Opinions on faith and life

Grammar and Context: A Study in 1 Peter


The first letter of Peter is about how Christians should behave in an increasingly hostile world. The first chapter is more theological, up to verse 11 of the second chapter. Then he begins more practical instructions that flow from those basic teachings. But vs. 2:18 through 3:7 are a list of instructions to specific groups, after which he returns to generalities. It is that list which I will focus on today.

Peter specifies three main groups: servants, wives, and husbands. Notice first of all that he does not present these as pairings of master/slave and husband/wife; he addresses servants without addressing masters. The word servant is oiketes which means house servant or domestic, and the word for their masters is despotes which means owners or employers when contrasted with domestics. These domestics are to hupotasso their employers. This word is not about subservience to an overlord but support and identification with a person in some leading capacity.1

As for the word translated respect or fear, the Greek word is phobos. Like our English word fear, it can have a range of nuances: abject terror, a mild sense of foreboding, or a realistic caution. Which one of those it means depends of course on the context. And since Peter speaks of both kind and unkind employers, the nuance will change depending on which kind the domestic is dealing with. We might well ask what kind of fear an employee would have for a good and kind employer, but anyone who has ever held a job understands this kind. At the very least, we fear losing our jobs if we fail to satisfy the directives of the boss. So while one would certainly respect their employer, there is a separate element of fear as well, however mild it may be.

This may all seem very clear and simple, but the plot thickens when we look at the instructions to wives. But before we do, we must know that as in just about every language except English, Greek has what is called grammatical gender. It is the assigning of male or female pronouns or word affixes which are completely unrelated to biology. For example, in Hebrew the pronoun for the Spirit of God is feminine (she), and in Greek it is neuter (it). So the way we can tell which parts of a Greek sentence go together is by looking at the grammatical gender. This will prove critical to our understanding of what Peter says to Christian women.

1 Pet. 3:1 begins with likewise, so there is similarity (witness by behavior) between what Peter said to employees and what he will say to wives. As I’ve written in some of my books in studying the writings of Paul, there was a Roman law at the time called the marriage without hand wherein a woman’s allegiance was to her father for life, not to any husband. Her father could take her back at any time and give her to another man. So the instruction, both from Paul and Peter, is for Christian women to identify with their husbands instead.

But Peter adds the purpose for this instruction: to win over unbelieving husbands; remember the larger context of minding our behavior for the world to see. The phrase in Greek, if any are-being-stubborn [apeitheo] to-the word is always used in a context of rejecting the gospel message; it is not used in any context where the topic is backslidden believers (as far as I know; if anyone knows of evidence to the contrary, please let me know). It literally means to not be persuaded and is held in opposition to faith, not obedience.2 So it clearly refers to unbelievers and not backslidden or immature believers.

So rather than a general instruction to all Christian wives, Peter specifies here that his instructions are to Christian wives of non-Christian husbands. Theirs was a most difficult position to be in, since they could be divorced or killed by their husbands if they tried to convert them. They had little opportunity to speak to their husbands about religious or spiritual matters. That is why Peter leans so heavily here on behavior and depth of character, qualities the culture did not believe women possessed. Christian husbands, in contrast, had no right to silence their wives and no need to be converted. If they were sinning, they needed to repent, and their wives had every right in Christ to say so.

Continuing in verse 2, Peter shows exactly how this behavior will be a witness to the gospel. Here is the literal English rendering:

observing of-the in fear pure behavior of-you [pl.]
The blue words are grammatically masculine, and the red words are grammatically feminine. So we can easily see that it is not the women but the unbelieving men who will fear. This ties in with the phrase about being apeitheo to-the word, because the fear of God is what such people lack. And it is these unbelieving husbands who will observe the pure (not chaste, which denotes sexual purity whereas this word refers to the inner person) behavior of their Christian wives and thus fear this wordless gospel message.

