There are three passages which instruct wives to submit to their husbands: Ephesians 5:21-6:9, Colossians 3:18-25, and 1 Peter 2:11-3:7. I am including whole sections rather than just individual verses, because I believe the context is important for understanding. In all of these cases, slaves and children are address along with women. I believe this sheds light on the type of relationship wives had to their husbands in that culture. When this is understood, the instructions found in these sections make more sense.
1 Peter 2:13 is especially interesting to this discussion: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority.” My understanding is in that day and culture, women belonged to a “household” of which all members came under the authority of the patriarch of the family. With this knowledge, the instruction for wives to submit to their husbands can be understood as similar to the instruction for people to submit to the governing authorities. In our society women aren’t culturally under the authority of the head of their household. Therefore I believe 1 Peter 3:1 should not be applied in the same way that it would have been at the time Peter was writing.
Likewise, I think that 1 Peter 3:1-2 can be related to 1 Peter 2:18-25. The reason is that at that time, just as slaves couldn’t leave their position, it was at the very least quite difficult for wives to leave their husbands. In light of the fact that they couldn’t leave, Peter is instructing them both to have Christ-like attitudes nonetheless.
Yet Paul does instruct slaves to gain their freedom if they are able to do so (1 Corinthians 7:21). I bring this up because these passages have at times had the effect of keeping women in abusive relationships. I don’t believe that God desires a woman to be in an abusive relationship any more than I believe that he desires a person to be abused as a slave. And of course we got rid of legal slavery in our culture many years ago. Yet domestic violence and violence against women in general is still huge problem. “Domestic violence is one of the leading causes of death and injury to women around the world. Between 960,000 and three million women are physically abused by their husband or boyfriend per year. Worldwide, at least one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused during her lifetime.” (pp. 59-60).
Again, I address this because I can’t believe that it is God’s will to use passages like these to keep women in abusive situations. I believe that God wants women to be free of abuse in so much as is possible. Certainly, if there is a reasonable chance of mending a relationship, God desires for that to be done, so long as it can be done without unreasonable harm being done to anyone. God wants us to freely give of ourselves and what we have (sacrifice) in order to love and build up others. But I don’t believe this extends to enduring abuse when we can avoid it. The reason is that this doesn’t demonstrate or communicate love to the abuser or anyone else, it merely enables the abuser to continue their wrongdoing.
Peter instructs us to “show proper respect to everyone“, similar to what Paul says in Romans 13:7. I believe that the “submission” in the above passages should be understood more in terms of respect due to the nature of our relationships in our culture. We can note that immediately before addressing wives specifically, Paul tells everyone to “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
This wouldn’t make any sense if “submission” were to mean “be under their authority” or in other words “do whatever they say”. Jesus clearly says that we aren’t supposed to boss each other around: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45) In other words, women aren’t intended to be submissive and servants any more so than men, nor are men intended to be bossy leaders any more so than women. Wives are instructed to be submissive, but submission isn’t for women only. Likewise, it is stated that women shouldn’t “assume authority over” men, but neither are men to assume authority over others. (This doesn’t mean that people can’t lead; we incorrectly equate leadership with commanding in our culture.)
I am participating in the Week of Mutuality synchroblog hosted by Rachel Held Evans.