Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, 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. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.
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, so that nothing will hinder your prayers (1 Peter 3:1-7).
As with Peter’s instruction to slaves, this passage reminds us of the distance between the biblical world and our own. These verses also come with baggage: at times well-meaning Christian leaders have tragically used this passage to advise victims of domestic violence to stay with their abusive partners. How should we bridge the gap between the world of Asia Minor and our own?
Again, we need to start by understanding the ancient context of this passage. 1 Peter was addressed to Christians living in Asia Minor who were experiencing persecution. In these verses, Peter specifically has in mind Christian women who are married to non-believing husbands (1 Peter 3:1). This would have been a challenging situation in the first century world.
While women in Palestine were very much part of a patriarchal system, women in Asia Minor had more freedom in society. Women were able to vote and hold public office. They were allowed some property rights, ran their own businesses, and held prominent roles in some of the pagan cults (McKnight, Kindle loc 2396).
And yet Christian women married to non-Christian men were still in a vulnerable position. Christians in Asia Minor experienced persecution and mistrust, so simply identifying as a follower of Christ put a woman at risk. And if she was married to an unbeliever, her situation was even more complicated. While women in Asia Minor enjoyed more freedom in society, they were still expected to participate in their husband’s religion. A wife adopting a new religion on her own could have been seen as insubordination. Ancient authors saw the shared religion of a household as one of the factors that bound a family together. Philosophers believed that women who pursued “strange and foreign” superstitions practiced immoral behaviors and destabilized the home. Many within the communities of Asia Minor would have regarded a wife’s pursuit of Christianity as a danger (Reeder). In keeping with his words to Christians as they related to the government and slaves as they related to their masters, Peter encouraged wives to let their good behavior and respect of their husbands dispel cultural mistrust and superstition. By following Christ’s example of submission by submitting to their husbands, perhaps these women might even win their husbands to the Lord.
Peter gave wives three basic instructions:
- Submit. As slaves were to submit to their masters and Christ submitted to the cross, so wives were to submit to their husbands by considering his needs and fulfilling them. They were not to overthrow the order of society but to respect it by showing deference and honor to their husbands. Living with purity and honor would silence those who believed Christianity was a source of danger and moral decay. As their husbands saw their wives continuing to demonstrate purity and reverence, their lives would become a proclamation of the gospel that might win their husbands without a word.
- Cultivate beautiful character. Though elaborate hairstyles and gold jewelry might indicate status in society, Peter urged Christian women to make themselves beautiful by pursuing a “gentle and quiet spirit.” This isn’t about personality or how many words you speak in a day. Rather, having a gentle and quiet spirit describes a soul free from anxiety or turmoil because of your trust in the Lord. Psalm 131:2 compares a calm and quiet spirit to the attitude of a weaned child with his mother; the child is able to rest securely and feels safe in his mother’s presence. In the same way, a gentle and quiet spirit is evidenced by our confident trust in God.
- Do what is right without fear. Peter reminds his readers of the “holy women of the past who put their hope in God.” He urges his readers to do likewise. Like slaves, the women who first heard Peter’s message were vulnerable to violence. In Roman society husbands had the right to “discipline” their wives, and abuse was not necessarily recognized as illegal. Recognizing the vulnerability of their situations, Peter encouraged these women to put their trust in God and do what is right without fearing what their husbands might do to them.
Peter also addressed husbands.
And while Peter’s words to wives generally upheld basic societal customs, his advice to husbands subverted them. Peter told husbands to be “considerate” as they lived with their wives and “treat them with respect,” remembering that their wives were physically weaker. More than that, Peter reminded husbands that their wives were “heirs with you of the gracious gift of life” and warned that harsh treatment of their wives could result in their prayers being hindered. In a culture where wives could be considered property and chattel, Peter emphasizes that both husband and wife are heirs of God’s grace and of equal standing before the Lord. Christian husbands were not to domineer over or intimidate their wives; instead they were to treat them with consideration, respect, and honor.
Living it Today
So what do we do with this passage? I’d like to draw three points of application:
- Marriage shouldn’t be a battle for control. It’s best to understand the call for wives to submit in the greater New Testament context of mutual submission in the body of Christ. If wives are submitting to their husbands and husbands self-sacrificially love their wives as Christ loved the church and honor them as equal heirs of God’s grace, then submission shouldn’t be an issue. Both husband and wife are treating one another with love, consideration, and honor, mutually yielding to one another as they pursue Christ together. The New Testament calls both husband and wife to sacrificial love.
- Beautiful character is worth cultivating. True beauty doesn’t come from Birkin bags or Ferragamo shoes. Neither does it come from the latest iGadget, a new SUV, or favorite pair of designer jeans. Beautiful character comes from relationship with the Lord. A “gentle and quiet spirit” flows from the kind of trust in the Lord that is only built by relationship with God over time. This passage doesn’t forbid us from going to the salon or jewelry store, but it does remind us not to look at the status symbols of modern life as a measure of our worth.
- Our relationship with our spouses impacts our relationship with God. If a husband who lives with his wife in an inconsiderate manner can find his prayers hindered, should we expect anything different as wives if we are acting selfishly toward our husbands? Will we not also find our prayers hindered if we are nagging, demeaning, complaining about, or treating our husbands with contempt? Both husband and wife are to love, honor, cherish, and respect one another as fellow heirs of the grace of life.
And just a note to wrap things up: Nothing in this passage compels a woman to remain in an abusive situation. If you are reading this and you are in an abusive relationship, do what you need to do to get safe. Call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline for help (1-800-799-SAFE). If you would prefer to speak to a counselor, Focus on the Family can help you find a counselor near you (1-800-A-FAMILY).
Reeder, Caryn. “1 Peter 3:1-6: Biblical Authority and Battered Wives.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 25.4 (2015), 519-539.
McKnight, Scot. 1 Peter. NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.