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For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him ‘lord’. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear. 1 Peter 3:5–6

I’ve read this scripture countless times and have never questioned what Peter wrote. I just accepted that there must be numerous “holy women of the past” who were examples of the kind of wifely submission that is promoted in many churches today. I had also simply accepted that Sarah must have been a particularly good example of wifely submission.

Just recently though, I’ve been taking a closer look at 1 Peter, and I’ve started asking some questions about the text. For example: Who were these “holy women of the past”? And: In what way was Sarah  submissive to Abraham? Here are some of my findings and thoughts.

The Holy Women of the Past

In 1 Peter 3:1ff, Peter addressed the Christian women of Asia Minor and he urged them to be submissive to their (mostly unsaved) husbands. He also wanted them to focus on their inner beauty rather than on their outer beauty and live their lives in purity.[1] The purpose of Peter’s instruction was evangelistic. Peter hoped that the virtuous behaviour and lifestyle of the Christian wives might be persuasive and “win” (a missionary term) the husbands. These men had been unpersuaded by the Word (logos); but Peter suggests that they may be won to the Christian faith without a word (logos) from their godly Christian wives.

Peter used the examples of the “holy women of the past” to illustrate how the women should behave. But who exactly were these women who Peter had in mind?

As I go through the list of Bible women in my mind, apart from Sarah, I cannot find one single clear example of a woman who submitted to her husband. On the contrary the Bible gives us numerous examples of holy women who did not behave in (what much of the Church would consider) a submissive manner towards their husbands.[2]

Several holy women took the initiative in significant situations, without apparent permission, protection or cooperation from men. These women include Moses’ mother (Exod. 2:1–3); Rahab (Josh. 2:1–6); Deborah (Judg. 4–5); Ruth (Ruth 2:2–3; 3:1–6); Hannah (1 Sam. chs 1–2); and a well-to-do Shunamite woman (2 Kings 4:8–37); etc.[3]

Several holy women were the primary or first recipients of divine, angelic, or prophetic visitations, without the intervention or presence of a husband or male guardian. The following are just a few examples where God, an angel, or a prophet spoke directly to a woman: Rebekah (Gen. 25:22–23); Samson’s mother (Judg. 13); the “Wailing Women” (Jer. 9:17); Mary, the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:26–38); Mary Magdalene (Matt. 28:9–10; Mark 16:9–11; John 20:17–18), etc. Moreover Huldah, Miriam, Deborah, Anna, and Philip’s daughters are acknowledged as respected prophetesses in the Bible.

Several holy women went against authority figures, disobeyed laws and disregarded the wishes of their own husbands. Shiphrah and Puah disobeyed Pharaoh’s command, and God blessed them for their disobedience (Exod. 1:15–21). Rebekah and Abigail went against their husband’s wishes.  There is no hint of censure against Rebekah in the Bible (Gen. 27:1–28:2); and Abigail was commended for her wise and brave actions (1 Sam. 25). Queen Esther, in order to save the Jewish people, disobeyed a law and risked her life by coming into her husband’s presence without being summoned (Esth. 4:11; 5:1).

It seems that Peter may not have had any specific woman in mind (apart from Sarah) when he mentioned “the holy women of the past who submitted themselves to their husbands”. It seems he may have been writing about godly women in general.

I am actually amazed that there are so many women mentioned in the Bible who took the initiative and acted  bravely and independently in what was a very patriarchal society. I am equally amazed that there are almost no women mentioned in the Bible who are obvious examples of wifely submission. I guess women who lead nations (Judg. chs 4–5) and ward off aggressive armies (1 Sam. ch 25), etc, are more interesting than women who lead quiet lives in the home. And so the more interesting women and their stories have made it into the Bible.

Sarah’s Submission

Sarah is the only Bible woman who clearly submitted to her husband’s wishes. It was a great act of submission and courage for Sarah to leave her home and clan, and accompany her husband on a difficult, dangerous journey into the unknown (Gen. 12:1–5).

Furthermore, on two occasions Sarah complied with her husband’s request to deceive a foreign king. (See Genesis 12:10–20 and 20:1–18, esp. Gen 20:13b.) Abraham was worried that the kings would kill him in order to clear the way to his beautiful wife. (Sarah must have been a stunner.) So Abraham asked Sarah to go along with the ruse that he was her brother and not her husband (Gen. 12:11-13; 20:13b). This was a half-truth as Sarah was Abraham’s half-sister (Gen. 20:12).

