Thursday, September 29, 2016

Inbox: Mutual Subjection in 1 Peter 3

One of these things is not like the others ...
Margaret Mowczko’s argument from 1 Peter that husbands should be subject to their wives was addressed in this space in October 2014 and reposted here a few weeks ago.

But Marg has refined her argument since 2014, and I think it’s only fair to update my critique to deal with her most recent points.

Marg feels I missed her main point (in either iteration of her post).

Missing the Point

Because it directly follows Peter’s instructions to wives to be subject to their husbands, Margaret believes the use of the word “likewise” (homoiōs) gives us reason to read the verb “submit” into this verse:
“Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way.”
I didn’t fail to grasp Marg’s point; I just don’t agree with it. But let’s allow her to explain her position so I don’t mischaracterize it:
“There is no main verb in the Greek of 1 Peter 3:7, but, by using the adverb ‘likewise’ (homoiōs), Peter links verse 7 with the previous verses about submission. It is not uncommon for Greek sentences to borrow the meaning of a main verb (or verbal idea) from a previous sentence, or passage, without restating the verb. However, Peter may have intentionally left out the word for ‘be submissive’ in verse 7 to soften its impact and avoid offending the sense of male honour which was part of the culture of Greco-Roman society. Nevertheless, the meaning remains. If ‘likewise’ doesn’t refer to submission, what does it refer back to?

Peter may have been cautious about not offending men and their honour, yet he also tells them to give honour (timē) to their wives as they are joint heirs of the gracious gift of life.”
Now, speaking to this argument generally, the first thing that strikes me is that “likewise” means “similarly”. It does not mean “identically”. If Peter had intended to make clear to husbands that they were to be subject to their wives, he could have employed the formula he has used throughout his epistle:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution (2:13)
Servants, be subject to your masters (2:18)
Likewise, wives, be subject (3:1)
Likewise, you who are younger, be subject (5:5)
Likewise, husbands, be subject (3:7)
Something like that would’ve done the trick with no difficulty at all; it would have been utterly unambiguous. But it’s not at all what Peter has done in chapter 3, verse 7. When he comes to husbands, his wording is notably different:
Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way (3:7)
The logical inference is not that Peter is trying to say the same thing to husbands as he has previously said to wives: be subject. It is that he is saying something different. If Peter’s goal was to say precisely the same thing — to draw an equivalence between the role of spiritual husband and spiritual wife, to preach mutual subjection — this is a funny way to accomplish it. The logical thing to do would be to simply use the same words.

Still, let’s look at Marg’s argument point by point:

 There is no main verb in the Greek of 1 Peter 3:7

In her critique of my post, Marg restates this point, as it’s significant to her argument:
“Allow me to repeat, there is no Greek verb in 1 Peter 3:7.”
But Strong’s says synoikeō (Eng. “live with”) is a verb, and since it’s the only one in the sentence, I take it to be the main verb. Peter’s sentence about husbands is not missing anything; it is a complete idea in itself.

 It is not uncommon for Greek sentences to borrow the meaning of a main verb (or verbal idea) from a previous sentence, or passage, without restating the verb.

This is true but irrelevant in this instance since the sentence already has a main verb.

 Peter may have intentionally left out the word for ‘be submissive’ in verse 7 to soften its impact and avoid offending the sense of male honour which was part of the culture of Greco-Roman society.

We’ve already established that there is a main verb in verse 7 and no good reason to go looking for another one. But Marg’s suggestion with respect to the apostle’s motive seems unlikely to me as well for several reasons. I would contend Peter wrote primarily not to Greco-Roman Gentiles (though there may have been some in his audience), but to dispersed Jews, as he says in the introduction to his letter:
“To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia …”
In 2:12 he tells his readers:
“Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable …”
Then in 4:3 he says:
“For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do.”
So it seems to me that Peter is distinguishing his intended readership from “Gentiles”.

The Dissenting View

Now it’s only fair to point out that some (namely William MacDonald) suggest it is “quite probable Peter wrote to [dispersed] Gentile believers”. But does it not seem almost calculatingly enigmatic to say to Gentiles, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable”? MacDonald provides no solid evidence in his commentary to back his theory up, and the other NT uses of “dispersion” [διασπορά] refer unambiguously to scattered Jews.

