, , , , , ,

Submission and subversion in marriage – part 2

Does the Bible subjugate women

Submission and subversion in marriage – part 2

The mission of God demands that women, like men, should submit and subvert, defer and defy, respect and resist.

In the Bible God does call us to submission — but also to subversion.

He does call us to deference — but also to defiance.

He does call us to respect — but also to resistance.

Our call to engage in God’s mission can only succeed when we adopt these apparently contradictory postures simultaneously, or when we tack between the two repeatedly at appropriate times.

The mission of God requires submission and subversion, deference and defiance, respect and resistance. Nothing less is equal to the task.

This is the second of two posts on the theme of submission and its application to husbands and wives and to God’s mission in the world. The first, is here.

Rosa Parks
Rosa Parks

The example of Rosa Parks.

On 1 December 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks was ordered by bus driver James F. Blake to vacate a row of four seats in the “coloured” section of the bus so that a white passenger could sit in her seat, because the “white” section was filled. Parks declined.

Her action was a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement in the US, yet it was not an action she had planned. Up until that day she had many times given up her seat when the driver requested.

Speaking afterwards she said:

“People always said that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically… No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

She also explained that it was her faith that enabled her to disobey the law and stay seated.

Peter calls us to live like Jesus in the world. Why?

Peter is telling us how we can win others to follow Christ, and to come alive in the community of the Spirit. Peter says our walk should match our talk!

He writes about our WALK, for example, in 1 Peter 2:12 ESV:

“Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”

And he writes about our TALK in 1 Peter 3:15-16 NIV:

“15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”

Peter’s first letter is about both our WALK and our TALK — both our CONDUCT and our CONVERSATION.

In 1 Peter 3:1-7 the focus is still on our CONDUCT.

Peter has been applying his message to people in various situations.

In 1 Peter 3:1-7 the specific situation he speaks to is the situation of a married couple where the wife converts to Christianity.

“Woah” you may say. “That’s not my situation.”

Maybe not, but Peter goes through various life situations to show how the Christian life plays out. The universal is always found in the particular.

“Woah” you may say. “Andrew, that’s not your situation.”

Agreed. I am not a woman, and my lovely wife shares my faith in Jesus.

But Peter also addresses husbands in the church, so I’ll cover both in what follows.

In 1 Peter 3:15-16 NIV, the word ‘behaviour’ is the word for conduct, lifestyle.

The Greek word for conduct or behaviour or lifestyle is found 13 times in the New Testament, and eight of those times are in Peter’s two letters!

This shows us that, for Peter, conduct and lifestyle matter. They count.

For the last 15-20 years of her life I visited my grandmother most weeks, and almost without fail she would turn the conversation to my faith and attack it.

Why was she so angry about me having faith in Jesus?

Because she and her 4 siblings were the subject of domestic violence from their father, who then dressed them up and took them to church every Sunday.

The hypocrisy of his conduct poisoned her against faith.

Conduct matters. It does not have to be perfect. But hypocrisy poisons everything.

In this letter Peter repeatedly calls all believers in Christ to be humble, meek, gentle, respectful, submissive, in their conduct. Those attitudes will help guard us from hypocrisy.

But is that the whole message about Christian conduct in the world?

Is God’s call simply a call to submission, gentleness, deference, respect, even resignation in our relationship with other people and wider society? No, no, no!

If you read this letter attentively you will see that Peter invites us to walk a much harder path, to model:

• Both submission and subversion

• Both deference and defiance

• Both respect and resistance

• Both to give up our seats, and to refuse to give up our seats.

In other words, we are not to be passive or victims.

Where we used to live, at one stage the local authority wrote up a strategy document for 15 years ahead. There were seven main chapters. No churches were asked to participate in the consultation. Instead, church leaders were invited to the meeting about the heritage chapter.

I went along to the Civic Offices to participate.

There were a lot of platitudes. After a while I could bear it no more. I spoke out. I asked how it was that the document could be written with a whole chapter on children and youth without consulting with, or mentioning, the largest provider of voluntary children’s and youth activities in the borough: the churches. There was a deadly hush.

I went on to wonder why the churches were only included in the heritage meeting. I said the church was about people, not buildings, it was about the future, not the past, it was about change, not nostalgia, etc. I sat down and there was a long pause – and then applause.

There are times to defy, to speak out, to subvert, to resist — although not with violence.

Two thousand years ago, in the first century, women could not own property and before marriage were entirely under the power of their father, and after marriage entirely under the power of their husband. What did that mean? It meant that a father could kill his daughter without answering to the law, and a husband could kill his wife without answering to the law. (Barclay, pp.218-219)

When Peter wrote this letter, a woman could have no separate opinions from her father or her husband.

