Submission and Marriage
We reached the end of 1 Peter chapter 2 last time so we’re going to make a start on looking at chapter 3 this morning. A new chapter might seem to be a significant milepost but if you look at the preceding context you’ll find that it actually continues the theme that Peter was developing in chapter 2.
Perhaps you’ll remember that chapter 2 began by saying that believers in Christ “have tasted that the Lord is good”. Consequently, they have a desire for Him that is as strong as a baby’s desire for its mother’s milk. Because of that strong desire we continually “come to Him”. Peter described the one to whom we come as “a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious”. What had God chosen Him for? He was chosen to be the “cornerstone” or foundation of a new and living temple that is being built as we come to Him as living stones. Those who reject Him have no part in that but Peter says that those who come to Him enjoy the great blessings of being “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that they may proclaim the excellencies of him who called them out of darkness into his marvelous light”. So, they are chosen and accepted by God but, like Jesus, they are rejected by the world.
Consequently, Peter refers to them as being “sojourners and exiles”. Such “sojourners and exiles” will have to contend with both internal and external opposition. Peter spoke of the need to ”abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul”. That’s the internal opposition. He also said that the world round about will “speak against you as evildoers”. That’s the external opposition. How are we to respond to such opposition from the world? Well, Peter went on in verse 12 to say: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable”. What does that actually involve? Peter began to address that question in verse 13 by saying: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution”. He then went on to give some examples of “being subject” or, better, of “submitting yourselves” to “human institutions”.
The first example is in verses 13 to 17 where he speaks of Christian citizens submitting to “the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him”. So, that’s speaking of submission to civil authorities or what we might call “the powers that be”. We considered that under the title “Submission and freedom”. His second example is in verses 18 to 20 where he speaks of Christian slaves or servants submitting to their masters even if they are unjust and make their servants suffer. We saw that nowadays that really equates to Christian employees being submissive to their employers. We considered that under the title “Submission and suffering”. At that point Peter launched into something of a digression but it was a glorious digression. Mentioning unjust suffering turned Peter’s thoughts to Jesus as the suffering servant and he spoke of Jesus’ death on the cross as our substitute to bear our sins and of the wonderful blessings that come to us through His death.
What greater example and encouragement do we need to be submissive to “every human institution”? After that thrilling digression, chapter 3 introduces Peter’s third example of “submitting yourselves” to “human institutions”. In this case he’s speaking of Christian wives submitting themselves to their husbands. So, today we’re going to consider verses 1 to 6 under the title “Submission and marriage”. In the ESV, those verses say: “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, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— 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. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening”. There are a few differences in the NIV. However, they are mainly minor and we’ll pick up on any significant ones as we go along.
Sadly, these are verses that are often widely misunderstood, misinterpreted and misapplied. On the basis of a superficial reading of them readers tend to come away with the impression that Peter is saying that Christian wives must be under the complete control of their husbands as though they were little more than chattels and that they must not have fancy hairdos or wear jewellery. Commentators on this passage often focus a lot of attention on such things with the result that what really matters is overlooked. Taking the passage in such a superficial way tends to lead to one of two possible undesirable outcomes. You see, on the one hand such a superficial reading of the passage certainly offends modern feminist sensibilities so one possible outcome of such a superficial reading is that the teaching here is dismissed. It’s ignored. It’s considered to be irrelevant.
Now, as Bible believing Christians we certainly can’t accept that outcome. 2 Timothy 3v16 tells us that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”. You can’t just dismiss what the word of God says. It’s true. It’s profitable. It’s authoritative. We can’t accept the bits we like and ignore the bits we don’t like. So, on the other hand, with that conviction in mind, the other possible outcome of taking this passage in a superficial way is to apply that superficial understanding and end up with a distorted and quite ugly form of Christian marriage. That is not just a theoretical possibility put forward for the purposes of argument. It certainly has been done historically and might well still happen in some Christian circles today.
