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What About Wives Obeying Their Husbands? November 16, 1997

I PETER 2:11-3:7

There were two lines at the Pearly Gates. One sign read, "Hen-pecked Husbands" and the other read, "Head of the House". There was a long line of men in the Hen-pecked husbands line, and only one in the Head of the House line. Someone asked him why he was standing there. He said, "I don't know. My wife told me to stand here." What about wives obeying their husbands, or as Peter said in 3:1, "Wives...accept the authority of your husbands."

The following is an actual quote from a Home Economics textbook in the 1950s.


Have dinner ready. Most men are hungry when they come home and the prospect of a good meal is part of the warm welcome needed. Prepare yourself. Take fifteen minutes to rest so that you are refreshed when he arrives. Touch up your makeup, put a ribbon in your hair and be more fresh looking. Clear away the clutter. Make one last trip through the main part of the house. Gather up books, toys and newspapers. Prepare the children. Take a few minutes to wash their faces and hands. Comb their hair and change their clothes if it is necessary to make them look presentable to him. They are God's creatures and your husband would like to see them playing their part. Minimize all noise. At the time of his arrival, eliminate all the noises of the washer, dryer, dishwasher and vacuum. You've had plenty of time to do these things during the day. Don't do them now. Encourage your children to be quiet. Be happy to see your husband. Greet him with a warm smile. Do not greet your husband with problems or complaints. Make him very comfortable. Have him lean back in a comfortable chair or suggest that he lie down for a few moments in the bedroom. Have a cool or warm drink ready for him. Arrange his pillow and offer to take off his shoes. Speak in a low, soft, soothing and pleasant voice. Allow him to relax and unwind. Remember that you relaxed all day waiting for his return.

As I recall the 1950s, I doubt there were many wives even then who would or could fit that model. My mother was employed outside of the home by that time. Before that, she was working on the farm, doing the gardening, tending the chickens, etc. She hardly relaxed all day waiting for his return! There's a lot of fantasy in those instructions, even in the 1950s and certainly for today. What about wives obeying their husbands and submitting to their authority?

A group of women have organized a counter-part to Promise Keepers, called Chosen Women: Daughters of the King. Let me read a sentence from their literature, "We have asked for and received confirmation of our call and blessings from those in authority over us: our husbands, Boards and pastors." As a United Methodist pastor, I have been given authority to preach the word of God and administer the sacraments, but the Lord knows I have no authority over women! Do women in 1997 really believe that stuff? Are women really supposed to be subordinate?

Several weeks ago, I shared with you how I was taught in seminary that one of the first things for a pastor to do in a new appointment is to look for the woman who runs the church. After the sermon, Warren Clarke told me about his childhood church in Bishop, California. Tully Knoles, who later became President of UOP, was pastor of the Methodist Church. During a meeting, someone said, "What are we going to do about Mrs. So-and-So? She thinks she runs the church." Someone else spoke up and said, "Well, Mrs. Such and Such runs the Presbyterian Church." And someone else said, "Yes, and the Baptist Church is run by Mrs. X." To which Tully Knoles responded, "Let's thank God all three women aren't in the same church!"

In my hometown, there were two churches while I was growing up, a Baptist and a Methodist. A group of three women organized the Baptist Church, and a group of three women organized the Methodist Church. My great-grandmother Norris was among those women who organized the Baptist Church. Were the women acting contrary to the Bible? Of course, neither church at that time would think of having a woman pastor! Where would our churches today be without the leadership of women? Where would the United Methodist Church be without women pastors?

As we study this passage from 1 Peter, remember the principles of Bible study. Begin first with the cultural environment. What was it like back then? Women had no status or power. In fact, wives were the property of their husbands. The early church took giant steps to free women. Women were in leadership positions. Some were ministers, until the men turned back the clock.

