Teaching God’s Heart for Men and Women to Teenagers in Exile

This article is the next in a monthly series that will examine the theme for this years upcoming conference, Rooted 2022: Living Hope, Walk Through 1 Peter. As we experience the pains of a perishing, defiled, and fading world, our hope can feel distant or idle. Yet, in Christ, we are born again to a hope that is both living and active. We no longer have to count our trials as foes, but can rejoice in a hope which does not put us to shame, knowing it is offering us a gift more precious than gold — a tried and true faith. As we survey 1 Peter together, our prayer is that we would have renewed eyes to see that which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for us by our living hope!

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As I listened to some of my students voice their frustrations about how women are sometimes treated in the world and in the church, a memory came sharply into focus: Im sitting in a fourth grade Sunday school classroom, which is really just a transitional space marked out by a few of those 1990s moveable walls. A group of us awkward ten-year-olds are gathered around a table with Sunday school leaflets, and I am asking our teacher, Why dont we ever study any women in the Bible?” 

Now, my church was diligent in presenting the Bible stories of both the Old and New Testament, so in hindsight my question wasnt entirely fair. I remember the stories of Ruth, Deborah, Mary, Lydia, and more from the aforementioned leaflets. But underneath the question, I was wanting to know more about what Gods Word had to say to young girls like me. I wanted to see myself in Gods big story.

In a cultural moment in which the inclusion and treatment of women is an especially pressing topic for young people, it has been helpful for me to remember that their concerns are not so different from the questions of my own heart as a young girl growing up in a different time. Our female students especially are watching to see how we will treat women in our churches and how we will apply God’s Word to them. 

1 Peter 3:1-7 presents an opening to share with our students how the early Church received and respected women. This is a chance to dazzle both our female and male students with the good news of Gods grace that is as radical today as it was in the ancient world.

A Radical Message to Women

In the Greco-Roman world, pagan worship was closely tied to every aspect of life. The refusal of Christians to participate in temple gatherings and worship therefore meant that they were perceived as disloyal to their local governments, their professions, and even their families.[1] Against this cultural backdrop, Peter urges these exiled Christians to showcase the love and humility of Christ by submitting to those in authority wherever possible.

 At first glance the submissiveness for which Peter argues in these verses might seem to go along with values of the ancient world, but in fact the submission Peter commends to his listeners is countercultural, nuanced by the values of the kingdom of Jesus. In a sermon on this text, Gordon Hugenberger outlines three ways in which Peters message departs from what we understand of the Greco-Roman sentiment about women.

First, Peter is addressing wives in a public letter. This is a major breach of the expected male-to-male communication. In ancient writing, instruction to the wives was given through their husbands, not to the wives themselves. 

Second, Peter is instructing the wives of unbelieving husbands, in regard to marriage and religion—both of which would have been understood as conspiring against the husbands. That conspiratorial tone is further emphasized when Peter encourages these women to seek to win their husbands to the faith through their humble witness (vv. 1-2).

In the Roman Empire, women were most often included in the pagan religious practice through their husbands, so their welcome as individuals into the life of the early Church is nothing short of revolutionary.[2] Peter appeals to women themselves as spiritual and emotional beings, inviting them to cultivate their inner selves, not just their outward beauty. Following the Old Testament’s teaching on the imago dei beginning in Genesis 1:26-28, Peter shows honor to women as image-bearers with men rather than subservient to men. Thus, what may seem at first glance a discriminatory word (I.e. be gentle and quiet”), is actually a striking indication of womens dignity in the eyes of God and the early Church.

Third and perhaps most important, Peter doesnt indulge the whims of the husbands to control their wives or to make demands of them, as the prevailing attitudes of the day would have encouraged. Instead of appealing to wives to submit based on the rights of the husbands, he appeals to them based on the humility of Jesus, their ultimate leader. He calls husbands and wives, slaves and masters (1 Pet. 2:18-25), all to relate to one another based on the transforming way of Jesus—with humility, love, and mutual self-giving. 

Peter goes even further in giving clear instruction to husbands (presumably Christian husbands of Christian wives, since most often wives followed their husbands into the faith). The generally accepted meaning of the weaker vessel” includes some combination of the following: a.) men are physically stronger, and b.) women have traditionally been more vulnerable in society. Whatever Peter is saying, we know what he is not saying. He is not making a negative value judgement about women because he qualifies in the next clause that women are heirs with you” in the gospel (v. 7).

Peter’s words to husbands to “live with their wives in an understanding way” is in stark contrast to the thinking of the day, which required no such consideration from husbands.[3] He goes so far as to say that a husband who abuses or disadvantages his wife will have a broken relationship not only with her, but with God, her ultimate protector. This is a word that we would do well to share with students who are concerned about the treatment of women in some Christian homes and churches.

Instruction for Modern Exiles

 Since Peter is speaking primarily to women whose husbands are not believers in verses 1-6, one of the best applications of this text may be for those students in our ministries with unbelieving parents. I can’t help but think of a young woman in my life who feels keenly the reality of being the only believer in her household and prays regularly that her parents would come to know Jesus. Our students who are new believers living under secular roofs epitomize what it means to be exiles in our modern world. As they live in their homes, God invites them to respectfully point their parents to the hope of the gospel, just as Peter instructed these wives to do.

All of this is not to deny that within this framing, we see differences in what is asked men and women. To be sure, Scripture emphasizes the unique design of each. By beginning with the dignifying aspects of God’s call for both men and women as a matter of emphasis, we invite students to glimpse a story that is far more compelling than the world’s narrative. Both the cultural expectations of the ancient world and our world today are upturned by a new kind of community formed in Christ.

Peter’s message to his hearers in the ancient world is still good news for exiled teenagers today. Peter points us to the God who created human beings in his own image, dignifying both men and women. He points us to the God who sent Jesus to save sinners, giving both men and women a part to play in the unfolding story of redemption as they love and serve like him. The strongest possible affirmation anyone could give of women is that they get to be like Jesus. That’s what Peter says to the women he addresses in this passage, and it’s the good word we get to proclaim to our students today.

[1] Arnold, Clinton E. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Vol. 4, [new Testament]. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2002), 122.

[2] Hurtado, Larry. Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? (Milwaukee, Wi: Marquette University Press, 2016, 85.

[3] Arnold, Clinton E. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Vol. 4, [new Testament]. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2002), 122.

Chelsea is Editor of Youth Ministry Content and the Director of Publishing for Rooted. She previously served as a youth pastor in New England churches for 13 years. She and her husband, Steve, live north of Boston and are parents to Wells and Emmett. Chelsea holds an M.Div from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where she is currently pursuing a Master of Theology (Th.M.) in Old Testament Studies. She is passionate about teaching teenagers biblical theology and helping them learn to study Scripture for themselves.

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