Obeying the Abuser: Insights from Abraham and Sarah

UPDATE Sept 2021: I have come to believe that Jeff Crippen does not practise what he preaches. He vilely persecuted an abuse victim and spiritually abused many other people in the Tillamook congregation. Go here to read the evidence. Jeff has not gone to the people that he spiritually and emotionally abused. He has not apologised to them, let alone asked for their forgiveness.


One of the most difficult Scriptures for me to understand is this one:

1 Peter 3:1-6 ESV  (1)  Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, (2)  when they see your respectful and pure conduct. (3)  Do not let your adorning be external–the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear– (4)  but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. (5)  For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, (6)  as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.

I have especially had trouble trying to sort out this business of Sarah obeying Abraham, even calling him lord.  Most of our readers have no doubt struggled with how to apply this part of God’s word in an abuse situation.  And many have had it quoted to them, perhaps even by their “Christian” abuser, or at least by fellow Christians.  One conclusion I have made is that the phrase “even if some do not obey the word” means simply that a woman finds herself married to an unbeliever.  I don’t think it means that no matter how sinful and wicked and thus disobedient to God, she must submit to him.

But one of our readers made a comment this week about Abraham that really spurred on my thinking and I think that perhaps it has helped me come to an even better understanding of what Peter means here.

Sarah was married to Abraham.  She submitted to him as her husband.  But Abraham was Abraham.  Not perfect by any means as we know, and yet listen to what the Lord Jesus had to say about him:

John 8:37-44 ESV
(37)  I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. (38)  I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.”
(39)  They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, (40)  but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. (41)  You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father–even God.” (42)  Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. (43)  Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. (44)  You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

And again:

John 8:56 ESV (56)  Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”

Yes, Sarah submitted to Abraham.  Yes, Abraham was quite capable of sin, as Scripture tells us.  But Abraham loved the Lord.  Abraham knew Christ.  Abraham did not try to murder the people of God.  This is the kind of man then that Peter is talking about.  Where in Scripture does the Lord tell a woman to submit to a man who is a child of the devil?  Jesus didn’t.  He called these Pharisees out and told them just what they were.

So if a woman is married to a man who has the spirit of Abraham, well perhaps then it is quite wise to show patience when he messes up.  But I cannot believe that this Scripture or any other was ever meant to be used to force the spouse of a cruel, wicked person to remain in bondage to that person and be forced to obey their whims.  Abigail didn’t.

Be certain to read the comments to this post.  They give some really good additional insights.

24 thoughts on “Obeying the Abuser: Insights from Abraham and Sarah”

  1. Sarai … what a woman. She submitted to Abram and ended up in the Pharaoh’s harem. Bet she was one mad woman when she finally got a minute alone with Abram after THAT ordeal! But then she got even and took matters in her own hands, mating her husband with a handmaiden, and changed the course of the history of the world forever. What a mess when we jump in because we think we are right.

  2. Morven – ha! You are right. We are just going to have to ask Peter about this one someday. I am not sure I can totally straighten it out. There must have been a more model couple he knew someplace!

    1. Okay, so why would God compare an “unbeliever” to Abraham, a man of faith. Also, why would only “some” unbelievers not “obey the word”? I have thought on this passage long and hard over the years, and I am probably really wrong in this, but I just have to question if here, it is not speaking of a believer. I mean, there are times that a believing husband may not be obeying God’s Word, and the wife is just to win him by her quiet spirit, without a word, simply praying for him and helping him along in things. You really cannot do this with an unbeliever, who does not even seek God. Those are just my thoughts on this. I also just have a hard time seeing why God would compare an unbeliever with a believer, because honestly, what do they have in common? I know the theologians say this is an unbeliever because of the verses previous to this one were speaking of unbelievers, but that just does not seem to fit here, at least to me. Also, we must remember that submit does not mean obey, although it can be that in submission a wife obeys, but it really simply means giving over appropriate order, and submitting to the husband’s role as head, because God appointed it. It means getting out of the way and allowing him to lead the wife and children to God. Now how can an unbeliever do that? It is rather confusing and difficult to a woman in an abusive situation, to wonder why God would tell her to win her abuser by being silent. I am not sure if that is how God is, or not.

