Circling back to Submission

Circling back to Submission

In college there were many parts of the Bible I loved and drew life from. The prophet Micah’s admonition to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” became something of a motto (my roommate even made t-shirts). The stories about the early church in the book of Acts, accompanied by the re-imagining of these communities by people like Shane Claiborne ignited my imagination for what following Jesus with a community of other people could look like. Other parts of the Bible, though, were a struggle. The “household codes” in 1 Peter were not the least of these.

“Wives, submit to your husbands.” 

I wasn’t married yet, but I already knew that particular instruction was going to be a problem. By the time I was seriously dating someone, I had already spent years agonizing in prayer with God to just please make me a more submissive person.

I just wanted a “gentle and quiet spirit,” damn it.
Could you please hurry this process quieting my spirit along, Lord?

Fast forward almost a decade. I married the boy I had been seriously dating, and our marriage has never really been characterized by the dynamics of submission and authority I grew up hearing were prescribed by this passage. We point each other to Christ, to the work of the Lord, and to the ways the Holy Spirit invites us to participate. Who submits to who is irrelevant, as we both submit to each other and to Christ. I didn’t really know what to do with Peter and his household codes for a long time, so I just ignored it– as we all do when we don’t like or know what to do with certain parts of  the Bible (if we’re being honest).

Recently though, I circled back around to Peter, and just what the author of that letter meant by advocating for submission, and just what we are supposed to do with these ideas today.

Putting Peter in Context
The first thing to remember when reading the letters that make up the greater portion of the New Testament is that they were written to real people, in real places, who were every bit as entrenched in and influenced by their culture as we are ours. Wives are instructed to submit to their husbands, and husbands are to be considerate and respectful of their wives in the same way that their wives submit to them. To understand Peter’s instruction to spouses in this section of his letter, it is absolutely necessary to understand Greco-Roman social and political norms first.

Greek culture prescribed a level of social isolation and dependency on wives. The Greek writer Plutarch instructs that “A wife ought not to make friends of her own, but to enjoy her husband’s friends in common with him.” In addition to friendship, worship was also expected to be dictated by husband, so a wife worshipping a god or gods other than the god(s) of her husband would be massively disruptive to the social order. Peter, giving instructions to wives in a letter to be read in a common gathering of early Christians, is best understood as instructive of Christians wives in their social interactions with their non-Christian spouses.

Growing up, I was taught that wives were less capable of making decisions than their husbands because women were “too emotional” or less likely to think rationally. Peter addresses wives directly though, explicitly assuming their agency in determining the course of their actions. The mere fact he is addressing wives directly assumes a different social paradigm than traditional Greco-Roman household codes, under which the wife would likely not be addressed at all. To make his words prescriptive for women everywhere, and in such a way as to minimize the voice and agency of women in all times is disingenuous at best, if not outright neglectful of the author’s intent.

Subversive Submission
A fundamental shift in the reframing of household codes in 1 Peter, is in the author shifting the onus of authority from traditional, Greco-Roman structures of hierarchy to a submission first and foremost to Christ. This moves the motivation for submission from social propriety to holiness. Rather than wives submitting to their  husbands out of social propriety, now their first responsibility is submission to the crucified and now ascended Lord Jesus.

The author is concerned that those in the church not use their newfound “moral freedom to bring condemnation on the church” (Karen Jobes, Baker Exegetical Commentary). For women who previously held no social standing of their own, even the choice to submit out of their own right is a magnanimous move of liberation and redemption. In reframing the cultural assumptions of the Greco-Roman household codes, the author of 1 Peter offers wisdom for holy living to the original community receiving this letter. Holy living exemplifies the character and work of God, which is always pursuing the other with radical hospitality and love.

To apply the wisdom of 1 Peter, modern readers engaging this text need to consider how this concept translates to our culture and context today. For churches who read 1 Peter literally and prescribe submissiveness and subjugation to male authority for women, the opportunity to subvert social norms for the sake of advancing the Kingdom is missed. When expressions of holiness turn into prescriptive, moralistic codes we have lost the essence of what it means to be a people set apart for God and God’s Kingdom. Outside of the Church, women have ascended to heights of CEO’s and Senators, they discover new medical technologies and compose symphonies, yet in the Church the jury is sadly still out on just how much authority a woman can have, and whether or not is it truly feminine to exert her human abilities of higher cognitive functioning and leadership. Congregations and denominations who choose to cling to patriarchal systems of authority will find their voices diminished and their witness hindered as, increasingly, the world finds less and less believable any inclination that women are a lesser gender.

Good News for Women
Ultimately, the reframing of household codes in 1 Peter may be best understood not as prescriptive for every wife throughout the centuries, but as a move on the part of the author that spreads the good news that there is a new way of living breaking into the old, worn systems of this world – the way of Jesus. Early church gatherings were already a source of radical cultural subversion, so to reframe the household code and claim it as a means of imaging the submission of Christ, the author of 1 Peter brilliantly turns the dominant social imagination on its proverbial head. Salvation, in the Christian understanding, is found in giving up position and privilege for the sake of the other. First in Christ crucified, and then as Christians follow in the steps of Christ. In this way, wives are not to use their freedom in Christ for their own benefit, but for the sake of their husbands that they also might be brought into the people of God by the witness of their wives. Likewise, the believing husband is to love and respect his wife that she might come to know the fullness of the grace of God, rather than just ascribe worship to the God of her husbands’ choosing.

The household codes are far from a call to smash the patriarchy, but it is fair to read 1 Peter as a call to Christians to subvert the status quo. Christians and churches do well to consider the ways in which our view of women, and their agency in marriage and the church either subvert cultural norms, or prop up values of bygone eras. We continue to live in a society today which discredits the value and role of women in a variety of ways, from gender-based pay gaps to gender-based violence. In keeping with the witness of 1 Peter, to subvert the dominant cultural narrative perhaps the most faithful action Churches could take on this passage would be to encourage women to participate more fully, and voice their opinions more strongly, at home and in the church. And furthermore, to encourage men to listen to, learn from, and submit to the leadership of women.

For further reading on the household codes in 1 Peter, I recommend the commentaries on 1 Peter by Karen Jobes (Baker Exegetical) and Dennis Edwards (The Story of God). 

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