Submission and Marriage
Last time we started to consider 1 Peter chapter 3v1-6. Those verses present the third of Peter’s series of examples of what it means to obey the command he gave in chapter 2 verse 13 for believers in Christ to “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution”. The first of those examples is found 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 found 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”. After a wonderful digression to consider the sufferings of Christ in bearing our sins on the cross, chapter 3 then introduces Peter’s third example of “submitting yourselves” to “human institutions”. It hangs on the command that we find in verse 1 which is given as “wives, be subject to your own husbands” in the ESV or as “Wives……. submit yourselves to your own husbands” in the NIV. So, in this case Peter is speaking of Christian wives submitting themselves to their husbands.
We’re looking at that command under the heading “Submission and marriage” and we noted that verses 1-6 cover the Properties, Purpose, Practice and Pattern of this submission. Last time we considered the Properties and a Purpose. Today, we’re going to move on to look at the Practice of this submission and we’ll leave the Pattern of this submission next time.
The Practice of submission
We see that in verses 3 and 4 where Peter says to Christian wives: “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”. That’s how the ESV translates it. The NIV has: “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewellery 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”.
Superficially, those verses might sound to contain a negative command followed by a positive command. We see what might be considered to be the negative command in verse 3 where we read: “Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear” and then we see what would be the positive command in verse 4 where we read: “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”.
Archbishop Robert Leighton wrote a famous commentary on 1 Peter. I don’t often refer to it because it was written in the 17th century so it’s quite antiquated but I did dip into it recently and found that, in commenting on verse 3, his first sentence is as follows: “That nothing may be wanting to the qualifying of a Christian wife, she is taught how to dress herself; supposing a general desire, but especially in that sex, of ornament and comeliness: the sex which began first our engagement to the necessity of clothing, having still a peculiar propensity to be curious in that, to improve the necessity to an advantage”. By modern standards, that is quite a long and convoluted sentence but, once you’ve managed to unravel it, you find that it’s really quite a mischievous statement! In essence he’s saying that since the need for clothing was brought about by the sin of the woman in the first place it’s quite outrageous that women should tend to take delight in their clothing by styling and ornamenting it. He’s saying that it’s lamentable that what was given as a shameful punishment should be treated as an art form to be enjoyed and with which to impress others! So far as he’s concerned, what Peter has written here is so that a Christian wife might be “taught how to dress herself”.
It’s certainly the case that many of the early Church Fathers quoted verse 3 as being a prohibition of jewellery being worn by Christian women. The Puritans also took verse 3 as part of their rationale for prescribing what was and what was not considered to be acceptable attire for Christian women. No doubt many other Christian groups and movements over the years have done exactly the same sort of thing. Now, if you’re a believer in Christ, How do you feel about that? What is your gut reaction to that? What does your instinct tell you? What does your sanctified common sense suggest? Do you not instinctively feel that there is something that’s not quite right about it? I hope you do and, if you do, I’ll tell you why you do. As believers in Christ we are not under the Old Covenant with its rules and regulations about all sorts of external things. We are in the New Covenant. That covenant emphasises our freedom in Christ. It emphasises our relationship with Christ. It doesn’t impose laws about externals. Rather, it centres on the fact that our hearts have been made alive in Christ and it emphasises the fact that His law has been written in our new, living hearts and that the Holy Spirit lives within us to help us to work out the law that has been written in our new, living hearts. In short, the notion that what Christian women should and shouldn’t wear is dictated by apostolic teaching simply feels far too legalistic to sit comfortably with the New Covenant in Christ.
