The following is a reply I wrote to a lady we’ll call Linda, who asked an excellent question about the meaning of 1 Peter 3:1-7 in light of Abraham’s encounter with Pharaoh when he instructed Sarah to say she was his sister. Anyway, here is the answer to Linda. Let me know what you think.
Ah yes, 1 Peter 3. That is a good question. Let me see if I can help – I have had to work at understanding it too. I know that some well-meaning (but ignorant) Christians and certainly wicked, false ones who are abusers, will try to pervert this Scripture to support absolute, unquestioning obedience.
And let me say right at the outset that I still do not have what I consider to be a firm handle on “submission” and “husband as head.” There is no doubt the Bible teaches these things. That is plain. The question is whether we have understood Scripture correctly. I can say this – I do not believe that authority and “do what that authority says” is the heart of the meaning. Perhaps I shouldn’t use my own marriage as an example, but here it is – I do not “pull rank” on my wife and insist she obey me. I love her. I treat her kindly. I look out for her needs (though imperfectly I’m sure), and she loves and respects me. I have never heard her say to me, “well you can just shove off! I’m doing what I want to do anyway!” Nope. Never.
I have found that the more a husband or wife talk about headship and submission and so on, the more botched up they are in understanding it and applying it. So here is Peter:
1 Peter 3:1-7 ESV Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, (2) when they see your respectful and pure conduct. (3) Do not let your adorning be external–the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear– (4) but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. (5) For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, (6) as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening. (7) Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.
First of all, though I firmly believe in a plain, historical, contextual interpretation of Scripture (hermeneutic), I am seeing that many conservative, fundamental, Bible-believing Christians have been taught and have adopted what I would call an “unbending, wooden, literalistic hermeneutic” of Bible interpretation. This has led to the development of many man-made traditions that usurp God’s Word. I made some of those errors for many years until I came to an understanding of Reformed Theology with the help of men like R.C. Sproul and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. But that is an entire other story.
We cannot approach this Scripture with the idea that Peter’s intent is to teach a universal, all-encompassing principle of submission of a wife to her husband under all circumstances, no matter what he tells her to do. This is a common error. It is also the error made by people who teach that when Jesus said divorce is not permitted except for adultery, He was giving His entire, complete teaching on the subject that was to apply to all circumstances, all marriages, etc. We know that He wasn’t because in 1 Cor 7 Paul says “I say, not the Lord” — which meant that Paul as an inspired Apostle was then teaching further truth about marriage and divorce that Jesus had not addressed — ie, that the believing spouse can indeed be free of a marriage if the unbeliever refuses to live with her (which I take to mean, he/she refuses to keep the marriage vows and to live as the believer’s spouse according to those vows).
Peter, I believe, is simply doing what we often do – he is saying “you know, as Sarah respected her husband Abraham, so wives ought to respect their own husbands.”
But notice that, as always, the Scripture includes right alongside this teaching about obedience, instruction to the husband to love his wife. To honor her. To treat her as a fellow heir of the salvation we have in Christ. In other words, Peter is speaking to Christian husbands when he gives this command. They are assumed to be men who pray. Men whose desire is to obey Christ. Earlier, in verse 1, it appears that Peter also wants to give a word to wives of unbelieving husbands because he says “even if some do not obey the word.” That word is the gospel (look back at Peter’s use of “the word” in 1 Peter 1:23-25). In either case, he is not talking about a man who is abusive and wicked and orders his wife to do ungodly things, but simply saying “even if you are married to an unsaved man, respect him and be subject to him as your husband.” But we know also from Paul (1 Cor 7) that if this unbeliever won’t live with her, then she is not required to be subject to him. She is free. So Peter is not speaking absolutely here. (Don’t forget that Peter is the one who said “We must obey God rather than men” in Acts 5: 29).
Now, to your question specifically – the incident with Pharaoh.
Genesis 12:11-20 ESV When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, (12) and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. (13) Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.” (14) When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. (15) And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. (16) And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels. (17) But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. (18) So Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? (19) Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.” (20) And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.
Now, what we have here primarily is this: God had just made a covenant with Abraham. These events are the demonstration of God’s faithfulness to that covenant – those who bless Abraham, God will bless. Those who curse Abraham, God will curse. This is exactly what happened to Pharaoh. We don’t know for certain if this incident is what Peter had in mind. But this is not an abusive action of Abraham toward Sarah. It was stupid and the product of unbelief — but then Abraham still had a lot to learn about this God who had called him out of pagan Ur. Abraham thought he was doing this to save their lives. So there is no way that anyone can use this incident to claim that a wife has to obey her husband even if what he tells her to do is wicked.
Notice also in the 1 Peter passage (vss 2-5) that the WAY a wife submits to her husband is to be a godly woman and evidence a gentle and quiet spirit (Sarah was no perfect model of that!). Her conduct in this submission is to be pure. So, once again, Peter simply cannot be teaching here that a woman married to an abuser is required to submit to his abuse NOR to obey anything he tells her to do that is in conflict with God’s will. That would not be “pure” conduct. He loses any right he has in the marriage when he sins and abuses her. God has not granted ANY human being that authority.
Therefore, it is a very damaging and cruel trap for an abuse victim to get into by thinking that God requires her to submit to her abuser, to stay in this “marriage” to the abuser, and to respect him. Abigail’s attitude toward Nabal (1 Samuel 25) is a far better example for an abuse victim to follow.