Peter goes on to emphasize the inner strength of character a Christian woman must develop, which society did not think possible. But we encounter another debatable passage in vs. 5 and 6. Verse five is in the present tense, not the past as it is typically translated. And again we see the word hupotasso in conjunction with their own husbands. It is only verse 6 which has to be in the past tense because it refers to people who were long dead, Sarah and Abraham. But instead of hupotasso we have Sarah rendering hupakouo to Abraham, which means to attend to (same word as when a servant answered the door for Peter after his miraculous escape from prison in Acts 12:13).

But what of Sarah calling Abraham her ’lord’? And what does it have to do with women not being afraid or dismayed? The only recorded instance we have of Sarah calling Abraham ’lord’ is in Gen. 18:12 when she laughed to herself at the prospect of becoming pregnant by her very old husband. The times we see her doing what Abraham said are when he twice passed her off as his sister in order to save his own skin (Gen. 12:13, 26:9), and she also stood up to him regarding the slave woman Hagar (Gen. 21:10). Is it not this strong, fearless Sarah that Peter is telling Christian women to be like? Peter does not say they are like her if they call their husbands ’lord’, but if they do not fear and are not dismayed.

Now we can see why taking the traditional rendering of vs. 2 creates a contradiction, because first Peter tells women to fear, and then he tells them not to fear. Rather, he tells them to bring the fear of God to their unbelieving husbands through character and quality, then tells them to fear nothing nor be dismayed.

The last point to cover is vs. 7, which also begins with likewise, continuing the list of ways to live the Christian witness. The Christian husband is to make a home together with his wife, not build a castle with her as his maid. And Peter appeals to the men’s knowledge that women have the less stable income. This is typically translated more literally as weaker vessel even though there is apparently no firm consensus on what it means. But I have the impression that it is an idiom (a good place to start in the case of any such puzzling phrase), and in classical literature it did refer to being at an economic disadvantage. Peter says this along with calling women joint heirs, so he is drawing an analogy between social inheritance and spiritual inheritance.

It should be noted regarding the matter of how the husband treats his wife that Peter does not merely say that if he fails to honor her God not answer his prayers, but that God will block them and refuse to hear them. The Greek word is egkopto and is much stronger than the idea of merely ignoring something. God will actively oppose and hinder the prayers of a Christian man who fails to honor his wife.

Let’s summarize the list now:

Of course there is much more to glean from this letter, but the point I wanted to make today is how important it is to study scripture from all possible angles, from the stroke of a pen to the larger context of all of scripture. We rely too heavily on tradition and translation, and we cannot afford to go on blindly trusting in closed committees of fallible men. We all must search the scriptures and listen to all sides before dogmatically stating what a passage must mean.

1 GWTW 2 Rom. 2:7-8


Frozen Banana

So I’m finally back (for a sec). Busy weekend!!! "That is not necessarily true. That has been promoted as true, though. Why do you think you find more homosexual artists types? One reason is because culturally that bent was considered effiminate for guys. They know they are ‘different’ and then they find a place they are ‘accepted’. When I worked with a cross over ministry, I heard this over and over. And I was shocked to find that many come from 2 parent families in the middle and upper classes." Lin, my father used to have a lot of gay friends. Evidently, most of them did not have good relationships with their fathers. The one I knew in high school didn’t seem to have a father around either. It dosen’t make them become gay of course, but there seems to be a high incidence. I totally agree that that mindset that arts and culture are effeminate has too much to do with it as well. But what’s odd, is that many of the big name artists are men. I’m a female dancer, and many people automatically think that male dancers are gay. I really have to go, I’m sorry!!! I will come back when I can!

Paula Fether

Re. Eph. 5:33-- I’ve done some more reading (sample Here), and I think I’ve settled on this meaning:

"Above all, every husband must love his wife as he loves himself; otherwise, the wife lives in fear of her husband."

The context is directed at husbands, not wives (25-33), and Paul is commanding them to love their wives as they love their own bodies. He is talking about physical abuse here, and love is the cure. Without that love, the wife truly must fear her husband.


Interesting Paula. In looking at different English translations of this verse (Eph. 5:33) at BibleGateway.com, there seems to be no consensus on whether a wife "must respect" "may fear" "may reverence" "should respect" "see that she respects (or fears)" or "dread" her husband. In The Source, Dr. Nyland translated it as "each of you is to love his own wife just as he loves himself, so that the wife is able to respect her husband."