Abraham’s motives appear to have been selfish. His main concern was for his own safety. He does not seem to have been concerned about his wife who was taken by foreign kings, twice (Gen. 12:15; 20:2–3). The Bible is clear that on the second occasion Sarah was spared from having sex with the king, but it is seems that she actually became the first king’s wife for a short time (Gen. 12:19 cf. 20:4–6).[4]

Sarah did not submit simply because Abraham was her master; she submitted because she wanted to protect her husband. Sarah, however, did not always go along with what Abraham wanted. For instance, Sarah wanted to dismiss Hagar and Ishmael, but this idea distressed Abraham. On this occasion, God said to Abraham (literally): “. . . in everything, whatever Sarah says to you, listen to her voice.” (Genesis 21:12b, translated from the Septuagint). In Genesis 16:2 it says that Abraham (literally) obeyed Sarah’s voice. The Greek word hupakouō used in this verse is a common word in the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) and the Greek New Testament and is usually translated as “obey”. Conversely, nowhere in the Genesis narratives of Abraham and Sarah does it actually state that Sarah “obeyed” her husband. “Nevertheless, the submission of Sarah to Abraham was a long-standing element of Jewish traditions.” (Jobes 2005:205)[5]

Sarah’s Respect

Peter also mentions that Sarah called Abraham “lord”. The Greek word for “lord”, kurios, is common in the Septuagint and New Testament. Kurios is usually translated into English as “lord”, “master” or “sir”.[6]

Sarah refers to Abraham as kurios in Genesis 18:12 in the Septuagint, “. . . though she does not address him directly by that term. This noun [kurios] is the only lexical connection between the [biblical] story of Sarah and Peter’s claim.” (Jobes 2005:205) Interestingly, Rebekah called Abraham’s servant “sir” (kurios) in Genesis 24:18 (Septuagint), and Mary Magdalene called Jesus “sir” (kurios) when she mistook him for a gardener in John 20:15. Rebekah and mary Magdalene were using the word as a term of respect.

As well as being a term of respect, kurios is also used with affection. In The Testament of Abraham, a work which, like First Peter, probably dates to the end of first century AD, Sarah calls Abraham “my lord”. This is most likely the text that Peter had in mind when he mentions Sarah to the wives in Asia Minor. There are two Greek recensions (a long and a short version) of The Testament of Abraham. In the longer version, Sarah addresses Abraham as “my lord” five times, but there is nothing shy or retiring about her speech. Rather, her conversation with Abraham is affectionate (5.31) and candid (6.4, 7, 12, 25), and it indicates that she is a woman with spiritual discernment.[7]

In our culture it would be very odd for a wife to call her husband “lord” or “sir”. Sarah, however, were simply using a term of respect and affection that was appropriate for the culture of that time. The New Testament has clear instructions for husbands and for wives to treat their marriage partners with honour, respect and affection. (See 1 Peter 3:7 and Ephesians 5:33.)

Sarah’s Courage

I suspect that Peter’s use of “the holy women of the past” was to highlight the godliness and faithfulness of women, more so than their submission to husbands. Many Old Testament women showed great faithfulness to God and displayed considerable courage in difficult circumstances.[8] An important part of Peter’s advice is for wives to do what is good, or what is right, and not to be afraid.

You are [Sarah’s] daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear (1 Pet. 3:6b NIV).[9]

Sarah was fearless because she trusted in God. When she heeded Abraham’s request, she wasn’t trusting in her husband but trusting in God to take care of the situation. Sarah was courageous and willing to mislead kings, putting her well-being in jeopardy, in order to save her husband’s life.

Sarah did not always comply with her husband’s wishes. Sarah used her own wisdom and discernment when deciding whether or not she would do what Abraham wanted. While husbands, as well as wives, should always be seeking to support, help, and accommodate their spouse, they also need to be sensible and wise, and do the right thing. Sometimes doing the good and right thing means not complying with the request of your spouse.

Real Submission

The purpose of this article is not to say that women do not need to be submissive to their own husbands. In fact, the New Testament is clear that humility and submission are Christian virtues for men and for women (Eph. 5:21).[10] The purpose of this article is to show that women can have a humble and submissive attitude and still use their intelligence, influence, initiative, and individual abilities without artificial limitations. This becomes evident when you use real Bible women as examples of submission, rather than the idealised, romanticised, or overly domesticated versions of womanhood promoted by some churches.

The church’s view of wifely submission has been distorted by a patriarchal mindset, combined with a  misunderstanding of the Greek. The Greek word for “submit” (hupotassō) has a military usage and meaning of “subordinate”, and a non-military usage and meaning of “cooperate”.[11] It is tragic that the church has taken the more severe military meaning of hupotassō and applied it to the precious and intimate relationship of marriage.

The church has largely expected women to be subordinate to men,[12] rather than seeing men and women as true equals who are to mutually love and care for one another. Moreover, contrary to the examples of godly women in the Bible, the church has tried to limit the parameters and opportunities for women to use their abilities. We must be very careful not to let a narrow, graceless, and faulty concept of submission bind women and limit the use of their talents and skills—talents and skills that God wants to use for his purposes.


Endnotes

[1] Sarah was outwardly very beautiful. Many women in the Old Testament are described primarily as being beautiful. Conversely, no woman in the New Testament is described as being beautiful. [More on this here.]

