Submission and the Legal Reality of Peter’s Rome

Photo by Joel Filipe on Unsplash

Some time ago, we watched the movie “Arrival.” Twelve alien ships hovered over the earth, and the movie’s tagline asked everyone’s question—Why Are They Here?

This was roughly the attitude of the Romans toward the early Christians. They had no idea what to do with these alien people whose thoughts, actions, and values no longer matched their society. Like many others do when confronted with people they don’t understand, the Romans did what history records—they persecuted the different ones.

Peter writes to his churches in this climate, and he offers some controversial instructions to those suffering people—instructions we wrestle with still. In fact, this is the third time this week I’ve wrestled with his instructions to wives, a record even for me, an avowed evangelical feminist pastor. 

“In the same way, you wives must accept the authority of your husbands. Then, even if some refuse to obey the Good News, your godly lives will speak to them without any words. They will be won over by observing your pure and reverent lives.” (1 Peter 3.1-2, NLT)

What’s the Point?

I like to look at an author’s reasons for writing something, whether it’s an epistle in the Bible or a Facebook “news” article, before I decide what he or she means. (Forgive me, I used to be an English teacher. Also, it’s just good exegesis.) 

For Peter, the overarching point throughout his letters is this—

How do we Christians behave in a hostile world in a way that points people to Jesus?

You can see it everywhere in his words. This was Peter’s filter, the lens through which he saw and wrote every line. Why does that matter when considering his instructions to wives?

It’s everything.

If we don’t look at those verses through Peter’s intended lens, we don’t see what he wanted us to see. It’s like looking at at the Rockies with a fisheye lens when they were meant to be panoramic. You get distortion, mountaintops that swell, lakes and trees that shrink. You miss the point.

Peter reinforces his theme when he tells his readers the reason for wifely submission—your husbands will be won over to Christ because of the way you live. 

Photo by Marina Abrosimova on Unsplash

What’s the Context?

Christian women married to unbelieving men was common. Some were married before becoming believers. Some married later by the command of a father or because there were too few Christian men. (There were fewer men in the society as a whole—much the same problem that China faces now for some of the same reasons.) Whatever the reason, they found themselves in a dilemma. They knew they were free and equal in Christ. Some believed it would be right to leave their spouse and begin over as a believer. Everyone, especially Peter, knew wholesale acts like that would make the surrounding society hate and misunderstand Christians even more.

Since the goal was—repeat after me—to behave in a hostile world in a way that points people to JesusPeter discouraged that. He wanted those women to remain in their marriages and bring the men to Christ.

Peter, like Paul, addresses the tension between offering new freedom, which looked too much like revolution to the Romans (and they were right—it was), and maintaining security and order. In Christ, you are free and equal—but how do we use that in a society where that’s seen as a dangerous, rebellious, uprooting of every social order?

In a world where the empire, your husband, and possibly everyone else is against you, how do you respond? The only option for the underdog was to submit. Peter imagined women whose goodness to their husbands would be so beautiful the men would have no choice but to see Jesus. (“You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God.” v4)

Commoners, Slaves, and Wives

Regardless of chapter division, these instructions for wives to submit come in a series of three. We come to chapters 2-3, and we see the word “submit” (voluntarily accept the authority) three times. Christians—submit to your government, slaveowners, and husbands. All three legal institutions that require your allegiance.

Yes, all three. The thing we moderns don’t comprehend is that the marital relationship in Rome was every bit as much a legal arrangement as slavery and citizenship. A husband was a woman’s legal owner. He was not, as we like to believe in our modern western world, her lover. Certainly, love and affection did happen, and Peter banks on this, but it wasn’t the expected outcome. The institution resembled our modern marriage about as much as your relationship to your dog does.

So his instructions to wives are the same as they are to slaves and commoners. Submit to your legal authority. Behave in a way that is so Christlike neither he nor anyone else can say anything against you. 

In a hostile world, point your spouse to Jesus.

Photo by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash

If one is going to assert that these verses mean all women submitting to their husband for all time, then we’re forced to also assume all slaves are to obey their masters for all time, because this group of three was not meant to be divided. The same verb is used for all because all three groups (commoners, slaves, and wives) were legal underdogs in Rome. 

If that’s the case, my denomination’s entire raison d’être was unbiblical. I’m going to have to tell the bishops.

People tried to claim Peter’s biblical submission regarding American slaves in the 1800’s, but the public found this a reprehensible application of Scripture. Strangely, many Christians do not find the same argument regarding wives at all reprehensible, but they embrace it as a statute for all time. This doesn’t preserve the integrity of Peter’s argument or grammar.

More accurately, Peter was imploring his people to accept whatever institutions they were under and use those structures to glorify Christ. The question then is, do these structures still exist, and if not, to what institutions do we submit? An argument has been made, for example, that we submit to employers in much the way slaves were told to submit to masters, because that is our similar modern institution. Similar, because an employee’s welfare is in the power of the employer, but different because no outright ownership exists. Certainly, we must also recognize that Roman slavery and American chattel slavery were very different things. Marriage, I would argue, is not at all the same legal institution it was then, either. 

A Whole New World

Was submission of slaves to masters a temporary state until Christianity permeated enough of the world with its salty tang that the institution of slavery no longer existed? If so, then why not the submission of wives to their legal owners, their husbands, until the same thing happened with the institution of marriage?

We get a hint of that, in fact, in following verses. 

“In the same way, you husbands must give honor to your wives. Treat your wife with understanding as you live together. She may be weaker than you are, but she is your equal partner in God’s gift of new life. Treat her as you should so your prayers will not be hindered.” (v7)

Peter drops a revolutionary bomb here. Husbands, love your wives, because you are equals. First, Roman culture didn’t consider loving one’s wife a necessity. They actually considered it a downright inconvenience. Second, equals? LOL.

Peter had a new world order here in mind, but he was mapping it out slowly. While Christian wives were submitting to unbelieving husbands? Believing couples were to model what real kingdom life was like. They lived in love and respect with one another. When an unbelieving husband was brought around to Jesus, that’s what he saw, and that’s what the new believing couple would become.

It was a strategic revolution in family order, but it was slow. 

In fact, Peter’s plan for marriage was far more difficult than the simplicity of women submitting to men. That would be easy. His calling for mutual honor was far more difficult and powerful. Wives and husbands would love so well that submission would not be even close to what they did. They would transcend it. The sacrifice for one another and the desire to encourage, lift up, honor, respect, and give to the other would be beyond some paltry submission. That is what would, and did, bring unbelieving Romans to Christ. Which was, as we said, the whole point.

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