The following message was delivered at Emmanuel Mennonite Church during worship, on Sunday, October 14, 2007. I welcome your comments, corrections, questions, whatever, in response.
I Peter 3: 1-7
1Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, 2when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. 3Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. 4Instead, 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. 5For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful. They were submissive to their own husbands, 6like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.
7Husbands, 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.
One of the dangers of preaching a series through a book of the Bible is that you might run across a passage that, frankly, you may not want to preach on, and which people may not want to hear. Like the one that was just read, which has often been taken to mean, “Women, stay in your lowly, second-class places!” Or, “Women, this is the dress code we are going to enforce upon you!” That’s the history that joins us in this sanctuary like a big, invisible elephant whenever we hear these words.
Its not that we commonly hears sermons on this passage. You’ll find it missing from most Bible lectionary schedules. But a few among us grew up hearing almost nothing but this passage. It was used in a lot of more socially and culturally strict Mennonite churches to explain why women should not wear jewelry, colorful clothing, or style their hair. Because Peter seems to be saying, ‘Don’t do that.’ And this is one of the passages also used to explain why women should allegedly defer to men in everything, whenever there’s a difference of opinion, because Peter says that even Sarah called Abraham, ‘lord,’ or ‘master,’ as a sign of her obedience. Never mind the fact that Sarah was using the respectful term that people commonly used with each other at the time, something comparable to “Sir,” or “Mister,” and not the term that would be used for God. Some who grew up with such a history have done the hard labor of working through this oppressive history of abuse—abuse of women and abuse of the Bible—to claim your freedom and power and dignity and your ministries as sisters in Christ in spite of that stifling history, and I for one applaud you for it. After what you may have experienced in some churches, you worked and sifted through all that tradition about cultural conformity and reclaimed the basic, essential kernel of the Christian faith. And all of us are richer for it. I only hope that by hearing these words, you are not re-experiencing some of the trauma of those times.
But often I have found that the Bible passages that scare me most at first turn out to be among the most fruitful to consider. And I hope you find that to be the case with this passage. Sometimes some fresh and nourishing fruit pops out of a word or a phrase that is easily overlooked, a phrase that turns out to be something like a door hinge, upon which our understanding turns in a different direction. I found that hinge in verse 7 and in the phrase, “In the same way, husbands….” It obviously applies to men, not women. By the time I get done with this message, I hope you’ll see, as I have, that this passage actually says more that is challenging, restrictive and restraining for men in most times and cultures, than it does for women. And I hope you’ll see that it calls men and women to a new and different kind of relationship in Christ from the relationships that Peter’s disciples had known before they were Christians.
But to see that, you have to understand something about the time in which Peter wrote these words. Now I know that if I ever say, “The word used in Greek is…..” eyes will glaze over with disinterest. Mine do too. But I want us to remember a phrase in Latin. Its not used by Peter in this passage or anywhere else. His words are in Greek. But this particular phrase would have been in the minds and hearts of everyone hearing Peter’s words. That phrase is Pater familias. In the Latin language of the Roman Empire, it means, “father of the family.” It was a central part of the culture at that time.
If we lived in the Roman empire of Peter’s time, we would have a clear sense of what the Pater familias, or “father of the family,” was supposed to be like. The Pater familias was the oldest surviving male—Dad, or Grandfather, of an extended family. His was all the property in the family, including that of his children and even his grandchildren. His was the power of life and death over children, slaves and even his wife. Or his wives. His power was so great, so total, that if he felt that the newest child born to the family was one mouth too many, or if it was too severely malformed, he could decree that it be left outside, exposed, to die of the elements or be adopted by someone else, often by Christians. And he would be admired for such hardness, not condemned. Because you can’t run an empire on softies. If this Pater familias sounds more like a Mafia kingpin than the father you had, or married, or are, well, its no accident that the Mafia arose from the ruins of the Roman Empire.
That’s the understanding of marriage and family in which Peter wrote these words. The Roman Empire was like a family of sorts, and the emperor was the first pater familias over all the others. So lots of people have assumed that this same kind of male dominance and female subjection is what Peter was encouraging for the church. And you could take it that way, if you speed-read and sleep walk through this passage. Especially if you overlook those hinge words in verse 7, “in the same way, husbands.”
