In the February issue of the Ichthus, Richard Beck takes a closer look at 1 Peter 3, an often controversial passage on “God’s plan for marriage.” Frequently interpreted as a justification for patriarchal domination, Beck breaks the passage down through close reading and contextualization to reveal that the popular use of 1 Peter 3 to command women into being submissive to their husbands is not only often troubling, but also a biblically and historically incorrect reading of the passage.
Beck contextualizes 1 Peter 3 in what he terms an ecosystem of abuse. The ecosystem of abuse is indicated and acknowledged by Peter beginning in 2:11, and he is writing specifically to “foreigners and exiles”– the oppressed of their societies (Beck 29). It is immediately apparent , then, that we cannot consider 1 Peter 3 in isolation–a simple consideration of Peter’s audience reveals a set of specific needs that he would have been aware of and compelled to address.
Peter’s advice to the foreigners and exiles is not necessarily surprising from a Christian perspective–he calls them to lead by example (continuing to serve in submission to their oppressors), and show them the freedom provided by Christ through transcendence of their situation (1 Peter 13-16). Peter says to give an honest answer when questioned about one’s faith, but not to harbor bitterness against those who demand absolute submission and simply go about one’s business.
What Peter is suggesting is essentially a band-aid for a situation created by sin. Because we live in an imperfect world, imperfect solutions are required with the aim of returning to a perfect world of equality. Beck shows that Peter is not arguing for submission as a state of holiness; instead, Beck proves that Peter is showing how one might spiritually transcend an imperfect situation that, until God changes oppressors’ hearts and they begin to consider a Christian, merciful way of living, cannot be decidedly fixed without generating more problems than positive outcomes. 1 Peter 13-16 specifically is s a strategy for spreading the Christian faith in unfair and difficult situations.
In a certain way, Beck makes the gender issue at hand irrelevant. He re-casts the opening paragraph of 1 Peter 3 in terms of a more general oppressor-oppressed relationship. The oppressive husband to whom the wife must be submissive is a sinner who has not been shown the truth of the gospel; while the oppression retains a gendered narrative that is borne of the imperfect construction of society, the oppressive husband who abuses his believing wife is re-cast as a “sinner,” a title that could be generalized to any unmerciful and unkind non-Christian. 1 Peter 3, then, is not so much about the dynamics of marriage as it is about the close interaction of believers and non-believers. When applied to a marriage context, Peter is simply offering the most tenable strategy to an oppressed group that is publicly and privately the victim of an oppressive social construction of gender roles. Peter’s suggestion of showing by example is perhaps one of the most effective options for generating change that women in the early church had.
I found Beck’s article a refreshing look at the “problem” of 1 Peter 3, and would highly recommend that you pick up the issue and read it for yourself. He does an excellent (and very readable!) job of investigating this often misused passage, and gets to the heart of the passage when he closes with the following:
Even worse to claim, as many do, that this ecosystem of abuse should be enshrined as “God’s plan for marriage.” Such a claim would indeed be ironic (and tragic) for Bible-believing Christians. One only needs to read the text to see that God’s plan for marriage appears to be something very, very different. (Beck 30).
After reading his article, you can’t help but agree.