Lin wrote: "In Eph 5:33 it is phobeos again. But it is passive and translated in KJ as reverence. But can also mean fear."

While I don’t know Greek, I am very familiar with the word phobia, and it certainly doesn’t conjure up images of reverence and respect. Unless one is trying to *respectfully* avoid or tread very carefully around something one fears.

I think that your translation: “Above all, every husband must love his wife as he loves himself; otherwise, the wife lives in fear of her husband” makes the most sense.

I recently finished reading, "Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men" by Lundy Bancroft. He described how things like a man’s sense of entitlement to being the one in control, getting to make the final decisions, and being deferred to by his wife can lead to an abusive mentality.

"*Entitlement* is the abuser’s belief that he has a special status and that it provides him with exclusive rights and privileges that do not apply to his partner. The attitudes that drive abuse can largely be summarized by this one word." (pg. 54)

The idea that a husband needs *more* respect than his wife helps an abusive man to justify his actions when he believes that his elevated rights are being violated. I find it very disturbing that *complementarians* (gender hierarchalists) seek to teach and/or to reinforce a sense of entitlement for Christian husbands over their wives. Wife abuse is far too rampant (and often hidden) within churchianity.


The word phobos had me stumped and then I went and checked what you wrote about in the interlinear and was stunned to find this really is taught so wrong! not only is it not saying the woman is to respect the husband (not that is wrong, mind you) but that the husband would ’fear’ God through her witness. It is not respect and it is not for the wife but the husband!

In Eph 5:33 it is phobeos again. But it is passive and translated in KJ as reverence. But can also mean fear.

Can you imagine a book or comp conference titled: Love and Fear? Or Love and Reverence?

Paula Fether

I looked up the Greek on Eph. 5:33 and noticed something: there is no "and". It says "... love his wife as himself YET (de) that the woman may be fearful of [passive voice] the husband". Hmmm...


Paula and Lin, I, too, am astounded at this discovery. Is there anything we don’t have to double check?!

Now, let me know what you think about this verse:

Eph. 5:26, that he might sanctify and cleanse it by the washing of water by the word.

...because I have heard men use it to justify that they are to cleanse their wives by reading the bible (the word) to them. Now, I just glanced at the scripture for all interlinear and in place of ’the word’, it uses ’in declaration’ which makes me wonder if it even has anything to do with the written scripture or with some other type of declaration.

And, what an odd-sounding phrase anyway: ’by the washing of water by the word’...what is that supposed to mean? More to chew on.


BTW, I do NOT think Eph. 5:26 refers to men cleansing their wives nor do I think they are to try to cleanse their wives spiritually.

Paula Fether

Hi TS, gotta make this quick and get the kids to bed.

The only thing husbands are told to do as Christ did is to love. All the rest is a description of **how** Christ loves us. Note the "bookends": "love your wives in the same way... so this is how men must love...". Then Paul goes into motivation and example, by reminding men that they treat their own physical bodies with care, so they should do the same for their figurative bodies.

For "washing", it literally means a bath, and the word "word" is actually "pronouncement", not "logo" as you noted. I have the impression that Jesus made a decree that his Bride should be pure, and he made it happen.

Sleepy now, back tomorrow.

Frozen Banana

So, this is off topic, but I would like to share a little bit of information that I learned from ’The James Dobson Family Minute’ on K-Love today. "Research shows that boy who fails to detach from his mother, or who has no male role model, may develop feminine characteristics’"(not actual quote). *Gasp* Oh the horror!!! Now, I do know that a man who has no male role model will more often then not, might become gay. I also know that whoever wrote this "Minute" only had one minute, and had to keep it G-rated. Just seemed derogatory towards women. Besides, who are they to say what feminine characteristics are? I leave now to do laundry. I come back tomorrow (or later) to post more. :D


"Now, I do know that a man who has no male role model will more often then not, might become gay."

That is not necessarily true. That has been promoted as true, though. Why do you think you find more homosexual artists types? One reason is because culturally that bent was considered effiminate for guys. They know they are ’different’ and then they find a place they are ’accepted’. When I worked with a cross over ministry, I heard this over and over. And I was shocked to find that many come from 2 parent families in the middle and upper classes.