To avoid both of those extremes we need to go beyond a superficial reading of the passage and discover what the Holy Spirit was really saying through Peter here. The basic command at the beginning of this passage is: “wives, be subject to your own husbands”. That’s from the ESV. I think the NIV is better here in saying: “submit yourselves to your own husbands”. As with the submission of slaves to their masters this isn’t speaking of a passive being subject but of a willing and deliberate submission. The rest of the passage really rests on that command and fleshes it out. Before we consider the passage in detail we’ll just make a couple of preliminary observations about that command.
Firstly, we must note that this isn’t just Peter’s command – it’s consistent New Testament teaching. So, for instance, we read in Ephesians 5v22: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord”. We find a similar command in Colossians 3v18 where we read: “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord”.
Secondly, we must be very clear that in this command and throughout verses 1 to 6 Peter is addressing Christian wives. He’s already addressed Christian citizens and Christian slaves or servants. Now he is specifically addressing Christian wives. In looking at verses 1 to 6 we’re going to consider four things about obeying that command for Christian wives to submit to their husbands and we’ll do so under four headings each beginning with the letter “P”. We’ll consider the Properties of submission, a Purpose of submission, the Practice of submission and the Pattern of submission. I’d expected to cover them all today but, as often happens, during my preparation I realised that that was over ambitious so we’ll just cover the first two points now and leave the others until next time.
The Properties of submission I readily admit that I’ve used the word “Properties” in order to maintain the alliteration of the other three points. What I have in mind by “Properties” is really the qualities or characteristics of this submission. No doubt the command for wives to “be subject to your own husbands” would horrify most feminists because they would read into it an implication that it’s saying that women are inferior to men and so to be subjugated by men. However, firstly, notice that Peter is not saying that all women are to be submissive to all men. He specifically says: “wives, be subject to your own husbands”. So, this applies to the marriage relationship. We’re not to read any wider application into it. It is strictly in the context of marriage. It does not suggest a general superiority of men or a general inferiority of women. In the unlikely event that radical feminists were to concede that point, the property that they would see as characterising this submission within marriage would be one of repression. They would consider that Christian wives are being denied their individuality, dignity, independence, freedom, self-esteem and so on.
Does Peter really mean that wives are inferior to their husbands and are to be dominated by them? Of course it doesn’t! That’s clear from what Peter will go on to say to Christian husbands in verse 7: “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered”.
When you look at the command in verse 1 for wives to “be subject to your own husbands” you quickly find that it is not quite such a stern or stark command as it might at first seem. Peter actually says, according to the ESV, “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands”. The NIV translates it as: “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands”. In saying “Likewise” or “in the same way” Peter is clearly pointing back to something that he has already said. What was Peter referring back to? Surely it was what he’d been saying previously about submission. You’ll remember that he’d been talking about Christian citizens submitting to civil authorities and about Christian slaves or servants submitting to their masters.
So, is Peter suggesting that the relationship of a wife to her husband is the same as that of a slave to his master or a citizen to the Emperor? That surely can’t be true and it certainly isn’t true! There is a Greek word that means “in exactly the same way” but that isn’t the word that Peter has used here. There’s another Greek word that means “in every way” but that isn’t the word that Peter has used here either. The Greek word that he has used and that has been translated as “likewise” or “in the same way” is a somewhat softer term that really means “in a similar way”. So the question is: in what way is the submission of a Christian wife to her husband to be similar to that of Christian slaves to their masters or Christian citizens to their rulers? It’s not exactly the same. It’s not the same in every way. But, there are points of similarity. What are they?
Well, I suggest, firstly, that there is to be a similarity of attitude. Back in chapter 2v18 Peter had said: “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect”. The submission of slaves or servants to their masters was to be characterised by respect. Back in chapter 2v17 Peter had said: “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor”. The submission of citizens to the civil authorities was to be characterised by honour. Similarly, the submission of Christian wives to their husbands is to be characterised by honour and respect. That is to be a property of this submission. Secondly, there is to be a similarity of tolerance. Remember that when Peter had addressed servants in chapter 2v18 he didn’t stop at saying “be subject to your masters with all respect”. He went on to say: “not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust”. We saw exactly the same thing implied in the context of submission to civil authorities. Peter didn’t say that Christian citizens are to be submissive to rulers as long as they are good and rule well. He said for them to be submissive to rulers; even to rulers such as the Emperor Nero!
