At first glance, the passage that we just read has absolutely no application to anyone sitting here. The apostle Peter was writing to address Christians in circumstances that no longer exist, at least not here. He was actually writing to address the intersection of two circumstances, and my guess is that nobody here lives at this same intersection.
The first circumstance is a patriarchal society that looked down on women – a society that no longer exists. In Peter's day, women were classed with slaves as inferior beings. Wives were expected to follow their husband's religions, whatever they may be. A husband could legally throw out babies that he didn't want to keep, visit a prostitute, and generally make his life miserable for his wife if he chose to. He wasn't allowed to beat her, but there's no doubt that it was a man's world.
The other circumstance was a wife's conversion to Christ. Women were coming to Christ before their husbands, which created huge problems. The fact that she would be adopting any religion other than her husband's would look like an act of open rebellion and would cause the husband embarrassment. People would accuse him of not properly managing his household. When his wife attended worship without him, with people who were not her husband's friends, it wouldn't look right. In a patriarchal society, a wife's devotion to Christ could cause huge problems in her family.
At the intersection of a patriarchal society and a wife's conversion to Christ, there were huge problems. Peter writes to address this problem, as well as a related one for husbands. So here's the issue for us today: nobody here lives at this intersection. Some of you may be married to an unbelieving spouse, and you deal with all of the issues that come from that. But thankfully we live in a society that values women. Sexism still exists, but our view of women is radically different from back then.
So what does this passage have to teach us? A lot – not just for those who are married, but for everyone here. Peter teaches us how to transform our marriages, and what he says will completely transform your marriage as well as any other relationship.
Let's look at what Peter says and how it applies to us.
The Context: Tensions in Marriage
The context of Peter's passage is that the wives and the husbands that he addresses are experiencing some tension in their marriages. The tensions are mainly because one spouse believes and the other one doesn't, which as we've said could cause all kinds of problems. So there's a whole other level to what Peter says here.
I've lived something personally and seen it in other couples. When my marriage is going well, it's not hard at all to be loving and considerate with my wife. Not at all. It just comes easily because there is no stress in the marriage. Things are going well.
But Charlene and I have been through periods of stress in our marriage as well. Most marriages eventually reach these dry periods, or even periods of crisis. It's incredibly hard to be gracious and loving and considerate in those times.
When we prepare couples for marriage, most people are pretty confident in their relationships and that things are going to go pretty smoothly for them. Eventually every marriage reaches that point in which there are tensions and hurts, and things are not easy.
Most of us who are married here know that marriages go through periods of tension, and worse. Some of you are married to unbelievers and know some of the stress that causes. When you're going through tensions and stress in your marriage, how do you respond?
How to Respond
The normal way that we respond to tensions in marriage is to focus on what our spouse is doing wrong, or to assert our own rights. It wasn't easy for these wives. Their husbands were resistant to the gospel. They may have ridiculed the message and insulted the wives. It may have even been impossible for the wives to speak of their faith to their husbands. How do you respond under these circumstances?
Some of us may be facing this exact same situation. For others of us, it's broader. It falls under the same general category of being treated unfairly or unjustly. John Piper says that it's about how to respond when your husband is not a Promise Keeper. You've heard about Promise Keepers? It's an organization that encouraged men to make commitments like honoring Jesus Christ, pursuing vital relationships with other men, building strong marriages, supporting the mission of the church. But he says, "Some Christian women are not going to have promise-keepers for husbands. They're going to be married to non-promise-keepers." What do you do when your husband is not the man you hoped he would be? When your wife is not the woman that you hoped she would be?
Peter says in verse 1, "Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands." That's not at all what you hoped it would say! When you are the victim of injustice, when you are experiencing stress in your marriage and you are even the victim of ridicule and unfair treatment, the last thing that you want to do. But Peter says that is what wives are to do, and he repeats it in verse 5: "For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands."
I bet you there are alarm bells going off right now. We object on the basis of thinking that submission is sexist, that we live in more enlightened times. But it's interesting that Peter doesn't base submission on a woman's role. He bases it on Jesus Christ. Verse 1 says "in the same way." In the same way as what? In the same way as he mentioned in the previous chapter, and it's all based on the submission of Jesus Christ to injustice. In the previous chapter Peter wrote:
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
"He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth."
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. "He himself bore our sins" in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; "by his wounds you have been healed." For "you were like sheep going astray," but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Peter 2:21-25)
Why submit? Not because you are inferior in any way. Not because you're a woman. Submit because that is what Jesus did for our sakes. The one to whom all people should have bowed willingly lay aside all of his rights and allowed himself to be mistreated for our sakes. And we who are privileged beyond belief can willingly lay aside our rights and our privileges for his sake. We are called to imitate Christ in willing subjection to service. The call to submit isn't based on sexism; it's based on imitating what Jesus did when he lay aside his rights for our sake. The call for a wife's submission is part of a larger call for submission from all Christians in different ways, as we'll see in a moment.
We need to be really careful here that we understand what submission is. Some have taken this idea of submission and twisted it to teach that women have to put up with any behavior. There is nothing in this passage that sanctions abuse or suggests that women should subject themselves to that kind of treatment. If abuse is taking place in marriage, submission does not mean that you put up with the abuse. You don't. It's entirely appropriate to get help and to take steps to put an end to the abuse.
