Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, November 3, 2013

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:

  1. one who is in charge by virtue of possession, owner (such as the owner of the vineyard or the master of the house)
  2. one who is in a position of authority, lord, master
    1. of earthly beings, as a designation of any pers. of high position (which is where they place our verse)
    2. 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 ….”


I have probably been accused of being a raving conservative, though I am not quite. But here is my objective, third-person comment. Generally I like your take on this issue, although I far prefer avenues of translations that are more literal than "modern." Your wife could call you "head" or "head of the household." Your concept of "violating love" does not really compute. Love co-rejoices with the truth. They are concurrent, convergent, concentric. Love does not preside over or take precedence over the Truth. That concept may be lacking some factor of true freedom. As I am *not* saying you *should* have your wife call you "head." I am speaking in line with the argument. On the other hand though, Christian culture could and mostly probably should be as we are: strangers and aliens in this world. Especially since "lord" has a semantic range as you point out, your wife could call you "lord" and it would be a great and beautiful and accurate testimony and representation of Christ and his kingdom as we are freaks in this world, fools for Christ. Which would be exceedingly honorable as a true leader of your wife. Because you don't want to lead her in the common culture, you want to lead her in the kingdom. You love her in truth, not in the modern feelings-based culture of semantic love. Amen? Amen. Marriage is type and example of our relationship to Christ. I know this is radical. And do not wonder about me and my wife, that would be a diversion from the argument. God bless you, Bill. I love you and still appreciate you tremendously even though you're "squishy" on some things. :) It is very honorable to be as open and vulnerable as you are.

Culture is a serious component in this verse. I live in Alabama, and if someone heard my wife call me "Lord" or "Master," the immediate association would be with the horrific system of slavery in place during much of our history. That first reaction would NOT exemplify the relationship of Christ with His bride! But what of the original culture? Was it common in Sarah's day for a wife to use the name adonai for her husband? What about during Paul's day? As far as modern culture, I agree with Bill in that no word really conveys (to non-Christians at least) both the respect and love Sarah had for her husband to people in our day and age. That's where intentional discipleship and evangelistic living make the difference. You don't always need a word to call it when you have a great example to see it. Enjoyed reading both the article and comment.

Perhaps the exemplary part of Sarah calling Abraham Lord is that she did so freely and of her own volition. Bill is right to emphasize that husbands should not demand such a respect, perhaps it would even make us uncomfortable, but how unexpected would it be (then and now) for a truly righteous woman to offer such an honor. It would transform the most shaky and timid husband into a most courageous and confident leader.

From a wife's perspective, I think that your last line is the best translation of this verse I have ever read.

The reference is to Genesis 18:12 - v'adoni zaqen - ὁ δὲ κύριός μου πρεσβύτερος - and my lord, my master, is old. She is calling him her lord and master, but I don't think she is actually addressing him personally in this way. She is referring to him with respect, which is perhaps especially appropriate in that she may be wondering about his capability to bear children as well as her own. He was the master of his house, and she was speaking of him with reverence, as godly women must.

This is an interesting passage. As far as I can see, we don't read of any instance where Sarah directly addresses Abraham as "lord". However, in Genesis 18, it is in her mind, or thought process, that she uses this word or concept, relative to her husband. I wonder if this doesn't suggest, as you have, that it is the attitude of the wife's heart in view, towards her husband, as opposed to the spoken term she uses? Am new here, so thanks for making your resources and meditations available to us. Warmly, Tim Woodford

Every year, a childhood friend of mine used to send me a card addressed to "Master Bob". He didn't mean anything by it other than being very formal and polite. When I was in the Army (and for a couple years thereafter) I'm sure I alarmed many civilians by calling them "sir" or "ma'am". You know what? I think we could use a bit more of "yes, sir" and "no, ma'am" in a polite sense. Perhaps Sarah was being polite and respectful. My wife calls her older brother "kuya", which is an expected politeness. If I called you Κύριε Γουλιέλμος, no one would think anything of it. Other than perhaps, that I was being polite.

