Our Submission Series: What Does It Mean to Obey Like Sarah?

When it comes to the issue of women and submission, I get a lot of “drive-by” Bible verse quoting on this website.

Here’s how it works: I’ll have a long, drawn out post on how women should handle a husband’s sin that is endangering the family, and someone will leave a comment that simply quotes Bible verses on how women should stay silent and obey their husbands. 1 Peter 3 is a big one for them. They often quote verses like:

Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, 2 when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.3 …For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, 6 like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.

This is a very passive aggressive technique–it’s like saying “I’m absolutely right without having to make any argument because THE BIBLE.”

I’d like to spend the Wednesdays this month looking at how Jesus wants women to act in marriage–and I’d like to lay the groundwork in this first post by looking at how using the Bible to silence women isn’t biblical at all. Today we’ll look at how that method of interpreting Scripture is seriously off; and then next week we’ll look at how too many who want to silence women ignore Jesus, who is, after all, The Word of God. Then later in the month we’ll turn to how we should be treating and serving our husbands in marriage.

I’ve started a new theme on the blog where we spend the Wednesdays of each month looking at one particular subject in depth. Last month we launched it with our MBTI and marriage series. This month we’re going to get really in-depth in gender roles and marriage. And I want to start with this passage in 1 Peter 3, because it is left so often in the comments that I just want to deal with it once and for all.

Does the way we interpret scripture give us an incomplete look at submission? Here’s what it REALLY means to submit like Sarah:Click To Tweet
Scripture cannot contradict itself

We know that ALL Scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16), and that means that Scripture has to tell one complete story–the same story.

Yet when someone uses “Drive-by” Bible verses, and I leave a long comment with plenty of Scripture references showing that the issue is far more nuanced than that, they typically ignore all my other Scriptural evidence and just repeat the verse, as if that is an argument. Too often, commenters refuse to engage with the whole of the Bible. In fact, I had one commenter tell me that the ONLY woman that we are supposed to emulate is Sarah, since she’s the one that Peter specifically tells us to emulate. Apparently women shouldn’t take any significance out of how Mary or Deborah or Lydia or Elizabeth or Hannah or any other woman lived. Only Sarah.

That makes it sound like the Bible for women should only be about 5 verses.

Today I want to engage his argument. Let’s only look at the 1 Peter passage about Sarah. First, we’ll look at Sarah, the object of these words; and then we’ll look at Peter, the author of these words.

Did Sarah always obey Abraham?

Peter writes:

They submitted themselves to their own husbands, 6 like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.

Reading this verse, and only this verse, gives the implication that Sarah obeyed Abraham in everything because he was her master.

When Peter was writing this, though, he was writing to Jews, people who were very familiar with the Abraham and Sarah story. They would have read that verse with all of the history of Abraham and Sarah in mind. And what would they have thought?

Let’s look at the four main interactions that the Bible records between Sarah and Abraham.

First, God called Abraham to leave his homeland, Ur, and go to a place that God hadn’t revealed to him yet (and would later become the Promised Land). And Sarah went with him.

As far as we know, God didn’t tell Sarah any of this, but she followed Abraham anyway.

Second, in the longest interaction, Sarah and Abraham negotiated what they should do together (without God)

Genesis 16 tells the story of Sarah and Abraham remaining childless, years after Abraham received the prophecy that his descendants would be numerous and that God would bless them. So Sarah suggested that Abraham take her handmaid Hagar and use her to get offspring. In this interlude, we don’t see Sarah obeying Abraham, but instead Abraham listening to Sarah. (The mistake here is that neither checked in with God or did what God wanted).

Third, Abraham was told to obey Sarah.

Many years later, after their son Isaac was born, Sarah told Abraham to get rid of his other son and Hagar, who bore him. Sarah knew that the promise was to come through Isaac, not Ishmael, and Ishmael was a threat to Isaac. Abraham didn’t want to do this, but God told Abraham to obey his wife:

But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. (Genesis 21:12).

So Abraham expelled Hagar and Ishmael. (God, however, did take pity on the two who had suffered so much, and protected Hagar and made sure that Ishmael thrived as well.)

An in-depth look at what Peter meant when he said to submit like Sarah did: Click To Tweet
Finally, Sarah agreed to lie about Abraham’s identity.

Twice when the couple were traveling through unfriendly territory, Abraham told Sarah to lie on his behalf and say that she was his sister rather than his wife (though he claimed it wasn’t a lie since she was his half-sister). As it turned out, the rulers took Sarah, who was very beautiful, into their harems, and God rescued them before real harm happened.

Sarah sacrificed her own well-being. What was her motivation? Was it obedience for the sake of obedience, as my drive-by commenters would imply?

In Genesis 12:13, we learn why. Abraham says:

Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.

Abraham doesn’t say, “do what I say because you’re my wife and you must obey.” He says, “protect my safety and act to bless me.”

Does the way we interpret scripture give us an incomplete look at submission? Here's what it REALLY means to submit like Sarah

If we are to emulate Sarah, then, what do we learn from these four stories that the Bible tells us about their interactions?

