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Sarah Series #7: On the use of submission in 1 Peter

On the use of submission in 1 Peter

(c) Copyright 1998 by Dave Leigh

First the context.  Peter first uses the term in 1 Peter 2:13a, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men…” (NIV)

This statement is the umbrella under which all subsequent statements in 1 Peter about submission and authoritative relationships occur.  What are the authorities of that day instituted “among men” (i.e. by human beings, or as human arrangements)?  The first addressed is civil authorities, in 13b-14: “whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.”

The next authority of that day and culture that Peter addresses is that of masters over slaves:  “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.” (1Pe 2:18)

The same Greek word for submit is used in the slave/master relationship as for the magistrate/citizen-subject relationship.  Of course we do not believe that God approved of slavery, or that he instituted it, much less that we should regard it as his design for today.  It is something he tolerated along with the hardness of human hearts.  But in that culture and day Peter advised that the best course for a Christian slave was to imitate Christ in humility and submission.

Next, Peter extends the application of 2:13a, i.e. of submitting to every humanly instituted authority, to the role of wives in that culture.  He says:  “Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives,” (3:1)

I think it is significant that Peter uses the phrase “in the same way” and that he uses again the same word for submit as he used before regarding all authorities, governments, and masters.  But “in the same way” as what?  It would seem to refer to in the same way that slaves submit to masters and in the same way that subjects submit to kings.  But the discussion of slaves also interjects a superior example that Christians should imitate, namely the example of Christ.  In 2:21-3:1, Peter says: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.  “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.  For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.  Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands ….”

In other words, be submissive not only in the way we are all to submit to governing authority, and in the way slaves imitate Christ in submitting to masters, but wives themselves should submit in the same way that Christ suffered and submitted.

Is this instruction just for wives and not for husbands?  The word <submit> does not appear in reference to husbands and does not occur again until Peter discusses young men submitting to elders (5:5).  But while “submit” does not appear in application to husbands, that other key phrase does appear:  “Husbands, <in the same way> be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect …. ” (3:7a).  According to the New American Standard Concordance, the original Greek word, <homoiws> means “likewise” or “in like manner.”  Of all its occurrences in the New Testament, the NAS translates it as: like manner(1x), likewise(13x), same(3x), same manner(1x), same thing(1x), same way(9x), similar way(1x), so(2x).

In other words, in the flow of Peter’s argument he seems to be saying:  “Husbands, in the same way that we are to submit to all other humanly-instituted authorities, in the same way that we submit to kings and governors, in the same way that slaves submit to masters, in the same way that Christ submitted to our punishment, in the same way that wives submit to their husbands, men, it’s the same thing for you in regards to how you treat your wives.  In the same way I just told them to behave, now you are to give them the same consideration.  You are not to treat them as property or as slaves, who in this fallen culture are used and set aside; no, live with them.  Respect them.  Treat them as partners.  Even treat them as if they are partners who need your extra help due to some weakness.  (Perhaps they are weaker due to the disadvantages imposed on them by culture and the fall, or perhaps you are physically stronger, but regardless of whatever reasons you (or I, Peter) may think of them as weaker, your wife is your partner and true partners compensate for each other’s weaknesses; they don’t exploit or take advantage of them.)  Your wives are co-heirs with you of the gracious gift of life.  So if you fail to treat them as full co-heirs and as partners, and if you fail to give deference to them in whatever weaknesses they may possess, if you fail to do the “same thing” for them that I told them to do for you, and slaves to do for masters, and citizens or subjects to do for their civil authorities, then your very prayers will be hindered.  God will not stand for inequality and exploitation in your marriages.  He will not bless a patriarchal marriage readily.”

Finally, when Peter addresses the young men, as already noted, he again combines both phrases:  “Young men, <in the same way> <be submissive> to those who are older. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble'” (5:5).

Again we must ask, “in the same way” as what?  The immediate context again appeals to Christ’s example of suffering and submissive servanthood when speaking to elders, who are told: “Be shepherds of God’s flock … eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (5:2-3).  In other words, Peter opposes authoritarian rule in the church as he opposes it in marriage.  Rather, leaders are to be submissive and servantlike.  Both in marriage and the church we see Peter passing on the great “not so with you” principle that Jesus gave directly to him and the other apostles regarding the use of authority:  “Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave–just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many'” (Matthew 20:25-28).

Exercising authority over others may be the way of the world.  It may be they way the world defines leadership, marriage relations, and community structure; but “not so with you.”  For true Christ-followers do not treat each other in this way.  “Whoever” wants to be great, or who defines greatness in terms of authority over others, misunderstands the nature of the Kingdom of God.  In that kingdom, there is only one authority who is every person’s head (Eph 1:10, 22-23; 4:15-16; Col 1:18; 2:19).  That head gifts, empowers and authorizes ever believer.  Because they are clothed in him (Gal 3:27) we no longer regard them according to the flesh (2Co 5:16).

Peter’s conclusion in 1 Peter 5:5b is addressed to all of us; it needs to be our conclusion as well:  “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’.”

What clearer instruction could we have regarding equality and mutual submission in marriage than what we have here in 1 Peter?  Yet hierarchalists and patriarchalists have twisted Peter’s writings as they have Paul’s.  By considering the literal and cultural contexts, we find we can no more accept their arguments against women than we could have accepted their use of such passages 150 years ago, used in the same manner to support slavery, or 250 years ago, when these passages were used to support the “divine right” of tyrants to be kings.  A consistent hermeneutic and consistency with the scriptures force us to reject all of these things and to uphold the equality of every believer regardless of gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic class (Gal 3:28).

— Dave Leigh

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