What does Peter say (or not say) about marriage in 1 Peter 3?

If you want some heated disagreement about Bible interpretation, jump into the passages in the New Testament about marriage. What does Peter or Paul have to say about the roles that men and women have?

Much attention is given in chapter three where Peter says, “wives, be subject to your own husbands.” But this is just part of a verse, which is itself part of a much larger section of this letter. In chapter three Peter is continuing the topic he began back in 2:13. He’s talking about how to react when under authority. So the word “likewise” in 3:1 should send us back to make sure we are seeing how this one part functions in the larger section. What we understand here about women and men should be informed by what Peter said about living under an emperor or governor and how slaves are to live under masters.

If we lose context we can miss the meaning. People are quick to read chapter three (on its own) as Peter recommending not just behavior within an institution, ie. how women should live within a first century marriage, but as approval and recommendation of the institution itself, ie. a marriage where the husband has greater authority over the wife. There is much debate on what exactly a Christian marriage is, but we can’t brush aside the context of these passages. Peter says “likewise” to continue a stream of thought and place this discussion alongside emperors and slave masters. We do not argue for or recommend absolute authority in an emperor as the best form of government nor do we approve of slavery. We see those sections as guidance for how to live within those existing institutions, regardless of whether they are good or divinely ordained. So does marriage likewise continue with those previous two examples, or does it stand alone?

What God clearly wants in these sections is for us to see opportunities to serve God, no matter our circumstance. If we are a slave serving a master, Peter gives the Christian a way to see this service as being done for God and for His purposes. We don’t need the worldly forms of power and authority to have influence for God. Peter writes in 2:15, “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” Even in subjection and suffering, we can do a good work to witness to Jesus, the one who subjected himself to the powers of this world and suffered for our sin.

These passages will likely continue to lead to passionate disagreement. Let’s then be slow when we ask the question that started this post, “What does Peter or Paul have to say about the roles that men and women have?” Let’s not rush to change that question into what roles men and women should have. The former describes the existing conditions and then how to live within them, while the latter prescribes how marriage should be. We’ve got to read more than the one verse, and see the larger context. And even beyond that, we need to read Scripture in light of all Scripture and see the call that God has on his sons and daughters.

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