John Piper has studied this passage and come up with a really helpful list of what submission is not based on these verses:
- Submission does not mean agreeing with everything your husband says.
- Submission does not mean leaving your brain or your will at the wedding altar.
- Submission does not mean avoiding every effort to change a husband.
- Submission does not mean putting the will of the husband before the will of Christ.
- Submission does not mean that a wife gets her personal, spiritual strength primarily through her husband.
- Finally, submission does not mean that a wife is to act out of fear.
Well, what is submission? Submission means that you are willing to lay aside your rights and imitate Christ's example in serving others, even when it's not easy. It means surrendering ego. As Karen Jobes writes, it is "the resolve to live one's entire life totally committed to the well-being of one's spouse in every decision."
And by the way, it's something that is offered but never demanded. A well-known evangelical leader said, "I believe in a wife submitting to her husband, but I don't believe the husband ever has the right to demand it…In fact, I know when I am unworthy of it, she does not. My responsibility as a husband is to be worthy." A wife's job is to live one's life totally committed to the well-being of her husband.
And in case the husbands think they're off the hook, Peter writes in verse 7: "Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers." We'll get to that weaker part in a minute, but notice that Peter says the exact same thing to husbands. Be considerate. Treat them with respect. See them as spiritual co-heirs. Peter is writing to men who have all the power in the relationship at that time, and he's telling them to treat his wife as a sister in Christ, as an equal partner in God's grace.
He says things like spend time with your wives. "Live with them." Somebody's said, "Nothing will transform your marriage like time." It is the currency of relationship. He said, "Be considerate" which means to understand your wife. Get to know your wife, her needs, her desires, her wants. Learn what she likes, what she doesn't like. Somebody's said, "You've got to have a Ph.D. in your wife by your tenth anniversary." If you don't know where to start, ask your wife. Sit down, and make it safe, really listen without responding, and ask, "Is there anything that I could learn that would make me a better husband?" "If our marriage could improve in one area, what would that be?"
"Treat them with respect," Peter says. Honor her. Praise her. I promised you that we'd talk about the weaker partner part. Women back then were in a weaker position of power than men. Women are weaker physically. This is not a reference to strength of character, morality, or mental power. Understand her needs, when she doesn't feel safe.
See her as an heir with you of "the gracious gift of life." That means to share with her in all the good things that life brings. Make sure that the blessings of your life are flowing to her equally. See yourselves as heirs of God, partners. As his children, we can expect to inherit his blessings. Do life with your wife. Share it all. Open up to her and share yourself with her. Live your life totally committed to the well-being of your wife. As somebody's said, you can complain about your wife for a few years, but after ten years you're responsible for the wife you've poured yourself into.
Don't forget, by the way, that Peter isn't writing to people who are on second honeymoons enjoying candlelight dinners. He's writing to marriages that are full of stress. He's writing to wives whose husbands don't understand their commitment to Christ. He's addressing marriages with tensions.
The last thing in the world we want to change when our spouse lets us down is ourselves. We want to put all our energy into changing them. Peter says that the best way to change them is to change yourself by laying your rights aside and putting the well-being of your spouse as your priority, even when they don't deserve it.
Here's why. A godly husband can transform a wife. A godly wife can transform a husband. Peter says in verse 1, "they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives." The best way to change your spouse is to change yourself – or more accurately, by allowing God to change you. As verse 4 says, it's about having your inner life changed. The best way to respond to stress in marriage is to allow God to change you – not your spouse, you.
And by the way, this applies to every relationship in your life as well. We're called to follow Christ's example in all of our relationships. We don't need to be concerned with maintaining our rights. Like Jesus, we can trust our heavenly Father, the righteous Judge, to do that. We are privileged beyond imagination, but we don't have to hold on to our privileges. We can offer our lives in service as Christ offered his life in service for our sakes when we didn't deserve it.
Well, all of this is good, and I think we'd all agree that marriages would be better if we did this, but how? Nobody acts this way naturally. There's not a person here who naturally thinks this way in the middle of a marriage conflict. There are some of us here who would love to live this way, but we just don't know where to start.
Peter tells us how we can change to be this kind of husband, this kind of wife. It's to keep going back to Jesus that he mentioned in chapter 2, right before this section:
"He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth."
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. "He himself bore our sins" in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; "by his wounds you have been healed." For "you were like sheep going astray," but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Peter 2:22-25)
The only way to love this selflessly is to meditate on and bask in and live under the love of the ultimate spouse, the one who loved us even more selflessly, who put up with injustice, insults, and even death so that we could live. And when we're really gripped by the love of the ultimate spouse, Jesus Christ, he himself will give us the power to follow his example. The Bible tells us that he at this very moment is in heaven interceding for us.
The only way to live like this is to be so captivated by the love of Jesus Christ for us when we didn't deserve it, that this same love will spill out all over our lives and into the lives of our families. The best way to respond to stress in marriage is to allow God to change you, and the best way for God to change you is to bask in what Jesus has done for you and live your whole life in light of that reality.
Father, thank you for the One who had every privilege, and the worship of every creature in heaven, who willingly lay all of that aside to come to earth. He willingly suffered injustice and took upon himself our sins so that we could be forgiven, and by his wounds we have been healed.
May our lives be so transformed by what Christ has done for us that it changes every relationship we have, including our marriages. We pray this in the name of the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls, Jesus Christ. Amen.