However, it’s all well and good to say that such an understanding of the text simply doesn’t feel right but what does the Greek text actually say? Is there a command here about hairstyles, jewellery and clothing or does the point that Peter is making lie elsewhere? Well, a literal, word for word translation of verses 3 and 4, would be as follows: “whose adorning let it not be the outward of braiding of hair and putting around of gold or putting on of garments, but the hidden man of the heart in the incorruptible of the meek and quiet spirit which is before God of great price”. That needs tweaking a bit to make it read as good English but it gives the right sense. Now notice that, although the NIV speaks of “elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewellery or fine clothes”, the Greek text does not mention “fine clothes”. It simply says “garments” or “clothes”. The translators of the NIV have decided to add the word “fine” but it’s actually just speaking of clothes. That being the case, if Peter was really prohibiting “the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry”, he would also be prohibiting the wearing of clothes! I hardly think that he would be promoting nudity among Christian wives! So, if you take this as a blunt commandment not to wear certain things you actually get into a bit of a tangle.
Now, it is clear that Peter is talking about the adornment of Christian wives. It is also surely immediately apparent that, with respect to such adorning, an important contrast is being made between two very different types of adorning. It’s a contrast between that which is outward and that which is inward. It’s a contrast between externals and internals. It’s a contrast between what’s on the surface and what’s in the heart. It’s a contrast between what is corruptible and what is incorruptible. That is a contrast between what is fading, passing, superficial and that which is lasting, enduring and of eternal value. That’s a theme that we’ve seen repeatedly in Peter’s letter.
So, in 1 Peter 1v6-7 we read: “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ”. Peter was saying that our faith is more precious than gold. Why? It’s because our faith leads to “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” whereas gold, even when it is highly purified will ultimately perish.
In 1 Peter 1v18-19 we read: “knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot”. The blood of Christ by which we have been ransomed is more precious than silver or gold. Why? It’s because silver and gold are perishable. The inference we must draw is that, in contrast with such perishability, the blood of Christ is of eternal value.
Then look at 1 Peter 1v23-25 where we read: “since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever””. The seed by which we’ve been born again is not fleshly, earthly seed. That is perishable seed because it eventually withers and dies. Rather, the seed by which we’ve been born again is “the word of the Lord”. That’s imperishable seed because it’s “living and abiding” and it “remains forever”.
So, as Peter has done previously in various contexts, here in the context of adorning, he’s comparing outward adorning with inward adorning. He mentions “the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear”, not as things to be forbidden per se but simply as examples of external adorning. In his day, those were prime examples of outward, external adornments that women employed. If he was writing today he might say something like “hair colouring, body piercing and false eyelashes.
What does Peter mean by a Christian wife’s “adorning” in this context? I think he means the source of her true beauty and what makes her genuinely and lastingly attractive. He’s saying that what matters, what really counts, what really lasts is not any form of outward adornment whatever it might be but “the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit”. Why is that? It’s because that, as Peter says: “in God’s sight is very precious”. That’s what God values. That’s what counts to Him. That’s what pleases Him. He looks at what’s in the heart not what’s on the outside.
So, in keeping with the whole spirit and ethos of the New Covenant we’re not to take Peter’s words as a specific command against “the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear”. You ladies are not to give yourselves a pat on the back for not having braided hair! Neither are you to feel that you’re being “got at” if you happen to be wearing any jewellery! Neither is this to be taken as a command against outward adorning in general. There is freedom for Christian wives to choose what they will wear. Does that then mean that they can wear absolutely anything? The answer really is “yes and no”. You see, with freedom there is also responsibility. Look at the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 6v12 where he says: ““All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything”.
Paul states quite categorically “All things are lawful for me”. But, there being no law against something doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s helpful or beneficial and it certainly isn’t helpful for your Christian life and witness if you allow yourself to be dominated by it. In the quote from Robert Leighton that we alluded to earlier he mentioned that women in particular have a desire to ornament themselves and have “a peculiar propensity….. to improve the necessity (of clothing) to an advantage”. I tend to think that that was a valid observation. Isn’t it true to say that many women are dominated by hairstyles, jewellery, beauty treatments, keeping up with latest fashions and so on? They spend a lot of time thinking about it and discussing it, they read magazines about it, they put a lot of effort into it, they spend a lot of money on it. It can mean so much to them that they are dominated by it. Now, for a Christian wife, there are no laws against having your hair styled and wearing jewellery and wearing fashionable clothes but there is a responsibility to not be dominated by any of it. Why? Because it’s all merely external so keep a right sense of proportion. Always remember that, from an eternal perspective, it counts for nothing. There are much more important things to think about and to spend your time and money on.
