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
Peter is attempting to encourage and motivate members of local congregations throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who are facing ongoing persecution for their faith. This is an encyclical letter, intended to be copied and circulated among the churches, each of which was located in Asia Minor. While it’s likely that these congregations consisted primarily of born-again Gentiles, the presence of converted Jews would not have been surprising. At this point in history, Asia Minor had become a popular destination for Jewish immigrants who had chosen to leave Israel and settle in other lands. The 1st-Century Jewish historian Josephus wrote, “there is no city, no tribe, whether Greek or barbarian, in which Jewish law and Jewish customs have not taken root.” At the time Peter wrote his letter, Asia Minor contained one of the largest concentrations of Jews in the world. So, it is likely that these congregations were made up of Greeks and Jews, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarians, Scythians, slaves, and freemen (Colossians 3:11). And, according to Peter, they all shared one thing in common.
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. – 1 Peter 2:24-25 ESV
Regardless of their ethnic or cultural identities, these people were all one in Christ. And Peter expected each of them to “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God” (1 Peter 2:16 ESV). He wanted them to understand that God had redeemed them out of their former state of slavery to sin. God had purchased their freedom by offering His own Son as the payment. Peter was trying to convey the same message that Paul wrote to the church in Corinth.
Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NLT
Peter had opened his letter with a similar reminder of their new status as God’s purchased possession. God the Father had paid the ultimate price for their freedom.
For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. – 1 Peter 1:18-19 NLT
As a result, they were expected to conduct their lives in a manner that would honor God among their unbelieving friends and neighbors. God had not brought about a change in their circumstances, but He had reconciled them from their former state of alienation to Him. Rather than living as enemies of God, they found themselves to be His children. They were still living in the same home and remained married to the same person. Their jobs had not changed. If they were poor when they came to faith in Christ, they had not experienced a sudden change in their financial circumstances. If they had come to faith while a slave, their condition remained unchanged. But, at the same time, Peter wanted them to know that everything about them had changed. They were new creations. They were now sons and daughters of God. They were indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God and possessed all the power they needed for living godly lives (2 Peter 1:3).
But Peter knew that his admonitions were going to have to be specific in nature. What was this new life in Christ supposed to look like? If they were somehow free but remained servants of God, how would that make a difference in their daily lives? And as if to answer these very questions, Peter began broad and then narrowed his focus to a few specific circumstances. Addressing every single believer in his audience, Peter wrote, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution…” (1 Peter 2:13 ESV). Due to their residence in Asia Minor, they all remained citizens of the Roman government. God had not miraculously transported them out from under the despotic rule of Nero. And they needed to understand that their newfound freedom in Christ did not absolve them from submission to the governmental authorities. Even Jesus had taught His disciples, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God” (Mark 12:17 NLT).
Peter wanted them to understand that their submission to the governing authorities was “for the Lord’s sake.” Their willingness to submit was to be based on an understanding that these authorities were instruments of God. The apostle Paul articulated this concept of divine authorization in his letter to the Romans.
Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished. For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you. The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. – Romans 13:1-14 NLT
Peter then applied this concept of submission to slaves, stating, “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust” (1 Peter 2:18 ESV). God had not redeemed them from their slavery to men, but He had set them free from their enslavement to sin. That meant that they could respond to their earthly circumstance in ways that were consistent with their new identity as God’s children. Rather than resentment and anger, they could display love, honor, and respect, even to their unjust masters. Through the Spirit’s indwelling power, they could live as salt and light, even as slaves of men. They could display the mind of Christ and mirror the heart of the apostle Paul.
I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:11-13 NLT
Next, Peter focuses his attention on the married women in his audience, telling them, “wives, be subject to your own husbands” (1 Peter 3:1 ESV). Notice the transition in Peter’s thinking. He has moved from encouraging everyone to be subject to the ruling authorities to slaves willingly submitting to their masters. Now, he takes this topic of submission into the home. Peter was well aware that some of these women had come to faith in Jesus, while their husbands remained unsaved and unsympathetic to their conversion to Christianity. And, sadly, even in the Gentile community of that day, women had few rights and were often treated as second-class citizens. For some of these women, there would be a strong temptation and inclination to use their newfound faith as an excuse to leave their husbands. Yet, Peter had already warned them, “you are free, yet you are God’s slaves, so don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do evil” (1 Peter 2:16 NLT). And it was Paul who warned the believers in Corinth about misusing their newfound freedom in Christ.
Each of you should continue to live in whatever situation the Lord has placed you, and remain as you were when God first called you. This is my rule for all the churches. For instance, a man who was circumcised before he became a believer should not try to reverse it. And the man who was uncircumcised when he became a believer should not be circumcised now. For it makes no difference whether or not a man has been circumcised. The important thing is to keep God’s commandments.
Yes, each of you should remain as you were when God called you. Are you a slave? Don’t let that worry you—but if you get a chance to be free, take it. And remember, if you were a slave when the Lord called you, you are now free in the Lord. And if you were free when the Lord called you, you are now a slave of Christ. God paid a high price for you, so don’t be enslaved by the world. Each of you, dear brothers and sisters, should remain as you were when God first called you. – 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 NLT
Like Paul, Peter’s focus was on godly conduct. The salvation provided by God through Christ was not intended to remedy all earthly injustices or correct all unpleasant conditions. It was meant to transform human lives from the inside out and equip them with divine power to conduct their lives in a manner worthy of the Lord (Colossians 1:10). This is why Peter encourages believing wives to live in the power of the Spirit so that their unbelieving husbands might “be won over by observing your pure and reverent lives” (1 Peter 3:1-2 NLT).
And Peter reminds them that the source of their strength and influence was internal and not external. Contrary to the trends and fads of their contemporary culture, these Christian women were to understand that true beauty was not a result of outer adornment but “from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God” (1 Peter 3:4 NLT). These women were living in a culture was that male-dominated and where they enjoyed few, in any, rights. In a real way, many of them were treated as no better than slaves, experiencing conditions in which they were considered as little more than property.
Peter is not encouraging or advocating the oppression of women. He is not suggesting that these women meekly subject themselves to verbal and physical abuse. He is promoting godly behavior even in the midst of what appears to be ungodly conditions. Sadly, over the centuries, this passage has been used within the church to promote the subjugation of women. But that was not Peter’s intent. He was dealing with a cultural reality in which women were truly second-class citizens, and he was attempting to encourage these women to use the power in their possession to bring about radical and redemptive change in their homes. While the world deprived them of value and influence, the Spirit had transformed them into powerful agents of change.
Peter wanted them to understand that they were God’s daughters and that their Heavenly Father cared for them deeply, and He would watch over them and protect them. That is why Peter called them to “do good and do not fear anything that is frightening” (1 Peter 3:6 ESV). He was not minimizing the nature of their circumstance but was emphasizing the sovereign power of their God.
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.