      As for calling him lord, I heard in a teaching once that all godly women called their husbands lord, and then I heard another teaching that said that the KJV was written by English people, who would normally use that word in their vocabulary and that is how it got translated that way. Don’t know, but I doubt I will be calling my abuser that, anytime soon.

      1. I think that Peter himself had some things to say that are “hard to understand” as he said of Paul, and this Scripture is one of them! I do know that anyone who tries to build their whole theology of marriage from this single passage is most likely going to go wrong. Peter surely did not mean that Christian women are, as you say, to address their husbands as lord (I bet some use a capital “L” here!), but there is some principle here that is timeless. The trick is to sort it out and that is simply not an easy thing to do.

      2. Do we really need to decide for sure whether Peter was speaking about unbelieving husbands or Christian husbands? Although all unbelieving husbands are patently disobeying the call to repent and trust Christ, not all unbelieving husbands treat their believing wives badly. Some non-Christian husbands treat their wives with respect, fairness and consideration.
        And some Christian husbands – even those whose faith is genuine – treat their wives insensitively in certain areas, or from time to time. This can happen, for example, when the husband has some emotional problem or issue that he hasn’t deal with. When a man stuffs his own feelings, his is less likely to be sensitive and empathetic to the feelings of his wife, with the result that she sometimes feels hurt by him. I’m talking about normal (non-abusive) marriages: the kind where these issues can eventually be discussed and worked through because both partners have good will towards each other. I think Peter’s words could apply to marriages where both spouse are Christians, just as much as they could apply to a marriage between a Christian wife and an unbelieving husband.
        Would like to know what others think about this.

      3. God also calls us to wisdom and I think that gets lost once we try to take one scripture passage and work it to death. Wisdom tells us what will enable evil behavior and how submitting to evil doesn’t work. Therefore other scriptures are our balance

  3. No, it is not. I think I will try to do an intricate study in the Greek and try to gain a little more insight and understanding here, if God allows me. I am certain that your interpretation is right, but I must be a little rebellious about it. I hope I am not. I really believe that a godly husband who loved Christ and his own wife, as Christ loved the Church, would not be that hard to submit to, but maybe that isn’t true, I don’t know. Maybe submission is just hard for women, but I guess I can dream. I know that I most likely will never experience what it is to be loved, truly loved by a husband, in a godly way. I just pray that I do not become bitter or hardened because of it.

    1. “I really believe that a godly husband who loved Christ and his own wife, as Christ loved the Church, would not be that hard to submit to”
      I think that is true. If a wife want to follow Christ, she will have little difficulty submitting to a godly husband who loves her and loves Christ.

  4. Firstly, thank you Morven for you pithy comment.
    As to understanding that text in 1 Peter 3, I agree it’s really difficult if not impossible to understand it completely.
    I have read many commentaries on that passage and tend to agree with the people who conclude the following:
    (1) Abraham several times led Sarah in a pretty ungodly way by asking her to tell lies, or at least half-truths, to save his own skin, and thereby exposed her to danger more than once.
    (2) Sarah obeyed Abraham on these occasions. But she did not obey or submit to him when she was worried about her barren state; she took matters into her own hands and told her husband to take Hagar so as to produce offspring that way.
    (3) Nowhere in any of the narratives in Genesis does it actually say “Sarah obeyed Abraham…” so we don’t cannot conclude that Peter was referring to any story about Abraham and Sarah in particular.
    (4) Therefore, Peter was probably just referring to a general truth that we can probably deduce about Sarah’s demeanor towards Abraham: namely, that she showed respect towards him. And when Peter says “she called him lord” he simply means Sarah showed appropriate respect – perhaps the word is ‘deference’ – towards Abraham as her husband.
    And nothing more can be definitely deduced from Peter’s words in verse 6(a), than that.

    However, the important words in verse 6 for me are not so much, “Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord,” but the second half of the verse, “And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.” What does THAT mean?
    I mean, really, is a woman sinning if she fears something that is frightening?

