For instance, 1 Peter 3 says that Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him lord, and that Christian women are to imitate her. But what are they really being asked to imitate, and why?
Let’s look more closely at this Scripture in light of its context in 1 Peter. The First Epistle of Peter was written to scattered believers living in pagan societies in northern Asia Minor. The main subject of the letter is how these Christians are to live in these societies, enduring persecution when necessary, but also doing their best to present themselves as good citizens in a surrounding culture which viewed them with suspicion. To this end, Peter tells them in Chapter 2, verse 12 to be “having your conversation [behavior] honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works which they shall behold, glorify God . . .” With this in mind, Peter goes on in verse 13 to tell them to “Submit yourselves to every ordinance [institution] of man for the Lord’s sake,: whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors. . .” Immediately following this, Peter goes into his own household code.
The difference to keep in mind between Peter’s household code and Paul’s code in Ephesians, is that while Paul’s code delineates how believers are to relate to one another “in Christ,” this code in Peter’s Epistle focuses primarily on how believers are to relate to non-Christians. Peter’s overarching premise is that Christians are to submit to every human institution of authority. He goes directly from talking about how to relate to kings and governors, to talking about how Christian slaves relate to masters (particularly non-Christian ones) and then to how Christian wives relate to husbands (particularly non-Christian ones), and so on. What Peter is actually implying, therefore, is that the authority of masters in slavery, and the authority of husbands (especially of the pater familias in the pagan household structure) are human institutions. Marriage, as marriage, was instituted by God in Genesis 2:23-24, but the patriarchal family structure in which men had authority over wives and slaves, was a human institution. Male government of the household, just like slavery, is not divinely ordained, but is human and therefore cultural and temporal. Peter was dealing with life as it had to be lived then and there. Neither he nor Paul spoke about the ancient household structures as if they were part of a divine, timeless order that was never to pass away.
Sarah’s obedience to Abraham, then, must be viewed in light of this understanding. In 1 Pet. 3:1 Peter speaks to the wives in his intended audience with the word “hupotasso” (“submit,“ here translated “be in subjection”), which we examined in Part 2, and not “hupakouo“ (“obey”). He then speaks in verse 5 of how “in the old time” women of God would trust Him as they lived within the social constraints of their time. Sarah is held up an example of this in verse 6. Does it say, "and you are her children if you obey your husbands and call them lord"? No. It says, "And you are her children if you do what is right, without being frightened by any fear." (Emphasis added.)
Christian women in the situation of being married to non-believing husbands in a society where husbands have the power, are to imitate Sarah’s trust in God and quietness of spirit in not fearing for the future. For Sarah, that meant obeying Abraham and calling him lord, as was appropriate in her culture. Peter is certainly not advocating that the women of his own day return to the cultural structures of Abraham’s time! But he knows they have to live within the culture structures that surround them. He approaches all of this under the umbrella of Christian submission to temporal human institutions, with the understanding (1 Pet. 2:15-16) “that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: As free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.” Peter is telling his readers that the true divine order is freedom– in Christ they are free, but that it is important that they curtail their freedom as necessary to not give offense to the world in which they live.
Another passage is 1 Corinthians 11. It does say that the man is the "head of" the woman. Many translations go on to say that she should wear “a sign of authority on her head” to indicate her husband's headship. Again, we have to look at the original language and the context of these verses, within the historical setting and within the letter itself, to be sure we aren't misunderstanding them.
In The Bible and the Nature of Woman I spoke about how the context of this passage is how the church at Corinth was to deal with the human tradition of head-coverings, in an honor-shame culture where what each person did reflected positively or negatively on those the culture associated them with. Looking at the verses as they hold together contextually, then, we see that this opening: “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. . .” (1 Cor. 11:3) is followed by a discussion of how what men and women do with the physical heads on their bodies, affects the reputation (dishonor vs. glory) of the one Paul refers to as their “head” in verse 3. He then continues:
“For the man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for [the sake of] the woman, but the woman for [the sake of] the man. For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.” (1 Cor. 11:8-12.)
All of this discussion is in terms of where men and women come from; i.e., their source or origin. “The man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man” means “the man is not from the woman, but the woman from the man.” This is clearly a reference back to Genesis, in which the woman was brought forth from the man’s side. But Paul balances this is verses 11-12 by saying that neither man nor woman is independent of the other. Just as the woman came from the man (in creation), now the man comes from the woman (in childbirth). The pivotal statement is “But all things of God.” God is the ultimate Source of both man and woman. This context leads to understanding the word “head” (“kephale”) in verse 3 as carrying its metaphorical meaning “source or origin.”
It is quite theologically sound, and logical in this context, for Paul to be saying, “The source/origin of every man is Christ [Paul’s theology, as expressed in Colossians 1:16-18, is that all things were made by Christ, who is “the head of the body, the church.”], and the source/origin of the woman is the man [Eve being taken out of Adam’s side], and the source/origin of Christ is God [Christ being the Messiah, sent by God, and also the “image of the invisible God” in Colossians 1:15].”