But then that whole understanding begins to break down when first we ask ourselves, Why would Peter write these words about marriage? What’s the need he’s addressing? To prove to unbelievers that the gospel is no threat to the social order and the power pyramid of the Roman empire, as some have suggested? But he’s already said so much in this letter that would anger the pagans, why would he suddenly worry about that when it comes to marriage and family? Besides, unbelievers in that time are not going to know or care much about Peter’s words, let alone read them. Rather, I think its because something has happened to his readers that has thrown the whole meaning of marriage and family up into the air and which has called into question the very relationships between men and women as they knew them before they were Christians. As we saw last week, the same thing happened with slaves, to fill them with a sense of dignity and equality with their masters. Something came into their lives which challenged the whole notion of one person dominating another in a pyramid of power going all the way down from the emperor on top to the slaves on the bottom. And I think that challenging, revolutionary thing was…….the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And now that the gospel implies that men and women, slaves and free, are equal partners in a new domination-free kingdom (as Peter says in verse 7, they are “heirs together of eternal life,”) now that a new community of mutual aid and shared dignity, called the Kingdom of God, has taken shape within the power pyramid of empire, and now that the true Son of God has appeared in the form of a slave and a subject, not a Caesar, what becomes of all these top-down relationships, like marriage and the family? Do we just pitch them out and leave our homes and wives and husbands, especially our unbelieving wives and husbands? Especially since those relationships are so shot-through and corrupted with the imperial infection of domination and abuse that we hardly know how to live within them as Christians? Somebody must have thought so, or else I can’t figure out why Peter would even address this subject. There must have been some danger, some tendency, for someone to take their new liberty and dignity in the gospel as an excuse to throw off the bonds of love and obligation and service and mutual submission that make up every family, especially when their husbands or wives did not join them in this new gospel liberty.
That point about unbelieving spouses is important. The whole passage takes on a different color when you consider that some of the women whom Peter is addressing have husbands who are not believers. He’s not encouraging them to leave those husbands, nor to browbeat them into converting, nor to disrespect or condemn them for not believing, but to love them, just because they do, and its right. And their husbands might see the gospel in action, through their respectful and considerate conduct.
Yet the very fact that these women have chosen to believe differently than their pagan husbands shows that they are not demure, passive, dominated or intimidated. All the more surprising when the Pater familias was expected to be the trend-setter and director of all things in the home. The very fact that Peter is addressing women who have staked a claim to differ from the faith of their husbands tells us that there’s something else going on here than Peter making a case for male domination.
Or take the words about jewelry and braiding the hair. A few of us here grew up with pretty strict dress codes in church about this kind of thing. Occasionally I get phone calls from people asking if we enforce strict dress at Emmanuel Mennonite Church, especially on women. And I can tell that they desperately want me to say Yes. I know what they’re afraid of: the increasingly hyper-sexualized nature of our culture and commerce, how sex is used to sell stuff, especially clothing. It bothers me too, to the point where I’m reluctant to go to the mall or the video store, they are such sexualized places. I tell these callers that we’re all for modesty, although I don’t know, at my age and weight, what all I have to be so modest about. But I also tell them that if we went beyond that and insisted on plain dress or some kind of gray fashion conformity, we would miss out on the beautiful Ethiopian and Eritrean gowns and dresses we see around here, especially for Easter. And that is why you never see those callers here, not even for a visit. Your pastor did not pass their telephone test. But I’m not going to become an officer in any kind of fashion police force. As you’ve probably noticed, I don’t always do so great with my own.
In fact, these words about dress and jewelry which some of us have experienced as controlling and oppressive, I think Peter means as liberating and freeing. Because I suspect that, for women especially, then as now, there are powerful and oppressive forces arrayed around the whole matter of appearance and dress. According to all the fashionistas in the media and the magazines and the malls, we are only as good as we look. So you can never be young enough. Or slim enough. Or “hot” enough. Or up-to-date and ahead of the fashion curve enough. And that pressure feeds into all kinds of distress around image, like self-hatred and eating disorders.
But all that Peter is saying, when he says to let your beauty be other than a matter of dress and jewelry and braided hair, is that there is a more lasting kind of beauty that matters most to the One who matters most: God. This kind of beauty is eternal, unfading, and no external things like fabric or jewelry can add to it or detract from it. In fact, this kind of beauty can grow with age. Stretch marks from childbirth and crow’s feet and wrinkles around the eyes and face from concern and caring, or from smiling and laughter, only serve as signs of this growing beauty within that is wisdom, peace and compassion. And the judge of this beauty is not any man, but rather, our God and Creator in whose image we were made, male and female, whose beauty we reflect. I would hope that all people, men and women, would find Peter’s call to this type of beauty liberating and refreshing, not oppressive.
Now if oppression and male domination were Peter’s concern, then he should have left out verse 7, where he writes, “Husbands, in the same way, be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect, as the weaker vessel, and as heirs with you of the precious gift of life, so that nothing may hinder your prayers.” And there’s the hinge on which this passage turns into something else than the weapon it has often been made into to keep women “in their place,” so called. That phrase, “in the same way, husbands,” is Peter’s way of saying, “Now men, you do just like what I’ve just suggested to your wives.” What is that? “Treat them with respect.” Respect is what Peter means by “submit” or “be submitted.” It falls way short of the holy, reverent fear that he says is for God alone.
And let’s look at that phrase, “weaker vessel.” Into that phrase has been poured a massive pile of reasonings and logic, so-called, to justify male dominance and male privilege. Women shouldn’t vote, it was once said, because they allegedly are “the weaker sex” and may vote wrongly, for emotional reasons. Sometimes I wish we did let some emotions drive more of our civic behavior, emotions like tenderness, care and concern.
But Peter’s word for “vessel” has nothing to do with being male or female, nor with emotional stability or logical ability, neither of which are the exclusive domain of either men or women. The word Peter uses for “vessel” is often used in the New Testament for “body,” as in, “the human body.” So he’s simply telling men to respect the fact that their wives’ bodies may be physically weaker, unable to beat them at– I don’t know– arm wrestling, and not abuse that greater physical strength.