    I remember sitting on the bench in the corridor of the court house, waiting for my application for a restraining order against my husband to be heard by the magistrate. As I sat there, I felt terribly guilty because I was thinking, “I have disobeyed 1 Peter 3:6. I have given way to fear. I have allowed myself to act on my fear of my husband by running away from the him and fleeing to this court for protection. If I had been a true daughter of Sarah, I would have managed my fear, striven against the impulse to flee, overcome it by effort of will –– just as I had all the other times he assaulted and abused me. But I didn’t overcome fear. I gave way to it. So I’ve disobeyed the Bible.”

    I don’t think I can ever convey how torturing that thought was.

    It took me years to work my way towards some sort of understanding of that verse that released me from that guilt.

    Like I said, I don’t pretend to fully understand 1 Peter 3:6, but I here’s what I think now about the second part of that verse. Here it is in the ESV, which is what Jeff quoted:
    “you are Sarah’s children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.
    And the Authorised Version says, “whose daughters you are as long as you do well, and are not afraid with any amazement.”
    But have a look at the God’s Word Translation (1995):
    You became Sarah’s daughters by not letting anything make you afraid to do good.
    That puts it best, in my opinion.

    Women who are married to men who disobey the Word are likely to be put in fear by their husbands. We are Sarah’s daughters – women of faith – when we refuse to let fearful circumstances deter or intimidate us from doing good.

    How do we “do good” when we are being intimidated by abusive husbands? We do good by speaking out, standing up, and stepping away from abuse. We expose the abuse to authorities who ought to deal with it, we refuse to be doormats, we do not enable the abuser, we draw lines and set boundaries to protect ourselves from abusive conduct, and we cry out for justice on behalf of those who are still oppressed.

  5. Excellent, thought provoking post! I have always believed Peter was either speaking with a bit of irony, or pointing his readers back to the story to show what a brave woman looks like. I believe Sarah loved Abraham, was sometimes exasperated by him, wanted to do right by him and help him live among sometimes violent non-believers, yet sometimes came to the end of her rope and asked him to submit to her as well. In fact the only time the word “obey” is mentioned in the Old Testament stories of Abraham and Sarah is when God told Abraham to obey Sarah. 😀

  6. I am still thinking through this passage and trying to figure out the meaning. However, recently I’ve been thinking about the “Sarah obeyed Abraham” and submit to your husband in everything passage. I do think those passages have to be balanced out with some of the Biblical examples. Achan didn’t die alone for his sin, but his wife and children died as well. What if his wife had gone to Moses and spilled the beans that he was hiding goods in the tent? Saphira was with her husband in his lies to the Holy Spirit and she died as well as he did. Abigail didn’t roll over and go along with her husband’s sinfulness, but so wisely took matters into her own hands. And of course we are clearly to obey God rather than men. So, I just can’t see that submit to “everything” includes sin. And if submitting to a man means following his multitude of changing whims that would take a small book to fill and makes you feel like he is “god” , that can’t be the submission the Bible talks about. Since God is jealous for His position. So how could Sarah be commended for following Abraham’s sinfulness? It would seem like that wouldn’t be the case, however, we don’t really see other stories that demonstrate her submission. I am just befuddled.

    1. No, I think you are un-befuddled…why would submitting to sin even be a question for us? It’s just that God is kind enough to us females that if our husbands break his law and agree for us to break the law then we are “let off.” Unless it was our idea in the first place. But then, all of this is a mute point in Jesus.

  7. I can soooooo relate to the feeling of guilt that Barbara Roberts has expressed. I am still reeling with these things as I am in the process of divorcing a husband (very religious man) who has been abusive to myself and my children. Forgiveness is not the same thing as trust, they are not synonymous. We are to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. Wise to the enemy’s tactics, but know when to walk away, so you don’t get snared. I waited longer than I should have.

