Does 1 Peter condone Domestic Violence?

In his first letter, the Apostle Peter directs the following words to wives:

In the same way, wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, even if some disobey the word, they may be won over without a word by the way their wives live, having observed your pure lives lived with respect. (1 Peter 3.1–2)

These words have sometimes been used to expect victims of domestic violence to remain within their abusive relationships. Women are seen to be encouraged to put up with suffering under domestic abuse for the sake of the salvation of their spouses.

First of all, let me say straight up that domestic violence is always wrong. Always. There is never a time that domestic violence should be condoned or encouraged. Never. Ever.

Second, I believe that using Peter’s words here to encourage victims of domestic violence to remain in abusive situations is a complete misunderstanding and misuse of Scripture. Let me explain why I believe that.

Peter, the author of this letter, is an Apostle of Jesus Christ. He was one of the Twelve—the inner circle whom Jesus handpicked. The Twelve were Jewish men—evocative of the twelve tribes of Israel. The symbolism of twelve Jewish men points specifically to the establishment of a new people of God. In other words, in appointing the Twelve, Jesus was deliberately starting a new movement that he defined as a new people of God, but with specifically Jewish roots. He was viewing the people that would grow around him and the Twelve as the faithful remnant of Israel.

It’s no wonder, then, that Peter was seen as an Apostle to Jews. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul, who was considered an Apostle to Gentiles, describes his encounter with the leaders of the early church in Jerusalem (who were all Jewish) as follows:

…they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter was for the circumcised. For the one working through Peter for an apostleship to the circumcised also worked through me for the Gentiles. (Galatians 2.7–8)

Paul acknowledges that Peter was specifically commissioned to minister among Jewish people (the circumcised), while he, Paul, was commissioned to minister as an Apostle to the Gentiles.

Why is this important?

It’s important because Peter’s vocation as an Apostle to the Jews (i.e. the circumcised) is on display in the way he opens his letter. I’m offering my own translation of the Greek texts throughout this post, but here I’ll also quote the Greek text for those who are able to read it. That way I want to highlight something that is often passed over too quickly in translation:

Πέτρος ἀπόστολος Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ἐκλεκτοῖς παρεπιδήμοις διασπορᾶς Πόντου, Γαλατίας, Καππαδοκίας, Ἀσίας καὶ Βιθυνίας…

Peter, an Apostle of Jesus Christ, to the elect migrants of the Diaspora of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia… (1 Peter 1.1)

When we understand Peter’s vocation as an Apostle to the Jews, we cannot help but recognise that he is writing his letter to the ‘Diaspora’—that is, to Jewish people living as migrants in the ancient countries of what we today know as Turkey. ‘Diaspora’ is the standard way of referring to all Jews who lived outside the ‘Promised Land’ (Judea, Samaria, and Galilee).

More specifically, Peter is writing to those whom he views as ‘elect’ among the Diaspora. This is his way of addressing Jewish people who have come to believe in Jesus as Israel’s messiah. In other words, Peter is not writing to all Christians—Jews and Gentiles—as is sometimes espoused. Rather, he is writing to the people to whom he ministered specifically as an Apostle to the Jews—that is, to Jews! To underscore this, he even says to them later:

Conduct yourselves well among the Gentiles… (1 Peter 2.12)

Evidently, then, Peter sees a distinction between his audience and Gentiles. They are very clearly Jews. Critically, though, they have come to believe that Jesus is Israel’s messiah, just as Peter himself has.

Now, let’s look at Peter’s words in chapter 3. There he addresses ‘wives’. Let’s read his words again:

In the same way, wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, even if some disobey the word, they may be won over without a word by the way their wives live, having observed your pure lives lived with respect. (1 Peter 3.1–2)

The wives Peter addresses are Jewish women who believe that Jesus is the messiah. Peter is not addressing each and every Christian woman in every age regardless of her cultural heritage or context. He is writing specifically to women who have grown up as Jews. These Jewish women would, in virtually all cases, have been married to Jewish men. We know that this was the standard case in the ancient world, since Jewish communities of the first century were endogamous—that is, they married within their own ethnic group. Thus, Jewish women were married to Jewish men. While it was possible for a Gentile man to marry a Jewish woman, it was most certainly not the norm. In fact, it was so exceptional that when it happened, it caught people’s attention and was worthy of specific mention (see Acts 16.1). The norm was that Jewish girls would marry Jewish boys and have Jewish babies. There is nothing here in Peter’s letter to indicate any exceptional circumstances that might call this into question. It is, therefore, logical to conclude that when he was addressing wives, Peter was thinking of Jewish women married to Jewish men.

