What Does the Bible Really Say? — Wives Submit Like Slaves?

By Danni Moss
Copyright protected, all rights reserved
Originally published July 27, 2009

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.

4 Responses

  1. Wow, Danni,
    I just came over here from the Hupotasso blog (Charis). I had never ever looked at that passage from the perspective you give.

    Now, how would “submitting to the ordinances of man” apply to the husband?

    • That’s a great question – and very relevant, actually.

      In dealing with abuse specifically, it would be extremely helpful if churches would grasp this concept. Sexual assault, even in marriage, and all physical battery – against spouses or children – is illegal. That means that churches should be supporting and encouraging abuse victims to go to the legal system, instead of encouraging them, either by implication or statement, to “keep the family together” at all costs. No excuses can color this illegal behavior into another state of being. It is illegal, it is against the Word, and the church has a responsibility to uphold the Word.

      When there are issues of emotional and financial endangerment, these are also illegal. Churches need to encourage those who may be affected to use the system that is in place for our protection – starting with family services, since they are usually the ones who can assess and refer. The civil authorities have been ordained for the protection of good and punishment of evil. They are not all inherently evil.

      When there are situations where one party refuses to cooperate with legal processes regarding vacating a home, provision of child support, division of property – all these are areas where the church should be encouraging compliance with legal authorities, not going behind the scenes and encouraging “peacemaking,” “reconciliation/forgiveness” (by this I mean equating the two as being somehow synonymous), “turning the other cheek,” etc. When they do this, they are literally violating the Word of God.

      Where we can get into some dangerous territory is when churches want to limit their qualification of “wrong” behavior as being those which the law will prosecute. This sometimes happens with abuse where churches qualify physical battery as abuse but fail to understand that abuse comes from a heart attitude, and that heart attitude is expressed verbally far earlier than physical battery. We could save a lot of people extra grief by intervening at the guardrail (lips) instead of parking at ambulance at the bottom of the cliff (physical battery). So we need to remember that the legal boundaries are not the only boundaries God has. The Word of God has a higher standard, not a lower one.

      — Danni

  2. The Word of God has a higher standard, not a lower one.

    Oh, I agree with that!

    Thanks for explaining. Actually, church leaders ought to be people who are ready to give the support to an abused spouse/child and go with them to the pertinent authorities. There’s a lot of pass the buck going on in churches. Nobody wants to stand up and call evil evil.

    I agree with you that churches too often call civil authorities evil and even anti-family. Sure, there is a vein of anti-God in much of society and civil authorities these days, but that doesn’t mean that we are absolved from keeping the law.

    I was brought up by a father who didn’t esteem civil authority very highly, and looking back, I can see times when he was clearly in the wrong, but still thought he was in the right. We didn’t dare contradict him.
    My FIL is very much the same, just to a higher degree. He thinks he’s being persecuted whenever he has trouble with the police.

    I was told by a pastor that I should risk losing my children and even being imprisoned rather than find alternative discipline methods to spanking. According to this preacher, spanking is God’s way. If you don’t spank your children you are disobeying God, so you ought to obey God and disobey the civil authorities of a country that has a smacking ban. What do you say to people who believe God commands them to do something their country has forbidden?

    • Each of us does have to live by our conscience before God — whatever is not of faith is sin. So people are going to reach different conclusions as it relates to specific issues.

      I know opinions may vary on this subject of spanking where it is illegal. However, I tend to believe that we should obey the ordinances of man up to the line of not denying Christ. And spanking is not at that line.

      A lot of the teaching about spanking in the church is based on a few passages in Proverbs – mostly misinterpreted, which then color the understanding of the rest of the Word on the subject of discipline and training of children. Spanking, in my opinion, is very much over-emphasized. Unlike some, I do not think spanking is wrong. But I also do not think it is absolutely necessary either. I think that discipline and training of children should be dominantly non-spanking, rather than spanking-dominated because it is about training, not punishment. I do use it, but sparingly and only for blatant rebellion. That is my choice as a parent (living where it is not illegal to spank, of course). I personally believe other training and discipline methods are more effective for child training. I also readily admit I am not an expert on the subject or on parenting. 😉 None of us will ever be perfect on this one, I’m sure.

      For more resources on what Proverbs really has to say about spanking and on non-spanking discipline of children, I highly recommend Gentle Christian Mothers’ website.

      — Danni

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