Slaves and Wives – 1 Peter 2:18-3:7 (Part 1)

Peter has stated several times in this letter that the readers are living like “strangers and aliens” in this world. Since they are strangers, the world is watching them very closely. It is therefore essential that the Christian live life to a higher moral and ethical standard. In the first section, Peter said that the believer must be submit to all human authorities, even the Emperor of the Roman Empire.

Roman Slave and Centurion

While this seems like a shock from a modern, American perspective (where protesting the government seems to be a sacred right), Peter sees obedience to human authority as a way of showing the world that the Christians are honorable and our God is worthy of respect.

Peter treats slaves, wives and then husbands together as a “household.” This was the most basic unit in the Roman world and every Greek and Roman ethical writer had something to say about the proper roles within a household. In general, the husband was to be the authority in the home, wives and children were to be subordinate to the husband, and slaves were the lowest of all.

In the next two sections of the letter, Peter will give two additional examples that might cause outsiders to attack believers: slaves and wives. Both of these examples are more controversial than obedience to the government.

First, he commands slaves to be subject to their masters because Jesus himself suffered injustice with silence. That the Bible does not command the release of slaves is often a problem for the non-believer, and even for the Christian we struggle to apply texts about slavery in a modern context since we believe that slavery is morally repugnant. But by reading Peter’s words in the context of first century Rome, we will find that he is not endorsing this extremely common practice, but using it as an opportunity for the Christian slave to suffer like Jesus did.

Roman Wife and ChildrenSecond, he commands wives to be subject to their husbands and dress modestly. That Peter would move from slaves to wives is jarring from a modern perspective, and that he would have the audacity to tell the women how to dress is considered rude my many modern readers.

He even uses the same words for wives as he did for slaves (“be subject”)! Most husbands know that quoting this line out of context to your wife is not the best way develop a good marriage relationship! But again, context is necessary to avoid making rather sweeping applications that make no sense in the modern world.

In both cases, Peter urges Christians to observe their place in society and live honorably so that the outsider will see and perhaps praise God as a result of how Christians live their lives. In the next two posts I want to examine Peter’s comments about both slaves and wives in order to draw some application to church practice in a modern context.

8 thoughts on “Slaves and Wives – 1 Peter 2:18-3:7 (Part 1)

  1. Some good points here, Phillip. Things would go smoother if people would allow, as you seem to, for more general principles in canonical scripture to be applied to changing societal norms. These are always changing and often for the better, based on clearer, deeper understanding of human biology, psychology, relational systems, etc. Key example these days would be LGBT issues. Not trying to lure you into that controversy, but I’m grateful my own (UCC) denomination is “welcoming” (tho not all our congregations are officially so), and that more churches are becoming so also. And certainly having women pastors makes good sense within “God’s order”, despite the reactionary (to Paul) position of the writer of the Pastoral Epistles (ca. 100-120 A.D.).

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  2. How we present ourselves, as Christians, in society is important. Peter talked about how we are being watched. In my life, that has proven to be true. Going to a public school and having predominantly non-believing friends, my actions mattered. Even though these passages about women and slaves can be seen as “cringey” now, he was trying to tell them to be a light for Christ in every situation (in your role). Do to the influence of our modern views, it is hard for me to put myself in that generation’s shoes. I am extremely curious what the reaction of slaves and wives would have been when hearing this. Were they reluctant/angry or were they gracious/completely understanding? “The “soft difference” of the Christian must not be mistaken for a weak difference, for it takes great spiritual strength to fearlessly find one’s identity with God against the grain of one’s society,” (Jobes 347). To be an example for all is so important. If God is calling us to be lights to the world, it starts with our actions. And having actions that please the Lord all the time can be hard, because our society tempts us in so many different ways (especially with technology). “Finally, we encounter people who see, appreciate, and are finally won over to the Christian faith,” (2:12; 3:1). Our actions can really change the heart of people. Our words do matter, but our actions will emphasize it even more.

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  3. Throughout I Peter, he continues along the theme that we as Christians are supposed to live our lives the way that Christ did, which was entirely counter cultural. When reading this passage, as a 21st century woman, it may be tempting to jump to the idea that it is being implied that women are inferior to men and therefore must submit. On the contrary, this New Testament is not an outdated passage on gender role, but in fact a progressive statement among the people of that day. “While some modern interpreters consider the New Testament household codes to be hopelessly chauvinistic…the New Testament writers actually subverted cultural expectations by elevating the slave and the wife with unparalleled dignity” (Jobe’s,p.291) Isolating this passage ignores the fact that Jesus respected and utilized women in an unusual way of his generation, so much so that he called his church his bride, a term of endearment. This passage does not belittle women, or compare them to slaves, but rather empowers them to live the way that Christ did- counter culturally, with a new sense of value not given by the culture of that day. Women today can also be empowered by this passage as we still are empowered by Christ the way that women then were.

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