[2] Many Christians (who call themselves “complementarians”) go further than what the Bible says, and they teach that all women should be submissive to all men. (See chapter one of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, John Piper and Wayne Grudem (eds) (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 2006)

[3] “Many Bible women displayed considerable courage as they helped others and were used by God to achieve his purposes. Brave Bible women include: Jael (Judg. 4:21; 5:24–27); the woman who killed Abimelech (Judg. 9:53); Rahab (Josh. 2:1–6); Abigail (1 Sam. ch 25); the servant girl who was given a dangerous task (2 Sam. 17:17–18); the woman of Bashurin (2 Sam. 17:19-20); Esther (Esth. 4:11, 16); and Priscilla, who risked her life for Paul’s sake, as did her husband Aquila (Rom. 16:3–5). Other women also showed commendable initiative, shrewdness, and courage; women such as: Tamar (Gen. 38:26), Naaman’s wife’s servant (2 Kings 5:3); Ruth (Ruth 1:15–18; 2:2); The Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah (2 Sam. 20:15–22), etc.”  From The Women who Protected Moses.

[4] Abraham’s deception had disastrous consequences for the unsuspecting kings (Gen 12:17; 20:17).  Abraham, on the other hand, did not experience any negative consequences from his deception; instead, he profited from the experiences (Gen 12:16; 20:14–16).

[5] Jobes, Karen H., 1 Peter (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005)

[6] The New Living Translation (NLT) has chosen what I think is the most severe of the three options and translates kurios as “master” in 1 Peter 3:6. The NLT is known for the way it emphasises male authority.

[7] Extract from The Testament of Abraham:

5.31 And Sarah said with weeping, “My Lord Abraham, what is this that you weep?” [To the chief-captain Michael,] “Tell me, my Lord, has this brother that has been entertained by us this day brought you tidings of Lot, your brother’s son, that he is dead? Is it for this that you grieve thus?” The chief-captain answered and said to her, “Nay, my sister Sarah, it is not as you say, but your son Isaac, methinks, beheld a dream, and came to us weeping, and we seeing him were moved in our hearts and wept.”

6. Then Sarah, hearing the excellence of the conversation of the chief-captain, straightway knew that it was an angel of the Lord that spoke. Sarah therefore signified to Abraham to come out towards the door, and said to him, “My Lord Abraham, do you know who this man is?” Abraham said, “I know not.” Sarah said, “You know, my Lord, the three men from heaven that were entertained by us in our tent beside the oak of Mamre, when you killed the kid without blemish, and set a table before them. After the flesh had been eaten, the kid rose again, and sucked its mother with great joy. Do you not know, my Lord Abraham, that by promise they gave to us Isaac as the fruit of the womb? Of these three holy men this is one.”

Abraham said, “O Sarah, in this you speak the truth. Glory and praise from our God and the Father. For late in the evening when I washed his feet in the basin I said in my heart, ‘These are the feet of one of the three men that I washed then'”; and his tears that fell into the basin then became precious stones. And shaking them out from his lap he gave them to Sarah, saying, “If you believe me not, look now at these.” And Sarah receiving them bowed down and saluted and said, “Glory be to God that shows us wonderful things. And now know, my Lord Abraham, that there is among us the revelation of something, whether it be evil or good!”

Translated by W.A. Craigie. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 9. Edited by Allan Menzies. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1896.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1007.htm>.

Sandra Glahn has an informative article about this passage and Sarah in 1 Peter 3:5-6 here.

[8] Life was difficult for the recipients of Peter’s letter. The Christians in Asia Minor were being slandered and persecuted, and they were fearful. It would have been especially difficult for Christian wives with unsaved husbands. These women may have had no real alternative but to fully submit to their husbands, even when it jeopardised their safety. Peter gives them the hope that their virtuous living may win their husbands for Jesus Christ. (This seems to have been Peter’s main objective in his instruction.) In contemporary, Western society, women have more freedoms and options. Secular society does not expect wives to put up with foolishness or abuse from their husbands, and neither should the church. Jesus came to bring freedom to those who are captive. This is should be the church’s mission too.

[9] Literal translation: “whose children you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror” (1 Pet. 3:6b).

[10] The ideal Christian marriage relationship is one of  mutual and reciprocal submission (i.e. loyalty, cooperation, deference and respect) between husband and wife (Eph. 5:21; 1 Pet. 3:8).

[11] Thayer’s Bible Dictionary makes the distinction between the military and non-military usage of hupotassō. 

Hupotassō: A Greek military term meaning ‘to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader’. In non-military use, it was ‘a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden’.
http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/hupotasso.html

[12] Many churches associate wifely submission with wives being servile to their husbands, yet both men and women are called to follow Jesus’ example of sacrificial and loving service.

© 1st of September 2011, Margaret Mowczko


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