Secondly, when studying the Bible, read the passage within the context of the entire letter. Never take a verse or passage out of its context and try to make it say something it is not saying. The context for the instruction to wives begins several verses earlier in 2:11, "Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles..." Like Jews who were forced to leave their homeland and live as exiles in foreign lands, so Christians were living in the Roman Empire as aliens and exiles. Their true home was in God's kingdom. Because they were Christians, they were treated with hostility, suspicion, and persecution-- even the threat of death.

Peter proceeds then to instruct them on how to live in a hostile environment. What this passage is about is survival! Peter is not concerned with the larger issue of social revolution and emancipation. The seeds of revolution and emancipation had been planted by Jesus, and were beginning to take hold and grow. In God's kingdom, Paul wrote, Galatians 3:28, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."

However, Peter is not dealing with the ideal, but with survival. He taught them survival ethics. You can't do much if you are dead. You can't do much if those in authority shut you down. You can't even worship and fellowship if your master or your husband prohibits you from going to church. Therefore, endure and suffer, for the time being. 2:16, "As servants of God, live as free people." Yes, in Christ they were free; but they also had to survive. Yes, the time will come when Christians will be given religious freedom and allowed to worship and serve God. Yes, the time will come when slavery will be abolished. Yes, the time will come when women will be liberated and given equal rights in their home, in society and in the church. But, for now, in the meantime, Peter told them to endure and suffer! Follow Christ's example, Peter urged, 2:21-22, "Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps... When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten."

Therefore, 2:13, "Accept the authority of every human institution."

2:16, "Honor the emperor."

2:18, "Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh."

3:1, "Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands." Peter then adds a reason. Not only for survival, but so the husbands might be "won over by their wives' conduct;" by the quality of their inner beauty to which more attention should be given than trying to be the best-dressed women in Roman society. Evidently, there were not many husbands in the churches; therefore, try to win them, Peter urged. However, to the husbands who were Christians, Peter told them in 3:7 to "show consideration for your wives" and respect them.

Now, what is the message for us today? What is the Word of God for us? Let's look at one application. Our concern is not so much for survival, but we all know people who need to be won for the Lord. It's interesting how Peter uses the phrase, "win over." We are engaged in a battle fighting for people, winning them, freeing them from lesser and often destructive allegiances. Don't you know people who are struggling, and who would benefit greatly from knowing the Lord? A spouse, a child, a friend, a neighbor, the neighborhood surrounding our church? How can we win them for Christ?

To summarize this entire passage, Peter told his churches, and the message is still very real and relevant for us, win them over by living the Christian lifestyle. Listen to some of the phrases Peter used:

Conduct yourselves honorably.

Honor everyone.

Love the family of believers.

Fear God.

Endure when you do right and suffer for it.

Purity and reverence.

Let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.

A young wife became a Christian, and was concerned how she could best influence her husband. Her pastor shared these verses from 1 Peter and then made the suggestion, "At a proper time, tell your husband what happened to you. Tell him about the love and forgiveness of Christ, and what a difference Christ is making in your life. Then, never mention another word about God or Christ or Gospel again until he asks or until the Holy Spirit prompts you to speak. In the meantime, live for Christ in all that you do. Allow Christ to fill you with the Holy Spirit and to give you the fruit of the Spirit of love and joy and peace." They prayed together, and she went home. Three months later, the husband came to Christ. When asked, "What influenced you the most?" he replied, "My wife. Several weeks ago she told me of how she had come to know Christ personally. She said that she hoped I would also come to Christ, but that she would not bug me. Whenever I had a question or whenever I was ready to know more, she would share with me. She was a changed woman. She did not nag me or preach to me; she only loved me! I know that whatever she has is what I want and need."

How we win others for Christ is not by compromise or nonchalance, but through holy and godly living. We seldom talk or argue people into the Kingdom, but we love them, pray for them, and influence them through living the Christian lifestyle. The Holy Spirit can then use us to minister through us.

Peter's instructions on survival and winning others can be summarized in the chorus I was taught as a youth.

Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me,

All his wonderful passion and purity.

O, thou, Savior divine, all my nature refine

Till the beauty of Jesus be seen in me.

© 1997 Douglas I. Norris