What If Peter’s Readers Were Primarily Gentile?

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that Peter IS addressing Gentiles and not Jews. It would seem that far from deferring to the “culture of Greco-Roman society”, softening the impact of his words and avoiding giving offense, Peter wants his readers to reject the habits of that culture. He says, “The time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do”. Christians are to leave all that behind. To then turn around and tread delicately around Greco-Roman social conventions about marriage would make no sense.

Peter’s Dubious Track Record of Impact-Softening

Further, Peter was not gun-shy about offending people in order to get a point across. His speech in Acts 2 in Jerusalem is one example:
“This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”
There are plenty of ways this might have been softened. It wasn’t.

Edifying or Ego-Stroking?

Finally, if Peter were really trying to sell the concept of mutual subjection, and if Greco-Roman culture and its sense of male honor made this a touchy subject, it would have made a great deal more sense for Peter to drive the point home forcefully rather than soft-peddle it to an audience that would otherwise almost surely miss it. His point here is surely to edify, not to stroke egos.

Greco-Roman culture may be an issue to raise in connection with some of Paul’s letters; I do not think it applies to Peter.

 If ‘likewise’ doesn’t refer to submission, what does it refer back to?

This is a fair question, but here I must pose an equally relevant question: What does the ‘be subject’ instruction to “you who are younger” in 5:5 refer back to? I believe we find it a few verses immediately prior, in Peter’s instructions to elders:
“Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”
Right after this, we get another “likewise”:
“Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders.”
To divorce this final “likewise” from the preceding paragraph of instructions to elders makes no contextual sense. Both sets of instructions must be seen as part of a longer series that directs us back, as Marg points out, to something else. And if we read it the way Marg would like to read Peter’s directions to husbands, it would have to mean something like “Just as the elders are subject to you, be subject to the elders”. But nothing in the instructions to elders suggests that they are to be subject to the flock; rather, they are to exercise oversight. Yes, of course they are to do it without domineering. Yes, it is their example rather than their force of will that gives them their moral authority to direct the church. But the fact remains it is the elders who have the oversight, not the young. It is the young who are to be subject, not the elders.

It seems to me Peter is using “likewise” much more generally than Marg believes. If we do not naturally read the subjection of the elders to the young into this verse, there is no logical reason to find the subjection of husbands to wives in 3:7. (There may be emotional or ideological motivations to find subjection in Peter’s instructions to husbands, but these have nothing to do with the text.)

Neither the subjection of the younger to the older nor the willing, exemplary and un-domineering oversight of the elders are ends in themselves. For that matter, neither the subjection of Christian wives to their husbands nor the considerate, honor-giving dwelling of Christian husbands with their wives are ends in themselves. All are the means to a greater end.

Christian Testimony and Honorable Conduct

That end is Christian testimony in the world.

What we have throughout the last four chapters of 1 Peter is a lengthy series of instructions about Christian behaviour addressed to the believers generally, which is punctuated by sections that address specific demographics within the believing community. When Marg asks what “likewise” refers back to in 3:7, my answer would be the idea best captured in these verses:
“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”
This broader, more general statement about resisting natural, fleshly tendencies, behaving honorably and doing good deeds in order to distinguish the Church from the world seems to me a more plausible antecedent for the “likewise” statements that follow than viewing them as related only to subjection.

Charles Ellicott makes a similar point, observing that:
“We must remember what is St. Peter’s object all throughout these instructions, viz., to commend Christianity to jealous watchers without.” [emphasis mine]
Testimony is Peter’s primary object. Subjection is only one means to that end.

It may be that a wife subjecting herself to her husband will make for a happier husband. It may be that a husband being considerate toward his wife and treating her with honor will make for a happier wife. I think that is probably the case. But that is not the primary reason Peter gives these instructions. Rather, they are given to distinguish believers from the world by their commendable conduct in every area.

