It is at the setting of the Christian meal table, which is one of a social egalitarianism represented by the church as it functions together and witnesses to the world through its table fellowship, that we then hear Peter speaking to individuals and groups seated around the meal table. After insisting that all present need to be “subject to every human institution for the Lord’s sake” (1 Peter 2:13a), with the use of Lord heard in the context of the Gospel’s claim and against Caesar’s claim, Peter goes on to reaffirm, without necessarily sanctioning, that there is a prevailing social order, writing “Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are perverse” (2:18). How does this fit with the leveling call of the Gospel and of the messianic banquet that communicates so much of the Gospel’s message? If such lengths are gone to in order to show that there is neither slave nor free, why would Peter make statements that will serve to resurrect the very distinctions that the church, through the open commensality of its meal table, is tearing down?
Naturally, the answer is to be found in love. It is that self-sacrificial love to which Peter makes reference, as he goes on to write of enduring hardships in suffering unjustly (2:19). Yes, Peter recognizes the injustice of the situation, but it is the call of the Christian, whether slave or free, to overcome injustice by acting in love towards the very master that may be the source of injustice (as we are careful to not retroject ideas concerning the experience of African slaves, which is quite a bit different from the slavery of the first century Roman world). He then draws what would be the very obvious parallel between the position of the slave and Jesus, as he writes about doing good, suffering, and enduring, which finds favor with God (2:20), “since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in His steps” (2:21b). Jesus provides the example of that which Peter is asking of those who find themselves as slaves, in that “When He was maligned, He did not answer back; when He suffered, He threatened no retaliation, but committed Himself to God who judges justly” (2:23). This could only be accomplished through a love that is phenomenal in its self-emptying and in its sacrificial preference, and indeed, the meal table, in many ways, can provide a glimpse of such love, as those who would be afforded considerable honor willingly take the lowest position so that others might be exalted. Indeed, is this not what is being said here, when Peter goes on to say “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we may cease from sinning and live for righteousness”? (2:24a)
The tree, of course, calls our attention to the lowest and most accursed place, while the call to cease from sin and live for righteousness directs the hearer’s attention to the responsibilities of the people of God to become for the world the covenant faithfulness of God, as was the call of Adam, of Abraham, of Israel, and of the church through its Lord. Lest we allow ourselves to be drawn back into a puerile individualism and subjective analysis of our shortcomings in word and deed that we flippantly refer to as our sin and that are only meager symptoms of a much greater malady, we remind ourselves that, in the context of the long-running plan of God’s covenant faithfulness and of human responsibility in and to that plan, that to cease from sinning will be to cease from our failure to rightly bear the divine image and the concordant responsibility to reflect the glory of God into the world. Taking up the role of a slave, and reflecting God’s glory by loving through and in spite of that role, as did Jesus, is surely a glorious representation of that which God intends for the people that have now been called by His name and who are identified by their claim that Jesus is indeed the crucified and resurrected Lord of all.
It is with all of these things in mind that we then hear Peter’s call to wives (though there is neither male nor female), to “be subject to your own husbands” (3:1a). Again, the reason is not necessarily to exalt subservience for the sake of subservience, or to cause an undue pride amongst husbands, but that God might be glorified through a willful and conscientious act of love. The purpose of the subjection of the wife was to advance the claims of the Gospel and to extend the reach of the kingdom of God on earth. For this reason, Peter adds, “Then, even if some are disobedient to the word,” that being the word that there is a new imperial order and that Jesus stands at its head, demanding a new way of living that is contrary to all that the world holds dear (then and now, though we are not so shortsighted that we limit this critical demand merely to the pursuit of pleasure and what are often termed “carnal” sins), “they will be won over without a word by the way you live, when they see your pure and reverent conduct” (3:1b). Husbands might see the meal table at which their wife participates, and find themselves in a state of stunned disbelief. They may hear the talk of a new and far more powerful and wide-ranging kingdom, but find that those who speak of such things do not take up arms or attempt direct subversion, but rather, are the model citizens that are the most concerned with the welfare of all, and demonstrate this concern without regard for honor, shame, or social status.