Some of my favorite classes in college were in the religion department. The professors made it their goal to challenge and stretch their students, driving us to not just settle for a surface reading of Scripture. They wanted us to dig. To study. To really see. To grasp. I am fortunate to still have the opportunity to learn from those professors as they write and teach even beyond the college classroom, seeking to stretch and grow pastors and anyone else willing to learn (like me!).
Remember the Context
One of those learning opportunities came in the form of a conference in which two professors from my alma mater walked a room of ministers and a few of their spouses (like me!) through the book of Malachi. One reminder they repeatedly hammered into our minds was the importance of keeping all of Malachi in context of the opening passage. The book begins with God’s profession of love for His people. Then it flows quickly into discipline. When reading the harsh words God speaks to His people, it’s easy to forget the love. But, He was disciplining them because of His love. Forgetting the opening profession of love skews the message of the entire book.
What About Marriage?
We have a bad habit of skewing multiple books of Scripture in the same way we might skew Malachi. We pull out a passage at a time, reading or studying in blocks, and forget the big picture of the book or of Scripture as a whole. Marriage is a particularly misused topic. There are quite a few passages on marriage, and studying those passages has resulted in quite the wide array of marriage doctrines. The doctrines seek to hash out what Scripture says about who has what rights and how those rights get to be used. Is the husband in full authority, or does the wife get to share that authority?
As we build those doctrines, we forget two things: First, we’re all bond slaves to Christ. None of us has authority or rights apart from Him. Second, each of the teachings on marriage falls into the context of a greater message to the church, and when we ignore that context, we miss the point.
Strangers and Aliens
About the same time I attended that Malachi conference, I was also taking my Sunday school class through 1 Peter. In my preparation time, I came to the passage in 1 Peter 3 about wives walking in quiet submission to their husbands, and I realized that I had never read that passage in context of the whole of Peter’s epistle. Despite the many times the importance of context had been pounded into my head by my former professors, I’d ignored the context of this passage.
1 Peter is a letter to a church living as “strangers and aliens” in a very fallen world. It is a letter to a church facing persecution. It is a letter reminding Christians that it is a good thing to stand out. To be different. To be holy. Peter is very practical in his letter, walking believers through specific ways they are to stand out from the rest of the world.
The goal is to be so different that everyone notices and is pointed to Christ, whether they accept Him or not.
Into the discussion about how to practically accomplish this goal, Peter drops a statement to Christian wives. The purpose of submission is to cause these women to stand out from the ungodly ones. In doing so, those married to non-Christian men may even have the opportunity to draw their husbands to Christ. Even if they don’t, how many others will notice the difference in them and be drawn to Christ? It’s not about fulfilling a biblical role in marriage. It’s about spreading the truth and light of Christ to a lost world.
A Light in the Darkness
If I look at the context of 1 Peter and even the context of Scripture as a whole, I see that my relationship with my husband is not about who is supposed to be in authority over or submissive to whom. It’s not even about us having a good and biblical marriage. Instead, it’s about the image I as a wife – and, by extension, we as a married couple – present to a very, very fallen world. How I relate to my husband should differ greatly from the way non-Christian wives relate to their husbands. It should stand out. I am a bond-slave of Christ. My only role, goal, and right, even in marriage, lies in my ability to honor Him and shine His light in the midst of this dark world. It is to live a life of unselfish submission that stands in sharp contrast to the get-ahead, me-first nature of this world.
When I view my role in marriage in that perspective, suddenly all of the passages on wifely submission take on a brand new meaning, a meaning that fits so beautifully with Jesus’ direct teaching about the church:
By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another. John 13:35