One thing that the early church seems to have struggled with is how people should conduct themselves. The problem was that they had been set free by believing in Jesus (as have we), but how free is free?
The freedom wasn’t a freedom to do anything they wanted:
1 Peter 2:16 For you are free, yet you are God’s slaves, so don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do evil. Respect everyone, and love the family of believers. Fear God, and respect the king.
It wasn’t a freedom to sin, but instead, a freedom to love each other:
1 Peter 1:22 You were cleansed from your sins when you obeyed the truth, so now you must show sincere love to each other as brothers and sisters. Love each other deeply with all your heart.
And even though Jesus said his Kingdom wasn’t of this world (or maybe because of that), it wasn’t a freedom to break the law. Instead:
1 Peter 2:13-14 For the Lord’s sake, submit to all human authority—whether the king as head of state, or the officials he has appointed.
So in this context, a command for slaves to submit to the human authority they were already under before believing is hardly surprising:
1 Peter 2:18-21 You who are slaves must submit to your masters with all respect. Do what they tell you—not only if they are kind and reasonable, but even if they are cruel. … For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps.
As Peter said, Jesus had it tougher than even the most badly treated slaves—Jesus took not only abuse from authorities and His own people, but He also took the sins of the world. (Slave owners were instructed to treat their slaves, who were also their brothers, well.)
So wives had freedom, like anyone else, but they were to use it to win over their unsaved husbands. Being free in Christ did not mean they could break down the family structure:
1 Peter 3:1-2 In the same way, you wives must accept the authority of your husbands. Then, even if some refuse to obey the Good News, your godly lives will speak to them without any words. They will be won over by observing your pure and reverent lives.
And husbands were to use the freedom to look after their wives, even though they were an equal partner in God’s gift of new life:
1 Peter 3:7 In the same way, you husbands must give honor to your wives. Treat your wife with understanding as you live together. She may be weaker than you are, but she is your equal partner in God’s gift of new life. Treat her as you should so your prayers will not be hindered.
This equal partner thing would have had to have been revolutionary in it’s day. What freedom! No wonder people needed to learn what to do with it then, with Peter and Paul instructing husbands and wives on how to behave. And we’re still learning.
Some of these concepts never really filtered through to society more generally, even in the so-called Christian west. Women had to fight hard for something as basic as owning property or voting; people still break the law, abuse police or disrespect their employer; some men don’t always treat their wives well; wives don’t always respect their husbands.
But if we want our prayers to not be hindered, treating others well is exactly what we should do. In Christ, we have the freedom to do it.