1 Peter’s call to endure unjust suffering has often been misused to justify domestic (and other) abuse.  Writing from different perspectives, Steve Carter and Steve Finamore challenge that use of the text …

Steve Carter writes:

‘Slaves, submit to your masters…’

1 Peter 2:18-25

            The New Testament reading in the Revised Common Lectionary for 30 April is 1 Peter 2:18-25. The post below reflects on what it discloses about the author’s prescribed response/s to violence in the household.[1]

First Peter 2:18-25 comes from a set of directions given by the author for his readers’ conduct in the household, which was the basic unit of social life in the first-century CE Greco-Roman world. It evidently presupposes that the slaves it addresses may suffer violence at the hands of their masters; that is, from the men who occupy the ruling position within the hierarchical structure of the home. The author says that some of these household heads may be ‘crooked’ or ‘harsh’ (v. 18), that the slaves may have to endure grief through unjust suffering (v. 19), and more specifically that they may experience beatings (v. 20). Moreover, he then cites the sufferings of Christ (2.21-25), and explicitly his death and bruising (v. 24), as a principal ground of his appeal.

This implied context of actual or potential physical aggression will not surprise contemporary readers who know something about the often harsh conditions experienced by household slaves in the context addressed by the letter. More disturbing to many, however, is the author’s exhortation to the slaves to be subordinate to their masters (v. 18), even to the point of enduring their physical assaults. This is sometimes thought implicitly to endorse or legitimate the continuing practice of violence against slaves, and – since one purpose of the instruction appears to be the silencing of hostility against believers (2:12,15) – to promote the good reputation of the Christian community by sacrificing the well-being of its most vulnerable members. More broadly, it is taken to imply full acceptance of the prevailing system of slavery, with all its abuses.

Such concern is sharply heightened by the passage’s juxtaposition with another addressed to wives in similar terms (3:1-7). They too are instructed to be subordinate to the household head, who in this case is their husband (v. 1). And although violence is not mentioned in these verses, the author implies that some husbands have actively rejected and perhaps opposed the gospel (v. 1), and his warning to the wives not to fear intimidation (v. 6) indicates that the husbands’ disapproval of their faith might frighten them into abandoning it. These considerations at least raise the question of whether he expects wives too to accept physical aggression in the household.

Most preachers using the Revised Common Lectionary will have no slaves in their congregations, so 1 Peter 2:18-25 will have no direct application to their hearers. (Attempts to relate it to the contemporary ‘workplace’ are anachronistic and inappropriate.) But if its injunction to submit to household violence is held to extend to wives in 3:1-7, it becomes indirectly applicable to a large number of Christian women, and it can then be used – and indeed has been used – to encourage them to be subordinate to their husbands even to the extent of enduring physical abuse from them. The letter has been severely censured by some feminist commentators for this reason.

So can 1 Peter 2:18-25 be read in its historical and literary context, with full exegetical rigour and honesty, as other than a charter for domestic violence? While a detailed examination of the passage cannot be undertaken here, a cautiously positive answer to this question can at least be sketched.

‘Collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic licence.

Firstly, it should be noted that there is no direct or definite indication in 2:18-25 that the author approves of violence in the household, including the beating of slaves. Indeed, he denounces as harsh those who inflict undeserved suffering; that is, those who beat their slaves when they do what is good. It is sometimes suggested that he identifies masters who administer beatings for wrongdoing with the good and gentle ones mentioned in 2.18, and that he therefore does condone violence against sinful and insubordinate slaves. But although this is quite possible, the text does not necessitate it, and even contains some modest evidence to the contrary.

Thus: (a) In 2.18 the slaves are addressed directly, and the author’s approach assumes that he regards them as fully human, rational and morally responsible, such that they can understand and obey his instructions; this is likely in some way to affect his view of how severely they should be disciplined. (b) The word for ‘gentle’ is a curious choice if the author is referring to masters who use violence against any of their slaves, even those who do wrong. (c) The instructions given to household heads in 3.7 and 5.1-4 define their other relationships with subordinates in terms that sit uncomfortably with the physical discipline of their (Christian) slaves. (d) The numerous points of contact between this passage and similar texts in Colossians and Ephesians, where believing masters are enjoined to treat their slaves with justice and equity and to forbear from threats (Col. 4.1; Eph. 6.9), may suggest that its author shares this view of the responsibilities of Christian household heads.

