A Transformed Wife, the Ideal Wife, and 1 Peter 3:1-6

I don’t know if you’ve heard about the cultural phenomenon of transformed wives, but I think I might be one. What I mean is that I used to approach wifedom in a very different way than I do now. I thought I was doing it right and that as a couple we were doing fine. But I wasn’t and we weren’t. The way I was living was harming my marriage, my husband and, most of all, me.

Somewhere along the way I realized how wrong I had been, how I had listened to the wrong voices and embraced the wrong ideas. It was difficult to change, but worth it. My life, my marriage, and my heart have been transformed in a beautiful way.

Just not in the way you might assume.

You see, I was not at all the stereotypical contentious, complaining, nagging wife. My husband and I didn’t fight over how we should spend our money or raise the kids, what church we should attend or where we would live. In fact, I can’t recall a time when we disagreed about any major decision.

No, the way I harmed my husband, my marriage and myself was through my unwavering commitment to following an understanding of wifely compliance that I had learned from all angles, one after another confirming the rightness of a wife’s absolute and all-encompassing deference to her husband. Doesn’t the Bible say a wife should submit to her husband in everything? Didn’t Peter say that Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him lord? And won’t a wife be blessed if she follows Sarah’s example?

My mistake may not be typical, but I don’t think it’s uncommon. Lots of couples are trying to do what’s right and have a biblical marriage. The question is whether the principles they’ve been taught are truly biblical or whether they are extra-biblical ideas brought to the text by wooden readings and cultural assumptions.

One thing that might have helped me back then would have been to think a little deeper about Peter’s example of Sarah as the ideal wife. Here’s how Peter worked her into his marriage teaching:

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 behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. 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. 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, 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. (1 Peter 3:1-6)

Instead of pausing to ponder how Sarah elucidated everything else Peter said I assumed I knew what he meant and ran with it. And everywhere I looked that’s exactly what people were doing, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Here are a few examples of things I heard over the years, beginning when I was a teenager and continuing for decades. All of them were supported by appealing to 1 Peter 3.

“Your husband will come around if you submit with a good attitude. If he doesn’t change you didn’t do it right.”

“You can express your opinion once, but that’s it. That’s what it means to submit without words.”

“You will be safe as long as you stay under your husband’s authority. See, God kept Sarah safe even when Abraham lied.”

“God will work his perfect will through your husband; God will speak to him and through him. That’s how God does things and why you’re supposed to obey.”

“Focus on your own faults, not your husband’s. That’s God’s job. God will deal with your husband’s faults if you deal with yours.”

“If you influence your husband too much you will probably put him in danger. Quietly trust him even when you disagree because he’s no doubt right.”

“Of course you shouldn’t submit if your husband tells you to sin, like rob a bank or participate in an orgy. But other than blatant sin like that you need to joyfully do what he says.”

So many teachings yet none that arise directly from the passage. All go a step or two beyond what is written, inserting the interpreter’s thoughts and experiences into the text.

Apparently taking Pete for a ride, making him say more than he said, was the thing to do.

How do we keep from over-interpreting what the man who (briefly) walked on water said to wives? The key is to look at the real-life Sarah. When we do, we notice a few things.

First, both Sarah and Abraham took initiative in their marriage. Some of their decisions were flawed, for sure, but their relationship looks more like one of give and take and mutual decision making than hierarchy.

The first time it was Abraham, fearing for his life in a godless world, who made a request. He asked his drop-dead gorgeous wife to hide the fact that they were married. Remarkably appealing at 65, Jewish tradition claims that Sarah was so stunning that other people looked like monkeys compared to her.[1] And Ambrose Bishop of Milan used Abraham and Sarah’s story to warn men not to seek a beautiful wife since “this often leads to the death of the husband.”[2]

Whatever.

Anyway, Sarah made a rational decision to go along with Abraham’s request, choosing to show her love for Abraham by risking her security to protect his.[3]

This might seem like a strange choice to us today. For one thing, we believe lying is wrong. For another, Abraham’s appeal seems self-serving. And maybe it was: Oh sure, you’ll be fine. But what about me? We can’t imagine a world where a man would be killed because some other dude wanted his wife. So, perhaps rightly, we question their decision.

