The first Petrine epistle (c. AD 64-65) is popular among those hailing from the Stone-Campbellite churches because of its strong message about baptism (3:21). But among the rest of Christiandom, 3:1-6 (or 3:1-7, as the case may be) gets the most airtime. The verse about Sarah calling Abraham “lord” (3:6) seems to be a particular favorite of men across all demographics. When rereading this book recently, I was reminded of a number of bitter discussions over the apostle’s commandment for wives to be subject to their husbands. However, the proper interpretation of this passage is not what I wish to draw your attention to this evening. I’m concerned about how we as believers of the Word determine context.
From 1 Peter 2:11-3:9ff, the author looks at Christian conduct and reputation and, in a Pauline fashion, admonishes his readers to watch their behavior so that they may be better witnesses to unbelievers. He gives three examples of case law, if you will: how Christians in general should treat unbelieving civil authorities (2:13-17), how Christian servants should treat unbelieving masters (2:18-25), and how Christian women should threat unbelieving husbands (3:1-6). In all three, forms of “to subject one’s self” (ὑποτάσσω) are found: Ὑποτάγητε (2:13) and ὑποτασσόμενοι (2:18, 3:1). Even in translations where different English words are used, an obvious connection is made. The author intends for his readers to defer to the earthly authorities placed over them in a like manner.
What bothers me is not so much the way “subject” is defined and defended, but the way the definitions are so consistently applied inconsistently. Many Christians are quick to argue the strictest interpretation of “subject” in the case of wives to their husbands, but then outright deny any responsibility of men to their governments. Worse yet, once confronted with the biblical text, they stubbornly refuse to provide any explanation whatsoever for why they insist that 2:13 is obsolete but 3:1 still in effect. It’s picking and choosing your Scripture at its worst.
The simplest interpretation seems to me that Peter had in mind one definition for ὑποτάσσω and purposely created the three consecutive, parallel passages to show his readers how to carry out his instructions in 2:12. That would mean that those who take a very strict view of wives’ duties to their husbands (e.g., no recourse in cases of physical abuse, adultery, nonconsensual sodomy, or abandonment) should also advocate complete submission to all taxes and laws imposed on them. On the other hand, for those who insist that they have a right to “alter or abolish” their governmental system, a more liberal stand on marriage is in order. It’s my opinion that many of the unrealistic (or outright dangerous) interpretations would disappear from the debates on wifely submission once men are required to impose the same rules on themselves.