RPM, Volume 16, Number 13, March 23 to March 29, 2014

A Life to Respect

1 Peter 3:1-7

By D. Marion Clark


I said before that the subject of authority itself is a minefield because of the emotional reaction we have towards the subject. Even the most conservative of us recoil at the idea of ourselves being under authority. We may acknowledge that we are under authority in certain cases, such as in a job or at school, but even then we would assert that we agree to the arrangement voluntarily or temporarily, and always to meet our own goals - to support ourselves, get the education we need, and so on. We especially recoil at the idea of someone being over us merely because of his or her position. That's why the immediate question or objection that comes to our minds is, "What if the authority person is bad or incompetent?"

This innate resistance to being under authority contributes to the difficulty of today's subject - wives submitting to the authority of husbands. But the subject is made more difficult by several other factors.

The first, and the one that is particularly galling, is that this authority is based merely on gender. With the previous two cases - governor and master - you could at least take some kind of solace that you may someday get into such positions. It was possible. At least the other person's authority did not reflect differences in your very nature. This one does. Because he is a he, and for no other reason, he is in authority.

The second factor is related. This passage may never have made the top ten of Favorite Bible Passages of Women, but up until the past century the concept of the husband being the head of the home was the predominant custom of most cultures. The only thing that may have raised the eyebrows of the women whom Peter was addressing was how to respond to unbelieving husbands who probably were mistreating them. Today, the predominant view is that no one should be under any authority in a marriage, period. To even suggest such an idea is to invite an avalanche of disapproval and mockery. The Southern Baptists received widespread condemnation for recommending wives to "graciously submit" to their husbands.

Peter compounds the problem. He seems to believe that wives should have the same relationship with their husbands as slaves to masters. See verse one, Wives, in the same way be submissive, and verse 6, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master. He doesn't want them looking pretty (3-4); they should keep quiet (1-2); and, then, even his admonition to husbands to be considerate seems to be a patronizing way to say women are a weaker sex.

Furthermore, there is the difficulty of making application in a far different culture from the one to which Peter was writing. This passage was written to women of a culture in which marriage was the means of support. There were no schools of higher learning and few options for earning a living. Women were not doctors or lawyers. In public the appropriate behavior for women was to be silent. They were not encouraged to give their opinions. Would Peter have written the same words in a different environment? What would Peter have said in a sermon on marriage then, and what now?

Which leads to one final note: Peter is not giving a formula for How to Have a Happy Marriage. He has been dealing with the broad issue of authority and how Christians in their different situations are to respond to it. In this case, it is authority in marriage. What are the appropriate marriage roles? Or another way to phrase the question: What is the proper framework for a marriage?

With all of these red flags and caution signs standing up, let's proceed.

Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands. The phrase in the same way is a single connective word meaning "likewise," as the KJ translates it or "also." Peter is not saying, "Wives, be submissive to your husbands the same way as slaves are to their masters." Rather, he is saying, "Now, regarding marriage, wives also should be submissive to husbands as the authority." The word for "submissive" is the same used in 2:13 and 18.

He then tosses in an additional element to the marriage, that of having unbelieving husbands: so that, if any of them do not believe the word. We have a scenario of women coming to faith, thus leaving them in an unequally yoked marriage. How, then, are these Christian women to act towards their non-Christian husbands? Are their relationships with their husbands the same now that they have become holy? This was the same question raised for the relationships between Christian citizens and non-Christian government officials, and the same between Christian slaves and non-Christian masters.

Submissiveness and Its Reasons

  • To Win Husbands to the Gospel
  • They are given the same answer, be submissive. Peter then gives three reasons for his answer. First, their objective is to be the conversion of their husbands: They may be won over. We've talked about this in the previous four passages: what is at issue in our behavior is glorifying God and winning the lost for the gospel. That is what matters. And the best way to influence husbands is by behavior, thus the admonition, without words by the behavior of their wives.

