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Am I “Lord” of my Wife? (1 Peter 3:6)
In this day and age, this is obviously a controversial verse, but it is chock full of interesting Greek tidbits, not the least of which is semantic range.
Peter is encouraging Christian wives to respect their husbands, being submissive (ὑποτασσόμεναι, 3:1) to them, and placing an emphasis on internal qualities and not external beauty. The goal is evangelistic; their behavior may win their husbands to the faith.
As an example of submissiveness Peter refers to Sarah, who was submissive to Abraham her husband, κύριον αὐτὸν καλοῦσα. The participle καλοῦσα is expressing one way in which she expressed her relationship to Abraham. She addressed him as “lord.”
I am going to look at some of the other grammatical issues of the verse in my new YouTube channel, Moments with Mounce, but I want to talk about the issue of semantic range here.
BDAG gives the range of meaning for κύριος as:
- one who is in charge by virtue of possession, owner (such as the owner of the vineyard or the master of the house)
- one who is in a position of authority, lord, master
- of earthly beings, as a designation of any pers. of high position (which is where they place our verse)
- of transcendent beings
κύριος is a common example of why we need to pay close attention to semantic range. Now before we go any further, those of you who know me know I am not a “raving liberal.” I am a complementarian (see my commentary on the Pastorals). But I really do wonder how far we can, or even should, push the meaning of κύριος.
I am more than cognizant of the fact that Abraham and Paul lived in a highly patriarchal culture. And I also recognize that the argument was not based in creation as is 1 Timothy 2:13. But I find myself uncomfortable pushing the meaning of κύριος very far. I certainly would not want my wife, Robin, to call me “lord” or “sir.” We have a traditional marriage relationship based on love and trust and respect. But if Robin were to call me “sir,” I would see it as a failure to lead on my part.
Under definition 2, BDAG says this. “As a form of address to respected pers. gener.; here, as elsewhere, = our sir (as Mod. Gk.) Mt 25:11; J 12:21; 20:15.” My marine son addresses his superiors as, “Sir!” But given all the biblical teaching on marriage, Robin calling me “sir,” as I said, would be a sign of my failure to lead.
The point in 1 Peter, culture aside (if that were possible), is that the wife is to treat her husband with respect (according to v 1, in a “submissive” way), but I am not convinced that there is a term in the English language that conveys that properly. I can’t think of a specific word that Robin could use to address me that would convey respect without violating the other aspects of our relationship such as love.
As far as translations are concerned, you can leave it “sir” (much better than the servile “lord”) and expect people to understand it in its ancient culture. But if a translation is trying to make an ancient book sound totally modern, I don’t think there is a word. Better something like, “Just as Sarah respected and submitted to Abraham, as shown even in how she addressed him ….”