Why Peter Would NOT Want a Wife Today to Call Her Husband “Lord”

In Peter’s instruction to wives with disobedient husbands, Sarah, one of the godly woman of old who hoped in God, is singled out as modeling virtue. Her “adornment,” as was true of that of the other holy women, manifested itself in submission to her husband. And according to Peter, in her submission Sarah goes so far as to call Abraham “lord.”  

But strangely, the only time the Old Testament describes Sarah calling Abraham “lord” is in the context of an off-hand comment she makes in response to the revelation that she will become pregnant by him when they are quite old (Gen. 18:12). She scoffs and asks if she will have pleasure, and then seems further amused at the double impossibility, saying, “my lord being old also.”

To contemporary male and female Western ears, the thought of a woman calling her husband “lord” seems absurd. But another text in Genesis helps readers see how people in Sarah’s day used the word. When the visitors appeared to Abraham, he himself used the term as form of polite address. Genesis 18:1–3 says this:  

“The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by.”


Abraham is speaking to a stranger of whom he is asking a request. His use of “lord” is not an indication of a power differential, but of respect.  

Some scholars consider it strange that Peter would point to a moment when Sarah scoffed at God’s word as an example of submission. And they look to another option that may shed light on Peter’s meaning. In an extracanonical Jewish document, The Testament of Abraham, roughly contemporary with Peter’s letter, Sarah frequently addresses Abraham as “lord.” In this narrative, she is depicted as the ideal Hellenistic wife, and her speech reveals an honoring heart.

The Testament of Abrahamis a pseudepigraphic text of the Old Testament. Likely composed in the first or second century AD, the work is of Jewish origin and usually considered part of the apocryphal literature. Its text deals with Abraham’s reluctance to die and the events that led to his departure from earth.

There are two versions of the same story in circulation, and in both Sarah refers to Abraham as “lord.” In the first, she does so five times; in the second, she does so only once. But in both cases, the scene takes place after a visitor has arrived and everyone, including Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, has gone to sleep. Isaac has a dream that Abraham will die and he runs in to embrace his father. The sound of Abraham and Isaac weeping in each other’s arms awakens Sarah. So she runs to them. The text of version one says this:

And Sarah said with weeping, my lord Abraham, what is this that you weep? Tell me, my lord, has this brother that has been entertained by us this day brought you tidings of Lot, your brother's son, that he is dead?[2]


The visitor explains to her what is happening. And the text continues…

Then Sarah, hearing the excellence of the conversation of the chief-captain, straightway knew that it was an angel of the Lord that spoke. Sarah therefore signified to Abraham to come out toward the door, and said to him, my lord Abraham, do you know who this man is?

Abraham said, I know not.

Sarah said, “You know, my lord, the three men from heaven that were entertained by us in our tent beside the oak of Mamre, when you killed the kid without blemish, and set a table before them. . . Do you not know, my lord Abraham, that by promise they gave to us Isaac as the fruit of the womb? Of these three holy men, this is one.[3]


Version two tells the same story with somewhat different wording. Nevertheless, the meaning is the same. Sarah’s one reference to Abraham as “lord” occurs when she runs into the bed chamber and asks her husband, “My lord Abraham, why is this weeping? Has the stranger told you of your brother's son Lot that he is dead?’”

Both in Abraham’s use of the phrase in Genesis, and in Sarah’s use of it in a document roughly contemporary with Peter, the meaning is the same. That is, “my lord” is a term of respect and even endearment. In neither case does it carry the same sense that a wife calling her husband “my lord” today would have—which would suggest that she is his servant and he is her master. 

There is great debate about Peter’s universalizing of submission by the reference to a wife calling her husband “lord.” How, one wonders, are today’s readers to apply these words? All interpreters are, to some degree, playing the “culture” card in order to live out the spirit of the text. No matter what scholars believe regarding how much culture should play a role in contemporary application of 1 Peter, all who hold to inerrancy seem to agree that today’s wife is not only not obligated to call her husband “lord,” but also that doing so would violate Peter’s goal of enhancing one’s gospel witness. Indeed, doing so today would repel most people from the faith. Peter is not saying women should shut up and be slaves to their husbands, saying “yes, master” to them. Rather, he’s using Sarah’s wise behavior to illustrate his point: respect for unbelievers, especially husbands, is winsome (3:1). 