    What kind of behavior? Pure and reverent (2). Let's try to understand the situation of the wives. Think back. What was the problem the Christians were facing? Slander. Because they were following an upstart religion that had strange rituals and which caused them to reject the worship and practices of the acceptable religions, they were viewed with suspicion. Furthermore, they lived in a society in which the household was expected to observe the religious practices of its head. By the very fact of becoming Christians, these women were regarded as subverting the authority of their husbands. And they were creating problems not only for themselves, but for their husbands, who had the embarrassing situation of wives rejecting their husbands' authority and embracing a scandalous religion.

    They would feel foolish to have their wives instructing them in matters of religion. They would feel threatened for their wives to try and persuade them to adopt a foreign religion that would make them social outcasts and threaten their careers. Words would only invite defensiveness and anger.

    How can these women break down the walls of resistance? By living good Christian lives. By purity is meant holiness, and, in the case of wives, it would have the further connotation of marital faithfulness and modesty. Reverence is devotion to God. The word is the same word used for "fear God." These husbands are to observe real devotion in their wives. This new religion is not the latest spiritual fad for superstitious women to follow. It effects a real change, one that wins the respect of anyone looking for signs of a serious devout life.

  • Delights God
  • The next two verses describe further such good lives and lead to the next motivation or reason for submissive attitudes. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. 4 Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight.

    Peter describes the appropriate life by making a contrast in terms of adornment. The word "beauty" is not in the text; rather, it more literally reads, "Your adornment should not come from… but from…" His point is this: it is natural for a woman to desire to be beautiful, which is evident from the attention given to how she adorns herself. Real beauty, however, comes forth not from outer attire, but from the inner spirit.

    In the context in which he is speaking, that beauty consists of a gentle and quiet spirit. A woman with a gentle spirit is easy to approach and does not come across as harsh or cold. Jesus uses this adjective for himself in Matthew 11:28,29: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

    To possess a quiet spirit is to be peaceful, the opposite of being contentious. It does not mean to be the kind of person who gives in to every argument so as not to make trouble; rather, it refers to a person who has inner peace and is not compelled to assert herself for her own ego.

    A wife with such a spirit is one that a husband, who does have insecurity and fear, is most likely to open up to and even to listen to about a radical religion. But, further, it is the spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight. This inner spirit is what God values. Yet again, we come back to living lives that are pleasing to God. It is true that a husband will not appreciate such a life, but God does. He is honored by that kind of inner beauty.

    Examples of Holy Women

    Finally, Peter holds before them worthy examples to encourage them. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful. Looking back to the OT they will find godly women who adorned themselves with such spirits. Note, these are women who put their hope in God. Again, we see this continuous thread weaving through all situations: all Christians submit to authorities for the Lord's sake (13); it is commendable to suffer unjustly because one is conscious of God (19); these women put their hope in God. They acted, just as all saints of God are to act, in response to God, not the world. We act according to the hope we have that our God will defend us from evil and judge us rightly. This is simply a rewording of what was said about Jesus in verse 23: he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.

    Because these women trusted in God, They were submissive to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master. Again, they, and specifically Sarah, are raised up as models for women willing to be submissive to their husbands. The Greek word for master used here is "kurios," the same word for "lord," which I think is a better translation. Peter uses a different word for "masters" in verse 18. Kurios is a term of respect that would be used towards anyone of authority or special dignity. Peter is not holding up a slave mentality, but a mentality of showing respect.

    I've always thought it a bit odd for Peter to use Sarah as an example of submissiveness, considering the way she complained to Abraham about Hagar and Ishmael, a situation that she herself created by encouraging her husband to act without the consent of God. But overall, Sarah did submit. She did follow her husband into a distant land. She followed him later into Egypt and obeyed his instruction to be regarded as his sister and not his wife, putting herself in grave danger.

