By Danni Moss
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One passage in the Word that seems a conundrum for wives in an abusive marriage is I Peter 3:1-6.
1 Peter 3:1 Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives;
2 While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear.
3 Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel;
4 But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.
5 For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands:
6 Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement.
There are three issues in this passage in I Peter which appear to consign wives to remaining in an abusive marriage. First is the fact that this passage starts with the word “likewise.” When we look back in the context, it appears this “likewise” is stating that women are to submit like the Word tells servants to submit, even to wicked or harsh masters. Second is the specific statement that wives should be in subjection even to husbands who are being disobedient. Third is the comparison with Sara, whom the Word says obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. In this article, I am only addressing the first of these three. I will address the other two in a separate article.
First, let’s take a look at the word “likewise.” If we look at the Word honestly, we have to see that the entire context begins in I Peter 2:13 and continues through I Peter 3:7. This entire section deals with submission and authority. It is wrong to conclude that the “likewise” of I Peter 3:1 is directly referring to I Peter 2:18, where servants are admonished to submit to harsh masters. The entire context is much more broad than this sole application.
I Peter 2:13 starts by saying that we – believers – are to submit to every ordinance of man. Throughout the remainder of this section which continues through I Peter 3:7, Peter goes on to enumerate all the different ways believers are to submit.
1 Peter 2:13 Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme;
14 Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.
15 For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men:
16 As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.
17 Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.
18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward.
19 For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully.
20 For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.
21 For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps:
22 Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth:
23 Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously:
24 Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.
25 For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.
Peter puts a qualifier on this entire passage right at the beginning of this passage. He says submit to every ordinance of man. So this entire context must also be evaluated in light of how the existing ordinances of man would have influenced each of the specific examples evaluated by Peter.
For instance, in the part about slaves, if we were to take the Word at bare face value, we could assume we have the right as Christians to own slaves. Now, obviously, saying this seems utterly ludicrous – because in our culture we consider the ownership of slaves to be morally repugnant. In our society, owning slaves is a violation of this passage, even though ownership of slaves appears to be an assumed right in these verses. The reason we know owning slaves is a violation of God’s Word, based solely on this passage, is because it would be a violation of the ordinances of man in our society. Slave ownership is illegal.
So, no matter what these verses seem to say to slaves, no slave in the United States should submit to a harsh master – because no one should be a slave in this country. If someone was enslaved in this country (and it does happen) that person should not submit to his master, but should escape at the first opportunity because slavery is illegal – it is against the ordinances of man – in this country. For such a person to obey what appears to be the clear meaning of the Word (submit to a harsh master), would in fact be a violation of the entire point of the passage, which is that we are to submit to every ordinance of man.
Another reason we know that the point of this passage is not that slaves should always submit to harsh masters is because of what the Word says in I Cor. 7:21 —
Art thou called being a servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather.
The Word must be understood in light of the whole. This verse in I Cor. 7 indicates that if a slave has the legal opportunity to become free, he should take it. So God cannot possibly mean that slaves must always remain in submission to abusive masters in I Peter 2. The verses in I Peter 2 have to be understood in light of the qualification Peter put on the passage — submit to every ordinance of man.
Now, on to the section about wives. To assume that the word “likewise” at the beginning of I Peter 3:1 is referring back to slaves submitting to harsh masters is inaccurate. In actual fact, “likewise” makes it clear that the teaching about wives is another example of submitting to every ordinance of man – the point of the whole context. That is the grammatically correct evaluation of the passage.
This can also be supported by the fact that the word “likewise” also starts the verse about husbands.
1 Peter 3:7 Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.
If “likewise” for wives is pointing to the teaching about slaves, then we would have to assume the same about husbands. But it makes no sense whatsoever to apply this to the verse about husbands – where there is no stated or implied command to submit to a harsh or disobedient wife. Yet, it does make sense to understand the word “likewise” ties the admonition to husbands back to the premise of the whole passage – submitting to every ordinance of man.
Again, as we did with the part about slaves, we must look at this passage to wives in light of the point of the context – submitting to every ordinance of man. At the time this was written, wives had less rights than slaves. Slaves at least had the option of buying their freedom or being set free by their owners. Wives had no such alternative. During this time, a wife had no legal (ordinances of man) recourse if she were faced with a disobedient husband. Wives might run away, but they would be returned to their husband if found because a wife was legally owned by her husband. So, this teaching is describing what a wife must do to submit to the ordinances of man regarding marriage, as those ordinances existed at the time this was written.
However, the ordinances of man are not the same in the United States today. And here is an example of why this distinction is critical. Women are taught by the church to submit to their husbands regardless of their husbands’ behavior. They are taught that this is literally submitting to God and to do otherwise is disobedience to God.
However, the result is that women in abusive homes are being required to disobey the ordinances of man to “obey” the assumed meaning of I Peter 3:1-6. A wife is legally responsible for the protection and wellbeing of her children. That includes not just protecting them from physical battery, but also protecting their emotional and social welfare. A wife can be legally prosecuted for allowing her children to continue in an abusive environment.
It is also against the ordinances of man in the United States for a husband to batter his wife – which includes more than just using his fists on her. It is against the ordinances of man for a husband to rape his wife – and this happens often in abusive marriages. A woman who enables her husband to violate the ordinances of man, even in his treatment of her, is herself violating the ordinances of man and God’s direct Word because God says to submit to the ordinances of man and He also is against those who afflict others.
The ordinances of man in the United States give wives recourse not to remain in danger under a husband who is disobeying the ordinances of man. Since the point of this passage is about submitting to the ordinances of man, it is more accurate to understand that the behavior of wives when dealing with an abusive spouse would be different than it was when this was written. To submit to the ordinances of man, a woman in the United States today may be required by God to remove herself and her children from the hands of an abuser. This is the more accurate understanding of the meaning of the entire context of this passage.