The overall message of Sarah’s life would be: Follow your husband when God is clearly telling him something, even if you’re scared, but confront your husband when he is obviously not following God. Don’t do things without checking with God first. And, as Peter reiterated in his letter, do what is right (don’t lie for other people).

Follow your husband when God is clearly telling him something, even if you’re scared, but confront your husband when he is obviously not following God. Don’t do things without checking with God first. Click To Tweet
Who did Peter think we should obey?

The Jewish readers of Peter’s letters also would have read his words through the eyes of their own relationship with Peter. These people knew Peter (they likely were part of the Jerusalem church that was later scattered in the persecution), and so they would take what they knew of Peter into account when trying to figure out what Peter meant by things.

Let’s look at just one chapter in the book of Acts that sheds light on Peter’s thinking about obeying one’s husband and following God’s will: Acts 5.

Acts 5 opens with the story of Ananias and Sapphira, a married couple who had decided to sell a piece of property, keep back some of the money, but tell the apostles that they were donating the whole thing to God. Ananias came in first and gave the apostles the money, and then he was struck dead for lying to God. A little while later Sapphira came in, and Peter checked with her, too–“was this the whole price?” She said it was, and Peter said,

How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test?

He gave her the chance to separate her actions from her husband’s. And if she had–if she had told the truth, in contrast to her husband–she would have been spared. As it was, she was struck dead, just like Ananias. Doing something wrong just because your husband did it is no excuse before God.

Later in the chapter Peter makes the point even more clearly. Peter and the apostles were arrested by the temple police, and had to defend themselves before the council. They were ordered to stop preaching in the name of Jesus, and Peter declared,

“We must obey God rather than man!” (Acts 5:29).

To Peter, we serve God and God only. We obey God, not men. He was absolutely adamant about this in the way that he lived his life and in the way that he taught the early church. And these two events were pivotal to the early believers. The readers of Peter’s letter, then, would not have taken his words to mean that women should just follow men and do whatever their husbands wanted. That’s putting the husband in the place of Jesus, and that’s idolatry!

Doing something wrong just because your husband did it is no excuse before God.Click To Tweet
So what would the readers of Peter’s letter have thought about emulating Sarah?

My drive-by commenters believe this verse clearly says that women should always obey their husbands no matter what. However, the readers of Peter’s letter would never have thought that. First, they would have known that Peter didn’t think this; but second, even if Peter had wanted to tell his readers to do so, he would not have used Sarah as the example. Sarah’s life was hardly the picture of a wife obeying her husband in everything!

Instead, when contemporary Jewish readers encountered Peter’s command that women emulate Sarah, who obeyed Abraham “rather than giving way to fear”, that last part would have given them the context of what Peter meant. They would have known that it was not a command to obey in all circumstances. Instead, they would take that bit of the verse–“rather than giving way to fear”–and hearken back to to the time that Sarah DID obey, even when it was scary.

And that was the time that Sarah followed Abraham out of Ur, because God called him. That was a pivotal time in Jewish history (really the beginning of Jewish history). It would make sense that Peter would remind his readers of it. And the message they would take? When God is speaking, you follow by faith. It’s that simple.

They would never think that it meant that women should not confront their husbands’ sin, or that women should forget God’s will and only follow their husband’s will, because that would go against everything they knew of Sarah, and everything they knew of Peter. Instead, they would have remembered Sarah exercising faith when God told Abraham something. And that’s an important lesson for all of us–it just isn’t the lesson that these drive-by commenters think.

Drive-by verse quoting is immature and silly.

We learn about God and how we should act through the whole of Scripture, together, with each piece showing a different part of the puzzle. When people choose to ignore the rest of Scripture because of one verse–well, then they’re the ones not treating the Bible seriously.

So next time you’re trying to figure out what the Bible says on a complicated issue, and someone quotes one Bible verse as if it makes further discussion unnecessary, they’re the ones in the wrong. It’s okay to ignore them, but if you can, try to make them defend their position when other Bible stories contradict it.

Next week we’ll look at Jesus, because He is the author and perfecter of our faith, and He is the one that we need to see all Scripture through. And we’ll see what Jesus would say to people who believe like my drive-by commenters.


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Sheila Wray Gregoire has been married for 26 years and happily married for 21! She loves traveling around North America with her hubby in their RV, giving her signature “Girl Talk” about sex and marriage. And she’s written 8 books. About sex and marriage. See a theme here? Plus she knits. Even in line at the grocery store.

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Sheila’s Favorite Posts on To Love, Honor and Vacuum:

10 ways to initiate sex
10 Effects of Porn on Your Brain, Marriage, & Sex Life
Why So Much Marriage Advice is So Trite
How can Sex be Hot and Holy at the Same Time?

Check out some of Sheila’s Books:

The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex
31 Days to Great Sex
9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage
To Love, Honor, and Vacuum

Check out Sheila’s Courses:

The Boost Your Libido Course
The Whole Story: Talking to Your Daughter about Sex, Puberty, and Growing Up
The FREE Emotional Intimacy E-Course

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