    1. Laurie- you’ve got it right! Forgiveness is not the same thing as trust and it does not, in the essence of the biblical definition of forgiveness, necessarily entail reconciliation. Christians are very confused on this topic. The best treatment of forgiveness that I know of is the tenth chapter of Steven Tracy’s book Mending the Soul. He does an excellent job. I am glad you are free.

    2. Hi Laurie, thanks for your comment and really good to hear how much you related to my experience.
      “I waited longer than I should have” would be a great title for a song. It is what the vast majority victims say, when they look back after all the dust has settled from their final escape.

      1. Barbara, it just so happens that I write songs on both guitar and piano. Hmmmm…I know how to proceed here. Prayer and waiting on the Lord and He can write it through me, according to His will. Good title. I’ll let you know if God gives me the gift of that song.


        I waited longer than I should have, trying to bow my knee.
        Longer than I should have, trying to fix most everything.
        Then the day arrived, tears falling from my eyes
        And I realized that God was calling me.

        Calling me to peace
        Calling me to love
        Calling me to end the strife,
        Yes, calling me to life.
        Calling me to go
        Calling me to see
        He was always there,
        Saying, come dance with Me.

        So I began the dance, one hot summer night
        Trusting Him to lead me, away from all the fight.
        Trusting Him to love me, just as He always had,
        And leaning on Him fully, no longer living sad.

        Calling me to dance
        Calling me to see
        He had never stopped
        Really loving me
        Calling me to rest
        Calling me to live
        He was always faithful
        But now I had to give.

        So I gave Him my hurt; gave Him all my dreams
        Gave Him my heart; and He gently lifted me
        Up from the depths; of sorrow I had known
        And gave me wings to fly; up to His heavenly throne.

        Calling me to freedom
        Calling me to peace
        Calling me to live my life
        In freedom from abuse
        Calling me to wonder
        Why I stayed so long
        But had I left much sooner
        I wouldn’t know this song.

        I wouldn’t know the dance; that God shared with me
        I wouldn’t know the pain; from which God set me free
        I couldn’t be help to those; that hurt just like me
        I wouldn’t be sharing; my pain for them to see.

        He’s called me to freedom
        Called me to peace
        Called me to live my life
        In freedom from abuse
        Called me to help
        Those along the way
        Who needed my past hurt
        To have their victory

        Note: I believe we (well, not me yet) have all left according to God’s perfect timing and we hate that we stayed as long as we did, but if we had left sooner, we would have missed the dance. The dance is what makes us who we are today and God knows, had His plan been for one to leave sooner, everyone would have. Hope you like my song! If you wish to use the words Laurie, I have a tune in mind. You can just contact Barb and ask her to contact me.

      3. That is BEAUTIFUL. I wept as I read it. May the tune and words be spread widely. I would love you or someone to record it and put it on YouTube. If that happens, we will certainly link to it from this blog.

      4. Love it! I definitely would love to hear the tune. Maybe I could post a cover for it on youtube.com (r). It is exactly right, wow! How is it that you could have been in on my conversations with God?

        We were headed to New Mexico four years ago to try one more time to rebuild our family. My husband sabotaged the move, so he could stay near his mom until she died, which she just did this last February-while we were in court over custody, and the Judge was awarding me sole custody and he, no visitation. But…I digress. I had wondered why God would let such a thing happen (stalled move) when I desired to do His will, rebuild my marriage. But we were here long enough to see that there was never anything in this relationship but abuse, and God was saying it was over. I hate to think of what my husband could have done to us, isolated from anyone he wanted to impress with his good behavior.

        Yes…learning to DANCE! Knowing that Jesus says I am worth dying for!! What a love!! And living…how do I say this? Feeling my life was hunted for so long, I despaired of ever really living again. Jesus is calling me to LIVE!!

        Anonymous, thank you so much for being His vessel.

  8. I just felt compelled to sit down with my guitar and try to sing something for this- obviously not the tune the author had it mind, but it felt good to sing. It’s a good reminder that God works all things to good for those who have faith in him, and I picked up that message a bit stronger as I sung it.

    I must admit, the one song I have written post divorce was more of an exercise in catharsis :p

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