Yet that is pretty much what happened to Uriah at the hands of the great King David. So maybe there was a real threat to Abraham’s life and maybe Sarah would have been worse off if Abraham had died and maybe we should not be so quick to assume we know what we would have done in the same situation.[4]

Corrie Ten Boom and her sister Nollie disagreed about whether absolute truthfulness was necessary if it meant betraying the people they were hiding from the Nazis. Corrie thought it was better to deny everything; Nollie believed they should tell the truth, trusting God for the outcome. Nollie went to prison admitting the truth, along with the young men hiding under her floorboards. Corrie went to prison with lips closed tight and seven poor souls escaped.

Sometimes godly people face difficult decisions and come up with different answers.

Abraham and Sarah’s ruse turned out to be a bad idea, however. It resulted in lots of suffering for lots of innocent people. Pharaoh, Abimelek and their households suffered greatly. And, contrary to what I had been taught about the protective function of a wife’s submission, Sarah most likely suffered too.

Though God kept Sarah from a fate worse than death years later when Abimelek acquired her, it’s probable that Pharaoh took Sarah to be his wife in every sense of the word. In spite of the Jewish tradition that claims Sarah retained her virtue because God sent an angel to whip Pharaoh at Sarah’s command,[5] the way this interlude is described leads many scholars to conclude that Pharaoh did in fact have sex with Sarah. Yes, God afflicted the Egyptian monarch, but apparently not before he consummated the union with his Hebrew bride.[6]

So much for wifely obedience as a deflector shield. I guess this is not Star Wars and I’m not cruising through life on the Millennium Falcon.

The difference between what happened with Pharaoh and what went down with Abimelek seems to be a matter of timing. Abimelek took Sarah during the year of promise, the year that would bring about the birth of Isaac. Clarity about the identity of the father was essential; the child of promise must be Abraham’s son. Perhaps this is why God protected Sarah from Abimelek but not from Pharaoh.[7]

Let’s move on.

The next time one of these two made a suggestion it was Sarah. Plagued by barrenness, this ancient Miss Canaan made a culturally acceptable proposal, offering her slave girl to her husband as a surrogate.

Having a baby through Hagar sounds obviously wrong to us but, at least culturally, it wouldn’t have to Abraham and Sarah. In their world it was a wife’s duty to provide her husband with an heir; that was her main job for her main man. Some marriage contracts of the time explicitly stipulated that a childless wife was to give her slave woman to her husband as a surrogate. Although Sarah and Abraham probably did not have such a contractual agreement, this type of surrogacy was an accepted practice that no doubt influenced their decision.[8]

The interesting point related to Peter’s assessment of Sarah as an obedient wife, however, is that in this case Sarah took the lead. If Sarah is our model, being the ideal wife does not preclude taking initiative by suggesting a course of action.

Of course we know that Sarah’s proposal didn’t turn out to be such a hot idea, just like when Abraham suggested the big, fat, gray lie. Once again, people suffered.

This time Hagar was the primary victim, though it was Hagar’s mocking of Sarah that led to Sarah’s harsh response. So in a way Sarah suffered too. The verbal abuse Sarah endured led to the physical abuse of her maidservant. Not a good scenario. And not one that we should excuse; no matter how we are treated, abusing another is just plain wrong.

That’s not all that happened, however. Abraham and Sarah’s marriage suffered too. Sarah confronted Abraham for his passivity in the face of Hagar’s reviling. As father of the child in her womb, Abraham was in a position to straighten Hagar out.

But he didn’t.

This made Sarah angry. And mean.

What we learn from this is that just because a wife makes a wrong move she isn’t forever disqualified from confronting her husband. I can’t tell you how surprising this was to me. I had been taught that, with rare exceptions, a wife should never challenge her husband. Other men should do that. And worse than admonishing your hubby when you are righteous is the possibility that you would do so when you are less than perfect. A woman ought to focus on her own sin, though a husband is free to correct his wife as he sees fit.