Certainty on this point is impossible given that 1 Peter nowhere addresses masters as such. But this limited evidence points to the tentative conclusion that the good and gentle master of 2:18 does not use violence against any of his slaves, and this may well be the standard that the author expects of Christian household heads. In any event, he should not be assumed to endorse such violence, even tacitly.

But secondly, it cannot plausibly be denied that the passage does instruct Christian slaves to accept any violence inflicted on them by their masters, without resisting or retaliating. The wider context of the letter suggests that this response is part of a general subordination to social (and political) superiors, which the author requires not only as a pragmatic strategy to reduce outside hostility, but also as a principled conformity to the will of God. Underlying this imperative is his belief in a God-given and stratified cosmic order of which the household is a social microcosm, and in which submission of the lower to the higher is a proper expression of obedience to God.

The clearest evidence for this view in 2:18-25 is the striking list of motivations for subordination that the author includes. It is an expression of reverence and regard for God (v. 18); it attracts approval from God – both divine favour and divine credit – which is withheld from the insubordinate (vv. 19-20); and it flows from awareness of God (v. 19). It is moreover grounded in the exemplary and salvific sufferings of Christ (vv. 21-25). It is also notable that subordination is required even to harsh masters, indicating that it is grounded in their status within the social order rather than their character.

Despite some claims to the contrary, the author does not therefore treat slavery as itself a divine and normative institution. It is the hierarchical relationships of the household that he presents as part of the cosmic order, not the precise social and legal arrangements by which these relationships are regulated in particular contexts. Slavery is thus no more than a human and contingent practice.

But the author does believe that God requires subordination within the acknowledged social conventions – whatever these may happen to be in a particular place and time – of the household’s graded relationships. And in the Greco-Roman world of the first century, violence was a generally recognised part of the relationship between master and slave, to the extent that no satisfactory recourse or redress was available to slaves. So within this particular context the author presents the enduring of that violence as an act of obedience to God.

Thirdly, however, this understanding of 1 Peter’s instruction to slaves in 2:18-25 may suggest that the command to endure violence is not extended to wives in 3:1-7. There is significant evidence that violence by husbands against wives was less generally acceptable in first-century Greco-Roman society than that of masters against slaves, and that forms of recourse or redress denied to slaves were available to wives; the status and respect that they enjoyed provided them with viable options for escaping from physical ill-treatment or securing support in law. In other words, in that place and time violence was not an acknowledged social convention of the relationship between husband and wife, so the author does not wives require wives to accept it as an act of obedience to God.

Though far from proven, this proposal has two major interpretive merits. (a) It helps to account for both the similarities and the differences between 1 Peter’s instructions to slaves and wives, in which both groups are enjoined to subordination as God’s will, but while for the slaves submission to violence is presented as an essential part of this, for the wives it is not mentioned explicitly at all. (b) It fits with the further evidence that in the first-century CE subordination is often shaped by the character of specific relationships, and so expectations of it are sometimes flexible, according to (for example) the correlative responsibilities of superiors such as masters and husbands – even when these are the same people. Thus it may reasonably be claimed that while 1 Peter indisputably requires the endurance of violence by slaves as part of their Christian obedience, its identifying of this as a divinely sanctioned responsibility for wives remains uncertain at least.

Finally, it is true that the author of 1 Peter ‘accepts’ the system of slavery, in the sense that he displays no interest in abolishing the institution and little or none in reforming its violent practice. Instead he takes the socially accepted parameters of the master-slave relationship as largely given, and instructs slaves to subordinate themselves to their household heads as these customs dictate. And, except in supposedly rare cases of conflict between the demands of divine and human superiors, he presents this subordination as divinely sanctioned within the God-given hierarchical order of the household.

Yet the letter’s approach to these household relationships cannot be fully understood outside the wider context that it provides. The author of 1 Peter believes that Christians have been liberated by Christ from bondage to their previous sinful lifestyle and the disorderly heavenly forces that controlled it (see e.g. 1:18-21; 2:21-25; 3:18-22). They are now free to serve God in whatever social circumstances they may find themselves, including as those enslaved to masters (even harsh ones), or as women married to disbelieving husbands. The author wants his readers to live in this freedom as slaves of God (2:16), in light of God’s grace bestowed upon them (5:12), and spells out what this means in their various circumstances, but since in his view their social position has no bearing upon their capacity to live for God, he is largely uninterested in promoting changes to it.

