In my previous post I spoke of the obligation that the Apostle Peter laid on us husbands - to treat our wives as we would "a weaker vessel" (1 Peter 3:7). I mentioned that this phrase has caused much debate by members of both sexes. What I didn't mention was that the preceding passage - the one that speaks of wives' obligations - has also been a cause of controversy.
The whole passage goes like this:
"Likewise wives submitting to your own husbands, that if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word, through the conduct of their wives, as they observe your pure conduct in fear Don't just make yourselves beautiful outwardly - doing your hair, wearing gold jewelry or pretty clothes. But let your beauty be the hidden person of the heart, in the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God's sight" (1 Peter 3:1-4).
"For this is the way the holy women who hoped in God in past times used to make themselves beautiful - by submitting to their own husbands - as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose children you've become, by doing good and not getting scared by any fright" (3:5, 6).
Most of this exhortation is pretty straightforward and fits in with Peter's theme. His readers are addressed as "strangers and pilgrims." All through this little letter they are exhorted to, "Keep your conduct beautiful among the pagans" (2:12). This involves an attitude of submission in all human relationships In the present context - wives to husbands.
But it's verse 6 that causes us problems - that reference to Sarah and Abraham: She "obeyed" him, "calling him lord." While many have problems with submission, it is clearly a concept used throughout the New Testament. But obey, call him lord? Nowhere else in the New Testament are women told to do this.
We don't like that word. To submit is hard enough - to place oneself under the authority of another. That's also an instruction for all of us - male and female (Ephesians 5:21). But "obey"? Children are told to obey their parents (Ephesians 6:1). Slaves are told to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5). There are, of course, many other situations where obedience is necessary. But isn't the husband/wife relationship egalitarian?
And she called him lord?
Interestingly, many women still promise to "love, honor and obey" in traditional wedding vows. Kate Middleton did so in her vows to Prince Andrew. I believe that Uni did when she said her vows to me (of course that was a loong time ago).
In fact, this verse has caused a bit of laughter in our marriage. Sometimes when we have a dispute and Uni sees that I am intransigent, she'll say (sarcastically I assume), "Yes, My Lord!" or refer to herself as "your obedient servant." Usually this helps us both to cool down. It seems we don't really take this passage very seriously.
So - what do we do with this passage? How should we understand it and how should we apply it? Well, the first thing we should notice is that Peter is not giving this as a command or even as advice. He is holding Sarah and Abraham as illustrations of the wife's submission.
I believe it would be a good idea to go back to the story of Abraham and Sarah in the Book of Genesis. Where do we find Sarah "obeying" Abraham? While I can't find the word "obey" in the Genesis story, we do find Sarah obeying Abraham in his bizarre scheme to lie to Pharaoh (Genesis 12:1-13) and to Abimelech the Philistine king (20:1, 2). Not exactly exemplary behavior! We also read where Abraham obeyed Sarah (he "listened to the voice of Sarah") when she urged him to have sex with the maid! (By the way, the same words are used of Adam in 3:17).
But there's only one place where Sarah calls Abraham "lord":
"And He (the LORD) said, 'I will surely return to you at this time next year, and see - Sarah your wife will have a son." And Sarah heard this at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in days, Sarah had ceased the way of women. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, 'Now that I am old, will I have my pleasure? [This probably refers to becoming a mother, although the Good News Bible paraphrases it, "Now that I am old and worn out, can I still enjoy sex?"] And my lord is old too!" (Genesis 18:10-12)
"And the LORD said to Abraham, 'Why did Sarah laugh saying shall I really bear a child when I'm so old? Is anything too marvelous for the LORD? I will return to you at this time next year and Sarah will have a son!'' (18:13, 14).
"Sarah denied saying, 'I did not laugh!' because she was afraid. But He said, 'No! You did too laugh!'" (18:15)
This is not exactly a picture of the sweet submissive wife that a casual reading of Peter's letter might seem to imply. In fact, the story of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis is a story of a man and a woman in a stormy relationship as many of the marriage stories in the Bible are. These are real people, with real personalities that frequently had real conflicts.
So why on earth would the Apostle Peter use Sarah as an example? Surely the author of a segment of inspired Scripture must have known that the references he gave would have brought a smirk to the faces of any biblically literate readers.
Is it possible that Peter saw the irony here? I believe he was doing just that. Peter was a married man (the first Pope?!!). And if the traditional dating of this letter at about 63 A.D. is correct, then he had been married for over 30 years. In the Gospels (ca. 30 A.D.) we find that he had a mother-in-law (Mark 1:30). Paul mentions that Peter (Cephas) had a wife who accompanied him on his missionary travels (1 Corinthians 9:5; 56 A.D.). So Peter would undoubtedly have known what married life was like. Perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Peter had chuckled over the Abraham and Sarah stories and related them to their own stories as Uni and I do ours. And perhaps he mentioned Sarah's "obedience" to bring a little comic relief to his readers. Sometimes we just take ourselves too seriously.