Anybody who espouses a lifestyle model wherein a husband rules over his wife (and, usually, his children) often points to I Peter 3:1 as “clear poof” of their view.
The first step in evaluating any argument is “Does the source say what folks claim it does?” So let’s take a look.
Likewise, ye wives, [be] in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; While they behold your chaste conversation [coupled] with fear. Whose adorning let it not be that outward [adorning] of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; But [let it be] the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, [even the ornament] of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price. For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands: Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement.
Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with [them] according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.
I Peter 3:1–7, KJV
At first blush, this looks to be clear support for the claim that the husband’s role is one of authority and the wife’s is one of submission, but there’s a “likewise” before all that. That “likewise” is homoiós and is part of simile construction, comparable to the Spanish word así. It means “in the selfsame manner” or “for the selfsame reason"—and therefore means that the context can’t stand by itself because it derives from something else, something that’s come before.
So let’s take a step back and look into I Peter 2.
Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: As free, and not using [your] liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. Honour all [men]. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.
Servants, [be] subject to [your] masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward. For this [is] thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory [is it], if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer [for it], ye take it patiently, this [is] acceptable with God.
For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed [himself] to him that judgeth righteously: Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed. For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.
I Peter 2:13ff, KJV
Huh. This particular context is speaking of submission to earthly authority (insofar as it doesn’t violate God’s law, but that particular caveat gets defined elsewhere and is reasonably assumed here). The argument starts by saying the earthly authorities are to be submitted to. That the government is to be submitted to…
Verse 18 follows by confirming that the submission applies in the master/servant relationship—which, in modern terms, would be employer/employee relationship. Per this reference, even bad employers are to be served to the best of the Christian’s ability because Jesus did the same.
And then from there, it goes into “In the selfsame manner” and/or “For the selfsame reason” and gives the comments on wives to submit to husbands—so yes, that “submit” is referring to a form of obedience—obedience that applies regardless if the husband is Christian or not.
However, notice that this authority comes from the world, the government—not the church, the Holy Spirit, or God.
Also notice that servants aren’t forbidden from seeking another master or told that they must stay with their employers no matter how badly they’re treated—they’re just told what to do while they’re there + why.
Some would claim that the absence of mention of how to leave is a presumption that a servant will stay with even a horrible master—that an employee will stay with even a horrible employer, or a wife with a horrific husband—but there are a few not-so-little problems with that. First one is that arguing from the absence of evidence is actually the argumentum ad ignorantiam logical fallacy.
Second problem is that there actually is evidence that it’s okay to walk out of a situation that’s hurting you. Look at the reason stated for why people (everyone, servants, wives…) are to submit to those in legal authority over them, given in I Peter 2:21–25: we are to submit to earthly authorities due to the example of Christ submitting to earthly authorities, because of His submission to heavenly authority.
Christ held His peace for as long as He was in the position where He was getting abused, reviled, spat upon, even outright ignored—He did not exchange tit for tat, didn’t respond in kind when someone reviled or spat on Him—but He did not stay there forever. No, He dealt with them when He had to, over the course of his 3-year ministry, and then He left.
He removed himself from the situation—and He told us to do the same, when that happened to us! (ref. Matthew 10:23)
Moreover, Jesus Christ didn’t “play nice” when others’ expectations of what they wanted Him to do didn’t line up with what He was planning. He told them that His goal did not align with theirs—they wanted a physical reign over Judea—but He did not see any need to be “gracious” and “loving” and “accommodating” by continually explaining Himself, time after time after time.
Nope. He said His piece, then moved on to the next crowd. Some folks heard Him multiple times; some surely only heard Him once. When folks couldn’t understand Him and politely asked for clarification, He would give parables, but when explanations and concessions were demanded? He never gave the apologetic answer that we so often define as “submissive” and “respectful"—but if that sort of answer actually were what we Christians are supposed to do, why didn’t Christ pattern it? If submission to earthly authorities means we are to obey them “immediately, respectfully, joyfully, and completely” (ex. source, why did Christ not do that, Himself, since He’s our example?
