Should wives call their husbands “lord”?—1 Peter 3:6

When Peter calls on slaves to submit even to harsh treatment (2:18), even beatings (2:20), is he endorsing slavery? Is he at least suggesting that we should embrace harsh treatment even when we can avoid it?

When we look at Peter’s sections addressed to slaves (2:18-25) and wives (3:1-6), we should consider what setting Peter was addressing. He was not addressing a setting of voluntary employees who could simply resign from work if they were being mistreated. He was not addressing women who might readily find different husbands who did not expect unilateral submission.

Peter’s advice to both slaves and wives belongs to his larger section of what are often called household codes, which ancients in turn often discussed in the context of civic management (2:13—3:12). Ancient writers often used such codes to express conventional expectations. For the sake of honoring the Lord (2:12-13), Peter urges compliance when possible with “every human institution” (2:13). This exhortation not endorse all these human institutions, such as slavery (2:18-25), monarchy (2:13, 18), or wives calling their husbands “lord” (3:6), as universal and eternal. It is not claiming that all these human institutions are permanent divine institutions. It is just calling on those in these settings to make the best of their circumstances.

Unless they earned enough money on the side to buy their freedom, slaves did not have much say concerning their slave status. Slaveholders often did eventually free slaves (though sometimes to preclude having to support them in their old age). A minority of slaves in the Roman empire achieved status and even wealth—even as slaves. But the legal authority to emancipate slaves lay solely with the slaveholders. Peter thus provides advice for how to bear up under a difficult situation that his addressees could not control, not how to address a situation that they could not control. This is the same approach taken by many ancient moral teachers, such as Stoic philosophers, who focused on what is in our power to control, rather than on what is not.

His comments to wives follow along a similar line. (The first word in Greek in 1 Peter 3:1 is homoiôs, which the NRSV translates, “in the same way.” It explicitly links the case of wives in 3:1-6 with the case of slaves in 2:18-25.) Addressing wives married to nonbelieving husbands (3:1), Peter urges them to win over their husbands by gentle and pure behavior. Illustrating such behavior, he uses the example of matriarchs such as Sarah who, functioning within the conventional expectations of her culture, obeyed Abraham. Sarah calls her husband “my lord” (Gen 18:12), fitting convention (though not always translated this way from Hebrew), just as others could so address various respected figures (Gen 18:3; 23:6, 11), including fathers (31:35) and brothers (32:4-5, 18; 33:13-14).

Yet just as Sarah may have done what Abraham said, so also Abraham did what Sarah said (Gen 16:2), once with God’s direct backing (21:12)! So why does Peter offer only the example of Sarah? Only Sarah’s example is relevant for these wives, because they cannot control what their husbands will do. Although the degree of power varied, in virtually all cultures Peter addressed, husbands governed their wives.

Yet we need not infer from this an endorsement of universal husbandly rule or lordship any more than we infer an endorsement of a universal practice of slavery in 1 Pet 2:18-25. Husbands ruling their wives is common through history, and we might expect as much from the effects of the curse (Gen 3:16). Yet we are not called to enforce the effects of the curse (e.g., requiring men to sweat when they work, or proliferating sin and death as much as possible).

Although Peter is mainly addressing those in subordinate positions in society (1 Pet 2:13), and ancient evidence suggests that women probably outnumbered men in the churches, Peter addresses husbands here as well. He summons them to care for and honor their wives (1 Pet 3:7).

In the case of wives, Peter is addressing the norm in his day, not the question direct physical abuse that he addressed with slaves (2:20). Unlike slaves, wives were not usually objects of beating in the regions that Peter addresses (1 Pet 1:1). Also unlike slaves, wives had options to safely remove themselves from such situations, if they arose; no laws compelled them to stay. Even Judean Pharisees, who normally recognized only the husband’s right to divorce, approved of intervening and making an abusive husband grant a divorce, thus freeing his wife to remarry. In other words, Peter is not advising against escaping such abuse for those with the freedom to do it.

Is it ethical to flee abuse? Scripture provides numerous examples. David fled from Saul, and Jesus’s family fled to Egypt to escape Herod. Even in cases of persecution for the name of Christ, Jesus allows fleeing (Matt 10:23), and his disciples normally did so when possible (Acts 14:6).

Let us be careful to use these passages the way they were meant to be used: to encourage one another’s faith in the face of difficult situations, not to make those difficult situations harder!

(This brief study addresses one subject only, not all the nuances of ancient slavery, the Bible and gender, etc. I originally wrote this as part of my preliminary contribution to an Anglican study group on 1 Peter at Lambeth Palace in London. The group’s final version will probably look different, so they should not be blamed for any oversights in my own!)  

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