If patriarchal men cannot use mistranslations of Ephesians 5:22 to control women, they will sometimes turn to 1st Peter. Rationalizing male authority and female submission, however, requires that Peter’s comments be viewed very selectively, and taken out of context. Chapters 2 and 3 of Peter’s first letter encourage followers of Jesus to demonstrate Christ’s love and humility, even in situations that are unfair:
When they hurled their insults at Him, He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:23)
The focus of these chapters is on not returning evil for evil in situations that are unjust. The apostle Paul shares a similar message in his letter to the Romans:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil… If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)
1st Peter chapter 2 recognizes the existence of slavery in the 1st century Roman Empire, but it does not condone it. Even with masters that are unfair “skoliois” (literally bent, crooked; 1 Peter 2:18), slaves are to imitate Christ’s love. It is important to remember, however, that Paul encourages slaves to gain their freedom if it is at all possible to do so (1 Corinthians 7:21).
Wives likewise are to demonstrate Christ’s love in their marriages, even with husbands that are unbelievers. In chapter 3 verse 1, Peter uses the same word in his instructions to wives, “submit,” as Paul uses in his instructions to all Christians in Ephesians 5:21: “Submit one to another out of reverence for Christ.” In both passages, the verb “submit” is in the middle voice, which means it is a reflexive action performed by the self, upon the self. “The middle voice in Greek has no exact parallel in the English language” (Cline, 1983, “The Middle Voice in the New Testament”), so it can be difficult for people to understand this word. “Submit” here means to voluntarily assume a disposition of love and humility towards others. It is not about a sense of duty or obligation to others.
Husbands are advised by Peter (1 Peter 3:7) to relate to their wives “in the same way,” honoring them as “weaker vessels” (“asthenestero skeuei” in Greek). Unfortunately, patriarchal theologians like St Augustine wrongly interpreted this language to mean that women were “weaker in the mind” than men. Augustine then taught that it was God’s will that “the weaker brain serve the stronger” (Questions on the Heptateuch, Book I, § 153). This was his rationale for “male authority.”
Throughout ancient Greek literature, however, this language was used to refer not to those who were “weaker in the mind,” but rather to those who were socially disempowered (Muich, 2010, Pouring Out Tears: Andromache in Homer and Euripides). According to Roman law, a woman had less social standing than a man. In this sense, she was “weaker.” Throughout the New Testament, we see that God chooses those whom the world considers weak, to demonstrate his power (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:27). In Christ, Peter explains that women are elevated to the position of “co-heirs” with men in God’s kingdom. Believing husbands are called upon to recognize this, and show their wives honour accordingly. If husbands do not do this, Peter warns that God will not hear their prayers (1 Peter 3:7).
Abraham, Sarah’s husband, is addressed as “lord” in 1 Peter 3:6, but it is essential to remember that this term in its original context was simply a term of respect used even to address servants (see Genesis 24:17-18).
In 1 Peter 3:4, some English translations say that women are to be “gentle” and “quiet.” Some complementarians infer that this means women are to be “subservient,” the opposite of “having authority.” In the Greek language, however, the first word, “praeos,” is the opposite of “agriotes”: “savageness, fierceness, cruelty” (Liddell, Scott, Jones Lexicon). Similarly, the second word “hesuchiou” properly refers to being “calm”–“the opposite of violence, not the opposite of authority or power” (Wilshire, 2010, Insight into Two Biblical Passages). Both of these terms represent the opposite of being vengeful, in keeping with the overall message of Peter’s letter.
The New Living Translation of the Bible injects a strong patriarchal bias into Peter’s letter by twice telling wives to “accept the authority” of their husbands (1 Peter 3:1 and 5). In the original Greek language of this passage there is absolutely no reference to a husband’s alleged “authority.” As stated, Peter uses the same language here as Paul in Ephesians: “hupotassomenai” (adopt a disposition of love and humility towards their husbands)–the same form of “submission” all Christians (male and female) are to have towards one another.
English translations tell us that Sarah “obeyed” Abraham in 1 Peter 3:6. It has been suggested that this language tells us that Sarah was acknowledging Abraham’s “male authority” over her. Once again, however, the Greek language of the passage does not affirm this. The word used to describe Sarah’s response to Abraham is “hupekousen”; though this can mean “obey” in certain contexts, the same word was also used to describe the actions of judges (authority figures) who would “give a hearing” to people in court:
Cyrus, however, would not be at leisure for a long time to give such men a hearing (hupakouein), and when he did give them a hearing (akouseien) he would postpone the trial for a long time. By so doing he thought he would accustom them to pay their court and that he would thus excite less ill-feeling than he would if he compelled them to come by imposing penalties. (Xenophon of Athens, Cyropaedia VIII, 18)
The two Greek words used to describe a judge “giving a hearing” to those summoned to court are “hupakouein” and “akouseien.” These words are used interchangeably. They were often used in ancient Greek literature to refer to “paying heed, listening, or giving a hearing to someone” (Liddell-Scott-Jones Lexicon).
It is important to note that while “hupakouein” is used of Sarah in 1st Peter 3:6, “akouseien” is used of Abraham in the Greek Septuagint version of the following passage: “Listen (akoue) to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned” (Genesis 21:12). In other words, both Sarah and Abraham “paid heed” to one another in their marriage relationship.
The original language of 1st Peter does not portray “male authority” as “God’s will.” This notion has wrongly been inferred by patriarchal theologians. After discussing slaves, wives and husbands, Peter reminds all Christians to be humble and loving, imitating Christ, no matter what situation they find themselves in–the overall theme of this entire section of the letter.
1st Peter is not meant to represent a male-dominated hierarchy in the home as “God’s will” any more than it is meant to condone the injustice of slavery. As many other egalitarian authors have said, patriarchy is the backdrop of the Bible, not the message.