I've met many people who seem to hold a view that authority versus love and intimacy are diametrically opposed to one another. In conversations with them, the arguments presented and the language used, there very often seems to be an underlying belief that authority or its exercise, at the least, kills intimacy and love. Our liberated and egalitarian culture seems (subjectively, to me) steeped in such a belief. As students what can we learn about the relationship of love and authority by considering the relationship between Jesus and individual believers? Or what can we learn from the relationship of Jesus with his bride the Church? Does He have authority? Does He pursue intimacy with the bride? I wondered if there was the slightest potential hint of Bill struggling with this when he wrote, "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." Maybe it's a cultural problem that the modern English word doesn't exist to put the idea across properly but it might be, just as much or more, a cultural problem that today we struggle with viewing respect --- conveyed with words we already have --- as ..violating...the other aspects of... relationship such as love. Some of the interpretation we lend --internally-- to "sir" in our own minds can strongly color our understanding, or so I suppose. Long ago I courted a young woman who I believe could have said "sir" to me in private conversation and could have done it with a tone of voice that made the term loving, respectful, submitted and surrendered all at the same time. I might be an outlier but I believe there's not anywhere near enough of this in our modern culture. Something I'm taking away to ponder more -- is lack of authority / respect / submission in relationship one of the real intimacy killers that is now hidden from view by our culture?

I was born and raised in the Balkans, in a bordering country with Greece, and we have a specific local understanding of the word κύριός and that is of a "protector" among all other meanings. We use another word for Sir or Mr. close but different from κύριός, whereas κύριός is the one who looks after you. In English we say 'God help us' or 'LORD help us', but we also have 'Lord (as in Jesus) help us'. The earthly lord (steward) left in charge until our heavenly Lord (Lord of Lords) returns is the husband. "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her..." - Ephesians 5:25 The whole point is that a husband must protect his wife and keep her spotless. "not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish" - Ephesians 5:27b The earthly Lord in Sarah's life was Abraham, her protector to whom she submits as a faithful wife. It is a beautiful picture. Love does not contradict any of it. It reinforces it. Love builds and protects. Blessings to you!

I believe that in a war there can only be one General in charge. If you have to many Chiefs there is always havoc. But our "job' is being a leader not a boss, and leaders are servants first. We take the point in the war, and pave a way for those we are responsible for. We take the bullet for our families. But when we say turn left, after we have proven ourselves mature, then we desire our families to trust us and to conform out of respect for our position. Leaders produce leaders not followers. The lead General is not more important than anyone else, He is just responsible for everyone! And we always salute a General in our army!!

(1) In the Epistles of Peter the term κύριός always has the meaning of "Lord", "Master", "Owner" or "Ruler" in reference to YHWH, Jesus Christ or slave-masters. So in 1 Peter 3:6 there is no other meaning than that kind of relationship (like "Baal" in the OT for "Husband/Owner of a wive" cf. Dtn 22,22; 24,1). There is never a connotation only to "respect". (2) This is supported by Eph 5:24, where Paul instructs women to submit to men as the church does to its Lord κύριός Jesus Christ "in all things". (3) In Gen 18:12 (cf. 1 Petr 3:6) the term "adon" is used in Hebrew, which is also used "lord" in the sense of a superior authority (even God himself in many contexts). (4) Peter takes Sarah as an example of submission and obedience, because she has become the mother of all believers through faith (cf. Gal 3:28f, see in analogy to Abraham in Rom 4:16). (5) This is to serve as a practical example which Christians are to implement in their everyday marital life alongside subordination/obedience. The text does not allow anything else. Peter does not simply mention an action here, but directly calls for imitation ("your adornment is not outwardly, but in behavior like Sarah"). (6) Peter adopts this attitude of Sarah 2000 years ago (from a different time and culture) to the Gentile Christians in his time, because this is a timeless creation-theological commandment for marriage (cf. 1 Cor 11:3ff; 14:34; 1 Tim 2:13 and others like Gen 2,23; 3:16). (7) It is therefore imperative that this apostolic command from 1 Peter 3:6 be implemented in the everyday life of marriage. Such a designation (or form of address) of the husband as "Lord" "Sir" "Master" by the wife prevents the wife from raising herself against her husband and also reminds her of the commandment of God in the way she lives together "so that the word of God is not blasphemed" (cf. Tit 2:5; cf. 1 Pt 2:12). The secular society must have no influence on theology, exegesis and certainly not on the meaning of (Greek) texts of the Bible. For otherwise even books about books on the Greek language of the Bible have no spiritual benefit - on the contrary. Especially impressions and feelings - as mentioned above by Bill Mounce ("I find myself uncomfortable") - are to be kept out of exegesis and linguistics in relation to the Word of God.