Again, Peter says, “The time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do”. Christians are to behave differently. Differently in what way? Glad you asked, because resisting the flesh, behaving honorably and standing out costs everyone a little something:

How to be a Christian Testimony

To everyone
Be subject to every human institution (2:13-17)
To slaves
Be subject to your masters with all respect (2:18-25)
To wives
Be subject to your own husbands (3:1-6)
To husbands
Live with your wives in an understanding way (3:7)
To everyone
Have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind and be prepared to suffer for doing good (3:8-4:19)
To elders
Shepherd the flock ... not domineering (5:1-4)
To the young
Be subject to the elders (5:5)

Being subject (as a citizen, a slave, a wife, or a youngster in the church) is both antithetical to the flesh and a testimony to the world. So is making the effort to understand your wife and giving her honor, and so also is shepherding humbly and gently rather than doing the usual thing and simply cracking the ecclesiastical whip. It is important to observe that Peter’s list of instructions about testimony is incomplete if we look only at the “likewise” paragraphs within it or only at the words “be subject”. This is where I feel Marg’s analysis of the book falls down. Because Peter finishes this section with “finally”, the instructions that follow from 3:8 must be seen as part of the series of commands that began in 2:13.

I believe what Peter is referring back to with “likewise” is considerably broader than voluntary subjection. If we look at this list, subjection is certainly the most common way Christians may display good conduct in the world around us (and we are all called upon to “be subject” in one relationship or another, as the list above shows).

But it is not the only way.

In Summary

Let me then sum up the problems with Marg’s analysis of 1 Peter 3:7 as I see them:
  1. There is already a main verb in Greek. No part of the sentence needs to be inferred from elsewhere in Peter’s letter.
  2. If Peter was writing to Jews, his motive for leaving “be subject” out of 3:7 goes out the window. That Peter was writing primarily to Gentiles has not been adequately demonstrated. And even if Peter did write to Gentiles, the motive ascribed to him is uncharacteristic and bound to defeat his own purpose in writing.
  3. The word “likewise” does not automatically refer to being subject. In and of itself, the appearance of the term in 3:7 no more implies the subjection of the husband than its appearance in 5:5 implies the subjection of elders. Peter does not use homoiōs in such a way as to support a conclusion that mutual subjection is the will of God in marriage.
In short: In the context of any specific life- or church-relationship, the question of whether or not a particular group of Christians is or is not to be subject to others turns (unsurprisingly) on the presence or absence of the words … “be subject”.

Where we do not find this command, we are going beyond the written word to infer it.


  1. Synoikeō is a verb, it means "I live together with".
    Synoikountes, which is the word that occurs in 1 Peter 7 is a participle, not a verb. This is basic grammar.

    According to your analysis, the younger men are to be subject to the older men *like* or *in the same way as* elders shepherd the flock. This doesn't make sense to me.

    I maintain that every occurrence of "likewise" in 1 Peter is referring to something similar. Peter is repeatedly encouraging submissive, cooperative, and harmonious behaviour, rather than rebellious and disorderly behaviour.

    1. Thanks again for your comments, Marg. You’re correct, synoikountes is a participle. My mistake in misreading the Greek interlinear.

      Not being a translator, I won’t try to argue parts of speech with you. But I have great difficulty with the notion that the absence of a main verb in 3:7 requires that we read “be subject” into it from 3:1 to make sense of Peter’s sentence. If this were the case, how is it that not a single Greek-to-English translation team has seen fit to supply that verb in any of our English translations, even as an alternate reading? Here are 25 of them.

      Further, how would you even translate the verse, assuming the verb needs to be supplied?

      According to your analysis, the younger men are to be subject to the older men *like* or *in the same way as* elders shepherd the flock. This doesn't make sense to me.

      It seems to me you think Peter employs “likewise” more rigidly than I do. We’ll have to agree to disagree on that. I cannot see how we can leave the elders off the list of parties Peter is addressing. When we leave them in, the instruction to the younger to “be subject” in 5:5 follows on quite naturally from Peter’s instructions to elders in 5:1-4 as part of a longer series.

      I would maintain that all the sets of instructions to various subgroups of believers (with and without the word “likewise” before them) refer back to or arise out of a point Peter has made earlier. Because there are a number of different instructions given (and not merely “be subject” time after time and in every instance), I conclude that “be subject” makes for an inadequate summary of Peter’s intent in addressing the various groups.

      In fact, you just broadened Peter’s subject yourself, Marg, to “submissive, cooperative, and harmonious behaviour”. These are not synonyms: one can behave harmoniously and cooperatively to another person without being subject to them. Of those three behaviours, two are appropriate to husbands and elders; the third is not.

      I think Peter would agree.