Resurrected Living
"What are you going to do with your new resurrected life? This is the heroic question." Richard Rohr

The Theology of Submission in 1 Peter 2:11-3:7

When one reads the letters of the New Testament he or she is most likely reading theology or ethics.  Theology includes the doctrines of God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, salvation, last things, etc.  Ethics is what many consider to be the more practical parts of the letter and include moral codes, commands, advice on how to behave in certain situations, etc.  The danger comes when a person separates these two distinctive parts of Christianity.  Ben Witherington recently noted, “One cannot understand the theological implications unless one also understands the ethical applications.  Ethics is mostly the application of the theology to the human sphere in regard to human character and behavior.”1  In this article I will examine the household code from 1 Peter and seek to provide a theological understanding of it.   I will begin by looking at the commands of submission found in 1 Pet. 2:11-3:6, followed by a look at the theological understanding of these commands within the context of 1 Peter, and finally explain how ignoring the theology behind these ethical commands is detrimental to the Christian community.

Household codes are not unique to 1 Peter.  They are found most notably in the writings of Paul (Col. 3:18-4:1; Eph. 5:21-6:9).  However, as David Bach has pointed out, what is found in 1 Peter is different from what is found in Paul.  In Paul, there are six social classes organized in three pairs.2  Paul will talk about wives then husbands, children then fathers, slaves then masters.  Peter does not do this, with the exception of wives and husbands, but even that passage focuses more on wives.  Peter also includes instructions for Christians to be submissive to human institutions within his household code.

Peter’s first section dealing with the command to be submissive is found in 1 Pet. 2:13-17.  Here, Peter exhorts Christians to “Be subject…to every human human institution.”  Paul Achtemeier has pointed out that this command “functions as a programmatic introduction to the material through 3:7.”3  The verb hypotagete (be subject), which is a form of hypotasso, literally means to be under an order, place, or station.4  Achtemeier says, “Its meaning is closer to ‘subordinate’ than to ‘submit’ or ‘obey.’”5  Peter goes on to clarify what he means by “every human institution.”  He commands Christians to be submissive to the governing authorities.  If one accepts the tradition that Peter was crucified in Rome in A.D. 67, then Nero is the emperor when Peter writes this letter.  Nero persecuted Christians after a fire destroyed part of Rome, but this persecution was local and did not extend to the rest of the empire.  The emperor before Nero was Claudius.  He was a “champion of the Roman gods and a conservative when it came to religious policy.”6  The emperor who followed Nero was Vespasian, and according to Eusebius he planned no evil against Christians.7  Regardless, if the emperor was Nero or not, Peter commands Christians to be submissive to a pagan government and to honor a pagan emperor.  Certainly these command would have aroused the emotions of Christians who were suffering a localized persecution at the hands of pagans.8

In 1 Peter 2:18-21, Peter commands Christian slaves to be submissive to their masters.  Again, Peter gives a radical command by adding that Christian slaves not only be submissive to the good masters, but also to the unjust.  The word skolios used in verse 18 to describe the harsh masters literally means crooked.9  Peter later suggests that some of these slaves will even have to endure physical abuse by their masters so they may be obedient to God.10  He says, in verse 19, that some of them must suffer adikos or unjustly.  Although slavery in the ancient world was quite different from what took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries within the United States, it still included physical and sexual abuse and slaves were considered property.11  The one obvious omission from this passage is any command regarding masters.  In both household codes found in Col. 3:18-4:1 and Eph. 5:21-6:9, Paul gives commands regarding slaves and masters, but Peter only addresses slaves.

Beginning in chapter 3, Peter addresses the roles of husbands and wives.  The bulk of Peter’s instructions are focused on wives.  Six of the seven verses in this passage (3:1-7) are dedicated to the conduct of wives.  The command for wives to submit to their husbands is found twice.12  Although Peter commands all wives to be subject to their husbands, he is concerned with those Christian wives who are in a relationship with a non-believing husband.13  The status of women in the first century was much different than it is now.  One begins to see a major problem with how women were viewed and treated in the first century when he or she studies the population ratios of the time.  J. C. Russell “estimated that there were 131 males per 100 females in the city of Rome, and 140 males per 100 females in Italy, Asia Minor, and North Africa.”14  The main causes for this extreme difference in sex ratios were due to infanticide and abortion.  According to Stark, infanticide of female babies was legal and common.15  Males were desired and thought to be more valuable.  To be a woman in the first century was not an easy thing, and for Peter to command Christian women to be submissive to their non-believing husbands was not an easy command to fulfill.