So 1 Peter may expect Christian masters to eschew violence in dealing with their slaves. He certainly requires Christian slaves to subordinate themselves to their masters as an act of obedience to God, even to the point of enduring physical assaults, as no recourse or redress is accorded to them by society, but he does not call for the same endurance from wives. And although he displays no concern for social reform of the household and presents its hierarchical relationships as divinely sanctioned, he offers slaves with harsh masters the assurance that they are still free to serve God. These perspectives challenge any simple identification of 1 Peter 2:18-25, within its original context, as a charter for domestic violence.

© Steve Carter, 2023

[1] For an earlier and much fuller version of this article, with bibliographical references, see ‘A Charter for Domestic Violence? The Subordination of Slaves and Wives in 1 Peter,’ in The Bible on Violence: A Thick Description, eds. Helen Paynter and Michael Spalione (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2020), used by permisssion. For a broader treatment of subordination in 1 Peter, see Steve Carter, Restored Order: Subordination and Freedom in 1 Peter (New York: Peter Lang, 2021).

Steve Carter works as Senior Editor for an international Christian media ministry. He is the author of Restored Order: Subordination and Freedom in 1 Peter, published in 2021 by Peter Lang. 

Steve Finamore writes:

1 Peter 2.19 – 25

This selection of verses from 1 Peter generates lots of questions, each so significant that it is difficult to know how to order them. The ones that occur to me are,

  • What happens when we read authoritative texts that are written for a particular context as though they are universal truths?
  • When the biblical authors presume the existence of forms of social relations and institutions, are those things to be regarded as thereby sanctioned, authorized, and approved?
  • Is ethical guidance given in the context of such relations and institutions to be understood as definitive and permanent?
  • If the institution in question has been made far more complex because it has been racialized, what difference might that make to our approach to the text?
  • What should our response be when some attempt to use a text addressed to one oppressed group to manipulate others over whom they hold, or hope to hold, power or authority?
  • How do we respond when the text passes over a group that we might expect it to address? What meaning can we place on silence?
  • Finally, what do we do when our Lectionary, perhaps in an effort to avoid troubling references to slavery, omits the verse that makes clear to whom the selected verses are addressed. Is the issue compounded where verses addressed to the whole community that might offer background to the passage, are also excluded from the scheduled reading?

The comments that follow seek to be aware of these questions without necessarily offering a specific response to each.

1 Peter 2.18 tells us that the words in our reading are addressed to slaves. Given the extent of slavery in the Roman Empire – the best estimates suggest that within the empire every fourth person was enslaved, with the numbers being even higher in Rome itself – it seems probable that many European White people are descended from slaves. However, this situation is hidden from us. Few, if any, know whether this is true in their case. Official records do not say, and our eyes cannot tell. Aristotle may have presumed that enslaved people were inferior, but this view seems to have been based on their status as the property of others rather than anything else. After all, they could be Black or White, male or female. However, in our own day, we live with the legacy of a crime against humanity during which the concept of slavery was deliberately racialized as part of a heinous attempt to justify the institution. Enslaved peoples were transported to another continent where they were readily identifiable because of the colour of their skin. As a result, today, in many contexts, both the official record and the human eye can tell us who might be a descendant of slaves. Slavery, awful enough in and of itself, has been complexified because one of its more recent manifestations was racialized by its perpetrators. This renders its legacy visible, making it even more toxic. In some contexts, this means that it is hard to read the New Testament texts that speak to the enslaved without hearing them as though they are addressed to people of colour. It may be important to stress that this was categorically not the case in the context to which 1 Peter was addressed.

Furthermore, we live in a time when slavery as an institution is rightly regarded as abhorrent. It is hard to read texts that treat it in the matter-of-fact way it is addressed in the New Testament. We expect an ethical text to condemn the practice. If we are going to understand our passage then, without ever meaning to condone the system, we may need to imagine ourselves in a world that regards slavery as an essential, even natural, part of social life. In this world nobody knows of any time – except perhaps some idyllic Edenic past – nor any foreign land, where there are no slaves. Nor have they come across any ideology that questions the concept. A call for immediate emancipation would have been heard as a demand to render hundreds of thousands of people homeless and jobless, leaving them destitute and with no recourse to anything other than theft or begging – and the consequent wrath of the authorities – if they were to survive.

