to your own husband—submit yourself to him, step forward and take your place responsibly under himeven if he’s not a Christian (3:1). Yes, God declares through Christ’s Apostles that it’s wrong for a Christian to marry a non-Christian, but what’s a wife’s duty when she becomes a Christian and her husband doesn’t? While affirming the wife’s position under her husband, her conversion to Christ was a wildcard that might complicate the marriage and the household. Pointedly, Peter addresses his culture’s expectation that the wife will follow her husband’s religion by instructing her how she might win her unbelieving husband to Christ. Engaging critically with the family values of his world, the Apostle’s instruction to wives is this: “the submission required of you is first to our God in Christ and then to your husband.” In other words, a wife’s subjection to her husband is always defined first by her obedience to God and by the example of Christ. In this light, Peter goes on to say, “wives, let your husband see that you’re holy and reverent before our God, that you’re pure and respectful before him (3:2; Peter’s words can have both meanings). Furthermore, don’t enhance your beauty with the latest inappropriate outer finery that’s prized by society, as even the ancient philosophers teach (3:3). Instead, adorn yourselves, as only Scripture teaches, with the lasting Christlike inner beauty that’s precious to God (3:4). Beautify yourselves as did the holy wives of long ago who put their hope in God: they submitted themselves to their own husbands (3:5). Example: be like ‘Lady Sarah.’ She entrusted herself to God as she submitted herself to her husband, ‘Lord Abraham,’ even when his acts of fear-filled duplicity put her and their offspring in jeopardy (3:6a). Ladies, beautified as Sarah was, you’ll be nothing less than her daughters: courageously confident in your God and submitted to your own husbands (3:6b), commending to them Christ’s lordship and their accountability to Him.”

As God’s exiles, the Apostle Peter commands Christian wives to live a life of moral excellence. One of a wife’s duties is to respect His marriage ordinance by coming forward to take her place responsibly within it. This is the case because, for Peter, the household is the basic unit of an ordered Christian life, and a wife’s place in the household is one of submission while a husband’s place is one of head-stewardship. Yet in issuing his instructions, the Apostle makes it clear that he’s not simply adopting and promoting the marriage and family values of the ancient world. No, as his handling of God’s ordinances of civil government and labor (2:11ff.) shows us, his bigger agenda is to see us conformed to the example of Christ, following His path of obedience from suffering to glory, as we take our places within God’s ordinances. With specific reference to marriage, Peter takes exception to his contemporaries’ expectations, and the result is a reformation of conventional conceptions of a wife’s submission. Yes, he continues to affirm that the wife’s position is not interchangeable with her husband’s position, but he frames the wife’s submission within limits defined first by her obedience to God and the example of Christ. Clearly, his commands give a wife no excuse to adopt servile dispositions and behaviors that yield a withdrawn or blind submission to her husband. A wife has responsibilities to God and to her husband that she is not to abdicate; she has gifts and graces the benefits of which she is not to deny to him (or the church). To sharpen the point, a wife who’s a rival or a doormat before her husband will find no place in a rightly ordered Christian marriage. Rather, says the Apostle, “wives, be like Sarah: entrust yourself to God as you submit yourself to your husband. And keep this in mind: doing the good that God requires of you in marriage will typify the holiness that He expects in every aspect of your life.”[i]

Having addressed Christian wives, Peter will move on to address briefly Christian husbands married to a Christian wife. We’ll take up that topic in the next post.

[i] One commentary that was particularly helpful to me on this passage was that of Joel B. Green, 1 Peter, The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans, 2007).