Now if you’re talking about the average lengths of our lives, or about what it takes to deliver a baby, you could make the case that, in those respects, women are actually stronger vessels than men. But when you’re talking about average upper body strength, men usually have the advantage. It comes in handy for hunting and building. But unfortunately, it is also an advantage that too many men have used to dominate, intimidate and abuse women throughout the ages. And that has poisoned the well of male-female relationships for ages.
As a man, this is one thing I’ve had to come to terms with in those awkward situations, such as when I’m in an elevator and a woman gets on the next floor up, the door closes, we’re alone, and a look of fear flashes through her eyes. Or on the sidewalk in downtown St. Paul, I find that I’m walking behind a woman half a block ahead, she hears the sound of my steps, and she turns to look and see if I’m gaining on her. Again, the look of fear has actually made me stop and pretend that I really am interested in the vacuum cleaners in the storefront window. Or I’ve even crossed the street, just to prove that I’m harmless, and that I’m not going to exploit my size and strength. Okay, my relative size and strength. I’m not aware that I’m all that scary-looking. Maybe its my big hairy eyebrows.
Or maybe its just all that violent history between men and women.
All that Peter is saying, in his phrase about “the weaker vessel,” only reinforces what he says about living together in respect. Men, be aware of the intimidating and dominating power of your normally superior physical strength and don’t go there; don’t flex it and flaunt it or use it to intimidate or dominate. Be just as aware of the greater social power and freedom you often have, as men, and don’t abuse them to the detriment of your marriages and families. Accept gracefully the limitations on your power that come with living respectfully with someone who often has less physical and social power than you. Accept gracefully the limitations on your liberty that come with loving and living with someone who may be pregnant or nursing. That’s why I say that this passage may actually demand more restraint, respect and discipline of men than it does of women.
And with that we come out in a different place than when we started. All these times we thought Peter was demanding so much of women, when we see that, once he turns the tables toward men, he’s actually demanding at least as much of us men, if not more. More by way of restraint and respect. And all so that “your prayers may not be hindered.”
And with those words, “that your prayers may not be hindered,” we come to the main point of this whole passage: that there might be true spiritual intimacy between men and women, husband and wife. That the marriage and the home might even be something of a church.
Have you ever tried to pray when you were mad at someone? Or when you knew someone was mad at you? Or worse, have you tried to pray with someone whom you were mad at, or whom you knew was mad at you? It doesn’t work, does it? It doesn’t work either when your prayer partner has reason to fear you, or is treated by you as your inferior. Or when they treat you as an inferior. Prayer together—at least Christian prayer– only works when there is equality, and emotional and spiritual honesty between us.
That’s why this passage is all the more surprising for its time. Remember the Pater familias, the head of the household who was modeled after something like the emperor or a mafia don? In that day and age, it was not expected that Pater familias and the wives and women of his household would experience much of any kind of spiritual intimacy and equality. It was typically expected that men would have their own religious societies and more likely share spiritual intimacy with other men. The men in their army unit. Or the men in their business network. Women, considered as underlings, sometimes almost as property, might share spiritual intimacy with other women, women in their household, or women in their commercial networks, or in their religious societies. But it would be rare and surprising if they experienced that with other men, including their husbands.
But its what Peter expects of the church—the household of God– and of the household of marriage and family. Indeed, with these words, “that your prayers might not be hindered,” Peter has served notice of two surprising, block-busting things. The first is that, if you’re married, your relationship with God is not something separate from your relationship with your spouse. In fact, your relationship with God is only as good as your commitment to your relationship with your spouse. You can’t respect one and disrespect the other.
The second thing: By making prayer together so central to the marriage bond, Peter has served notice that the household of marriage and family is not only a part of the church, it is a church. A church within the church, a household of faith within the household of faith. We spend a lot of time and energy figuring out how the church can serve the family, when really, the family is a church within the church. And just as the wider church doesn’t work when its members are arranged from high to low in order of value and power, so the household church fails and betrays its mission if its members claim power and worth at each other’s expense.
A beautiful example of how a family can be a church is when the missionary family whom we support in India visited us a few years ago and explained that they had already planted a church in their fair city, even in a Muslim neighborhood. Because as soon as they were there and began worshiping the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and praying to him, at least in their apartment, they had effectively planted a church. Now all that remains is for others in their neighborhood to join them. And that may only be a matter of time because of 1) their prayers together, and 2) the gospel quality of their life together. And their love. You only have to observe the tender, respectful and mutually-supportive way that husband and wife and mother and father relate to each other and share their burdens to know that the church in their home is a wonderful start on a church to come.
Whether we’re married or not, the same principle still applies: as it was in the beginning, when man and woman were partners and heirs together of the Garden, each one equally a reflection of God’s image that complemented the other, so it is now and forever, that men and women are partners and joint-heirs together in the Kingdom of God, each one complementary and necessary to the other, in the church, as well as in the home that is also a church.