So Peter is addressing Jewish women who believe that Jesus is the messiah. Amongst these women would be some whose Jewish husbands were not convinced that Jesus was actually the messiah. This would naturally have created a significant division within the family—a division that even Jesus appears to have expected within Jewish families:

“Do not think that I came to set up peace on the earth. I did not come to set up peace, but a sword. For I came to turn

a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and a man’s enemies will be
the members of his household.

The person who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. The person who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of Me.” (Matt 10.34–37)

Peter’s advice to Jewish wives who believe in Jesus is not to attempt to separate from their husbands who do not share their belief about Jesus, nor even to disparage their husbands. Rather, he encourages them to stay committed to their marriages, with the specific goal of convincing their husbands that Jesus is indeed the messiah.

In other words, Peter gives advice here to Jewish women who live in a household where there is a difference of opinion over who Jesus is. Women in that situation would be encouraged to continue observing Jewish customs, along with their Jewish husbands. This is something Paul even advises the Gentile Christians in Rome to do for the sake of commending the gospel of Jesus as messiah to Jewish people (see Rom 12.1; 15.7–12). After all, these customs were not incompatible with belief in Jesus. As Paul acknowledged, the Law is holy, just, and good (Rom 7.12). Indeed, the Apostles viewed their belief in Jesus as the logical endpoint of their Jewish faith. They believed that Israel’s whole history and culture had culminated in Jesus the messiah (see Hebrews). Therefore, Peter is urging women married to Jewish husbands who do not share their belief in Jesus to cling to their Jewishness as a means of demonstrating to their Jewish husbands that Jesus is indeed Israel’s messiah. To put it another way, Peter urges the wives here to find the common ground with their husbands and work constructively within that common ground to commend the gospel of Jesus to their husbands.

So that’s what Peter is saying. What, then, is he not saying?

Peter is not addressing every Christian woman in any possible context. And he is most certainly not encouraging women to submit to domestic violence. The logic of Peter’s argument critically involves common ground. Common Jewish ground in his particular letter. For Jewish women married to Jewish men, that common ground existed in their cultural heritage, expressed chiefly in observance of the Mosaic Law. But there is no such common ground in situations of domestic violence. Indeed, domestic violence sees one partner abusively using power and violence to deprive the other partner of wellbeing, safety, and options. In such situations, there is no common ground anymore. One partner simply dominates the other, abolishing any sense of commonality. To have commonality, you need two consenting adults. When there is only one consenting adult, the very notion of commonality has ceased to exist. Indeed, part of the reason domestic violence is such a terrible problem is that the victim feels so utterly trapped within the world of their partner.

To use Peter’s words in 1 Peter to encourage women (or men for that matter) to remain in situations of domestic violence is a misunderstanding of the context, logic, and intent of Peter’s words. It is a tragic misappropriation of Scripture.

More than that, the New Testament makes the point that belief in Jesus is something that God himself grants to people (Eph 2.8–10). To expect a victim of domestic violence to remain in the abusive situation for the sake of their spouse’s salvation is effectively expecting the victim to save their spouse—to do the work that only God himself does. In that case, not only is the person trapped within the violent situation, but the cruel chains of bad theology keep them there, entrapping them even further. It is a terrible situation! No one should be expected to do the work that only God himself does. So we should never expect a victim of domestic violence to continue suffering for the sake of their spouse’s salvation.

2 Peter 1.4 states that part of what it means to be a Christian is to escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. Not only should we think of this in terms of being freed from the sin we ourselves commit, but we should also think of it in terms of helping victims escape the terrible situations in which they suffer. We would never think of encouraging sex slaves to remain in their situation for the sake of saving their pimps or clients. That would be reprehensible. So we should never think of encouraging anyone in an abusive relationship to continue in that situation either. The gospel of Christ is meant to bring freedom and peace, and Christians should be brokers of that very freedom and peace.

Domestic violence is both tragic and wrong. There is no other way to view it. The New Testament never condones it. No one ever should.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Does 1 Peter condone Domestic Violence?

  1. Excellent.

    I’ve preached on that passage and found many people are surprised when you place it in context. That is, most people think Peter is talking about ALL women EVERYWHERE.

    But context narrows the focus and allows people to see what Peter is saying.

    Thanks for posting. Will bookmark it for future reference.

  2. George, I would go further and say that to preach the error you underscore is to further abuse a woman who already being abused. But it is arguably worse. It is using the authority of the word of God as a tool of spiritual abuse. Wittingly or no. Thank you for your insightful contextual work. Stuart Adamson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s