Abuse, Violence, Gender and Submission

At church I've been co-teaching a class on 1 Peter. A few weeks ago I had to work through the material in 1 Peter 3 where there are some difficult gender texts. Specifically, in 1 Peter 3 we read that wives are to "submit to your husbands" just like Sarah "obeyed Abraham and called him Lord." More, husbands are asked to be "considerate" of their wives because she is the "weaker partner/vessel."

For many men and women these passages give us the chills. They smack of patriarchy and power. It's hard to see how these passages, if you were evangelizing non-Christan women, could be heard as "good news."

And yet, many Christian conservatives see in these texts a blueprint for "God's plan for marriage." Consider, as an example, the recent New York Times article Housewives of God.

So what is 1 Peter 3 talking about?

First, we need to step back and consider the social location of the 1 Peter community. Right out of the gate in the first two verses the author of 1 Peter hits you with the phrase eklektois parepidemois diasporas. This is variously translated as:

"To the exiles of the Dispersion...who have been chosen."

"To God's elect, strangers in the world, scattered..."

"...to all those living as aliens in the Dispersion...who have been chosen."

"...to God's chosen people who are living as foreigners."

Good News:
"To God's chosen people who live as refugees scattered throughout the provinces of..."
We encounter this "resident alien" theme at multiple points in 1 Peter. In short, the 1 Peter community was a marginalized minority, socially and politically on the outside, powerless. More, they were being persecuted and abused. At multiple points in 1 Peter the community is instructed in how to face the persecution and are encouraged to not give in to fear in the face of this abuse. Importantly for understanding the gender texts in 1 Peter 3, we need to understand this overarching context of abuse.

The gender texts in 1 Peter 3 occur in the middle of a much larger exhortation. This exhortation begins in 1 Peter 2.11 and ends in 3.22. The exhortation begins in 2.11 with "Dear friends, I exhort you..." and starts to wrap up in 3.8 with "Finally..." It's very important to look at this entire text to rightly interpret the gender passages in 1 Peter 3.1-7.

Here's the regulating idea for this entire passage: Peter is speaking about how to live in an ecosystem of abuse.

This is signaled at the start of the passage in 2.11 when Peter explicitly addresses the vulnerable social location of the community: "Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles..." The word here translated as "exiles" in the NIV is paroikos, which might be better translated as "resident alien" or "resident non-citizen." In short, the political marginalization of the community sets the context for everything that follows.

But why do I call that context an "ecosystem of abuse"? Because abuse is the main feature of the ecosystem described from 2.11 to 3.22. For example:
The Ecosystem of Abuse
2.1 "...though they accuse you of doing wrong..."
2.13 "Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor.." [if we have the date of 1 Peter right the emperor in question was Nero.]
2.18 "Submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh"
2.19 "...the pain of unjust suffering..."
2.20 "...if you receive a beating..."
2.20 "...you suffer for doing good..."
2.23 "When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats..."
3.1 "...if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words..."
3.7 "...treat them with respect as the weaker partner."
3.8 "Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing."
3.13 "Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?"
3.14 "...if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed."
3.15 "Do not fear their threats..."
3.17 "...it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil."
3.18 "Christ also suffered..."
What seems clear, from the beginning to the end of this exhortation, is that 1 Peter is trying to encourage the community to live "honorably" (NRSV 2.12) in this ecosystem of abuse. By living honorably the community will serve as an example to the hostile pagan majority. In seeing this honorable behavior, the "pagans" will "see [the community's] good deeds and glorify God."

So what does "honorable" behavior in an ecosystem of abuse look like? Peter uses the word "submit" to capture what he's after. He uses it three times to address three particularly powerless and vulnerable groups in the larger ecosystem of abuse:
2.13 Resident Non-citizen (paroikos) Christians under Nero
2.18 Slaves of Abusive Masters
3.1 Wives of Unbelieving Husbands
Now the word "submit" might stick in our craw a bit. But what, exactly, does Peter mean by submit? Well, in the middle and at the end of this exhortation Peter gives us his Christological understanding of the word "submit." These Christological sections are found in 2.21-25 and 3.18-22. And if you read these Christological sections along with the summary of the exhortation in 3.1-17 the meaning of submit becomes very clear:
Submit = "Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called." (3.9)
In all of this what we see Peter trying to do is to get the community to live out the Sermon on the Mount in their ecosystem of abuse. The call--to resident non-citizens, slaves, and wives--is to non-retaliation. That is what Christian "submission" means. It means non-violence. It means you win people over to Christ by your "good deeds," not violence. That is the recommendation to all three groups:
Good Deeds rather than Violence
Resident Non-citizens:
"For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people." (2.15)

"For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God." (2.19)

"...if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives." (3.1b-2)
And all of this follows the example of Jesus:
Christ and Non-Violence
2.21, 23
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats.

For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.
So where does this leave us with the gender texts? Well, for conservative Christians in a somewhat ironic position. Why? Well, if you want to read 1 Peter 3 as "God's plan for marriage" you'll actually be wanting to recreate an ecosystem of abuse! The same ecosystem that has Nero and abusive slave owners (along with unbelieving husbands) as the people "on top."

In short, the entire text of 1 Peter 2.11-3.22 is trying to encourage and edify groups at "the bottom," calling them to non-violent good deeds in the face of abuse and persecution. The only time Peter addresses a powerful group in this text is in 3.7, when he, for one verse, addresses Christian husbands. And even in that verse Peter highlights abuses of power (i.e, don't abuse her, she's physically weaker than you).

Now, to be clear, there are still lots of problems and issues with 1 Peter. How far does this "submission" go? Where does civil disobedience fit in? Or liberation theology? I don't know. But what I do know is this:

1 Peter 3 isn't God's plan for marriage. In fact, it's the exact opposite.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

2 thoughts on “Abuse, Violence, Gender and Submission”

  1. Enjoyed the post!

    I have no problem with interpreting submission as nonviolence .. however, historically, these passages have been [mis]used time and time again, for justifying systematic oppression, whether it be minorities or women .. I think we need to redeem and heal from that, and of course new understanding and interpretation is part of that too, but we also need to be able to own up to it, and be able to say that at the dominant world view of the ancient societies all the way down to very recent past was an oppressive one, and it is reflected on these sacred ancient texts that we read ..

    And yes! lets further explore nonviolent struggles and movements for equality for all, of universal love for all, which heals and redeems the marginalized and the oppressed from thousands of years of white western male domination theology of the empire ..

  2. If you had been teaching at ACU when I was a student in then late 80's I might never have left for UT Austin!

Leave a Reply