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Good morning, church. Please go with me to 1 Peter 3, starting in v.1. We’re in a section of scripture dealing with suffering for the sake of righteousness and how to live a Christian life as exiles, in broken situations, under unjust authority, when there’s nothing you can really do to change your situation. Peter started talking about living under an unjust governmental authority, then last week we looked at advice he gave to slaves and servants living under unjust masters. We’re going to be talking this morning about yet another famously difficult passage in the book of 1 Peter dealing with women who find themselves married to unjust men, which is just to say, women who are married.
I want to say, too, before we start: I know this is an incredibly difficult passage and topic for a lot of people. Marriage is powerful; it was designed by God to be one of the deepest relationships we can have with another person, so when marriage is bent and broken by sin or death, it’s one of the deepest losses, one of the most powerful pains we can experience. What’s more, Christian teachings on marriage, particularly as it relates to women, have been broadly misunderstood and misused.
I talked about this last week: we practice a centuries-old ritual whenever we read the Bible, which often goes unnoticed, but I want to draw attention to it today, and ask you to participate. With every service, I read the passage of scripture on which the sermon is based, and (this is the ritual) I say this phrase: “This is the word of the Lord.” And the congregation is meant to say “Thanks be to God.” So, again. I say, “This is the word of the Lord” and you say…
Sometimes it’s easy to repeat. You know, if we were reading that really lovely passage in 1 Corinthians to talk about marriage: “Love is patient, love is kind; it does not envy or boast.” The passage wouldn’t even be over, and people would be like: “Thanks be to God.” Thanks, God. #grateful #blessed. But we say “thanks be to God” every time we read Scripture so that we learn to say it even when that’s not our first thought, when we might struggle to thank God for the passage.
So, go with me: 1 Peter 3:1-7. […] This is the word of the Lord. Pray briefly with me: God, I pray that we would be able to see clearly your truth in this passage, and your truth will set us free. Amen.
There are two groups of people in the room: one group is looking at me confused, because you’re not sure what the controversy is. And the other group is looking at me like, “Down with the patriarchy.” It reminds me of the semester in college where I was the only man in a feminist literature class. Every time I would raise my hand; that look.
If you’re missing the controversy, it’s surrounding the idea of submission applied especially to wives, and I’m not here to defend or apologize for Peter; this is the word of the Lord, and I give thanks to God for it. I will apologize for the sin of the church for the various ways we have used this passage and others like it to baptize and excuse the unjust treatment of women in our society and in our own churches—God, forgive us. And I will also say that this passage is broadly misunderstood and misinterpreted.
One of the reasons I like preaching through a book of the Bible like this is that you gain the benefit of context. I grew up hearing this passage preached, usually in sermon series on marriage, talking about what the ideal marriage relationship should look like, with wives obeying their husbands in everything. But listen: today’s sermon is not about the ideal marriage, because this passage is not about the ideal marriage. Look at the context—this whole letter is written to people who are suffering, whose lives are a complete mess, and they are trying to follow God in the midst of it.
Remember, Peter is writing to the exiles, refugees, people who have fled the downfall of Jerusalem into a world and situation that is filled with brokenness and desperation. The whole section of scripture is about suffering under unjust authority—under foreign rule, in slavery, then he begins this section with the word likewise. Likewise, wives submit who are in this situation, in this society in authority over you. He brings up marriage here, not to describe the ideal marriage, but because when families in that day got desperate, the men would be sold as slaves—as we talked about that last week—and the daughters would often be married off, in hopes that they could be better cared for in another household.
But oftentimes, it was not an ideal relationship. Oftentimes, those women would suffer. Our passage gives us insight into the situation: in v.1, Peter says that the husbands he has in mind don’t obey the word of God. In Roman culture, women would have been fully expected to adopt the gods of their husbands. Just like Anne-Elise is expected to attend whatever church I pastor, and if she started going to the mosque down the street, eyebrows would raise. And in that day, as today, bringing shame to the family, believing in a different god, could mean suffering persecution from your family, having them despise you and even sometimes turn violent.
Peter uses Abraham and Sarah as his example, and we misunderstand that example because we think of Abraham as a righteous man, a hero of the faith, so naturally he’s a great husband. But, no! the example is this: both times Abraham was an exile, a stranger in a foreign land like Peter’s readers, he sold his wife Sarah as a bride to other men in exchange for wealth and safety. In v.6, he encourages women who have been through a similar experience not to fear the frightening things confronting them, but to trust in God as Sarah did.