The head covering, or lack thereof, of the man or the woman is seen as a reflection on his or her “source.” In Jewish culture a man wore a covering on his head while praying as a sign of humility. The head covering showed that because of sin, he needed a barrier between himself and the presence of God. But in the Greek city of Corinth, men did not wear head coverings in worship and probably viewed the Jewish custom as strange. Paul, therefore, needed to address this issue in the church at Corinth, which would have had both Jewish and Gentile members. (John Temple Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women pp. 80-83.)
Paul’s response was as follows. The purpose of the Jewish head covering was to show awareness of sin. But Christ has atoned for sin, and there is no need for any barrier between a man and God. Therefore (v. 4), for a man to wear a covering on his head while in public prayer or prophesying, was a dishonor to Christ, his “head.” But since bareheadedness was viewed as promiscuity in a woman, for a woman not to wear a covering was a dishonor to the man in her life (either her husband or her father) as representatives of “man” in general– woman’s “head” (v. 5). But Paul adds one additional statement here. The woman is the “glory” — the source of good reputation– for the man. She also is saved by Christ; she is no more subject to a barrier between herself and God than the man is. Further, it was for the man’s sake– because of his need– that she was created. Because of all this, Paul says, a woman “ought” to have “power on her head.” He also adds that this is “because of the angels.”
Many translations add the words “a sign of,” here, translating the verse “The woman ought to have a sign of authority [meaning a man’s authority] on her head, because of the angels.” But the purpose of a head covering was to show modesty and thus preserve a woman’s husband or father’s honor. Paul is not saying that the head covering was also a sign of her husband or father’s authority, for it was not. The words “a sign of” are simply not present in the original text– and the King James Version rightly omits them. The word “power” there is the Greek word “exousia,” which (as was stated in The Bible and the Nature of Woman) means personal authority. Whenever it is used, it refers to the authority of the person being spoken of– not to some second person under whose authority he or she is. What the original Greek actually says is, “A woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels.”
It is not completely certain what the reference to angels means here, but earlier in the same letter (1 Cor. 6:3) Paul does say, “Know ye not that we shall judge angels?” He is speaking of all believers, male and female, being given the right to judge the world one day. A female believer, just as much as a male, will one day be given judging authority even over angels. In light of this, should a woman not have authority over her own head? The word “exousia” — “authority”– included personal power and the right to do as one pleased. Women, as Paul set the situation up, were in a sort of dilemma. If they covered their heads, they could have been seen as indicating the necessity of a barrier because of sin, between themselves and God, thus dishonoring Christ. But if they didn’t cover their heads, they could be seen as dishonoring their husbands or fathers. In light of this, Paul says, a woman “ought to” be able to choose for herself.
Paul then turns to the whole congregation in verse 13. “Judge for yourselves,” he says. “Is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?” After speaking of what would seem “natural” in the culture in the area of long vs. short hair for men and women, he concludes, “But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.” Paul may be saying that the apostles, and the other churches, have no specific, universal custom regarding head coverings, so there is no point in being “contentious“ about it. Or he may be saying that the apostles and the other churches have no custom of women going uncovered, so since the Corinthian congregation is likely to view it as unseemly for a woman to pray uncovered, it would be best for her to cover– but with the understanding that ideally, she “ought” to have the power to decide for herself.
In any event, this passage is not about male authority over females, but about how, in an honor-shame culture, head-coverings were a way to convey either honor or dishonor to those viewed as one’s origins. And Paul makes it clear that the most important origin is God, Who is the Source of men and women alike.
In conclusion, what we see in the New Testament is a set of Jewish, Greek and Roman patriarchal cultures into which the Kingdom of God is dropped like a stone into a pond, causing ripples that would eventually reshape the pond entirely. The church has had a tendency to mistake the cultures for the Kingdom-- but the Kingdom is, as Jesus put it, “not of this world.” The social structure of the family of God is not like those of the world. It is characterized by mutuality rather than hierarchy, by service rather than by rule– and all of those who are redeemed to God out of every kindred, tongue and people and nation are “kings and priests.” (Rev. 4:9-10). The man of the house has no special priesthood, kingship or authority in God’s kingdom, but rather, if he wants to enter therein, he must become as a little child (Matthew 18:3-4).
And as for being “head of the house”? "Kephale," the word for "head," was simply not a word used in conjunction with houses– but Jesus used the word “oikodespotes,” “master of the house,” to connote this idea in, for example, Matthew 10:35 and Luke 13:25. However, Paul uses it in verb form in 1 Timothy 5:14, as a command to women. Younger widows, he says, are to marry and “oikodespoteo,” or “rule the house.” Being head of the house, it seems, is not exclusively a man’s job-- and it certainly wasn't in those cultures, where, as I have indicated earlier, the home was considered the woman's special domain.
Therefore, let us not, in the name of being “biblical,” continue to perpetuate ancient authority structures that are not part of God’s Kingdom and are unbecoming to brothers and sisters in His family. Male authority was a human institution, and now that male authority has passed away as an institution in our modern society, Christians are under no further obligation to live under it. As Peter and Paul both said, in God’s family we are free.