by Jason Micheli
1 Peter 3.1-12 (click to see Scripture text)
My first church:
The scripture that Sunday was Matthew 18 where Peter asks Jesus the sort of question that would be better for all of us if it was left unsaid: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” And Jesus answers, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
After the worship service, the postlude was still wheezing on the dilapidated organ and I was standing outside on the church steps ready to greet folks.
A woman about my mother’s age marched out of the sanctuary with three kids in tow and elbowed her way in front of an old man with a walker. With absolute fury in her eyes and loud enough for everyone in line to hear she said: “Do you mean to tell me I need to forgive my ex-husband for cheating on me and then walking out on me and the kids? I thought Jesus has gone and already done everything for me— been faithful and obedient for me. And now you’re suggesting that Jesus expects me to forgive that dirty SOB?!”
You all know me by now. You know how good I am in these situations. So when she hit me with her question, I responded like any good (conflict avoidant) United Methodist pastor: “Uh….”
And I qualified and I equivocated: “Well…um…maam…Jesus was just talking to Peter not all of the disciples and…and Jesus doesn’t say that in every single Gospel…and often Jesus speaks in hyperbole and exaggeration to get his point across— he’s a rabbi and a preacher after all— and I’m sure Jesus understands how you must feel…”
And I stammered some more.
And she pressed her fiery gaze onto me.
Until finally I said: “Well, I guess, yes…I think Jesus would… probably… tell you to forgive him…I suppose.”
I expected her to storm off, seething, and maybe send me an email the next morning reiterating all the ways I was an idiot. But she didn’t. She just looked me square in the eye and said: “That sounds right. Just because we aren’t married anymore (Thank God!), I don’t figure I’m off the hook with him. I’ve still got to be Jesus to him.”
And as the pensioned, seminary-educated pastor, I replied, “Uh, yeah…that makes sense.”
“Thank you,” she said, walking off as quickly as she’d come, hollering ahead of them, “Kids, come on, your father is expecting you for lunch and it turns out I’ve got to figure a way to forgive the miserable snake. I guess we’ll see what the Lord’s going to do with such a crazy thing.”
“In like manner, wives submit to your own husbands,” a verse from which I think we can conclude that St. Peter was a bachelor without any prospects.
After instructing the elect community on how the messianic revolution of Jesus Christ is to be enacted and revealed in the social and political order, Peter, here in chapter three, turns our attention to the relationship between husbands and wives. Don’t allow the antiquated language to distract you from the argument. And recall from the previous chapter, the Greek word Peter uses for submit is ὑποτασσέσθω. It’s a word you recite every time you profess your faith using the Nicene Creed. ὑποτασσέσθω describes the very being of God, the life of the Three-Personed God. The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit exist eternally in a relationship of mutual submission.
Peter, therefore, is not legitimating patriarchy. Nor is Peter advocating any kind of complementarianism that prescribes a normative domestic order with fixed stations and distinct divinely decreed roles for men and women. Peter is not simply baptizing the status quo of Caesar’s social order.
It is not that the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead has a particular will for the role of women and another will for the role of men. Rather, God’s will is the same for both men and women.
Imitate the cruciform way of the Triune God made flesh for us to see in Jesus Christ.
Imitate the power of God that was made perfect in weakness.
Peter is continuing his apocalyptic exhortation that the elect community’s imitation of the Lord who became Servant of All extends not only to our public and political witness but also to our homes and intimate relationships as well. “In like manner, wives imitate Christ to your own husbands,” is Peter’s meaning today. Peter takes the existing household regime of his time— that of Rome, where men and women did have fixed stations and roles— and he contextualizes it within the sovereignty of our Crucified Lord.
Wive, husbands— submit to one another. Despite how it sounds to our egalitarian ears, this is not Peter accommodating the Gospel to the existing social order of his day. For Peter, ὑποτασσέσθω is the Gospel itself taking God’s elect (whether they be immigrants or slaves or masters or husbands or wives or children) beyond the existing social order and locating the truth and reality of their lives not in what society tells them but in the fullness of the crucified and risen Messiah. Peter is calling husbands and wives in the elect community to reappropriate their place in the existing social order and to enact a cruciform way of life that is itself the means by which the revolutionary power of the Gospel is unleashed upon those orders.
Wive, husbands— submit to one another.
Peter’s point here is the same point the Apostle Paul makes in his epistle to the Ephesians where he writes to husbands and wives, “Submit to one another out of devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ: wives to their own husbands as to the Lord…and husbands love your wives as also Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her.” Admittedly, texts like these have been abused over the centuries to safeguard a pagan status quo, excuse gender inequality, and justify misogyny.