In 1 Pet. 2:11-3:7, Peter gives three difficult commands regarding submission.  He gives a command for all Christians to submit to a pagan government, and to honor an emperor who was responsible for the deaths of Christians.  He commands Christian slaves to be obedient to their masters, even the unjust ones who may cause them physical harm.  He commands Christian wives to submit to their non-Christian husbands at a time when the status of women did not mean much.  The question that arises is “Why?”  Peter does not leave us without any reason for these commands.  He provides the theological basis for these difficult commands within his letter.

The Christians of Peter’s day were living in a hostile environment where it is not always possible to win converts by way of audible persuasion.  Throughout this section of Scripture, Peter argues that converts may be won by conduct.  This begins in verse 12, prior to the commands of submission in 2:13-3:5.  Peter believes the pagans, whom the Christians were living amongst, would be able to recognize good behavior.16  He commands in verse 12, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”  Peter believes the proper conduct of Christians will lead non-Christians to glorify God.  This is also obvious in the command given in 3:1.  After commanding wives to be subject to their husbands, he gives the reason behind this command.  He states, “they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives.”  Part of the theology behind these commands to submit is grounded in a deep love for the souls of others.  Peter asks Christians to forfeit certain rights so that others may be won for Christ.  According to Peter, lost souls trump any personal comforts or rights of the individual.  To act in a submissive manner is to think of others more than self.17

A second theological basis behind these commands is based upon faith in God.  Peter commands Christians to submit to every human institution “for the Lord’s sake.”  He goes on to say in verse 15, “this is the will of God.”  In verse 19, Peter reminds Christian slaves to be “mindful of God” as they are “suffering unjustly.”  In chapter 3:1-6, Peter gives commands regarding how Christian women should adorn themselves and then says in verse 5, “For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves…”  These are difficult commands, but each one of them asks the follower to have faith that God is in charge.  The Christian is to submit to the pagan government while having faith that God is sovereign and in charge of all.  The Christian slave is to submit to their harsh master, having faith that his or her suffering will not go unnoticed by God who blesses and rewards.  The Christian wife is to submit to her non-believing husband, trusting that this is what God desires.  To submit to these authorities is to place all one’s trust in God.  By fulfilling these difficult commands, one strengthens their faith in God.  It also proves to non-believers there is some other cause behind the actions of these Christians.  What these Christians are asked to do goes against human nature, but by fulfilling these commands they prove that God is at work in their lives.

The major theological motive behind these commands is found in 2:21-25.  What Peter is ultimately asking these Christians to do is to be like Jesus.  He states in verse 21, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.”  Achtemeier points out that what these Christians have been asked to do “conforms with their Christian call…”18  The image Peter uses in verse 21 is a powerful one.  The word hypogrammon refers to the letters of the alphabet which children who were learning to write would trace.19  Peter points out that the ultimate Christian ethic is found in the life of Christ.  He summarizes what Jesus experienced and how he responded in verse 23.  What Peter is asking Christians to do, is not to obey some random command that is detached from everything else they have learned, but to become more like Jesus everyday.  In verses 24-25, Peter reminds them of the gospel.  With Isaiah 53 as the background, Peter reminds his readers of the atonement and the sacrifice Jesus made on their behalf.  Karen Jobes states, “The imagery of sheep following after the shepherd, following in his footsteps so to speak, forms a conceptual inclusio with 2:21, framing the entire christological exposition with the image that walking in Jesus’ footsteps, even through unjust suffering, is nevertheless the Shepherd’s path of safety, protection, and deliverance.”20  Peter asks these Christians to be like Jesus and to follow in his footsteps knowing it was on their behalf that he suffered and was sacrificed.  To practice submission is to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and conform to the pattern he left.