In this passage Peter is specifically addressing Christian wives but, for the sake of balance, it’s worth mentioning that exactly the same principle applies to Christian men. Most of us men are probably not in danger of being dominated by hairstyles and jewellery and so on although perhaps nowadays that isn’t necessarily true. But men have other things that can easily dominate them. People talk about boys and their toys. We men need to apply exactly the same principle to cars and gadgets. Likewise our hobbies and interests be it model railways, music, football or other sports. They’re all perfectly legitimate things. There’s no law against any of them but, as believers in Christ, we have a responsibility to have a sense of proportion and keep them in their right place. We mustn’t let them dominate us anymore that Christian wives are to let fashion and beauty trends dominate them.
We’ve just quoted 1 Corinthians 6v12. Paul also says something similar in1 Corinthians 10v23-24 where we read: ““All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor”.
Now, “the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear” doesn’t “build up” either yourself or others and neither is it for the good of your neighbour. Rather, it draws attention to yourself. It cries out “Look at me!” That’s very different from “the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” isn’t it?
So, on the one hand you have freedom to wear what you want but on the other hand you have a responsibility to work out what is appropriate. In the absence of clear rules, how do you do that? I suggest that you need to consider a couple of things. Firstly, your motive and secondly the message you’re conveying.
Motive is always crucial because the Lord looks upon the heart. What motives do we need to avoid? I’ll mention three.
Firstly, don’t be motivated by the belief that there is a particularly “Christian” way to dress. As we’ve seen, there are no prescribed rules and yet some follow a tradition or allow themselves to be bound by unwritten rules. On our way to church on Sunday mornings we pass a Brethren Hall. It’s almost always completely deserted but once in a while there are lots of people there and the men all look exactly the same. They all wear white shirts, black ties and black suits. I can’t imagine that they have that many funerals! They’re clearly motivated by a need to conform to a perceived code of dress for godly men. The danger with that is that they pride themselves on having kept arbitrary rules but could well have failed to do what God really requires. Translating that to what we’ve been seeing in connection with Christian wives, they might refrain from “the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry” but fail to adorn themselves with “the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” which is what the Lord is wanting to see. We can all be very good at getting hung up on things that don’t really matter much while happily ignoring what does really matter. Remember how Jesus denounced the Pharisees in Matthew 23v23: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others”. You see, they were meticulous on minor externals but neglected the characteristics that God wanted to see flowing from within.
Secondly, we need to recognise that, in Peter’s day, “the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry” was very expensive so it was a way for wealthy women to draw attention to themselves and parade their affluence and station in life. The desire to dress in a way that draws attention to yourself is not appropriate for a Christian wife whose adorning is to be “the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit”.
Thirdly, don’t be motivated by a desire to parade the freedom that you have in Christ. It’s interesting to recognise that most of the Greek and Roman thinkers and teachers of Peter’s day admonished women to not have elaborate hairstyles or wear costly jewels but to dress modestly. So what Peter said about “the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry” wasn’t actually anything new or even specifically “Christian”. He was saying that, although Christian wives have liberty to wear whatever they want, it would be best if they dress in keeping with the norms of the society in which they found themselves. Why? Well, that brings us to the question of the message being conveyed.
Why did the Greek and Roman thinkers and teachers of Peter’s day admonish women to not have elaborate hairstyles or wear costly jewels? It’s because they were considered to be an indication of deception and seduction and idleness. Peter knew full well that a fancy hairdo or a piece of jewellery isn’t intrinsically good or bad and as such is of no consequence to God just as Paul was in no doubt that God had no problem with the eating of food that had been offered to idols. But, if society at large considers something to convey a negative message it’s best for believers to not exercise their liberty. It’s better to curtail your freedom than to send a message that gives a bad impression of the gospel. So, Paul says in 1 Timothy 2v9-10: “likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works”. The principle being urged there is that: “women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control”. In Paul and Peter’s day, to wear “braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire” was not considered to be respectable or modest or to suggest self-control. It didn’t send a message of respectability or modesty or self-control so it was best for Christian wives to refrain from such things.