And when Peter calls women weaker vessels, that part of the passage is a rebuke of men who are beating, physically handling their wives roughly, and he’s telling them to treat your wives as gently as you would treat a fragile, costly item in your household, stop hurting them, because you’re breaking something that God considers precious, v.6.
Hopefully that can help us understand, to see the situation these women are in: given to men who are able to lord it over them, men who don’t always know or fear God, told their religion is shaming the family. And just like those living under foreign government, and the slaves working to pay off debt—the women to whom Peter is writing aren’t really able to change their situation.
If, today, a man were abusing or consistently treating his wife unjustly in my church, I would tell her to seek counseling, seek divorce in some cases—this is part of the ministry of the Friendship House, to provide housing for women escaping domestic abuse—but that wasn’t an option for these women. In Peter’s day, if a woman tried to leave or divorce her husband, she would likely be killed as an adulteress. Leaving wasn’t an option, and there were few places to seek help. So just like last week, Peter is not speaking into an ideal situation. He’s telling people that even if everything about your life is broken—there is still hope in Christ. You can still live this Christian life. God isn’t ashamed of you, and he hasn’t forgotten you. He’s beside you in this.
All of that said, even rightly understood, we hate this passage, because we love winning in life, and Peter is telling us: Win people over instead of winning. That’s my first point for today: win people over instead of winning.
One thing that’s easy to miss: every time in each of these three passages Peter tells someone to submit—to the government, to masters, to husbands—he plays on the word submission, every time, and includes another verb that bears with it the opposite idea. He tells people to submit to the government, but to submit as people who are free. He tells servants to submit to masters, and in doing so, they will be standing tall.
Here, when he tells wives to submit to their husbands, he says submit to win them over. Not thoughtless submission to unjust rule, submission with a purpose. It’s the same idea as when Paul writes in Romans 12, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
This is the Christian way of responding to ill treatment: not the way of strength, where we try to win, we make sure he knows how it feels, making sure to do the very things he’s done to you. It’s the way of weakness, which repays evil with good and tries to win people over instead of winning, trusting in the Lord for righteous judgement. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said so eloquently, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.” And I quote him intentionally here as one who did not confuse power with strength, or submission for complacency. He chose to be spat at, beaten, imprisoned, and more than that, but he did it with intentionality, to effect change by following the way of weakness. By his weakness, God was proven mighty to change.
As Christians, we long for change, and we should. We can’t be satisfied with the world as it is, with our lives as they are, and we long for the Day Christ brings restoration to this world, we rejoice at the opportunity to preach that gospel in word and deed even now, showing and telling people that God is making things right in this way—by making all things new, even you, even me, even now.
But we often disagree on the change we need to effect in the world, and the means we should use in bringing it about. In our time, we see racial injustice. We see political arguments turning into culture wars, churches, denominations, even families willing to divide, reject each other because of political opinions. Some of the things we want to change we are willing to pursue at all costs, whatever means necessary. We use violence, manipulation, threats—whatever it takes to win. And we value leaders, not for their godliness but for their ability to win.
There was only one thing Jesus pursued at all costs—us, his children, his creation. And the sacrifice was his. For us, he gave up his throne, his comfort, his honor, even his life—emptied himself, so you could have life and have it abundantly. He lost, he submitted over and over again, in order to win us over.
In writing this sermon I realized what a shift we see in Peter between the gospels and this letter: in the gospel accounts, he chose, over and over again, to win at all costs. When the government came to arrest Jesus, Peter pulls out his sword, fights back, while Christ heals the man he wounds, then leaves with them willingly. When they beat Jesus, Peter denied him rather than suffer alongside him. When Jesus prayed for our forgiveness as we crucified him, Peter went home, took up his old life. Everything Christ had done was submission, suffering, overcoming evil with good, and Peter wanted nothing to do with it. When Christ restored Peter to ministry, it was with a promise of suffering and following where Jesus led him. It wasn’t until then that Peter stopped trying to win, and started trying to win people over.
Still today, we want nothing to do with submission to unjust authority in any of these things—politics, economics, or in relationships. We want to win—we don’t care anything for winning over the other person.