    The single verse from which Peter got the word "lord" was Genesis 18:12. In this context Sarah has overheard the three mysterious visitors tell Abraham that Sarah would bear a child within a year. We are told: And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, "After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also? (NASB)" It sounds like Sarah is being insolent, but just the opposite. Sarah is keeping her thoughts to herself, and she shows her true inner nature, that though she thinks the men are speaking folly, she yet has a natural respect towards her husband. He may be foolish, but he is her head.

    Peter then concludes: You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear. I don't think Peter is referring to salvation; rather, he is saying that they are daughters of Sarah in spirit when they emulate her submissive spirit.

    Do what is right in this context is primarily doing what Peter has just advocated - being submissive and showing a gentle and quiet spirit. It would further mean doing whatever is right, which also in this context is obeying God even when obedience to God conflicts with obedience to husbands. Both situations place the wives in difficult positions, which take courage and trust in God to live out, thus, do not give way to fear. Peter will say the same to all Christians in verse 14.

    Admonition to Husbands

    A brief, but pointed remark is then made to Christian husbands. 7 Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life. I tend to agree with the NASB translation that reads: You husbands likewise, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with a weaker vessel, since she is a woman; and grant her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life. This version makes a bit more clear Peter's instruction, which is two-part: one, husbands must take the time and effort to understand the position of their wives as "weaker vessels," and, two, treat them with the respect due to fellow (and equal) heirs of salvation. Understand their weaknesses and respect their equal standing in Christ, both of which, quite frankly, men are not quick to do.

    Peter does not elaborate how the woman is a weaker vessel, I think because the issue was not as emotionally charged in his time. "Vessel" is used elsewhere as a metaphor for body, which would mean he has in mind physical strength. In the context in which he is writing, he probably intends as well, the weaker position of being under authority.

    Now, though the wife may be a weaker vessel in the sense of marriage, she is not a lesser vessel in the Body of Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). Wives are not receiving salvation through some kind of supplementary clause. They are not receiving saving grace through their husbands, but with their husbands, though many of them, actually, are before their husbands in this matter.

    He then closes with a sobering remark: so that nothing will hinder your prayers. Yes, there is a connection between our relationship with God and our relationship with our neighbor, in this instance for husbands, their wives. Be as theologically and morally correct as you like; if you are not being understanding and respectful of your wives, don't expect your prayers to go up to God as acceptable sacrifice.

    Now, for lack of a better time to say this, let me make clear that neither this nor any passage gives husbands the right to abuse their wives. Nor are wives exhorted to submit to abuse. There are many cases in which wives, for the good of their husbands and children, ought to take action against abuse. Furthermore, any member of the church has the right to come to the elders for counsel and help. Wives may be under husbands, but husbands are under the elders, who have the right and responsibility to shepherd every member under their care.


    First, to women. Yes, Scripture affirms that wives should submit to their husbands. Men are to be head of their marriages and families. There is nothing in Scripture to imply otherwise, while there are other passages that specifically state it. See Ephesians 5:22-24 and Colossians 3:18 for two examples. I state this plainly not to admonish anyone, but to avoid veiling the teaching to make it seem more keeping with the times.

    On the other hand, Scripture does not present the woman's position as a burden. It may refer to the yoke of slavery, but never to the yoke of being a wife. The reason being is that the role of wife is a role of honor. Furthermore, the concept of submissiveness for Christians, far from being a sign of weakness, is one of strength and dignity. All Christians are called to live such lives and our great model is God the Son who is equal in power and dignity with God the Father, yet submissive to the Father's will.

    Second, to men. Understand that understanding is not our great gift. We are called to do what is most difficult for us, not so much out of pride as out of dullness. We do not take the time to understand our wives, and we are often clueless to the ways that we intimidate, frustrate, and denigrate our wives.

    Let me close on a positive note. It's possible to leave such a message feeling somewhat tense, thinking about what is expected of us. I like Peter's description of both husbands and wives, both men and women. We are heirs of (literally) the grace of life. Whatever our positions may be, whatever our circumstances in this earthly life, never forget that we are the free recipients of God's grace that gives us eternal life. We are the people of grace.

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