Of course, the significance of outward adornment varies at different times and in different cultures. For example, when I was a boy I was in the Boys’ Brigade and the church also had a Girls’ Brigade Company. I remember the very elderly Captain of the Girls’ Brigade Company once commenting how strange it was to her that the uniform of a Christian organisation required the girls to wear black stockings because, when she was a girl, wearing black stockings was a sign of an immoral woman. In the 1960’s black stockings had no such connotation and it certainly doesn’t convey such a message today. There was a time when it would not have been advisable for a Christian woman to wear black stockings but that’s no longer the case. In Victorian times it would not have been advisable for a Christian woman to let her ankles be seen but that’s no longer the case.
This really highlights the folly of understanding Peter to be giving a specific command against “the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry” doesn’t it? If a Christian woman in Victorian times displayed her ankles there would have been widespread muttering if not uproar. Would that have stopped if she’d said “yes, but my hair isn’t braided and I’m not wearing any jewellery”? No, because in Victorian times her exposed ankles were sending the same message as braided hair and jewellery would have sent in Peter’s day.
So, in Christ you have freedom but the extent to which you exercise that freedom should be dependent on your motive and on the message you’d be conveying. And, you should be prepared to curtail that freedom because it’s freedom with regard to something that doesn’t really matter very much and is of no lasting consequence.
What is really important is that you “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”. You sometimes hear it said that beauty is only skin deep don’t you? That’s very true of superficial, physical beauty. As we read in Proverbs 31v30: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised”. So, Peter is encouraging Christian wives to adorn themselves with an “imperishable beauty”. That’s not vain. It’s not “skin deep”. It comes from what Peter describes as “the hidden person of the heart”. It’s not put on the outside. It comes from the inside and it’s what the Lord takes particular notice of. He made that clear when He gave instructions to Samuel when he was given the task of choosing a king from among the sons of Jesse. We read in 1 Samuel 16v7: “But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart””.
For the natural man, it should be a scary thing to know that “the Lord looks on the heart” because, by nature, according to Jeremiah 17v9: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” but, as believers in Christ, we’ve been born again and we have new hearts. Now, God can see into those new hearts but they are hidden from other people. That’s why Peter speaks of “the hidden person of the heart”. I can’t look into your hearts any more than you can look into mine. What we can see is what arises from people’s hearts. We can see what comes out. We can see what hearts produce and, hearts renewed by God and indwelt by the Holy Spirit should produce “a gentle and quiet spirit”. Remember that gentleness is part of the fruit of the Spirit.
The Greek word that’s been translated as “gentle” there could equally be translated as meek or humble. It’s only used on three other occasions in the New Testament. One of them is in the Sermon on the Mount which is really Jesus’ manifesto for New Covenant living. He said in Matthew 5v5: “Blessed are the meek”. In the other two instances, the word is used of Jesus Himself. So, in Matthew 11v29 we read Jesus saying: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls”. Then, we read of Him in Matthew 21v4-5: “This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden’”.
Matthew 12v17-21 is also relevant here: “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope””. The word “gentle” doesn’t appear there but the gentleness of Jesus is depicted beautifully in the words “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench”. As well as His gentle spirit, there’s also an indication of His quiet spirit in the words “He will not quarrel or cry aloud”.
So, for a Christian wife to be adorned with “the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” is nothing less than to be Christ-like. Such a spirit should be attractive and beautiful to the husbands of Christian wives and, what’s for sure, “in God’s sight” it “is very precious”.
You might well say that that is all very interesting and helpful but wonder what it all has to do with Christian wives submitting themselves to their husbands. After all, that’s the key point of the passage. Well, that will become clearer when we move on next time to consider: The Pattern of submission in verses 5 and 6.