Instead, He just focused on doing what God had commanded Him. He ignored the illegitimate rules no matter how angrily others claimed they applied to Him (see all the times He healed and did other things on the Sabbath). He let others malign Him as much as they liked. When they did it in His presence, He pointed out their illogic (ref. Matthew 11:18/Luke 7:33), but otherwise? Didn’t fret over it.
And this is the part of Christ’s behavior referenced in the context of I Peter 2:13–3:7!
Obey while you’re in the situation and the authority applies—and notice again that context of the worldly government. Paul even mentions a significant legality of the husband/wife relationship in Romans 7:
Know ye not, brethren, (for I speak to them that know the law) how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth? For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to [her] husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of [her] husband. So then if, while [her] husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man.
Romans 7, KJV
So a woman who had a husband was legally bound to her husband until he died (per the law code he’s refering to). Notice how he says he’s speaking specifically of a legal status, not an objective status before God—which continues even into the “she shall be called an adulteress"! That “be called” is itself also significant for a person being called something might or might not actually be that something, and the Greek word used there does specifically refer to legal status and not actual physical status (ref. chrématizó).
Those verses in Romans 7 aren’t referring to objective status in the eyes of God. For the status in the eyes of God, we’d have to look to other verses. (It’s interesting to note that divorce isn’t even touched on, in this context—and from what I recall of Roman law, wives could often divorce their husbands, but they’d lose their children.)
The point is that there is a cultural context, here—one that has women as subordinate to their own husbands. This subordination is specifically described as a legal status in the eyes of the world, not as part of reality as mandated by God for the church to pattern. The phrasing is wrong.
Now, I am working from translation, here, but the King James was translated immediately after Elizabeth I’s reign ended…but King James I apparently didn’t much care for women, by all accounts, and the culture in general tended towards having fairly strict gender roles. The translation was ordered and financed by King James, so when a verse could be translated one of two ways, the translators would’ve had good reason to side with the potential translation that gave women less power rather than more. Culturally, they’d be more likely to read it that way, and politically, they’d have reason to intentionally select that option of possible translations.
And yet, despite that—and despite a few other situations where the King James can be found to outright mistranslate things to the detriment of women*, this particular context specifically attributes wives’ submission to earthly authority and not godly authority.
*Example: the “I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully” of I Timothy 5:14 cannot actually mean “women"—there’s no noun there, and the “women” is added. Original Greek actually has an implied noun, which the context indicates must be “widows”, not “women”, and most translations reflect that.
That means the Romans 7 reference supports how I Peter 3:1–7 refers to authority granted by the government, not a power structure that’s meant to be innate to the culture of the church.
In fact, when you look to the reason given—how Christ interacted with earthly authority while He walked among us before His death—that reason is the root of the entire context. That reason is the pattern that’s meant to be innate to the culture of the church: submission to earthly laws that have authority over us.
The model of a wife submitting to her husband was an example drawn from a scenario that all the readers and hearers of the letter would’ve been familiar with: a wife under her husband’s legal authority. It was an application pertinent to those readers and hearers.
But the very phrasing and words used in that context outright undermines the argument that husbands must rule and wives must submit as the end model for the husband/wife relationship.
Some folks even reference I Peter 3:1–7 to claim that all men are in authority over all women—but that argument requires a person to ignore the basic grammar and meaning of “your own husbands”.
Now, might the submission-of-wives scenario actually be the model for the church? That’s still possible—there are other references to look at. But this particular reference, I Peter 3:1–7, does not support it, due to the context being drawn from via that “likewise”.
(Note that this also fits the reference to husbands in I Peter 3, since a man would have legal obligation to honor his under-his-authority-but-gets-dowry-if-divorced wife—though “What is honor?” also warrants a look-see.)
Do you see any transitions or gaps I missed? I’m thinking that next week will warrant a look into what, precisely, “submission” and “obedience” even are, because the usual definitions require some verses to be ignored or to have definitions changed.