Therefore, if a man converted to be a follower of Christ, his wife was brought to church as well.

But what happened if a woman was converted, but NOT her husband?

This was a common situation in the early church which was a liberating community for women, and attracted many women. This situation is addressed in this passage of 1 Peter, chapter three, verses one to seven.

Read 1 Peter 3:1-7 and listen out for how Peter calls for both submission and subversion, deference and defiance, respect and resistance, and how Peter calls wives to subvert their families for Christ.

1 Peter 3:1-7 NIV-UK

1 Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives, 2 when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. 3 Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewellery or fine clothes. 4 Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. 5 For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, 6 like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.

7 Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.

Submission and subversion in marriage.

In 1 Peter 3:5-6 Peter tells us three important things about Old Testament women that he sets up as a model for wives who follow Jesus.

“5 For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, 6 like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.” NIV

1. Firstly, they are women ‘who hope in God’ (v.5)

Where we place our hope is where we look to for our happiness.

Don’t outsource your happiness!

There is a tendency in us to make other people responsible for our happiness. This makes us hostage to them and whether they do their job.

Sometimes we slip into thinking we can only be happy if we can pass an exam, get a promotion, win the lottery, have a partner, have a child, etc.

Peter reminds wives not to outsource their happiness to a husband, a child, a job, a business, but make sure they’re hoping in God for the future and for happiness.

When you outsource your happiness, you give control of your life to another.

There is only one person you should outsource your happiness to, and that is God himself.

On four other occasions in this letter, Peter mentions that hope in God is the true ground for all Christians to stand on — it’s not just for women!

2. Secondly, they are women who ‘do what is right’ (v.6)

The ESV has it ‘if you do good’.

Sadly, there are some Christians who think that what Peter meant to say was:

“They submitted themselves to their own husbands, 6 like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what your husband says is right and do not give way to fear.”

Peter defines obedience differently to what we expect.

Peter called wives to good conduct — the same call he’s been giving to all believers in his letter. We are all called to good conduct.

The call of a Christian is, first of all, to obey God.

Maybe the biggest hindrance to us sharing Christ is that we are overly submissive, deferential and respectful to our friends and relatives!

We don’t want to cause upset. We don’t want to be thought odd. We crave acceptance.

Peter tells us in his letter that upset is inevitable.

Our mission requires subversion, defiance and resistance — but not only those things. To be Godly we mix submission with subversion, we mix deference with defiance, we mix respect with resistance, just like Rosa Parks.

Isn’t this exactly what Peter will say in 3:15 NIV?

“15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”

3. Thirdly, they are women who ‘do not give way to fear’ (v.6)

ESV renders it like this:

“And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.”

Literally it could be translated: ‘not fearing any intimidation’.

A Bible passage like this can evoke memories of being abused, manipulated, etc. by abusive fathers/mothers, spouses.

But Father God wants us to know that abuse was never his plan, and never his will.

That experience was hell touching earth.

Father’s plan for us is that heaven would touch earth, that we would live without fear — or rather without being controlled by fear!

In my experience, I cannot prevent the feeling of fear — but I can choose to ignore that fear and act anyway. That choice is what we call being brave.

Father God does not want us controlled by our fear.

Let’s take a detour: A Christian wife (or husband, for that matter) is not required by God to accept coercive control or domestic abuse!

This passage does not demand passive acceptance of evil!

Wives are called to do the right thing, and not to give way to fear, however intimidating!

Men are guilty of so much violence against women…

Domestic violence data:

232 women report being raped each day in England and Wales (2013)

1.6million women in England and Wales, aged between 16 and 74, report they have been raped.

Only 1 out of 6 women who are raped even report it (Mar 2020 ONS)

Every week two women are murdered by their present or former partners.

What are the signs of domestic abuse/coercive control?

  • Are they jealous and possessive and suspicious?
  • Do they cut me off from family and friends and try to isolate me?
  • Are they charming one minute and a monster the next?
  • Do they control every detail of my life — for example access to money, who I should see, what I should wear? Do they monitor my movements with GPS location settings on phone?
  • Do they force me to show them all my texts, WhatsApp and Facebook messages?
  • Do they blame me for their violence?
  • Do they humiliate or insult me in front of others?
  • Do they verbally abuse me?
  • Do they constantly criticise and belittle me?
  • Do they use anger and intimidation to frighten me and make me comply with demands?
  • Do they tell me I’m useless and couldn’t cope without them?
  • Have they threatened to hurt me, or pets or people close to me if I leave?
  • Have they threatened to damage my possessions if I do not comply?
  • Do I change my behaviour to avoid making them angry and triggering an attack?
  • Do they force me to have sex when I don’t want to?
  • Do they control what money I have access to?
  • Do they stop me going to work, or going out to other activities?
  • Have they locked me out of my home?
  • Have they threatened to kidnap or get custody of the children if I leave?

