5 May 2014

1 Peter 3:1-12

“Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.” (vv. 1-2)


In the First Epistle of Peter, the author develops the idea of living faithfully in the midst of difficulty. Today's passage challenges us to ask how Christians remain faithful in situations where they are vulnerable and ridiculed? It addresses this question in light of the rules that governed family relationships, known as household codes. Such codes were a fact of life for the early readers of 1 Peter, namely Christian converts in the Roman provinces within Asia Minor (now in modern-day Turkey).

Codes dictating authority and submission within the household may seem antiquated in 21st-century Britain, though they are still in effect in many cultures. The instruction that wives should be subject to their husband's authority in the opening verses of chapter 3 (or that slaves should defer to unjust masters in 1 Peter 2:18) could even be upsetting for readers today. Perhaps discomfort comes from the historic misuse of such texts to condone domestic violence and oppose legal rights for women. The misuse of this epistle is precisely why one should explore it.

1 Peter's focus is not on condoning injustice, but on instructing Christians about discipleship amidst difficulty. The letter writer deals with practical challenges faced by Gentile (non Jewish) converts to Christianity, even in their most intimate relationships.

Christian wives married to unbelievers were vulnerable physically, socially, and spiritually. Wives in Roman society were under their husband's authority in marriages arranged for them by their male guardians. It was the reality they faced, not one that 1 Peter constructed. Social conventions dictated that a wife observe her husband's religion. Christian wives married to pagan husbands defied this expectation, which made them vulnerable to social and marital ridicule.

The author of 1 Peter expresses concern for vulnerable Christian women, whom he views with high regard as daughters of the Hebrew matriarch Sarah. He communicates at least two significant messages to them. The first is a word of assurance that God, in the final judgement, will vindicate Christian women and punish unjust pagan husbands (verse 9). God's authority trumps that of the husband. The second point suggests that a husband might be won over to the Christian faith by his wife's goodness and devotion to God (verses 1-2). Neither point justifies violence against women. In fact, 1 Peter rejects any use of violence by husbands against their wives. He specifically prohibits Christian men from abusing their wives. Instead, he encourages men to treat their wives gently with honour. In the author's view these women are worthy of honour and exemplars of faithfulness.

To Ponder

  • What was your initial response to the first verses of this passage?
  • How do you relate biblical passages from a very different time and social order to our contemporary situation?
  • How might Christians support and encourage people who are in harmful domestic relationships?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Cindy Wesley

Cindy Wesley is the director of studies at Wesley House in Cambridge. She is responsible for the life of the chapel and for advising students about their courses and modules.