There may be any number of startling moments in a Christian wedding, but perhaps the bride’s vow of obedience to her husband ranks among the most startling. So we should take care to explain what we mean by it and why we believe it is an important part of a Christian wedding ceremony.
The origin of a wife’s vow of obedience is the Bible and specifically 1 Peter 3 where Peter lifts up Sara’s obedience to her husband Abraham as the example for Christian wives everywhere, “For in this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters you are, as long as you do well, and are not afraid with any terror” (1 Pet. 3:5-6). In case there was any doubt, when the Bible says that wives are to submit to their own husbands it means they are to obey them.
In this section, Peter is actually copying an ancient custom of giving a “household code.” However, in the ancient world, the husband/father had a nearly absolute authority over his household which could include brutality and abuse with impunity. What’s striking is that while the New Testament writers take up this familiar form, they do so with a distinctively Christian twist.
This Christian twist includes at least two important parts. First, under the authority of Christ there is no absolute authority in any area of human life. While God grants true authority to different individuals, it’s never absolute. All true authority answers to Christ’s ultimate authority. This means that if a ruler orders a Christian to disobey the Bible, a Christian ought to disobey the ruler, just as Peter and John did when they were ordered to stop preaching about Jesus. If you live in Nazi Germany, and you are ordered to turn in your Jewish neighbors, you must not obey. Likewise, Lauryl, if Ben asks you to rob a bank with him, you must respectfully refuse and then call the cops. Christian authority always answers to Christ’s ultimate authority.
Secondly, Christian authority imitates Christ’s authority, and Christ told His disciples clearly that they were to rule the Church by serving, “You know that they are considered powerful who rule over the Gentiles, exercising lordship over them, but it shall not be so among you: but whoever desires to be great among you, shall be your servant. And whoever would be the greatest, must be the servant of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life a ransom for many.” (Mk. 10:42-45) Elsewhere, Jesus says: “if you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love” (Jn. 15:10). “And being found in human fashion, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8). In other words, Jesus models true authority by obeying His Father and laying His life down as a ransom for His people – and this incidentally, even when His people didn’t know they needed Him to. This is how true authority knows how to lead: true authority leads by serving others through obedience to God.
So with these things in mind, we return to Peter’s exhortation to wives to obey their husbands like Sara obeyed Abraham. As we noted previously, Peter is playing with the household code that we find in other ancient texts. And what’s particularly striking is that he’s turned the code on its head. Instead of addressing the head of the household first and then instructing him on how to keep his household in line, Peter has actually begun in the previous chapter by addressing the slaves first (1 Pet. 2:18). The fact that Peter is addressing slaves at all is already a radical move. He’s addressing them as though they are human beings, as though they are intelligent, as though they are called by God to play a significant role in the world – because they are. And then he explains carefully how their lack of legal recourse maximizes their potential to exemplify the grace of Christ. When they are mistreated and they receive it with grace, they picture Jesus who suffered unjustly for us, even though He had committed no sin and committed Himself to God who sees all things and vindicates the innocent.
Here, Peter turns to address the wife in the home and begins by saying “likewise.” Again, don’t miss the fact that Peter is talking directly to these Christian women. He is addressing them with respect according to the dignity of one who bears the full image of God. There is no mention here of inferiority, there is only a recognition that a woman in that world could find herself in a position of vulnerability and abuse, and therefore just as the slaves might display the grace and patience of Christ, likewise, so may a wife. Even in our day, where we are grateful for numerous legal protections now in place, it is nevertheless still the case that women may find themselves sometimes undervalued or disrespected and unloved. But Peter says that the power of the gospel, the power of sacrificial love and grace and service is therefore at their fingertips precisely because of this vulnerability. If a wife adorns her life with the grace of the gospel, she holds the power of God in her hands. She imitates Christ when she obeys her husband, when she adorns her life, her home, her words, her body with grace and respect for her husband.
But what follows is another “likewise” which begins the brief exhortation to the husband. In Peter’s “household code” the head of the house is addressed last and briefest. This does not obliterate the husband’s true authority and responsibility, but it does clearly render the wife an example to the husband. Just as slaves are to be examples of Christ to all of us, so too are gentle, gracious wives, and husbands, likewise, are to be obedient to Christ. And the husband is to be obedient and submissive to Jesus particularly in how he lives with his wife in an understanding way, in the way he honors his wife, in the way he protects her. And here we have the most severe warning in the whole passage: God will not listen to the prayers of a man who does not honor his wife in these ways.
The fact is that this dance of servant leadership, respectful submission, obedience, honor, love, and grace takes a lifetime to learn. It’s actually quite hard, and so many people give up even trying. They settle for petty, unspoken resentments; they settle for passivity and then wonder why they feel frustrated at each other. A wife refuses to obey her husband and yet she’s frequently unhappy and she doesn’t know why. A husband refuses to lead his wife and he is frequently unhappy and doesn’t know why. Well, the reason is that both are failing to imitate and submit to Christ. When a husband takes up his cross and follows Jesus, He takes responsibility for his wife and begins to lead her. And when a wife takes up her cross and follows Jesus, she respects her husband and obeys him.
So Ben, my simple exhortation to you is to lead your wife by imitating the example of Christ who leads by going to the cross for us. Christ did not demand to be treated as God even though He had every right to. So too you must not demand that you be respected. Rather, Jesus came to serve and to give His life as a ransom in obedience to His Father. And while this looked like weakness to many, it was actually the power of the Spirit enabling Him to speak the truth, to be fearless, to give up His rights for the good of His people, and to ultimately die for them when they didn’t appreciate at all what He was doing for them. So you too, love your wife as Jesus has loved us. Study her, know her, and lead her to use her gifts to their greatest potential. This takes a particular kind of masculine strength, the kind of masculine strength that the Holy Spirit gives. This is your glory; this is what you were made for.
Lauryl, my exhortation to you is to obey your husband, just as Sara obeyed Abraham and called him lord. Peter says that when you adorn your life with the grace of submission and respect for your husband, this is precious in the sight of God. It’s extremely valuable and powerful. Do not think that your power is in your words. Do not think that your power is merely in external beauty. Rather, Peter says that your quiet and gentle and gracious demeanor and way of life can break hard hearts of stone and subdue kingdoms. Remember the holy women of old: remember the Hebrew midwives, remember Rahab in Jericho, remember Ruth, remember Queen Esther, remember Mary, the mother of our Lord. Do not demand your rights, rather gladly give them up and serve your husband. And remember that you have chosen this path as a free woman. You are binding yourself to this man freely, because you trust God and you are not afraid of anything. This takes a particular kind of feminine strength, the kind of feminine strength that the Holy Spirit gives. This is your glory; this is what you were made for.
God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay, remember Christ our Savior was born on Chistmas Day to save us all from Satan’s power when were gone astray, O tidings of comfort and joy!
So on this seventh day of Christmas, on this New Year’s Eve, never forget that our King humbled Himself to be born as one of us, to live and die as one of us in order to save us from Satan’s power when we were gone astray, in order to bring us into the new world of His Love, the New Year of His Freedom, the New Year that never ends. This is the glory of God, the power of God, the wonder of God. These are tidings of comfort and joy. Therefore I call on you to live them, to be them for one another, to teach them to your children and grandchildren, and to share them with your neighbors and the strangers and the hurting and the forgotten.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.