The Role of Marriage (1 Peter 3:1-7)

Finally, Peter turns his attention to the subject of marriage:

Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, 2 when they see your respectful and pure conduct. 3 Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— 4 but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. 5 For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, 6 as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening. (1 Peter 3:1-6)

Like yesterday’s passage on slavery, here’s another example of where we need to wrap out heads around some cultural issues.  But as much as we might initially recoil from this kind of language as an outdated throwback to a Leave-it-to-Beaver-style America, Peter’s instructions here were actually quite counter-cultural.   In the ancient world, the man’s religion dominated the household.  But Peter is saying: Look, ladies—you have an opportunity to witness to your unbelieving husbands.  And that was huge in that society.  So let’s not miss just how culturally progressive this passage is.

Second, we might be challenged by the admonition against adornment.  I can imagine that contemporary feminism might cringe at the thought of a man like Peter telling women what they should or should not wear.  Why can’t women just be themselves?  But this, too, misses the point unless we consider the cultural setting.  An ancient historian lamented that when women “see that they have nothing else but only to be the bedfellows of men, they begin to beautify themselves, and put all their hopes in that.” [1]  In other words, women in the ancient world were valued for their looks—how “sexy” they were—and nothing more.  Thank goodness we don’t live in a world like that anymore, right?  If you missed my sarcasm, consider the way that even recent celebrities and trends have pushed against the superficial and artificial world we find in magazine ads and supermodels.  Actress Kate Winslet, for instance, recently made waves by insisting her photos for Elle magazine be published with “no retouching.” [2] This kind of thing can be ennobling to women.  Peter is saying something quite similar: that in a world that measures women by superficial standards, women can demonstrate their value through their character.

ASYMMETRY AND SUBMISSION

Christianity has traditionally emphasized two things about gender: that both men and women are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) and that men and women reflect this image in different ways.  We therefore can say that in men and women, we find equality but also a sense of asymmetry. And because of this asymmetry, women and men interact differently within the context of marriage.

In recent years, we’ve begun to see this asymmetry as something negative or even oppressive.  Surely, we’ve assumed, women would be better served in marriages where there was a completely equal distribution of roles and responsibilities.  A pair of researchers from the University of Virginia put this theory to the test.  Their results were published under the title: “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”  Their results were surprising:

“[Researchers] find no support for the theory that [completely sharing roles] promotes wife’s marital quality.  It is important for wife’s marital happiness that husband and wife have shared ideas about marriage, that they both commit to the institution of marriage, that they are integrated into an institution (like the church) that also has these same ideas about marriage, and that the marriage and the husbands are emotionally invested in marriage.”[3]

In other words, the message of Peter is not as radically conservative as we might fear.  There remains value in pursuing traditional gender roles, and the way these roles play out in marriage reflects the design of God.

THE ROLE OF HUSBANDS

Peter is saying, then, that Christian wives can be used by God to draw their unbelieving husbands to saving faith in Jesus.  Reflecting the character of Jesus is the highest value and highest purpose of marriage—a purpose also reflected in the love of husbands and their wives:

7 Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. (1 Peter 3:7)

Men are charged to treat their wives honorably.  Why?  Because, Peter says, they are the “weaker vessel.”  What could this possibly mean?   Naturally we recognize that there are many areas in which men are (generally) stronger than women.  But we might also recognize a constellation of strengths that women possess that men do not.  So how could Peter dismiss women in such a categorical fashion?  In her commentary on 1 Peter, Karen H. Jobes points out that Peter may very well have been making a sociological evaluation.  In other words, Peter is pointing out that in his culture, women tend to have less value and less worth and less honor than men.  Peter stops short of trying to fully reverse this—though his commandments seek to affirm the value and dignity of women even though the rest of society seems to think them as mere sex objects.  What’s more, Peter affirms their equality by sharing that yes, women are “heirs with you of the grace of life.”

Peter concludes with a statement of purpose: that honoring one’s wife helps us avoid “hindered prayers.”  In his commentary on 1 Peter, Wayne Grudem suggests that we—that is, husbands in particular—should take this very literally:

“So concerned is God that Christian husbands live in an understanding and loving way with their wives that he ‘interrupts’ his relationship with them when they are not doing so. …no husband may expect an effective prayer life unless he lives with his wife ‘in an understanding way, bestowing honor’ on her.  To take the time to develop and maintain a good marriage is God’s will; it is serving God; it is a spiritual activity pleasing in his sight.”[4]

It’s tempting to think that privilege is about social power or about personal worth.  But the message of Christian marriage is that our greatest privilege comes from our love for one another reflecting the love of the Savior.

[1] Epictetus, Encheirodon 40.

[2] http://nymag.com/thecut/2015/10/kate-winslets-loral-contract-no-retouching.html

[3] W. Bradford Wilcox and Steven L. Nock, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?  Equality, Equity, Commitment, and Women’s Marital Quality,” Social Forces 84, no. 3 (March 2006): 1321-45.

[4] Wayne A. Grudem, 1 Peter, p. 154.

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