But the Apostle Peter today is not endorsing any kind of domestic authoritarianism. He’s proclaiming a domestic revolution. He’s pointing to the possibility God has made in the world through cross and resurrection; that is, the redemptive possibility that our relationships with one another, including the relationship of husbands and wives, they can be more than the company we keep as we endure life together. Our relationships can be enacted sacraments of the Gospel of grace. They can be outward and visible, tangible signs of the messianic revolution begun— yet, still hidden— in Jesus Christ.
I’ve been a pastor long enough now that I’ve developed a sort of cathartic catechesis I lay on every prospective couple looking for me to marry them.
First, I start with teaching them Jason’s Rule.
Jason’s Rule is really just a cribbed version of Hauerwas’s Rule.
Jason’s Rule states that You never really know the person you’re marrying until after you’ve been married to the person you’re marrying.
After I let that terrifying thought sink into the lovebirds heads, I roll them with the corollary to Jason’s Rule. The Correlative to Jason’s Rule is that You are never as fully known as you are known by the person to whom you’re married. So it’s not just the other person’s flaws and imperfections that marriage will reliably reveal. It’s your own flaws and imperfections. Not only do you not really know the person to whom you will soon say “I do,” I tell every couple, “you don’t really even yet know your true self. Marriage is what we call the process by which you discover the stranger you call you.”
From Jason’s Rule and the Correlative to Jason’s Rule, I move on to point out to the future Mr. and Mrs. that they will be saying “I do” not simply to the person standing before them on the big day but to whomever and whatever that person will become, something that is necessarily unknown to both of them because a life lived with another, through better and worse, it invariably changes us— that’s the risk of marriage.
And then, with every couple, I pivot to point out another risk of marriage.
“Do you realize,” I ask, “that by saying “I do” to this person you’re freely handing over to them the enormous power to do damage to you one day with nothing but words? Think about it, in time, this person will know you so well they will possess the ability to hurt you like no one else can hurt you using nothing but their words.” “Think about that,” I like to say, “before you throw down thirty thousand dollars on your wedding.” This is usually the point in our first session where the groom clearly is thinking about getting a justice of the peace to celebrate the wedding instead of a pastor.
And as soon as I see that look cross the groom’s face, I pounce and ask about the couple’s baptism and faith and church participation. “I won’t marry anyone who’s not a baptized, committed Christian,” I disclaim. “After all,” I explain, “the ability to love your enemy is the necessary precondition to love your spouse. So if you’re not serious about the Jesus thing, I’m out.”
From there, I like to walk them through the wedding service, making sure I point out to them how the ancient Church created the wedding liturgy by borrowing from the Roman ceremony for property transfers.
Who gives this bride away?
Sure, it’s a lot to dump on couples in just the first thirty minutes, but for the sake of making Christian marriage intelligible, I believe its important to disabuse couples of the unhelpful romanticism and naive sentimentality in which our pagan culture has conditioned them.
For all our ecclesial debates about marriage in the United Methodist Church, too often we forget what the Apostle Paul makes clear in his letter to the Corinthians. Singleness not marriage is the first form of Christian life. For Paul, the community is your primary attachment because the Church’s Lord is your most determinative loyalty. We enact it with every baptism— by water and the Spirit the Body of Christ becomes your true family.
Singleness is what distinguishes Christianity from Judaism in that, unlike Judaism, you don’t need to have children to be a Christian. You don’t need to have children to be a Christian because the Church is an apocalyptic, eschatological sect that grows not through biology but through witness and conversion. As Christians, we believe that Christians could bear no children for a generation yet God would still raise up the Church anew through the Holy Spirit.
This means that for the Apostle Paul and the early Church marriage took on a different and particular purpose. Marriage wasn’t simply what two people who’d fallen in love decided to do for the rest of their lives. After all, when you’re in love you’re not in a position to make decisions of any consequence much less promising life-long monogamy, fidelity, and forgiveness. Rather, for Paul and the early Church, because singleness was the presumed norm for Christians, when two Christians wished to get married they had to substantiate how their marriage would benefit and build up the community. The burden of proof was on the couple to demonstrate to the community how they were called by their life together— rather than their life apart— to edify the Church in its proclamation of the Gospel. The couple wishing to get married had to show how they had been called to bless and build up the Church by being an enacted sacrament of the Gospel of grace.
I traveled to Texas last fall for a speaking gig. During the event’s cocktail hour I was making chit-chat over wine and cheese, hoping to win over some of the audience before they actually heard what came out of my mouth. I introduced myself to a couple who looked to be about my age. We shook hands and ran through the standard salutations.
What are your names?
Where do you live?
What do you do?
You have any children?
“How long have you two been married” I asked them next, taking a sip of wine. They looked at each other awkwardly, and I could tell from their eyes they were deciding whether or not to divulge something more than I had asked.
“How long starting from when?” the wife asked me, turning her shoulders and hips so that she was standing directly in front of me— like she was confronting me. Her husband lowered his head and rested his forehead on the edge of his wineglass. He looked like he was laughing at a punchline he knew was coming. Except, I saw in his eyes that he’d started to tear up too.