This is not at all what we see with Abraham and Sarah. Honest give and take, including uncomfortable and difficult conversations, seem to be the order of the day for this pair.

How very modern of them.

There’s one final example of marital initiative in this story. It happens to be Sarah again, but this time it’s not so much a suggestion. It’s more like a demand.

God had made it clear that the chosen nation would come through Isaac. Abraham was aware of this but unfortunately his love for Ishmael blinded him to the realities of the situation.[9] Sarah, recognizing that it simply would not work to hold their blended family together, told Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away.

Understandably, this was very upsetting to Abraham. He loved both his sons as any good father should. In this case Sarah was right, however, whether her motives were entirely pure or not. God intervened, telling Abraham to do what Sarah said. So Abraham packed the teenage boy and his mother off to the desert.

In contrast to commentators of his day and beyond, Peter did not feel the need to reinterpret this episode. Embarrassed that Sarah, not Abraham, knew God’s will, and that Abraham obeyed Sarah, numerous Jewish and Christian writers amended the record. Although Sarah was a key figure in the history of both Judaism and Christianity she was “hardly the paradigm of the servile housewife,”[10] so a little creativity was in order.

For example, in the Testament of Abraham “Sarah repeatedly addresses Abraham as ‘lord’ and obeys him. Abraham tells her to go into her house and do her own work, and she obeys. She is portrayed as a true helpmeet for Abraham. She remains in her own house or in her own bedroom and only goes out to help Abraham, care for him, or do her work.”[11]

And Philo couldn’t deal with Sarah as a real person at all when it came to her advising Abraham. Since it was unthinkable that a woman would instruct the father of the faith, Philo claimed that Sarah represented “paramount virtue.” As far as Philo was concerned, it wasn’t really Sarah who informed Abraham of God’s will regarding Ishmael; it was virtue.[12]

Which also, if you hadn’t heard, explains why Abraham didn’t mind sharing his wife with other men by hiding the fact that she was his wife. A good man doesn’t keep virtue to himself, you know. He shares it. So it wasn’t self-serving or wrong for Abraham to share Sarah with Pharaoh and Abimelek after all, since in reality it was virtue that he was sharing.[13]

With that sort of wildly creative interpretation anything goes. So why did these men use revisionist methods? Because they were faced with an inconvenient truth: God told Abraham to listen to Sarah.

This take on Sarah and Abe is not what we read in Scripture and not what Peter said either. Peter missed his big chance to follow tradition and play fast and loose with Genesis,instead letting us study Sarah’s life ourselves.

And what we learn is that sometimes it’s right for a husband to do what his wife says. Sometimes the wife will grasp God’s will before the husband and sometimes God will speak to the husband through the wife. Sure, God might miraculously intervene and tell the man to go along with his wife’s suggestion, but most likely he won’t. The principle is there so it’s our job to apply it.

Sarah’s example also demonstrates that there will be times when a wife will follow her husband’s lead. She will need to make a judgment call and then stick by it. If we pay attention, we learn that we can’t apply formulas or rigid absolutes to the marriage relationship. Yes, we can read 1 Peter 3 woodenly if we insist, claiming that “nothing less than obedience is required.”[14] However, that would be to remove the passage from its biblical and historical context, sliding right past the beauty of what Peter was truly getting at.

If Peter was trying to prove that “a wife is to follow her husband’s direction and leadership,”[15] he should have used a different example. Yes, Sarah responded to Abraham’s initiative at times. But Abraham also responded to Sarah’s direction at times.

This ancient marriage speaks of partnership not subservience, mutuality not unilateral deference. Sarah’s “obedience” did not preclude her speaking her mind, confronting her husband, holding him accountable, making suggestions, or knowing God’s will and promoting it. Neither did it exclude Abraham’s listening to his wife, responding to her, or following her lead.

