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

When Peter begins to address wives in the congregation, his focus is on how the outsiders understand the Christian wife. The situation in view in 3:1 is of a wife who has come to Christ, but her husband is not a Christian. While there are many examples of this sort of thing in our modern experience.

In the Roman world, the wife is expected to adopt the gods of her husband’s family when she marries. The same would be true of a Jewish family, although it is less likely that a Jewish man would marry a Gentile woman. In either case, the ancient world did not really have religiously “mixed marriages.” If a husband became a believer, then the Roman world would have expected the wife to also convert. It is possible that a husband converting was not as socially disruptive as a wife.

Messalina, Roman Empress, Wife of Claudius

Messalina, Roman Empress, Wife of Claudius

Like the slave, the wife is to have respectful and pure conduct so that an unbelieving husband may believe (v. 2). The same language is used for the wife as for the slave (ὁμοίως, likewise). This does not mean that the woman is socially like a slave, but within the Greco-Roman or Jewish household, the wife did in fact defer to the husband.

Peter has already commanded the reader s to live honorable lives so that the Gentiles will see and honor God (1 Peter 2:12), but here he narrows the application to a believing wife who is under the authority of her husband.

The goal of this respectful behavior is missional. Perhaps the husband will be “won” to Christ. This is a common way for modern evangelicals to express evangelism, but the use of this verb (a future passive form of κερδαίνω) is unique in the New Testament.

As Karen Jobes points out, if a woman began to worship Jesus and reject her husband’s family gods, she would be in a socially dangerous position (1 Peter, 202-3). Both Greco-Roman and Jewish society would see this as a kind of rebellion against proper family values. Since she is rejecting the family gods, she would be seen as a rebellious wife, and perhaps could be seen as a kind of “home-wrecker.” The husband could potentially find himself in socially embarrassing situations. A wife that rejected the community gods would be a shame for the husband to bear.

Attendance at Christian worship would mean that the wife had social connections outside of her husband’s friends and family. This too was a strange behavior in that culture and would be viewed suspiciously by Romans or Jews. This would be the case for a Jewish woman as well, especially if Jewish followers of Jesus were being persecuted in the synagogue.

To avoid the appearance of rebellion, the godly wife should strive to maintain a true, “imperishable” beauty (3:3-4). For the most part there is nothing unusual about this description of true beauty even in the Greco-Roman world. Similar statements are made in secular Greek concerning modest dress and appropriate adornments. The principle is modesty; a woman would not want to be confused with a courtesan!

The temperate, freeborn woman must live with her legal husband adorned with modesty, clad in a neat, simple, white dress. . . She must avoid clothing that is either entirely purple or is streaked with purple and gold, for that kind of dress is more by a hetarae (courtesan) when they stalk the masses of men . . . You should have a blush on your cheeks as a sign of modesty instead of rouge, and should wear nobility, decorum and temperance instead of gold and emeralds. (Pseudo-Melissa, Letter to Kleareta, 160-162, Witherington, Letters and Homilies, 2:164)

True beauty is a gentle and quiet spirit, not unlike the woman described in Proverbs 31. In contrast, the woman who has an obnoxious, loud spirit will not be a good witness to her unbelieving husband.

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

A third century mosaic from Uthina, Tunisia

A third century mosaic from Uthina, Tunisia

The relationship of a slave to his master must be “respectful submission” (1 Peter 2:18-19). The word translated “be subject” or “submit” (ὑποτάσσω) carries more negative connotations in English than in Greek. The word has the sense of being subordinate to someone or something for legitimate reasons. This is the same word he used in 2:13 to command the believer to submit to the government. In this case, a government official has been appointed to an office that has some authority, so an honorable person obeys that authority.

This is the word regularly used for the relationship of the slave and master. A slave is subordinate socially and legally in the Roman world to the master and must obey the commands of the master. Slaves did not obey everyone’s orders, but those of their master.

In the Roman world, slavery was often different than slavery in a modern sense. While it could be just as cruel and harsh, many slaves were well treated. Slaves were often educated and given responsibilities that were far beyond the modern, Western idea of a slave. In fact, slaves were the backbone of the Roman economy, the wealthy never worked since they had people working for them (the slave).  Slaves were sometimes compensated for their work and could look forward to being set free. In fact, some slaves refused to be set free since they were more socially advanced as a slave of a wealthy, well-placed citizen that as a free (but poor) individual.

In addition, Peter uses the word “household slave” (οἰκέτης). This might be understood as a domestic servant rather than a “field slave.” He is not talking about the slave who is laboring in the salt mines, or being whipped in the fields, but the slave who has responsibilities in the household and is often treated as though they are part of the household.

Peter adds “with all respect.”  It is possible for a slave to obey, but not respectfully. The Greek here is not “with all due respect,” but literally “in all fear” (φόβος). Fear is one of those words that can mean “for fear of getting a beating” in this context, or it can mean out of respect for the social standing of one’s master.

All three members of the household are told to act with respect (slaves, wives and husbands). This mutual respect is a subtle counter-cultural maneuver in the Greco-Roman world where a husband/master would not really have to respect their wife or slave.

The Christian slave is to submit to their master whether they are good and gentle, or unjust. As with any master/slave relationship, it is possible that a master could be unjust and cruel.  The same is true for a boss/employee relationship (good boss vs. bad boss). However, the attitude of the slave ought not to depend on the personality or behavior of the master, they always are to be obedient and respectful regardless of how they are treated.

