Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives...Husbands, in the same way, show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honor to the woman as the weaker sex, since they too are also heirs of the gracious gift of life—so that nothing may hinder your prayers (1 Peter 3:1-2, 7 NRSV).
One thing’s for sure: if you’ve been following along with the study, and/or heard me talk about the study in person, you know that I appreciate a good “churchfolk” joke. Here’s yet another chestnut:
A long-married couple wakes up one Saturday morning. The husband turns to the wife and says, “Honey, how about fixing us a cup of coffee?” To which the wife responds, “Well, dear, ‘how about’ you fix one for yourself? Oh, and while you’re at it, fix one for me, too, please. After all, the Bible says that it’s your job.”
“Oh, really?” asks the husband, skeptically. “Prove it!”
The husband turns to the nightstand, grabs the study Bible from the bottom shelf, and hands it to the wife. She begins flipping feverishly through the Old Testament and, after a few moments, her face brightens. She freezes, her finger fixed on what appears to be the “proof-text,” then declares boldly:
“See? Here. In Exodus. In black and white. It says, ‘He-brews’!”
What is it that we have come to expect of men, of how they are to, as Acts 17:28 puts it, “live, and move, and have [their] being?” What have we come to expect of women in this regard? And what of men and women in relationship? The author of 1 Peter expresses particular expectations of men and women, more specifically in discussing the dynamics of relationship but also, more generally, surrounding the “essential” nature of men and women. In his rendering, men are not only naturally inclined, but are called by God to demonstrate dominance and strength (even if it is to be conditioned by honor and respect for wives/women). Wives, on the other hand, are called to resemble their essentially “weaker” natures as women by living in loving submission to their husbands. All of which, he asserts, is “fitting in the Lord.”
Sigh. Really, Peter?
On the matter of “essential” female weakness:
- One of my closest friends spent over 22 hours in labor for her first child, accepting not even a needle-prick of numbing fluid or painkillers.
- A 14-year-old girl in Afghanistan stood up against the Taliban, asserted her right to seek an education, and received a gunshot wound to the head in retaliation (from which she survived).
- In the book of Judges from the Hebrew Scriptures, Jael, wife of Heber, took a tent peg and a hammer and drove the peg straight through the temple of her the army general, Sisera.
On the matter of “essential” male dominance and strength:
- During my school days, I once had a male roommate who ran and hid from a busy little mouse that scurried through the kitchen (leaving “guess who” to address the situation…).
- An episode of the documentary-style t.v. show Intervention featured the father of a young adult female heroin addict who had neglected her during her teen years when he learned that she had been a victim of rape because he was to afraid to overcome his feelings of awkwardness in her presence.
- In the gospels, the disciple Peter denied knowing Jesus three times for fear of being associated with an accused criminal.
Here’s the thing: we know that the essence of female-ness, of being a woman, is not weakness (at least not as a categorical imperative, if you will). Our experiences of women in the world are filled with profiles in courage, strength, and even, in certain circumstances, dominance. To pretend otherwise is to lie to ourselves, and to deny our Maker, who endows us with such qualities. Even as 1 Peter takes great pains to mount a case for conformity to gender roles, the female exemplar from the Hebrew Scriptures he commends to women, Sarah, is portrayed in those scriptures as one of the most “uppity” women in the Bible.
We also know that the default value of male-ness need not be strength through dominance. Our experiences of men in the world are filled with positive examples of mutuality, humility, and even, in certain circumstances, submission (though, admittedly, the latter is a bit more difficult name off-the-cuff, unless you focus on examples of submission to God or a higher spiritual power; the sweeping popularity of the book Fifty Shades of Grey probably speaks to another dimension of submission that I have absolutely zero interest in exploring here).
1 Peter celebrates a God who transforms and transcends all earthy powers, the one who calls us, as it states in 1 Pt. 1:22, to “have genuine mutual love” and to “love one another deeply from the heart.” The message appeals to all to demonstrate, “unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Pt. 3:8). It is unfortunate, I think, that this emphasis on mutual love is not so expansive in 1 Peter’s vision to overtly dismantle the gender- and role-specific language of domination and submission. Or, perhaps it may be more accurate to lament the fact that the interpretation of these scriptures over the centuries has been so focused on these patterns that the message of mutuality has been muted or even suffocated.
Too often, when men express vulnerability, they are derided as weak and non-masculine, and too often, when women demonstrate power and assertiveness, they are shamed as uncouth outliers. One of the many wonders of human creation is that God breathed the capacities for all of these qualities into the bodies of male and female, working through women and men in ways both expected and unexpected.
I’m intrigued by a quote from the podcast “On Being: with Krista Tippett,” in which social scientist Brene Brown speaks on vulnerability and gender:
If you show me a woman who can sit with a man in real vulnerability and deep fear and be with him in it, I will show you a woman who has a) done her [emotional] homework and b) does not derive her power from that man. And if you show me a man who can sit with a woman in deep struggle and vulnerability and not try to “fix it,” but just hear her and be with her and hold space for it, I will show you a man who has done his work and doesn’t derive his power from controlling and fixing everything.
If that doesn’t encapsulate the possibilities of 1 Peter 3:8, then I don’t know what does…
Ultimately, be we male or female, or otherwise, each of our greatest sources of power comes from our vulnerability to God, in whom “we live, and move, and have our being.” No matter who pours the coffee, or rids the house of vermin, or “prattles” on about feelings, or offers the steady shoulder on which to cry (since, really, more than any other time in human history, many of us get to choose who gets to do these things in our relationships), all are called and expected to serve as vessels of God’s gracious love through Christ, so that the banality of “what is” may be transformed into the category-exploding, life-giving freedom of “what shall be.”
Keep the Faith,
P.S. – Here is a link to an interesting article on the significant changes that the institution of marriage has undergone throughout millennia called, “Traditional Marriage: One Man, Many Women, Some Girls, Some Slaves,” by Jay Michaelson—