Submission–A Honeymoon Word!

1 In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, 2 as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior. 3 Your adornment must not be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; 4 but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. 5 For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands; 6 just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear.

The Apostle Peter’s discussion of a woman’s relationship to her husband in 1 Peter 3:1-6 has been a source of consternation for many women leading some to reject outright what appears to be a biblical principle of submission, or to reconfigure it into a more acceptable meaning, or to effectively expunge it as a cultural issue tied to the past with minimal or no connection to the present. Many women perceive submission as a negative term, a “put down” of women.  However, a careful examination of the rhetorical development in verses 5-6 does not support this conclusion. In fact, submission is a positive and beautiful aspect of the husband/wife relationship. Note the following developments:

  • First, a rhetorical development is recognized by use of the correlative adverbs “in this way” (οὗτως) . . . ” just as” (ὡς).
  • Second, Peter’s argument follows a general to specific pattern—from “holy women” to “Sarah.”
  • Third, the holy women of old adorned themselves inwardly by “being submissive to their own husbands.”

Submission, the central issue in the passage, occurs in verses 1 and 5. However, no explanation or definition is given until verse 6 where submission by Sarah to Abraham is described in two ways—by obedience and respect.

An example of Sarah’s obedience occurs in Genesis 18:6 when she obeyed Abraham’s request to prepare a meal for his visitors. This correlates with the general Old Testament understanding that the husband is the “head of the household” with leadership authority (Genesis 3:16, see my posting ” Paul, Women and the Church”).

The respect of Sarah to Abraham finds expression in the word “lord” used in both the Old and New Testaments (אדון in Brown, Driver, Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon, p. 10-11; κύριος in Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 3rd ed., p. 576-579). Lord is a term of respect used by one person speaking to or about an authority figure. Genesis 18:12 records Sarah calling Abraham lord.

These Old Testament reflections on obedience and respect transfer into the present sphere of husband/wife relationships by Peter’s conclusion in verse 6, “and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear” (NASB). Peter adds two dimensions of obedience and respect by the wife—“doing what is right” and “without being frightened by any fear.”

An adjusted NASB translation of “doing what is right,” tied to the Greek word ἀγαθοποιοῦσαι, simply means “doing good.” The second NASB phrase, “without being frightened by any fear,” requires some adjustments as well so as not to misconstrue Peter’s intent.

This Greek phrase literally translated “and not fearing any fear” (καὶ μὴ φοβούμεναι μηδεμίαν πτόησιν) establishes the second aspect of submission being introduced with “and” (not included in the NASB translation).  The last word in this phrase (πτόησιν) is classified syntactically as a cognate accusative of the inner object (Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 189), simply defined, it modifies and focuses the intended meaning of the preceding participle “fearing” (φοβούμεναι). 

The participle from the verb φοβέομαι has two distinct meanings: (1) To have respect, so used in verse 2 where the wife is told that the husband may be saved as he beholds his wife’s chaste and respectful behavior towards him, and (2) To have fear, being afraid. In verse 6 Peter desired the participle to be understood different from the way in which he used the verb in verse 2. Therefore he inserted a cognate accusative of the inner object using a term that cannot be confused with respect but can only mean to be afraid (πτόησιν). Thus, the wives are told that they are not to live in fear of their husbands. This is the respect aspect of the two-pronged submission idea and can be translated “not giving way to fear.” Translators must take into account Peter’s lexical reason for including this unique and unusual word (πτόησιν). This negatively constructed phrase, really does define what genuine respect is for the wife—living with her husband fearlessly believing him to be good who would not knowingly do her harm.

Here is a general to specific arrangement of the above observations:

  • Submission = Obedience and Respect
    • Obedience = Doing Good
    • Respect = Exhibiting No Fear

Submission of the wife to the husband as developed by Peter shines a light on what brought her to the altar to begin with—to do good for her husband treating him with respect. To paraphrase the practical import of the passage, “Submit to your husband; keep the honeymoon current!” Suggesting that submission is a “put down” on women missinterprets this text and injects a negative into what God designed to be positive and beautiful!

[Personal addendum. My exegesis of 1 Peter 3:7 demonstrates clearly that the husband’s obligations in the marriage relationship far exceeds that of the wife.]

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