One of the biggest things that trips us up as we try to understand the Bible is our habit of treating it like a plate of monkey bread. We come to it, and it’s all in one piece, but we figure that it’s really a bunch of little pieces stuck together; and we don’t want a whole lot of it, we only want a snack. We only want to know what the Bible says about this one thing, or maybe we just want something to comfort us or encourage us; and so we pull it apart. We treat it like a lot of small pieces stuck together for convenience, rather than as all one book that we need to understand as a whole.
The tendency with this section of 1 Peter is to look at it and say, “Here, Peter’s talking about slaves, and here he’s talking about marriage,” and then go off and talk about the husband as the head of the household and the importance of female modesty and never actually come back to the book at all. That misses the heart of this passage. For one thing, look at verses 18-25 of chapter 2. Peter begins, “Slaves, be subject to your masters with all respect,” but then he doesn’t actually say very much about slaves at all. He spends more than half those verses talking about Christ and his suffering, and most of what he says applies to everyone in the church, not just slaves.
For another, context matters. What do slaves and married women have in common? Under Roman law, both were completely under the authority and at the mercy of another person. What has Peter just been talking about in verses 13-17? As slaves to God, we are to defer to other people and respect those who are in authority over us. Is that always going to be a positive experience? Will those authorities always treat us justly? No. And if they don’t, where is that going to bite?
The fact of the matter is, it probably won’t be from the emperor first. Governments may be unjust, and even the best of them create a lot of injustice along the way, because this world malfunctions all over the place; but except in times of all-out persecution, it’s rare that any government deliberately does as much damage to any one person as an abusive husband can. Slaveowners could be even worse, for obvious reasons. It’s all well and good for Peter to say, “Respect the emperor,” even when the emperor is Nero or Caligula; but what if you’re a slave and your master is a mini-Nero? What if you’re married to Caligula’s evil twin? What are you supposed to do about that?
American society being what it is, we instinctively analyze and respond to these questions in terms of legal rights and political power. We want Peter to say, “Rise up and demand justice”—but he couldn’t, because the people he’s addressing have no ability to do that. They’re powerless. Outside the very rich, if a man killed his wife, unless his wife’s family had a powerful patron, the authorities didn’t care. If he killed his slave, nobody cared. Other slaves might, but they didn’t count, and didn’t dare say anything. Legally speaking, you’re going to submit—or else.
Peter’s answer is spoken into this reality, and the heart of it is an application of verse 16: “As free people, but as slaves of God.” You’re not free by the law of the world, but you are free in the spirit. If you’re a slave, if you’re a married woman under Roman law, you’re going to submit; you can’t control that. But you can control why you submit. Do you submit resentfully, because you have to—perhaps because you’ll be beaten if you don’t? Peter says, look to Christ, and do it for him. Do it because he submitted to far worse for you, so that he might heal you and give you new life in God.
For slaves whose masters are cruel and unjust, the reality is that they will suffer unjustly. Peter acknowledges this, and asks, “Is it really any better if you suffer because you deserve it?” The answer is, of course, no. If you suffer for doing good, he says, look to Jesus and endure it without fighting back. He did that for us, because he trusted that the injustice of his earthly judges would not stand; God the Father and his justice would have the last word. If we do the same, bearing undeserved suffering patiently because of Christ, because we trust in the Father, then our suffering isn’t pointless—we’re suffering for God, as an act of service to him, and this pleases him.
As Peter says this, he starts off talking to slaves, but he isn’t only talking to them—his words are for the whole church. If we’re all slaves to God, and if we’re all exiles and resident aliens in a world where we really don’t quite belong, then what’s true of those household slaves is in fact true of all of us. For one, if we live faithfully with the Lord, we’re all likely to suffer unjustly; that reality was just more obvious in their case. And we’re all every bit as indebted to Jesus, who freely allowed himself to be tortured to death when he never deserved it. If he’d insisted on his rights and demanded justice, we’d all be damned.
For another, we’re all going to have to submit to others, and not just the government. No, we don’t have legal slavery; but the critics of capitalism have long denounced it as “wage slavery,” and they’re not entirely wrong. Just ask the Man in Black. . . .
Obviously, there’s a difference between being beaten for praying and being taken advantage of at work because you have a selfish, unjust boss who knows you can’t afford to quit. Employees have options and recourse that slaves didn’t. But if you’re in a position where those options are all theoretical and there’s no better job in sight, you’re just as caught. Bad economies empower bad bosses, and it comes down to the same two choices in the end. If you’re being treated unjustly, you can resist in some way, even if all you do is complain, or you can look to God and bear the injustice with patience and grace for Jesus’ sake. Put another way, you’re going to be a servant regardless; the choice is yours either to serve grudgingly, kicking and screaming, or to serve freely and graciously in the name of the Lord. The work is the same in either case, but the heart is completely different—and it’s amazing how much that difference can mean.
When Peter speaks to wives, we see his concern for the witness of the church come into play again. Women married to unbelievers were in a difficult situation. The Roman writer Plutarch declared, “A wife ought not to make friends of her own, but to enjoy her husband’s friends in common with him. The gods are the first and most important friends. Wherefore it is becoming for a wife to worship and to know only the gods that her husband believes in.” The women Peter’s addressing were violating that completely, and so they had to be very careful; they could easily endanger both themselves and the church.
This is why we have the injunction against fancy hairdos, jewelry and clothing, because they were commonly seen as signs that a woman intended seduction. To quote the Roman satirist Juvenal, “There is nothing that a woman will not permit herself to do, nothing that she deems shameful, when she encircles her neck with green emeralds and fastens huge pearls to her elongated ears.” It was already questionable for a married woman to go out alone to meet with a lot of men her husband didn’t know; if she went out dressed to the nines, her husband and their society would likely assume the worst. By contrast, if she lived in such a way that the goodness and holiness of God could be clearly seen in her life, that would allay his concerns, and perhaps draw him to Christ as well.
There’s a lot we could say here about how Peter is subverting the Roman social order, but most of it is outside the scope of this sermon. I do want to look at verse 7, however, which brings the point of this passage—that in Christ, we’re called to choose freely to serve others—home to husbands, who weren’t legally obliged to submit to their wives. He says to them, “Husbands, don’t you get any ideas.” The culture of the time thought women were inferior and rendered them powerless, and Peter’s been talking to wives about how to live out their required submission to their husbands; now he forbids married men in the church from taking advantage of that. As Karen Jobes puts it, “Peter teaches that men whose authority runs roughshod over their women, even with society’s full approval, will not be heard by God.”
Remember, in verses 13-17 Peter tells Christians to live with deference and respect to every person; this played out in particular ways in the Roman household, but that didn’t let husbands and masters off the hook. Nothing in this passage in any way justifies any sort of abuse of power; indeed, we are grateful that thanks to people like Mary Ann Cox, women with abusive husbands have options now that their Roman counterparts didn’t. Whatever position of authority you may have, you have it only because of God, and under hisauthority, as his slave; he will judge you on whether or not you’ve used it in accordance with his will and his character. Jesus suffered injustice, trusting in the one who judges justly; you don’t want to be on the other side of that equation. Whether you are powerful or powerless, you are a slave of God; you are free in Christ, which means you’re free to serve.