The past 100 years has seen tremendous change in these areas. Just over 100 years ago, UGA was 100% male. Now, there are 5,000 more women than men in the student population. In 1920, the 19th Amendment was passed guaranteeing women the right to vote. Many women entered the workforce during World War II (1939-45) as men went off to fight, and I don't think we can underestimate the effect that the availability of safe and effective birth control had on American society in the '60s and '70s. At the end of WWII, 1/3 of American women were in the workforce; today, the number is around 57%. The Great Recession of 2008 disproportionately hit men, and men have had a harder time finding jobs in the recovery; many of them possess skills that no longer match the American job market.
The changes also affect the family. While some seek to redefine marriage, the larger trend has been a "cultural retreat from marriage" and a "decline of fatherhood." Divorce rates are dropping, but this is largely due to declining marriage rates and people waiting longer to marry. In the '60s, the average age for first marriage was 20 and 22 for women and men respectively; today, the average ages are 27 and 29. The truth is that women don't need a husband for financial stability, and our society's standards for sexual activity, cohabitation, and having children outside of marriage have changed to such a degree that there is far less societal pressure to get married. The reduced drive to marry (or generally grow up) promotes an extended adolescence, and this phenomena is not limited to the stereotypical guy in his parents' basement; there are many middle-aged women who behave as if they are still in college.
The effects extend to the church. There is a lot I could say here, but I'll limit it to this: on average, more women than men are in church, especially in mainline, liberal churches that have embraced the feminine influence, even accepting female priests and pastors. A recent Pew study on Christianity in America shows that these mainline denominations are in decline while evangelical denominations are holding steady or increasing. Adopting the prevailing egalitarian view has not worked out well for mainline churches.
The bottom line for me is that many of the traits and characteristics men possess (competitiveness, risk-taking, seeking challenge, independence, physicality, sexuality) that were formerly required and praised are now dismissed or denigrated. One social theory on this says that when societies are in times of relative peace, it trends towards androgyny or more similarity between men and women. Men were built to function in the proverbial Siberia, but our modern world today is more like Tahiti.
With men and women more alike than ever, how do we interpret passages like 1 Peter 3. First, let's look at the actual passage.
1 Peter 3:1-12
To begin, we must look back at the previous chapter where Peter instructs believers to submit to human authority in government and the workplace, with Christ as our example of submission. Most of us in America don't face the harsh treatment that 1st century believers did as an occupied country or as slaves, so their example (in addition to Christ's) should be more than instructive for us.
This passage is not the only one to instruct wives to submit to their husbands (Col. 3:18; Eph. 5:22; Titus 2:4-5). The roles men and women play in both the home and the church (1 Cor. 11; 1 Tim. 2) are connected and often compared. While these distinctions may be easier to accept when both are believers, Peter's instruction (while certainly not endorsing marrying a non-believer, 2 Cor. 6:14) includes submission to a non-believing husband. The wife's pious behavior can be more powerful in influencing her husband towards Christ than any nagging words. He is also careful to say "your own husband," not any and every man. Paul's instruction to women in 1 Cor. 14 actually serves to protect them from the improper influence of a spiritual leader.
Ephesians 5, a similar passage to 1 Peter 3, concludes with the command for husbands to love their wives and for wives to respect their husbands. Fidelity and respect are of the utmost importance to men in their marriages, and I believe most women would say that their husbands' love for them outweighs all of the other important elements of their relationship. A failure in these areas will undermine the very foundation of a marriage.
Faithfulness, respect, and love are matters of the heart and mind long before they are revealed through actions. Here, Peter (and similarly Paul in 1 Tim. 2) points to the connection between our outward appearance and the attitude of our heart. A woman's adornment, what she uses to make herself more attractive, shouldn't be a fancy hairstyle, jewelry, and clothing (not that these things are inherently sinful). In our minds, this may take on a sexual connotation, but I believe the instruction here is primarily a warning against vanity and materialism. Paul often contrasted the inner and outer person, and Jesus spoke of what was done in public versus in secret. The same applies here: a woman should focus primarily on good works and the adornments of the heart before those of her outward appearance. “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised.” -Prov. 31:30.
It is important to note what submission is not. Some stretch these instructions, particularly verse 6, as requiring a woman to stay in an abusive or adulterous relationship. A wife's submission to her husband, and likewise any believer's submission to any other human authority, goes only up to the point that it contradicts God's law. While there is no command for a believer to leave an adulterous spouse, there is also no command to stay.
Now to the men...the Bible's instruction to husbands in this passage is not as detailed as that to wives or what is provided elsewhere in Scripture, but it carries great weight. Verse 7 can sound pretty condescending to our ears, but that it not how it was written or intended. The "understanding" that Peter refers to is the knowledge of how God has designed us; husbands should relate to their wives with knowledge, not according to their lusts and passions. Women's physical weakness in comparison to men should not be misunderstood as intellectual or moral weakness; we are all vessels to be used by God. God shows all believers, both men and women, honor as heirs, and we must do likely to other believers, especially our spouses. To do otherwise is an offense to God and will hinder our communion with Him.
Husbands and fathers have a larger impact on their families than our modern culture would suggest. If a father is the first in a family to become a believer, there is a 93% chance that the rest of the family will believe. The comparative rates for mothers and children are no where close to this. Few things are worse than having responsibility for something that you have no authority over. God has given the husband the responsibility to lead his family, which requires that he have authority over his family. Ephesians 5:25 instructs husbands to love their wives "just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her." Our marriages preach a Gospel message to world.
So back to my question: How do we interpret this passage in light of society's evolving views on gender, sexuality, and marriage?
Equality is absolutely a biblical principle, and believers have rightly sought to correct the injustices of sexism, discrimination, and other forms of injustice. In our zeal to correct the wrongs of history and the present, we can't forget that God made male-female distinctions in order for us to complement each other and to exercise different functions in society. These distinctions come with certain responsibilities that are most apparent (and difficult) in the home and in the church. Equality and complementarianism are both biblical teachings (as opposed to hierarchical or egalitarian views, further described in Foundations).
Our example of submission is Jesus. He submitted Himself to the will of His Father (Matt. 26:39; John 6:38; 1 Cor. 11:3; 15:28) while maintaining equality with the Father. Jesus also submitted Himself to human authority out of obedience to the Father. Equality and submission are both key to our understanding of the Trinity and the deity of Jesus.
Ladies, while we're in this arena of thought, let me caution you about "dating Jesus" or saying "Jesus is my husband" or even the general language of "falling in love with Jesus." There are multiple words in the Bible that are translated as "love," and we can miss the importance of the variations. No where in Scripture is the romantic version of the word attributed to a believer's relationship with Jesus, and taking such a view can hurt your relationship with your husband; it's hard to compete with Jesus. Yes, the Bible describes Jesus as the bridegroom, but of the church, not you individually.
All of us
Finally, this passage wraps up Peter's teaching on submission and authority by reminding all of us to be "harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble" and to bless those who insult us, echoing the words of Jesus (Matt. 5:38-39) and Paul (Rom. 12:17; 1 Thess. 5:15). He quotes Psalm 34, encouraging us to guard our tongues and seek peace, which is vitally important in our marriages and churches. As James 3 says, "See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire." Countless relationships have been harmed or destroyed by reckless words; may this never be said of our marriages or our church.