Peter encourages his readers by saying, “You have become her [Sarah’s] children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear (v. 6, NASB). One possible reason Peter’s suffering readers should look to Sarah is that at least twice in her life she suffered injustice at the hands of a disobedient husband. He told her to lie. And then he himself told both Pharaoh (Gen. 12:19) and later the king of Gerar (20:2) the lies he wanted her to tell. In both cases, Abraham attempted to pass her off as his sister rather than his wife so that no harm would come to him. Sarah was taken into pharaoh’s palace (12:15) and presumably had relations with him. The king of Gerar similarly took her (20:1). In both cases God intervened supernaturally on Sarah’s behalf and gave her the grace afterward to speak of her husband with respect and endearment, saying, “my lord.” 

Writing in a context in which women could not call a hotline or flee to a local shelter if her husband threatened or abused her, Peter wants wives to do their best both to keep from endangering themselves and to gain the husband’s respect while remaining loyal to Christ. Doing so would require great wisdom and courage. Perhaps this is why Peter urges such wives not to be “frightened by any fear.” Peter wants wives to be courageous as they win their husbands through their silent witness.

All this is not to say a woman today should endure abuse. Peter is not describing the ideal, but an extremely un-ideal situation in which wives had few options. Sarah similarly had few options; Western women today have many more—and we should counsel abused women to use them.

Both the men and women in Peter’s readership are suffering and have logical reason to be truly afraid. They have zero social power; the danger is real. And in crafting his instruction to wives, Peter assumes that, like men, women are made to be courageous. He believes they are capable of fearing God more than humans, even in the face of intense persecution and extreme injustice. He points to a long history of godly women to make his case. And he is certainly well aware that believing wives’ loyalty to Christ over their husbands may lead to more suffering. These women are not to be frightened, however, but place their hope in God, trusting that he will vindicate them, if not in the present world, then in the next.


  Next time, why he calls wives “weaker vessels” . . . .           

[1]Testament of Abraham, version one. Translated by W.A. Craigie. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 9. Edited by Allan Menzies. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1896.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1007.htm>.

[3]Ibid, version 2.

Sandra Glahn, who holds a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and a PhD in The Humanities—Aesthetic Studies from the University of Texas/Dallas, is a professor at DTS. This creator of the Coffee Cup Bible Series (AMG) based on the NET Bible is the author or coauthor of more than twenty books. She's the wife of one husband, mother of one daughter, and owner of two cats. Chocolate and travel make her smile. You can follow her on Twitter @sandraglahn ; on FB /Aspire2 ; and find her at her web site: aspire2.com.


  • JoshuaW

    Needs some edits

    There are a few glaring errors here.  In the Genesis 18 example you use where Abraham calls someone "lord" all you have to do is read the beginning of the passage where is says that the person he is talking to is "The LORD."  So it is Abraham calling his authority "lord," not a polite address to a stranger.  (Abraham knows it is God he is speaking to, see verse 32 for instance.)
    Showing that in extrabiblical tradition, Sarah calls Abraham lord habitually, doesn't necessarily lessen the intensity of the word.  The apostalic letters repeatedly use the "calling Abraham lord" Greek word in Peter to call Christ "lord."  In that case the word is not just "respect and endearment'," they truly think of Christ as their lord.

    You wrote, "all who hold to inerrancy seem to agree."  This is far from the truth.  Reading almost any of the "early church fathers" you will find that they thought calling husbands lord was a good thing.

    You also make the statement, "Sarah was taken into pharaoh’s palace (12:15) and presumably had relations with him.  The king of Gerar similarly took her (20:1)."  This is an outright falsehood if you read the stories.  In both cases, we have text that specifies Sarah was not defiled.  12:19 says, "so I might have taken her to me to wife" and in 20:6 God says, "therefore suffered I thee not to touch her."  It throws doubt on your credentials if you don't pay attention to the details of the stories you are writing about.