Likewise, Christian wives are to be submissive to their husbands regardless of how good they are. Christian wives are to be tolerant and forbearing of the shortcomings of their husbands. As we noted earlier, Peter will go on in verse 7 to give instructions to Christian husbands about how they are to lovingly relate to their wives. It shouldn’t be difficult for a Christian wife to be submissive to her husband if he behaves in that way but she is to be submissive even if he falls short of that ideal. Peter goes on to recognise that some Christian wives will be married to husbands who “do not obey the word”.
Now, Peter frequently uses terms like “do not obey the word” or “disobey the word” to refer to those who do not trust in Christ. So, he is referring to unbelieving husbands. They’re not likely to display the ideal behaviour of a Christian husband. In fact they could well show little sympathy for the faith of their wives and even be quite antagonistic. Even so, just like a Christian slave with a harsh master, a Christian wife is to be tolerant and forbearing and submissive to her husband. Thirdly, and I think most importantly of all, there is to be a similarity of motive. Back in chapter 2v13 Peter had said: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution”. That is the motive for being submissive. That’s the driving force. A Christian wife, as with everything else in her life is to be submissive to her husband “for the Lord’s sake” even if her husband is not all he should be and even if he is an unbeliever who might even treat her badly. So, the properties or characteristics of this submission are to be an attitude of honour and respect, a tolerance and forbearance and a motive of pleasing Christ and bringing honour to Him.
Next, let us see A Purpose of submission The sense of purpose is indicated by the words “so that” in verse 1. Peter says: “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”. Now, I’ve used the heading “A purpose of submission” rather than “The purpose of submission” here because Peter is addressing a particular situation rather than a general situation. As we’ve already seen, this is addressed to Christian wives who have unbelieving husbands. I don’t think that we’re to infer that this was a particularly common situation. The words “even if some do not obey the word” suggest that wives having unbelieving husbands was not the norm. Rather, it was an unusual exception. It was out of the ordinary rather than being commonplace. Nonetheless, it was clearly a situation that some Christian wives found themselves in. Peter doesn’t mention how that situation might have arisen but, no doubt, some wives would have had unbelieving husbands because they had come to faith in Christ after they were married but their husbands had not, as yet, been converted.
It’s also possible that some Christian women had been foolish enough to marry unbelievers. I say “foolish” because the New Testament makes it very clear that it is quite inappropriate for a believer to marry an unbeliever. Because of that, it’s often been common in evangelical circles to be very critical of any believer who has married an unbeliever. While not condoning it, it’s noticeable that Peter didn’t concentrate on the details of how the situation had come about or what the rights and wrongs might have been. His concern was to deal with the present situation and to help and advise such a wife in her present circumstances. I think there’s an important lesson for us there. It’s very easy to be critical of our brothers and sisters in Christ for their past mistakes or even to be judgemental about their past sins. But, none of that can be undone. No amount of criticism or rebuke will turn back the clock. It won’t undo what’s past and will probably do damage in the present and for the future. No doubt the individual regrets those mistakes and has repented of those sins. The last thing they need is to have them highlighted again.
Our concern must to deal constructively with the present situation by helping and encouraging and giving sound advice. So, Peter’s concern was to show how Christian wives who found themselves married to unbelieving husbands, however that had come about, should behave in that situation. We’ve already seen that he said that they should submit to their unbelieving husbands. What is the purpose in doing that? Well, Peter goes on to say: “so that …….. they may be won”. By that he means won for Christ, won for the gospel. For them to be won is for them to be saved. Paul speaks of winning people in that sense in 1 Corinthians 9v19-22 where we read: “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some“. You see that for Paul to win people was to save people. In order to do that he said “I have made myself a servant”. He didn’t put himself first. He didn’t cling on tenaciously for his own rights. He was submissive for the sake of the gospel.