It is clear these commands given by Peter in 1 Pet. 2:11-3:7 were not to be understood by themselves, but instead to be viewed within their theological context.  When a person fails to understand this, they are in danger of legalism.  If a person attempts these commands without having some kind of understanding of the theological context in which they were given, they are liable to endanger their faith.  These are difficult commands, but they are not without reason.  If a person fails to see the theological purpose behind these commands, they may come away believing that God condones the actions of a pagan government, has no problem with abusive masters, or views women as second class citizens.  None of these claims are true, but these commands can easily be misunderstood by those who fail to grasp Peter’s meaning.  These commands show the necessity for always looking for the theology behind the ethics and vice versa.22

To fail to understand the theology behind these commands is to fail to understand how God changes the world.  God does not condone slavery or treating women as second class citizens, but he may not go about solving these issues the way we might think.  Peter’s commands to wives in chapter 3 may seem radical to many.  They may even be misunderstood by many.  It has already been pointed out that the treatment of women in the first century was not proper.  The ratio of men to women was skewed with men heavily outnumbering women,23 but things were much different within the Christian community.  Stark says, “Christian women enjoyed substantially higher status within the Christian subcultures than pagan women did in the world at large.”24  Christianity did not seek to change the status of women or slaves by protesting and rebelling against the established authorities, instead Christianity did change the status of women and slaves within the Christian community itself.  This caused Christianity to flourish among certain groups and led to change outside of the community at different times and in various situations.  If one misunderstands the theology behind these commands, they are liable to misunderstand God’s position on important issues.

In this article, I have sought to explain three difficult commands regarding submission and the theology behind these commands.  I have also sought to point out how ignoring or missing the theology is detrimental to the faith of the individual as well as the Christian community.  By practicing submission, a person is showing they care more for the souls of others than for their personal comforts, they have placed all their trust in God, and they are conforming to the life lived by Jesus on this earth.  One should never pretend what Peter asks of the Christian is easy, but one should always attempt to understand why it is being asked.  It is necessary for the Christian community to explore the theology behind its ethics.  When the Christian community ceases to do this, they cease to be Christian.

Endnotes

1 Ben Witherington, The Indelible Image (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 23.

2 David L. Bach, Let Wives Be Submissive: The Domestic Code in 1Peter, ed. James Crenshaw (Chico, CA: Society of Biblical Literature, 1981), 1.

3 Paul J. Achtemeier, 1 Peter, ed. Eldon Jay Epp (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 182.

4 John H. Elliott, 1 Peter (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 486.

5 Achtemeier, 182.

6 Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic: 2005), 32.

7 Eusebius Hist. eccl. 3:17.

8 The Christians Peter is writing to are being persecuted (3:16; 4:4, 14).  The strongest case for an empire wide persecution is under Domitian who reigned from 81-96.  If Peter is the author of 1 Peter and was crucified while Nero was emperor, then the persecution must have been local.

9 Wilbur F. Gingrich, Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament 2nd ed. rev. Frederick W. Danker (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983), 183.

10 1 Peter 2:20

11 Ben Witherington, Letters and Homilies for Helenized Christians Volume II (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 150.

12 1 Peter 3:1,5

13 1 Peter 3:1

14 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 97.

15 Ibid., 118-121.

16 Achtemeier, 176.

17 Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods (New York: Dutton, 2009), 89-91.  Keller points out an excellent example of this type of mentality in the story of Naaman found in 2 Kings 5.  It is the slave girl who acts in a submissive way, instead of rebelling, who is responsible for the salvation of Naaman.

18 Ibid., 198.

19 Ibid., 199.

20 Jobes, p. 199.

21 Witherington, The Indelible Image  p. 23.

22 Stark, 97.

23 Ibid., 128.

One Response to “The Theology of Submission in 1 Peter 2:11-3:7”

  1. Thank you for this excellent treatment. It is a real gift to me, a fellow preacher, as I prepare for my Valentine’s Day sermon! Well exegeted and referenced. Thank you!


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