This passage deals with submission, it begins by mentioning servants and masters. In that culture, a servant had no choice but to stay with his master, but if a master was harsh and impossible to please, the servant would probably be tempted to only obey when the master was looking, and to do the bare minimum required of him, because he would have no love for the cruel master.
18 Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh. 19 For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully. 20 For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. 21 For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps:
22 “ Who committed no sin,
Nor was deceit found in His mouth”;
23 who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; 24 who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed. 25 For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. 1 Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, 2 when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear. 3 Do not let your adornment be merely outward—arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel— 4 rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God. 5 For in this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, 6 as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose daughters you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror.
7 Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered. (1 Peter 2:18-3:7, New King James Version)
But Peter tells the servants, "No, submit to your master in your heart, serve him joyfully."
God's word does not address the question of whether this situation of slaves and masters is right or wrong, because God is concerned with each individual's heart. Slavery in that culture was a fact, and God chooses in His word to reveal how His children, even those who are enslaved, can live within the situation and station in life they find themselves in.
The answer is that each one is to live righteously, even if those around them are not, each one is to continue serving God and doing what is right, even when life isn't fair and they are treated unjustly. Each one is to do all that they do as if it is being done for God Himself, because indeed it is being done for God, that through the humble example of a submitted, faithful, and even loving heart, God would be glorified and the master would be drawn to Him.
Since some masters were cruel and harsh, loving and submitting to them was not an easy task, but Christ, dwelling within the servant would enable him to do so. The suffering that Christ went through is pointed to, basically saying, "If Christ went through so much in order for you to be saved, isn't it right that you be willing to suffer in order that your master may be drawn to Him and be saved as well?"
After addressing servants, Peter addresses wives, and tells them to submit to their husbands. A woman's position in that society was not much better than a slaves, and again, the issue of whether that is right or wrong is not really addressed. Instead God's word focuses on telling women who knew Him how to best serve Him where they were at. Again the purpose is clear, submit in order that others may be drawn to the Lord.
Submission is a hard thing to do, and is even hard to understand at times. It is something that comes from the heart as a sacrifice to God. The servant who "submits" only to avoid a beating is not truly submissive. True submission is not something forced upon another, true submission to any other person comes from a heart that is submitted first to God and to His will. Since His will is to draw others to Him, submitting to another for that purpose is not so difficult to a heart that is submitted to God. It is a freewill offering.
Many changes have happened in culture, and most of us do live on either side of the slave-master relationship. Also, the position of women in society has been elevated to where she is now on equal footing with her husband, but that does not mean this passage has no direction for us today. We are still called to have gentle submissive hearts. Submitting first to God's will and then to others, not insisting upon our rights, but yielding them up in order for God to be glorified.
And lest anyone should think that this applies only to slaves or to women, consider the following:
Notice that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church. How did Christ love the church? He gave up all of His rights, He gave Himself wholly in order to save her.25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, 26 that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, 27 that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. 28 So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. (Ephesians 5:25-29, New King James Version)
You can see in these last two verses that the command is given to the entire Church to submit to one another. Now I want to note that I am not trying to say that a woman should demand her husband submits to her! No, the husband is the head of the family, and scripture leaves no question about that. I am simply making the point that all of us have to yield our desires and wills to other people at times, and husbands are not exceptions to this. However, it is also important to add, we are not to be looking at the other person to see if we will do what God asks of us. The wife is not to sit around waiting for her husband to love her as Christ loved the church before she will submit, and the husband is not to wait until the wife submits before loving her. Each needs to look to their own behavior first, and make sure that they are walking as God calls them to, regardless of what the other is doing.
15 See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, 16 redeeming the time, because the days are evil.
17 Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, 20 giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another in the fear of God. (Ephesians 5:15-21, New King James Version)
5 Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for
“ God resists the proud,
But gives grace to the humble.”
(1 Peter 5:5, New King James Version)
God calls all of us thave gentle submissive hearts that are willing to yield our own interests and rights in order to glorify God and draw others to Him. Whether it is woman yielding to her husband, a person serving their employer faithfully even when no one sees or seems to appreciate it, or a husband yielding up his rights for the good of his family, we are ALL called to put the good of others before our own good.
Lord, I know I have a rebellious heart, as soon as I am told I cannot do something, I want to do it even more. Submission is hard for me Lord, I've watched out for myself since I was a child, and it is hard to give up control. I choose to submit myself to You Lord, and ask that You will give me the strength to live up to that decision. In submitting to You, I am choosing to put others before myself, because that is what You ask of me. Help me in this Lord, because I know I can't do it on my own.