Into this world came a summons to form a new kind of human community – one that embraced the enslaved as full members. Such a message may have implied a kind of utopian hope, even expectation, that one day a culture might emerge in which the enslaving of another human would be regarded as criminal and reprehensible. But our letter sees little point in offering ethical guidance for life in such a society. Instead, it needs to give advice that could be applied in the present. The paradoxical principle is stated at 2.16 when all are told, ‘As slaves of God, live as free people’. In other words, everyone in the community – enslaved or not – is regarded as belonging to God and as a moral agent in their own right, able to make choices and to please God. And it is the enslaved who have the privilege of being addressed first.

In our day, we have often been taught to read the Bible as though every passage contains universal truths that are always applicable. Understood in this way, this message seems repulsive. It might as well instruct people to collude with their oppressors and to embrace suffering as though it were an intrinsic good. Our passage could be understood to teach that people of colour should tolerate White violence or that victims of domestic violence should accept abuse without demurral. Such a reading is plainly morally bankrupt. But, in the ancient world, it is hard to imagine any better guidance than we find here. There was no refuge to run to. No border to cross into territory where slavery was illegal. Advising people to band together and rebel, while seemingly noble, would offer no hope of success but would certainly end for most in death by slow torture. Instead, the writer encourages the enslaved to understand themselves as free people who choose their own behaviour. It offers them the inspirational figure of a Saviour who trod a similar path and thus the prospect of a meaningful life and a sense of worth built on something beyond their legal status. It accomplishes this by drawing on a tradition about the teachings of Jesus such as that found in Luke 6.32 – 34 and by reflecting on his atoning death. While addressed to slaves, the rest of the community will overhear these words and know that some aspects apply to them also. In this way the text hints, as it does when it called all its hearers, ‘slaves of God’, that the enslaved are to be seen as in some way representative of the whole community.

Another thing to note is the unexpected point at which the text is silent. It is as though there are people the writer refuses to acknowledge. Most pagan household codes would be expected to address the slave owners. The enslaved would probably be regarded as scarcely worthy of attention. The codes of the New Testament, though we may struggle with their hierarchical thinking, are remarkable in the way they speak to all members of the household. The others all address slaves and their legal owners but, surprisingly, 1 Peter ignores the owners. Why might this be? It is hardly conceivable that they did not need to be told to be fair to everyone in their household. It is not likely that they are not mentioned because there were no slave owners within the congregation. Perhaps this category is being deliberately ignored and thus subtly shamed into recognizing their incongruous status as the purported owners of others, as colluders with injustice and as perpetrators of violence.

There are some who use texts of this kind to manipulate those they abuse by suggesting that it is somehow to their credit if they endure suffering in silence. Frighteningly, they might be aided by the way the reading has been selected so that the words that make it clear that it is addressed to a specific group are excluded. No doubt the intention of the editors was to spare us the explicit reference to slavery, but one impact of this decision is that, without verse 18, the words of the passage sound as though they are addressed to everyone and so become more amenable to manipulative use by an abuser.

Let there be no doubt, read inappropriately, these verses can easily become a charter for abuse. This was the case when they were used, as they have been, to defend the practice of slavery in general and its racialized versions in particular. When read as general guidance for all they can be used to make it appear that the oppressor is helping the spirituality of those they abuse. This use of the text to demand acquiescence to household violence must be confronted as an affront to the true meaning of the Scriptures.

However, read in their historical context, while they remain problematic, these verses include a respectful acknowledgement of the true humanity and moral agency of the enslaved and the abused. They may therefore legitimately be read as offering both a wise and appropriate Christ-focused ethic for a particular context. In addition, they suggest the hope that cruel and oppressive regimes and behaviours will, in time, be overcome and that, inspired by the gospel, more just forms of human society might emerge. Finally, they offer the prospect that, in the meantime, at least some oppressors may be shamed into changing their ways.

Steve Finamore is in his last year as principal of Bristol Baptist College and is married to Becca. He’s worked as a lawyer, been involved in community development in both inner London and the Peruvian Andes, and his research interests include the book of Revelation and the writings of Rene Girard.

As with all our guest posts, views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CSBV.

Suffering in Silence…?

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