Although some disrespect is “socially acceptable” for a non-believing slave, Peter’s point here is that the Christian slave must respect their master more other slaves because a Christian slave is a “stranger and alien” in this world. But this sort of humble submission is seems rare in modern, western Christianity. Perhaps this is a result of affluent Christians who are quite at home in this world – how do we get back to Peter’s ideal of living out a Christian life that treats non-Christians with respect so they might honor God as well?

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.

By His Wounds You Have Been Healed – 1 Peter 2:24

In 1 Peter 2:24, Peter alludes to Isaiah 53:5 when he declares that Christ’s death provides “healing.”  He is clearly referring to the death of Jesus on the cross (“he bore our sins on the tree”).  But Peter adjusts the wording of Isaiah 53 slightly. In both the Hebrew and Greek versions, the line reads “we are healed,” Peter has “you (plural) are healed.”  This may simply be a case of a pastor inserting his congregation into a text for rhetorical purposes.

On the other hand, it is not clear in Isaiah who the suffering servant benefits – who is the “we” in this verse?  A common first-century answer was “Israel.” The nation as a whole suffers in order to bring redemption to the world.   This could be an example of Peter re-using a text from the Hebrew Bible and applying it more specifically to the Church. It is not the nation of Israel who is healed by the death of the messiah, but rather the ones who follow Jesus.

The verb translated “healed” (ἰάομαι) can easily be misunderstood. While it is often used for physical healing, it is also used for being delivered from spiritual blindness. What is more, it is used in Isaiah 6:10 to describe what might happen if the people of Isaiah’s day turned their hearts to the Lord and really understood the message of the prophet – “they would be healed.” This text from Isaiah is used several times in the New Testament to describe the spiritual blindness of those who witnessed Jesus’ ministry. They were spiritually insensitive and therefore rejected the Suffering Servant when he revealed himself.

John 12:37-44 is a remarkable combination of Isaiah 6:10 and 53:1. This is John’s summary of the ministry of Jesus. No one heard the message of the Suffering Servant, so no one turned as was healed! Like John, Peter is saying that those who follow Christ are healed of their spiritual blindness in a way which separates them from those who heard the teaching of Jesus and failed to respond.

Isaiah 53 forms a foundation for Peter’s Christology, and probably for the Christology of the earliest apostolic preaching. Based on the suffering of Jesus Christ, his followers experience redemption.  But there is a pastoral application of Peter’s theology of salvation.  If Jesus suffered so intensely so that you can have salvation, then those who follow Jesus ought to suffer in the same way.  Look back a few verses:  1 Peter: 2:20 is an ethical statement about servants who are unjustly suffering at the  hands of their masters.

In fact, Peter’s point is that how you follow Jesus ought to be based on the way in which Jesus lived, suffered and died.  This is not some sort of sugary “WWJD” pep-talk.  Peter bases his ethical teachings on the suffering of Jesus, not his “good life” or other moral teachings.  It is remarkable that Peter does not say, “Love your neighbor the way Jesus loved his neighbors.” I am sure that is true and that Peter would agree with that sort of a statement.   But Peter says, “suffering in silence, the way Jesus suffered.”

My guess is that most people who wore the WWJD bracelets were not thinking about being silent while they were beaten unjustly for their commitment to their Lord and Savior.

Submit to the Government? – 1 Peter 2:11-17

Donald Trump AntichristStrangers are not always welcome. Imagine this scene: you are traveling in England, and in some small village you have some car trouble so you stop at the local pub with a colorful name like “the Prancing Pony” or “The Drunken Duck” or my personal favorite, “The Skiving Scholar” (which is in Plymouth). As you walk up to the door, you can hear people talking, laughing, etc. But when you open the door and step inside, everyone goes silent and looks at you: you are different. You are an outsider and no good can come from an outsider (especially an American). Maybe you hear some muttering in the background about “tourists” as people just glare at you, waiting to hear what you want.

In the first part of 1 Peter 2, Peter has described the People of God as stones in a Living Temple of God. If we really do have this kind of status in the world, and we really do function in some ways like a “royal priesthood” to the nations, then there are some practical applications for Peter’s readers.  He has described them as strangers and aliens, living as foreigners in a strange land. Whatever they do, the people of God will be watched with a suspicious eye since they are “different.”

Hillary Clinton AntichristThe first application he develops is the relationship of the believer to the government. This is a particularly difficult problem since Rome ruled Asia Minor, and most of Asia Minor encouraged the worship of the Empire and the Emperor as a show of loyalty.

When this letter was written, the Emperor was Nero. If the book of 1 Peter is dated to about A.D. 64, then Nero is just beginning his spiral into insanity that will result in his suicide in June of 68. In July of 64, Nero appears to have secretly ordered the burning of some buildings in Rome in order to build a new Palace dedicated to himself (an area of up to 300 acres!), but the fire got out of hand and burned for five days, destroying three districts in Rome and damaging seven others. Looking to shift blame, Nero blamed the Christians (those strange outsiders) and began a persecution that (at least according to tradition) killed both Peter and Paul.

Bernie Sanders AntichristIt is unlikely that this persecution reached beyond the city of Rome, but the Greco-Roman world always looked at Jews with suspicion, and even more so the growing sect of Christians. If Karen Jobes is right and the letter of 1 Peter is written to Jewish Christians expelled from Rome by Claudius, then they are literally “strangers and aliens,” exiles from their home.

It is therefore remarkable that Peter does not command his readers to rebel against Rome or form some sort of underground opposition party. Nor are the Christians to work to undermine the foundations of the Empire. In fact, he tells his readers to “Submit to every human authority” (v. 13). But can Peter really mean every human authority?

What sort of application might this have to contemporary Church-State conversations? I think that this would look different in American than most of the rest of the world – how do people living outside the democratic west handle this teaching?