Abraham Was Not Sarah's Lord

In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands, just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.
— St. Peter, Allegedly

People in troubled marriages always obsess about who gets to be in control. Micromanagement is a symptom of insecurity, and nowhere is this more evident than within an insecure marriage. While there are instances of women controlling their husbands, the dynamic most often goes the other way, especially in traditional Christian circles. Up until recently, Christian wives would almost always have a pledge of obedience to their husbands included in their wedding vows. And, while some are now choosing to omit that vow, the sentiment from which it stems is still going strong.

In the New Testament (and, curiously, not really anywhere in the Old Testament), there are a few letters that seem to suggest that wives should be universally obedient to their husbands. Among the patriarchal obedience advocates, no epistle is more popular than 1 Peter. I opened this article with a summary of their common interpretation of 1 Peter 3. Essentially, the idea is that wives should always obey their husbands, just as Sarah obeyed Abraham and regarded him as her master. That seems fairly blunt and clear. Right? Surely only a godless heathen would disagree with such plainly written words, right?

While I hate to be on the receiving end of your condemnation, I disagree. And I believe Peter himself would disagree with that common interpretation of his letter. Why? Because that's not what Peter wrote.

As with all communication, context matters, clauses matter, and references matter.

The full text of that portion of Peter's letter is as follows:

In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior. Your adornment must not be merely external — braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands; just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear.
— 1 Peter 3:1-6

When reading anyone's mail, it's important to first understand who is writing and to whom they are writing. In this case, Peter is the author and his audience is newly converted Christian wives, particularly those with unbelieving husbands. From the very start, Peter very clearly states that his guidance is so that the women might be able to effectively win their husbands over to the faith. Peter rightfully says that they should strive to do so by their exemplary behavior and by striving to live peaceably with their unbelieving husbands. This is essentially How to Win Friends and Influence People, First Century Edition. None of it is particularly controversial or even earth-shattering. But then Peter starts writing about Sarah obeying Abraham, even going so far as to call him "lord:"

... just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear.
— 1 Peter 3:6

This single clause is the cornerstone of many belief systems that embrace the concept of wives being universally obedient to their husbands. Some even take this directive so far as to suggest that wives should obey their husbands even when their husbands are compelling them to sin. (It doesn't make sense to me, but some evidently believe that disobedience to Peter and one's own husband is somehow a graver sin than disobeying the direct commandments of God.) On the surface, it raises a host of moral issues. For instance, what if a husband asks his wife to participate in an "open marriage"? Or to not report a crime? Or, as would have been the case with the women Peter was writing to, what if the husband demands that the wife participate in non-Christian worship practices? Obviously, there are a lot of problems raised by this interpretation.

In seeking to understand Peter's message, there's also one overwhelmingly obvious question we should ask:

When did Sarah ever call Abraham her "lord"?

Peter specifically references this as being the context in which Sarah obeyed Abraham. Peter is alluding to something very specific. Every word matters.

The answer: 

Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; Sarah was past childbearing. Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’
— Genesis 18:12

This moment of mockery is the only time in all of Scripture that Sarah is quoted referring to Abraham as her "lord."

The Torah's account in Genesis provides the oldest documented account of Abraham and Sarah's relationship. (At the time of Peter's writing, both the Koran and the Jewish folklore of the "Oral Law" were still hundreds of years from being written.) Peter had access to the same text that we can read today, and this moment in Genesis is what Peter specifically chose to reference when talking to women with regard to how they should behave toward their husbands.

Sarah called Abraham "lord" only when questioning whether or not she would "have pleasure" with her aging husband.

In light of this context, one can clearly understand that Peter was not advising the women to revere their pagan husbands as "lords." What Peter actually wrote about Sarah and Abraham was simply just a continuation of the his instruction in the previous verses, which were focused solely on how these women should relate to their husbands. Peter was simply advising these women not to abstain from sexual relations (or, as Sarah put it, "having pleasure") with their unbelieving husbands. Peter even goes so far as to tell them to not be afraid of being sexually active with their husbands. This very idea was also shared by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians:

The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another,
— 1 Corinthians 7:3-5a

If Peter had been trying to build a case for husbands lording over their wives, Peter probably should have chosen another couple as his example. Abraham and Sarah didn't exactly have an ideal marriage. Moreover, nowhere in the Bible does God instruct Sarah to obey Abraham, but there is an instance of Abraham following Sarah's request for him to impregnate Hagar and another instance of Yahweh explicitly telling Abraham to obey Sarah (Genesis 21:12). If Peter were truly making a case for universal obedience and patriarchal lordship, he could have cited Sarah's submission to Abraham with regard to either of the times when Abraham made her lie about being his wife. If he believed it, Peter could have said that "Abraham was Sarah's lord" — instead of saying merely that Sarah "call[ed] him lord." But Peter wrote what he did, and Peter was specific.

Yes, it's important for husbands and wives to practice sacrificial love for one another, to regard one another highly, and to put their spouse's interests above their own. But, no, Peter was not advocating for the lordship of husbands over their wives. Peter was not suggesting that wives should universally obey every whim of their husbands. One can only arrive at those conclusions if one is willing to ignore the very context (the Torah) that Peter himself referenced. And I'm simply unwilling to stoop to that level of intellectual fraud just to maintain an unproductive bias.

— John

P.S. If you want to better understand Paul's marital instructions and what the Bible really says about "submission," please read The Marriage Commandments.