Let’s talk about marriage, because our passage is about marriage, and our spouses will always have power over us in one way or another. Do we want to win, or win them over? We have power over each other emotionally. I think about fights, arguments, and how much we like to win them. How do you respond in an argument with your spouse, or the people closest to you? Do you do everything you can to win? Threaten, manipulate, use your strength to intimidate the other person? You can probably win the argument that way—but then you’ve also lost a piece of the relationship. Better to submit to each other, to lose the argument and win over your spouse. Why can’t you be the first to admit you’re wrong, to apologize, to ask for forgiveness for what you’ve done without first waiting on her to ask forgiveness for what she’s done to you.
Or with money, or even sex in your marriage, do you want to win, or would you rather win over the other person? Are you always trying to figure out how to get the things you want, or are you trying to win over the person, do whatever you can to ensure that she feels understood, valued, and loved?
If we take this passage as an ideal for marriage, we will replicate over and over again the unjust situation into which Peter is speaking, where men are oppressing the very women who are closest to them. I’ve seen it time and time again in churches I’ve been a part of. But if we rightly understand this passage, we will learn to honor one another as co-heirs in Christ.
My second point from our passage today is this: you have value as a son or daughter of God. You have value as a son or daughter of God.
When someone close to you mistreats you, you begin to question your value. In an ideal situation, you learn value and self-worth from the people closest to you telling you that you are valuable and loved. But, as I’ve said over the past few weeks, not all of us are in the ideal situation, so thanks be to God that he speaks to us where we are.
So Peter, here, in v.3-4, speaks to the value of the women to whom he is writing, and he does so by talking about their clothing.
The thing about clothes is, I don’t understand them. I’m colorblind, and even if I weren’t I would have no fashion sense. The one thing I knew for certain about clothes is that it’s not cool to wear what your parents thought was cool—but now, the jeans I spent my childhood calling “mom-jeans” are back in fashion, so now I know nothing about fashion.
But I just wear the same things over and over again, because clothes are expensive. That’s true today, but it was even more true back then. Typically, people in Jesus’ time would only have one item of clothing. You didn’t have a closet with cloaks in it. You had your cloak, and you wore it until you needed a new one, because it was weeks of work to make another one. But if you were wealthy enough, you could buy your clothes, but you paid for it. There are clothing transactions on record during the period where people bought dresses that cost what today would be hundreds of thousands of dollars—the cost of a house.
And women would fix their hair in elaborate braids, weaving strings of gold through the braids to catch the eye. Elegant jewelry. It’s easy to envy such people, the rich and famous, beautiful people, to think they are worth more because people are willing to spend more on them. It’s especially easy to get carried away with such things when you are constantly being devalued by the people closest to you, treated like you’re nothing.
But Peter tells the exiles to whom he’s writing, you don’t need that to be valuable. In fact, even if your husband devalues you, tells you you’re shaming the family by following after Christ, you are still precious, v.4; because your worth doesn’t come from him, or from golden hair and thousand-dollar dresses. God doesn’t care about the seeming of things, how you look, or how people treat you. He sees what’s hidden in the inward heart of a person. You don’t need to dress it up or call attention to it. Every person has value and worth because God loves and values him or her. You, here this morning, no matter what you look like, or how tattered your clothes are, God loves and value you. That’s worth more than anything you could put on.
I mentioned this before, but I need to draw attention to it again—I can’t tell you how shocking v.7 would have been to a person in this time and place, where Peter tells husbands, “your wives are heirs with you in the grace of life.” You see, because the inheritance of the family would have gone to the sons of the family, almost never the women. But in the kingdom of God, women are co-heirs in salvation and life; Peter is saying there is no difference in God’s generosity to his sons and his daughters.
So in the kingdom economy, these wives under unjust authority, treated badly, made to feel less-than. They, in God’s sight are precious and valuable, not for what they have on, but because of the one who loves them.
Friends, my prayer for you today is that you would be able to rest secure in your worth as a son or daughter of God, because God values you. And whenever you find yourself in a situation where someone in a position of authority over you treats you unjustly, or if you are for one reason or another trapped in a relationship that is less than ideal and causes you to feel unloved. I pray you wouldn’t try to turn the table to win, and get back at them, make them feel the same, but that you would humbly, quietly, try to win them over.
Our invitation is simple today: if you are suffering, if you’ve been treated like your life is of little value, come to Christ. The world will lie to you all day long and tell you you have to earn love and prove your value, but—as we say every week in our liturgical readings—in Christ, you are forgiven, you are welcome, you are loved.