Sometimes Sarah and Abraham made good decisions and sometimes they didn’t, but through it all they worked things out together, hashing out a real partnership in real time.

These surprising principles of true partnership and real give and take are what transformed me. Instead of clamming up and “submitting” as soon as I sensed the slightest pushback from my husband, I learned to press through. If my silence would harm our marriage, my man, or me, I spoke up. I stopped trying to overlook faults that mattered, the ones that were damaging us. And although we hadn’t ever fought much we began to approach our differences differently, dropping our pride in the pursuit of greater cooperation and deeper love.

Unexpectedly, my transformation freed my husband to be more open about his desires and more straightforward when I was being snarky or selfish or inattentive. If we were going to address long accepted bad habits, both of us needed to weigh in. And when we did, we learned that it was way easier to work together as a team of two adults than to try to follow rigid roles that only led to resentment and immaturity.

It was also a whole lot more fun.

So, yes; I guess I truly am a transformed wife.


[1] R. G. Branch, “Sarah,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003), 735.

[2] In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 12-50, ed. Mark Sheridan (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2002), 8.

[3] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 69, states that Abraham and Sarah had a “standing agreement” to hide the fact that she was his wife and that Sarah is named as a “consenting member” in the deception.

[4] In the footnote on Gen. 12:10-20 the 2013 CEB Study Bible says that Abraham’s decision was the survival strategy of an immigrant in a foreign land “where he had no status or power.” On the other hand it is unnecessary to excuse Abraham and Sarah’s behavior even as we attempt to understand the pressures they faced. John H. Walton notes that “many of the proposed theories [explaining why Abraham and Sarah lied] have the underlying motivation to save Abram’s reputation,” but adds that “for our part, we accomplish nothing by devising solutions designed to either vindicate or vitiate Abram.” In Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), vol. 1, 75.

[5] Walton, 75.

[6] For example Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Waco: Word, 1987), 289; and Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 382.

[7] The footnote on Gen. 20:3-6 in the ESV Study Bible, 85, states that “God intervenes to ensure that Abimelech does not touch Sarah. In contrast to 12:10-20, this episode emphasizes in a variety of ways the important point that Sarah has not had intercourse with the king; otherwise, Abimelech could be the father of the son born to Sarah in 21:1-3).”

[8] Branch, 734, notes that “Nuzi documents stipulate that if a wife is childless, it is her duty to provide her husband with a female slave as a concubine.”

[9] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995).

[10] M. Eugene Boring, 1 Peter (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 125-26.

[11] Troy W. Martin, “The TestAbr and the Background of 1Pet 3,6” in Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche, 90 no1-2 (1999), 142.

[12] J. Ramsey Michaels, 1 Peter (Waco: Word, 1988), 165.

[13] Didymus the Blind argued that Abraham said Sarah was his sister “because the zealous and perfect man does not say that virtue has become his exclusive privilege” and “the wise man wants to share with all that which is his, because in this way they will not become jealous.” In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 12-50, 7-8.

[14] Thomas Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2003), 156.

[15] ESV Study Bible (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 2409.

It’s Good to Be a Woman Day Retreats

A few years ago I was asked to join a team of young women who hoped to reach the women of their generation with a conference designed specifically for them. Feeling that the women’s ministry of our church catered to an older generation, these young leaders were hoping to capture the hearts of their peers.

What struck me that day was what these women hoped to communicate through their conference. A lot of ideas were knocked about but in the end it came down to this: our generation needs to believe it’s good to be a woman. Some of those present expressed the idea that it can be easier to think it’s good to be a woman out in the world than it is in the church. Once a woman becomes a Christian, a whole new set of expectations and limitations is placed upon her that can cause her to doubt the goodness of being female.

We’re at a point in time when women need to know that God created a good thing when he created woman. Rightly understood, what the Bible teaches about womanhood is empowering and freeing. Women are both fully human and fully woman. Women fully represent God in his eternal essence, just as men do. Women also reflect humanity as the object of God’s affection.