Also, many were molested as young boys by a camp counselor, older kid in the neighborhood, etc. They think they homosexual based on that, too.

As to FoF, never forget that Mr. Macho, John Eldridge, was mentored at FoF. That is where he got his start.

Paula Fether

I wonder if Eph. 5:33 can be understood as "... even though the wife may be in fear of her husband"?


Does it make a difference that phobeos is passive? That part of the verse in the interlinear does not seem to be a command but a description.

Paula Fether

It’s passive, specifically middle voice, and indeed is not a command, as it is typically translated. The command is only to the husbands. I see the phrase about wives as held in contrast, more the idea of "in spite of". So I have the understanding that the wife has put herself in a fearful state.


"Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, people have never hated their own bodies, but they feed and care for them, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body." Eph. 5:25-30 TNIV

I think this is saying that husbands should view their Christian wives as holy because they have been made righteous through faith in Christ. A husband does not need to make his wife holy because Christ has already accomplished that for her through His blood. She is part of the church. Men need to understand that Christian women have also been redeemed and purified by Christ. They are no longer under any condemnation and are spiritual equals and joint heirs with their husbands. Because Christ made no distinctions between the human genders as His beloved bride and church, Christ’s love for women should be the model that men follow. Thus, men are being called to give up their privileged status and to love their wives in the same way that they love themselves. So, a husband should treat his wife in the same way that he wants her to treat him.


Lin, "Can you imagine a book or comp conference titled: Love and Fear? Or Love and Reverence?"

hahahaha But do we need to choose which one we would prefer? To be loved OR feared? Loved OR reverenced?

Paula Fether

Another case of "mixed gender" translating I stumbled upon Here:

Gender, as it relates to nouns and other substantives in the Greek language, does not necessarily refer to "male" and "female". It refers to grammatical gender, which is determined purely by grammatical usage and must be learned by observation. Although nouns referring to people or animals that are obviously "male" or "female" would normally (but not always) be classified as masculine or feminine accordingly, the gender of most nouns seems to be somewhat arbitrary. Every noun must fall into one of three categories of gender: masculine, feminine, or neuter. The fact of gender, when considering a word in isolation, is of little importance to the student of the Greek New Testament. But in analyzing a sentence as a whole, gender may play a key role, especially when considered along with the adjectives, pronouns, and relative clauses that may be present. Taking note of the gender may alter altogether what a sentence may seem to be saying in English.

For example: "And receive...the sword of the spirit which is the word of God"( Eph 6:17). The word "sword" in Greek is feminine gender and the word "spirit" is neuter gender. So it is important in this sentence to find out what is the antecedent of the relative pronoun "which". (i.e. What is the "which" referring back to?) The word "which" in this sentence is neuter, therefore it is referring back to the word "spirit" and not "sword." Thus this sentence means: "And receive...the sword of the spirit which (spirit) is the word of God."

Paula Fether

Tanx Sonnet!

Curious, isn’t it, that Nyland would do that? And it isn’t the only spot I’ve found where she follows the mainstream even though it isn’t clear and has bearing on women.

On entitlement, I agree, but male supremacists scream that there’s no connection. Yet that book you mentioned would certainly serve as proof, I’d say.

An Example of CBMW Dogma | Words of a Fether

[...] is no fine print exempting the husband from her rule. As for the ref. to 1 Peter 3, please see my article on who exactly is to do the [...]

Phobeo in Marriage- Ananias and Sapphira and Eph 5:33 « A Wife’s Submission

[...] was just chatting with Paula Fether on another of my blogs and she referred me to a blog post of her own (click here) which is very insightful on the topic of fear (in 1 Peter).  In the comments section she offers her [...]




Thanks! :-)


Really excellent post AND discussion Paula! Thanks for the link! I like your take on Eph 5:33. It makes SO much sense! “Above all, every husband must love his wife as he loves himself; otherwise, the wife lives in fear of her husband” And we know from 1 John that "perfect love casts out fear"


great job discussing phobeo.... :)