    • Sandra Glahn

      You write: “In the Genesis 18 example you use where Abraham calls someone ‘lord’ all you have to do is read the beginning of the passage where is says that the person he is talking to is ‘The LORD.’ So it is Abraham calling his authority ‘lord,’ not a polite address to a stranger.

      I can see where you’d draw that conclusion if you’re using a translation that’s more ambiguous than the NET. I had the advantage of NET Bible notes as I was doing research. And they have this note on the place where your translation apparently says, ‘The LORD’:

      “The MT has the form אֲדֹנָי (ʾadonay, “Master”) which is reserved for God. This may reflect later scribal activity. The scribes, knowing it was the LORD, may have put the proper pointing with the word instead of the more common אֲדֹנִי (ʾadoni, “my master”).

      If your translation is based on the MT, I can see why you’d draw the conclusion that my powers of observation are woefully lacking. In addition to what we suspect about scribal pointing, I think the broader context suggests that while the author, writing from an omniscient perspective, knows Abraham is addressing God, Abraham himself does not realize he is doing so—in the same way Jacob wrestled with a man/God/angel and only at the end did he realize this being with supernatural strength had power to bless? Additionally, in this context, Abraham is using deferential language with all of them. I’m using the NET here again:

      [Abraham] said, “My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by and leave your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought so that you may all [the word “all” has been supplied in the NET Bible because the Hebrew verb translated “wash” and the pronominal suffix on the word “feet” are plural, referring to all three of the visitors] wash your feet and rest under the tree. 5 And let me get a bit of food so that you may refresh yourselves [plural] since you have passed by your servant’s home. After that you may be on your way.”
      “All right,” they replied, “you may do as you say.”

      Abraham refers to his guests (plural) when referring to himself as their servant, even though they are not literally masters or lords over him. And they understand him to be addressing them all, because they collectively reply that they agree to his terms. So, I do think the text indicates he is using deferential language with the entire group.
      I agree with you that Sarah calling Abraham “lord” habitually in extra-biblical writings doesn’t necessarily lessen the intensity of the word. But I also think the contexts in which she uses the word and the way she uses it suggest a much warmer relationship between herself and Abraham than some have taught husbands and wives is the biblical way Peter intended for them to relate.

      When I said that all who hold to inerrancy “seem” to agree, I was speaking in the present tense, not people at all times. And indeed I know of few solid theologians today who hold a high view of Scripture as well as a high view of marriage who think it’s a great idea for wives to use the same term for their husbands that a slave would use for his or her owner. I suspect that’s because what might have been a great witness in the first century would have the opposite effect now. And contextualizing the gospel and how we apply Scripture is important and difficult work.
      Additionally, you say you think I’m telling untruths and failing to read because of how I understand Genesis 12:

      “This is an outright falsehood if you read the stories. In both cases, we have text that specifies Sarah was not defiled. 12:19 says, ‘so I might have taken her to me to wife’ and in 20:6 God says, ‘therefore suffered I thee not to touch her.’ It throws doubt on your credentials if you don’t pay attention to the details of the stories you are writing about.”

      Once again, I think you might benefit from using a translation based on different manuscripts. The NET Bible for Gen 12:19 has a baffled leader asking Abraham: “Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that [consequently] I took her to be my wife?” That’s a very different reading from the one you’re using. And it absolutely suggests Sarah has suffered due to her husband’s disobedience. This whole interaction is a great example of why the translation we use is vitally important, because the assumptions we can make based on different texts can be pretty uncharitable when others are truly trying to honor the text.

    • Sandra Glahn

      Right. And the English equivalent is “sir.” Such was a typical address for people in Sarah’s culture for husbands and in that of Peter in NT Times. Documents contemporary with Peter show the address was used affectionately by Sarah to Abraham. If a wife called her husband, “lord” or “master” in English today, it would not have the same meaning at all. We’re looking for cultural equivalencies. The timeless point: talk respectfully and affectionately even to an imperfect spouse. Also, note that Peter does not command wives to call their husbands “lord.” He uses Sarah as a positive example of respect.

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