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. – 1 Peter 3:1-6 ESV
As Christians, our relationships are to be primary opportunities to live out our new relationship with Christ and to exhibit externally, the inner transformation that is taking place in our hearts because of the work of the Holy Spirit. And there is no more intimate and important relationship than the one between a husband and a wife. Peter was dealing with a situation where there were a growing number of individuals coming to faith in Christ who found themselves married to unbelieving spouses. Keep in mind the locations of those to whom he was writing: Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. They were living in the northern Roman provinces of Asia Minor, which is modern western Turkey. Not all of his audience would have been Gentiles, because there were literally millions of Jews who had relocated and settled in these very same provinces. But whether Gentiles or Jews, the recipients of his letter were believers who, in many cases, had become followers of Christ without their spouses. This important point will factor into what Peter has to say, because our behavior, as Christians, can have a significant impact on our lost relationships, especially with our unbelieving spouses.
Peter begins with the women. and his words continue to leave many modern-day women shaking their heads and labeling Peter as a male chauvinist. His counsel comes across as archaic and a product of some ancient cultural paradigm that has long lost its relativity. Peter begins his address to wives, saying, “wives, be subject to your own husbands” (1 Peter 3:1 ESV). He would not be the only apostle to communicate this information. Paul would write virtually the same thing: “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting for those who belong to the Lord” (Colossians 3:18 NLT). He would repeat this statement to the Ephesians: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22 ESV). Then, in his letter to Titus, Paul provides even more detail, when he challenges the older women in the church:
…train the younger women to love their husbands and their children, to live wisely and be pure, to work in their homes, to do good, and to be submissive to their husbands. Then they will not bring shame on the word of God. – Titus 2:4-5 NLT
Whether we like what these men have to say, we have to take their words seriously, because they speak for God – that is, if you believe they were inspired by the Holy Spirit, which I do. These are not two 1st-Century Jewish males sharing their personal opinions about women. They are not misogynists. They don’t hate women and are not attempting to place them in a subservient position to their more superior male counterparts. And yet, this is how many modern-day Christians interpret these passages.
What we tend to miss is the definition of the word Peter and Paul use for submission. It is the Greek word, hypotassō, which means “to subject one’s self.” There is a willingness involved, a self-determination or personal decision to submit to another out of love and, in this case, obedience to the will of God. Remember what Paul said? Women are to do it “as to the Lord.” He says, it is “fitting for those who belong to the Lord.” It is what those who belong to God should do. And Peter makes it clear that it doesn’t matter if the woman’s husband is a believer or not. There is a witness involved in all of this. He states that when wives willingly subject themselves to the leadership of their 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” (1 Peter 3:1-2 NLT). What Peter (and by extension, God) is interested in is godly living. This isn’t about rights and privileges, status and personal authority. It is about the cause of Christ, the name of God, and the witness of our lives in a lost and dying world.
But as if this wasn’t enough and Peter had not stepped on enough toes, he wades into even more deadly waters, giving advice on women’s clothing, hair and makeup. Was he just a glutton for punishment or was there a method to his madness? He gives his female readers the following Spirit-inspired counsel:
3 Don’t be concerned about the outward beauty of fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. 4 You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God. – 1 Peter 3:3-4 NLT
The first thing we gravitate towards is the fashion advice. It seems that he is telling them how to dress. But what is his real point? “Clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within.” Peter is contrasting our natural obsession with the exterior aspects of our lives with that of the interior, spiritual dimension that reflects the nature of our heart. He talks of inner beauty and the spirit within. How we look is to be far less significant to us than how we behave. And our behavior is a product of our hearts. It was Jesus who said, “It is what comes from inside that defiles you. For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you” (Mark 7:20-23 NLT).
Peter is simply reminding the women in his audience that dressing up the exterior of their lives means nothing if they give no importance to the interior condition of their hearts. They become little more than hypocrites, what Jesus called white-washed tombs. They look great on the outside, but their interiors are filled with death and decay. And that can be true of both women and men.
Peter gives additional insight into what he is saying by comparing the behavior of the “modern-day” women to whom he is writing with the “the holy women of old” (1 Peter 3:5 NLT). There are several points of interest in what he writes and they all relate to the subject of submission. First of all, he says these women of old made themselves beautiful by placing their hope in God. They trusted God for their lives, regardless of the circumstances surrounding their lives. He uses Sarah as an example. She submitted to her husband, Abraham. But how? Remember, it was he who received the call of God to leave Ur and travel to a land yet to be named. And Sarah willingly followed her husband’s lead, even though it meant leaving her family behind. She was inherently trusting God, because her husband was not quite sure how all of this was going to work out. Even later on, when they found themselves moving to Egypt to escape a famine in the land of Canaan, she went along with her husband’s counsel to pawn herself off as his sister. She trusted Abraham, because she was really trusting God.
Secondly, Peter points out that Sarah obeyed Abraham, even calling him “master.” Why? Because she believed he was following the leadership of Yahweh, God Almighty. So, she listened and obeyed. She showed him respect. She didn’t ridicule or belittle him, even when what he said didn’t work out for the best or seem to make any sense. She was trusting God. Third, Sarah was being transformed on the inside. She had her own set of issues. She struggled with doubt and disbelief. And by following her husband’s leadership, she was having her heart changed by God. Finally, Peter uses Sarah as an example of someone who did what was right, according to the will of God. And he tells his female readers that they will be daughters of Sarah if they “do good and do not fear anything that is frightening” (1 Peter 3:6 NLT). Submitting to a Christian husband is scary enough. Submitting to a lost one can be petrifying. But both situations require trust in God. There will be fearful days and moments of doubt. There will be situations that come up where the husband seems to lack any leadership skills or is devoid of common sense. But at the end of the day, believing women are to put their trust in God. They are to see themselves as those who “belong to the Lord” as Paul said. They are to submit, not because their husband deserves it or has earned it, but because it is fitting to the Lord. It reveals a heart that is submissive to God. And He finds that far more attractive than the outward beauty that comes from clothes, cosmetics or jewelry.
These are not easy words for women to hear. They are counter-cultural and seem to go against the grain. But Peter is speaking of deep-seated heart issues. He is addressing matters of character and Christ-likeness. Because when all is said and done, Peter is concerned about our witness in the world. We are sons and daughters of God, and our lives are to be a testimony to His life-transforming, counter-cultural calling on our lives.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.