“Sounds like you two have a story,” I said.
I let the silence linger and waited for them to speak.
“We’d been married for about ten years,” he said, “I got lost. I don’t really even know how to be honest. But what you need to know is that it led to me one day announcing that I was leaving her.”
“For my best friend,” his wife finished his sentence for him. “I had no idea. I mean, I didn’t even know he was cheating on me or that anything was wrong.”
“I was pretty well hidden,” he said, “from myself as much as from anyone.”
The surprise on my face must’ve registered with them— surprise over their complete absence of anger or awkwardness in telling me this story— because they pressed on without waiting one me to ask any questions.
“He tells me out of the blue one day that he’s in love with my best friend and that they’re running away together and I didn’t know what to say….”
And he cut in and looked at me and said, “She said to me, “No, you’re not leaving me.” It stopped me dead in my tracks. It wasn’t the response I was anticipating.”
“What did you do?” I asked him.
He pointed at his wife and said, “She said, “No, we’re going to work through this and then she called her parents.”
“She called her parents? How did they react?” I asked, guessing I knew the answer.
But I didn’t.
“Her folks said to me, “You’re going to come live with us for a while while you two work through this.”
“They took you in?” I asked, dumbstruck, “They didn’t kill you?”
“I’m sure they wanted to kill me, but, no, they treated me as they always had before.”
“We didn’t see each other for months,” his wife told me. “We saw a pastoral counselor, first separately and only much later did we meet with the counselor together.”
I didn’t know what to say to them so I said the obvious, “That must’ve been hard.”
And they laughed— they laughed. “You have no idea,” she said smiling. “I mean, our kids were sitting there next to me when he told me he was leaving me for my best friend— the mother of their best friends. And her husband left her and told the whole town. Most of my friends couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t leave him. I lost almost every one of those friendships.”
“Telling the church was hard too,” her husband added.
“Yeah,” she replied.
“Come again?” I said, “You told your church?”
“Of course,” she responded, “Our counselor was part of the church, and, after we’d worked through our stuff and reconciled with each other (but before he moved back into the house) our counselor and the pastor said we owed it to the community to show them that grace is real and forgiveness is possible.”
“You’ve probably done that with couples before, I’m sure, right?” the husband asked me.
“You’re obviously not United Methodists,” I said, “The pews would be about empty on Sunday mornings if United Methodists knew to expect that much emotional vulnerability.”
They laughed and started to hold hands.
“How’d it go? Telling your church, I mean?”
“We did it after worship one Sunday,” the husband said. “The pastor told the congregation I needed to confess some sins and be restored to the community. He said they were free to leave but anyone who wanted to be a part of it could stay.”
“Of course, they all stayed,” his wife laughed. “They all knew everything anyway, small town. The kids were there too and my parents.”
“My parents too,” he said without any trace of shame.
“So I stood up front with the pastor,” he said, “and I told the congregation everything.”
“And then I went,” she said, “and I named one-by-one all the offenses God had made it possible for me to forgive.”
“Then what?” I asked.
“Then the church said to me, “In the name of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven” he said, “and then the pastor renewed our vows with us, with the whole church watching us.”
They looked at each other like newlyweds and squeezed their hands tighter.
“That’s remarkable,” I said to them, thinking how much we overuse that word.
“Our relationship is better now than it ever was before,” she said, “It’s better because we went through the pain and know now that forgiveness is possible. What people still don’t understand,” she said, “what people think is crazy is that I’m actually grateful we went through it.”
“Are you always so open about telling your story?” I asked them.
They both nodded and smiled and I understood just then that my thinking keeping their story a secret was possible meant I didn’t really understand.
“We like to tell it,” she said, “because we believe— we know— that God called us to be married for just this purpose.”
“It’s our vocation,” he said.
I didn’t know what to say so I just looked at them.
No, I beheld them, these outward and visible signs.
Karl Barth says, the fact that the Living God calls people is no less a miracle than the birth of Jesus Christ to the Virgin Mary. Every vocation, Barth says, is a mystery and a miracle, a creation out of nothing.
1 Peter 3.1-12:
3Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct, 2when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. 3Do not adorn yourselves outwardly by braiding your hair, and by wearing gold ornaments or fine clothing;4rather, let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight. 5It was in this way long ago that the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves by accepting the authority of their husbands. 6Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him lord. You have become her daughters as long as you do what is good and never let fears alarm you. 7Husbands, in the same way, show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honor to the woman as the weaker sex, since they too are also heirs of the gracious gift of life—so that nothing may hinder your prayers.
8Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing. 10For “Those who desire life and desire to see good days, let them keep their tongues from evil and their lips from speaking deceit; 11let them turn away from evil and do good; let them seek peace and pursue it. 12For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”