The aim of these behaviours, whether conscious or unconscious, is to take control of the partner’s life.

If you are subject to coercive control you should get help immediately, and report the matter to the police.

The outstanding OT passage about wives is Proverbs 31. There we read about a model wife that…

She is clothed with strength and dignity;

she can laugh at the days to come. V.25

When a woman (or a man) has her hope in God she laughs at everything the future will bring and might bring, because she hopes in God.

Peter’s vision for wives is to be the daughters of Sarah — women who fight any anxiety that rises in their hearts. They wage war on fear, and they defeat it with hope in the promises of God.

Elspeth and I tried to raise our two daughters to be strong, fearless women like this!

All of us: let’s laugh at the days to come.

Laughter is a fear-busting action. Joy makes us strong.

And again, as with hoping in God and doing what is right, living free from fear is something Peter calls ALL Christians to in this letter — so again, this is not a call unique to women! See 1 Peter 3:13-14:

“13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. ‘Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.’” 1 Peter 3:13-14 NIV

Rosa Parks said:

“I was a person with dignity and self-respect, and I should not set my sights lower than anybody else just because I was black.”

Now back to 1 Peter 3:1-7…

“Wives: submit yourselves to your own husbands — “

1 Peter 3:1 (NIV)

“Hold on a minute, Andrew… ‘submit’? That’s just the sort of patriarchal, misogynist message I expect you Christians to peddle.”

prison 3357414 1920

Let’s look at what Peter actually describes, shall we, before jumping to conclusions.

You see when the Bible calls wives to submit to their husbands, it is not a call to be weak, to be bullied, or a call to allow yourself to be drawn away from Christ!

Notice the word ‘own’ in “your own husbands.”

The Bible nowhere teaches that all women should submit to any and every man. I have heard that said by Christians, but I do not think the Bible teaches that.

Let’s see how Peter describes submission, before we jump to rejecting what he says!

Notice the phrase Peter uses when addressing wives. He says: “Wives, in the same way submit…” or “Likewise, wives” (ESV)

That tells us there is a context, so let’s read back…

1 Peter 2:13-15 NIV is addressed to all Christians:

“13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people.”

1 Peter 2:18 NIV

“18 Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.”

Submission and subversion in marriage.

What submission is NOT according to 1 Peter 3:1-6:

1. Submission does not mean always agreeing.

Whether it is citizens submitting to the law, or wives submitting to their husbands, this is never mindless.

The scenario is clear: she has become a Christian and he has not. He has one set of ideas about ultimate reality. She has another. Peter calls her to be submissive BUT that does not mean submitting to her husband’s view of the most important thing in the world—the gospel of Jesus Christ.

A wife who has turned to follow Christ is called to be defiant in holding fast to her hope in God.

Submission then can’t mean submitting to agree with all her husband thinks.

Submitting as a Christian can include holding to a different, opposite or contrary opinion — but there’s more…

2. Submission does not mean avoiding every effort to change a husband.

Peter writes about how a wife may “win” her husband to Christian faith. 3:1

Peter uses language to show that the currency of marriage is not control.

A wife does not seek to control her husband by:

  • Nagging — be like this, be like that.
  • Shaming — or any other strategy of control.

The call of a Christian is, first of all, to obey God. That require subversion, defiance and resistance — but not only those things. To be Godly we mix submission with subversion, we mix deference with defiance, we mix respect with resistance.

submission and subversion
Couple laughing

In marriage, Peter says, we aim both to delight and to defy one another.

So what about husbands?

Why six verses for wives, and only one for husbands?

Most likely because the early churches attracted many women.

Likewise, husbands, show honour to the woman — 1 Peter 3:7:

“Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honour 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.” 1 Peter 3:7 ESV

“Treat them with respect as the weaker partner” (NIV)

“Weaker? Don’t tell me I am weaker!” you women object… What is meant by ‘weaker’ vessel/partner?

Peter probably simply acknowledges that women are generally weaker than men in muscular strength. Why? Not to belittle but because Scripture often urges that where one party is weaker, the stronger must share power.

There is one sure-fire way to share power in a relationship — that’s by giving honour / respect. God knows that, so he commands men to honour their wives.

Elspeth is more cautious than I am when crossing the road and that meant I often crossed and she didn’t. The Holy Spirit nudged me one day to stop this. I was to cross with Elspeth. Pretty much ever since I have chosen to hold back to cross with her.

Husbands: how about we think about ways we can honour our wives, and make a plan to do that often.

