This blog continues my translation and study of the First Letter of Peter
I Peter 3
In a similar way you wives, be obedient to your own husbands, so that if some of them are not persuaded by the Word, they may be won over without a word by the behaviour of their wives, when they note your modest and reverential behaviour. Your cosmetic should not be the external one of braiding hair or wearing gold jewellery or trying on cloaks, but rather of the hidden person of the heart, with the undying reality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious to God. In that way the holy women who placed their hope in God, used to beautify themselves in their obedience to their husbands – as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him her lord. You become her children if you do good and are not made fearful by any violent threat.
In the same way too, you husbands, live intelligently with your wives, giving honour to the woman as the more fragile partner, while you share equally in the grace of life, so that nothing may impede your prayers.
Off the shoulder in ancient Rome
Obviously this is not the favourite bible passage of feminists, amongst whom I am happy to number myself. It is a difficult passage to read aloud in worship and to follow with “This is the word of the Lord” Whatever may be said in explanation of the passage does not make it less offensive to contemporary ears. Along with the passage above on slavery, it reminds the reader that the letter was written in a culture very different from our own, whose customs the first believers had shared, even if they began to practice very different customs within their assemblies. Undeniably women exercised leadership within some, perhaps many, assemblies of Jesus. Paul asserts the equality of men and women, as well as slave and free citizens, “in Messiah”, that is, in the assembly of believers. Little of that equality can be seen in this passage.
The first instruction is to the wives of unbelieving husbands.They are to witness to Jesus by their modesty and reverence (to God). The lovely phrase, “the hidden person of the heart” points to a real loveliness of spirit, which accepts the societal custom, in order to guide the man towards a faith in which he will recognise his wife as an equal sister in Messiah Jesus. The author recognises the miserable reality of unequal partnership when he writes of “violent threats” (literally, terrors). I cannot see another interpretation but that these threats came from the husband.
The second instruction is to husbands with believing wives. They are to live with their wives “intelligently” that is, not as masters, but as partners of women who are weaker than them, and therefore deserve “honour” which certainly includes respect. The motive for this is that they are equal sharers in the “grace or gift of life.” This seems to me to be a Jewish expression meaning married love, including sexual love and the birth of children, oriented towards the goodness of life. Marital relationships that exclude this grace would inhibit faith and prayer.
But it is necessary to admit that this biblical passage is very much influenced by the patriarchal culture in which it was written. It has of course no knowledge of modern views of human equality, nor of contemporary explorations of gender and sexual orientation, for all of which the contemporary church should be grateful, and from which it should continue to learn. But it should not imagine that our contemporary practices add up to any genuine equality. I only need to look out of my study window at teenage girls walking to school wearing skirts that scarcely cover their underwear, or note that powerful women in the entertainment industry are compelled to flash their boobs competitively at celebrity bashes, to see that women are still subject to male views of their role in society.
This passage sees believing women as real persons, dealing with men who expect obedience. They are advised to do so, while refusing to be decorative ornaments and insisting on being persons in their own right. Their aim is not to change the behaviour of their husbands but by their behaviour to win their husbands for the God who would change their whole lives. This is similar to the way the assemblies chose to deal with slavery. The image of the “hidden person of the heart ” is of permanent value.