The purpose in Christian wives being submissive even if they have unbelieving husbands is that husbands who “do not obey the word” might be brought to obey the word. The purpose is for them to be saved by coming to faith in Christ. That fits in with being subject “for the Lord’s sake” doesn’t it? He desires sinners to be saved. As His people, we desire sinners to be saved and we have been given the task of spreading the gospel. So, the Christian wives of unbelieving husbands will want to see their husbands come to faith in Christ and Peter says that being submissive to their husbands will serve that purpose. How does Peter envisage that that will come about? Well, continuing in verse 1 and into verse 2 he says that unbelieving husbands may be won “without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct”. This is an example of the saying that “actions speak louder than words” isn’t it?
I don’t think that Peter is suggesting that Christian wives should never say anything about their faith to their unbelieving husbands but if a Christian wife is constantly and pointedly talking about the gospel and speaking of Christ it’s not difficult to see that an unbelieving husband would quickly be pretty cheesed off. A submissive wife will respect that. Does that mean that she gives up trying to “win” her husband for Christ? No, because unbelieving husbands may be won “by the conduct of their wives”.
Conduct speaks of behaviour or way of life. There should be something about a Christian wife’s behaviour that is winsome so that an unbelieving husband finds it attractive and compelling and challenging. Although Peter is specifically dealing with the example of Christian wives who have unbelieving husbands I’m sure that the same principle applies in other contexts where believers are in frequent contact with unbelievers whether it be Christian parents with unbelieving children or Christian children with unbelieving parents or perhaps in the workplace. You’ll put them off the gospel if all you ever do is speak about the gospel. Let your conduct do the talking and only speak when it’s appropriate to do so. So, what sort of conduct could be hoped might win an unbelieving husband? Well, Peter goes on to say that they will be won “when they see your respectful and pure conduct”. The NIV has “when they see the purity and reverence of your lives”. They might not be hearing words but they should be seeing remarkable conduct.
The first thing about the conduct necessary for winning unbelieving husbands, according to the ESV, is that it’s “respectful conduct”. However, the word “respectful” is really a bit weak. The NIV does better in using the word “reverence”. The Greek is actually en phobo which literally means “in fear” or “with fear”. Does that mean that the conduct of Christian wives should be characterised by dread or terror of their unbelieving husbands? No, it can’t mean that. In verse 6 Peter says to Christian wives “do not fear anything that is frightening”. The NIV has “do not give way to fear”. So, even if unbelieving husbands are antagonistic, Christian wives shouldn’t be in fear of them. How then are we to understand this fear? Well, we’ve actually come across the same expression previously in 1 Peter. Back in chapter 1v17 he said: “And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile”. When we considered that previously we established that it was not speaking of abject fear or terror in that context but rather that it referred to so wanting to please God that you fear displeasing Him. So, in our verse here, “respectful conduct” is behaviour that so strongly aims to please God that there’s a fear of failing to do so. It’s not referring to any fear of God but rather to conduct that is motivated by a fear of displeasing God.
In a fallen world such behaviour will be distinctive and should make an impression. The second thing about the necessary conduct is that it’s “pure conduct”. This really is a consequence of the conduct being motivated by the desire to please God. Such conduct will have to be “pure conduct”. Some versions say “chaste conduct” which suggests that Peter is speaking of sexual purity. Of course, sexual purity is included but it’s wider than that. It’s wholesome, holy Christian living that will make an unbelieving husband take note of the power of the gospel in his wife’s life. I’d like to close by quoting from someone called Slaughter who was referenced in one of the commentaries I was using. I don’t know who Slaughter is but I thought this was a helpful comment: “Wives do not submit in order to satisfy a husband’s vanity or to promote his reputation. Neither do they submit to show how godly they are, nor to avoid conflict, nor to impress the neighbours, nor to manipulate their husbands, and not even because she thinks he is wise. She submits because of her relationship with and trust in God”. ”