Find out your spouse’s love language and then fill their love tanks often. Peter uses the metaphor here of a vessel. Fill it up with love by honouring her.

To honour means to lift up the person, to behave in such a way as to show that they are hugely valuable to you!

When you honour you show that you need the other person!

You bigged up your wife this morning already, yes?

You thank her often for particular things she does for you?

Peter draws attention to one particular way you pull down yourself if you dis-respect or dishonour your wife: you hinder your own prayers!

You create a block between you and God the Father! You block access to joy.

AND WIVES — the same is true for you too! Put your man down and you are putting yourself down!

A marriage marked by dishonour and fear is not full of joy!


1. Let’s place our hopes for happiness in God, not in things or people.

We are NOT victims. We choose life and it shows in our conduct!

Mother Theresa said that a person ‘filled with joy preaches without preaching.’

She said that joy was the main thing she looked for in the women who wanted to join her order.

A widow I once knew told me how she loved to worship and would come home from church and pick up her chores with a song. After many, many years, in which she went to church and her husband stayed home, one day after they were both retired, he said to her, ‘I see that going to worship really makes you happy’. That day he went with her, and he went with her from then on.

I know this is a ridiculously happy story. The point is: leave spouses in God’s hands. Hope in God, not in your husband.

The closer you are to someone, the more you need to walk the faith, rather than talk the faith.

The most important thing you need to do every day is to get happy in God and go into your day in the strength of your joy.

(By the way, this is NOT advice for mental health issues! That’s another ball game).

My first permanent job after university was as a shop assistant. The job did not seem to fit what I thought God’s call was on me. So I was miserable. But God used it. For example, he spoke to me through the proverbs in Proverbs that speak about being cheerful. I found my days went really quickly when I determined to have a cheerful countenance.

2. Let’s not give way to fear!

Peter told wives:

“You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.” 1 Peter 3:6b NIV

I doubt most of us face the extreme challenges that the people Peter wrote his letter to faced.

So let’s defeat fear. Ask God to deliver you from fear and, let’s laugh at the days to come!

3. Plan to spend meaningful time with people who do not yet know Jesus.

People won’t be able to see we have hope in Christ if we do not spend time with them.

Peter said:

“15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” NIV

Some aim to spend an hour a week with neighbours and workmates. How could that work for you or me?

It’s time for us to stand up for Jesus. Rosa Parks said:

“Stand for something or you will fall for anything. Today’s mighty oak is yesterday’s nut that held its ground.”

4. And please don’t be defeated by failure!

However we have messed up, Jesus provides a way back! He gives a fresh start.

There is forgiveness in Christ — and a clean slate!

Peter writes this a bit later in his letter:

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” 1 Peter 3:18a (ESV)

Nothing can keep us from God’s love and a fresh start.

When I was a brand-new Christian I went off to university and found I was sharing a room with a guy called Chris who was being sponsored through university by the army. I knew almost nothing about Christianity but I tried to tell him about faith. One day he agreed to come to church with me.

That Sunday evening church was awful. You know how extra sensitive you are when you have brought a friend to church? You want it to be really good, but the preaching was boring, the worship was dreary. The gathering ended, and I thought I am going to have to ask him what he thought.

So, I steeled myself and turned to him and, you know what, he was weeping. He became a Christian and he has continued in the faith ever since.

God uses even our mess-ups if our heart is right with him!

This is the second of two posts on the theme of submission and its application to husbands and wives and to God’s mission in the world. The first, is here.

Photo credits:

Ninocare, nicolagiordano, soliejordan.


William BARCLAY, The Letters of James and Peter, The Saint Andrew Press, 1976

Richard J BAUCKHAM, Jude, 2 Peter, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 1983

Peter H DAVIDS, The First Epistle of Peter, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 1990

Joel B GREEN, 1 Peter, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2007

Phil MOORE, Straight to the Heart of Peter, John and Jude, Monarch Books, 2016

John PIPER various sermons given in 2007

John PIPER (2007), sermon of 15 April 2007

Danny SILK, Keep Your Love On, Red Arrow Media, Redding, California, 2013

Tom WRIGHT, Early Christian Letters for Everyone, SPCK, 2011


Share this post...

Related articles

Theologica Logo Aqua Green on White

Andrew Ryland's Blog

To love God thoughtfully

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. Mark 12:30 NIV-UK

Our favourites

Maybe do not try to fix people

Maybe do not try to fix people? Love them, observe them, build community, instead. When I am coaching or mentoring or supervising others I rely mainly on imitation to see people learn new skills and grow in experience. Obviously head knowledge can be imparted directly by instruction – but skills are usually caught more than taught. The same is true for bringing up children.

Read more »