There is a lot of confusion in current Christian teaching on gender and “gender roles,” however. In some cases fundamental human qualities are ascribed to men alone, leaving the impression that women are somehow a bit less than fully human. In others, differences between women and men are minimized or ignored. And, very often, the fact that a husband and wife point to the greater “marriage,” that of Christ and the church, is taken to mean all sorts of things that it does not.

For this reason I have launched my It’s Good to Be a Woman day retreats.

Continue reading

A Husband is Not His Wife’s Shepherd

The Bible compares the relationship of a husband and wife to that of Christ and the church, implying that a human marriage is somehow a head-body connection like that of Jesus and his bride. We read that a man is the “head” of his wife like Christ is the “head” of the church, and we assume we comprehend what is intended. Not only do we know how Christ functions in relation to the church, by leading and directing and providing, but we also understand what it means to be the head of a corporation, head of state, or the head of a household.

It’s as plain as day.

Or is it? Continue reading

Are Husbands Supposed to Get Their Wives Ready for Jesus?

A recent article on a very prominent Christian website argued that husbands have a unique responsibility to get their wives ready to meet Jesus. The author explained that he had recently been confronted with the fact that he didn’t challenge his wife enough. He went on to say, through Ephesians 5:25-26, that husbands are called to be “instruments of [God’s] sanctifying work in the lives of their wives.”[1]

I try to stay away from commenting on things I read that I disagree with, recognizing that there is a range of ideas on more than one topic that sincere believers adhere to.

But there are times when the potential harm overcomes my reservations.

This is one of those times. Continue reading

How Manhood Teachings Harm Good Men

I used to be a big proponent of manhood studies, once even convincing my husband to undertake one with our son. Now, however, I wonder if there isn’t a dark side to our well-intentioned efforts to aid men in becoming who God intends them to be.

Christian manhood teachings increasingly stress the leadership role of men, telling guys they are the spiritual leader in their home charged with the task of leading family devotions, hearing from God, and making the final decisions. Continue reading

Paul’s Theology of Gender Part 2: The First Reality

For the next few posts I’m going to focus on the overwhelming majority (96%) of what the Apostle Paul wrote that indicates he believed women and men are the same with respect to their full possession of the image of God. (If you haven’t read the first installment of this series, you may want to check it out before you read on.)

At this point in my life, I’m convinced that Paul believed women are fully and equally human, possessing the same essential human nature as men. I will explain why I believe this by walking you through the books of the New Testament that shed light on Paul’s thoughts, and when I’m finished you can decide if, as Ryan Lochte would say, I’m over-exaggerating. Continue reading

Paul’s Theology of Gender: A Dual Reality

We know we are supposed to look for underlying principles when reading the Bible, since things don’t always pan out the same way today as they did when they were written. At times the transcultural ideas are pretty straightforward and easy to identify; at others the broader ethics can be tough to decipher.

I think the Apostle Paul’s views on gender fall into the tough-to-decipher camp. Continue reading

Why Adam Was First (It’s Not What You Think)

Much ado has been made about the fact that Genesis 2 tells us the man was created before the woman.[1] Some say this Adam-before-Eve-ness, along with his role in naming her and her status as his helper, means that Adam was created to be in authority over Eve. Others note that Eve is Adam’s bone-of-bone, flesh-of-flesh, in-his-face help,[2] so the point of the Genesis 2 narrative must not be hierarchy but equality.

Then there are a few, not as many for sure, who think Eve’s comparison to God (who is so often called our helper in Scripture) in the context of Adam’s forsaking of his parents to cleave to his sweetie (something no proper Israelite would approve of), means that she is supposed to be the leader of the family.[3] Continue reading

Deformed Males and Lazy Parasites: Ancient Views of Women

mythologcial fountain statue

People have been trying to identify the essential differences between men and women for millennia and, I might add, have come up with some insomnia-inducing conclusions. We have our modern debates, for sure, like whether men are from Mars and women from Venus (figuratively speaking, of course) or whether gender distinctions are nothing more than one big fat delusion. None of the current discussions fascinates me the way ancient ideas of gender do, however. Continue reading