1 Peter 3:1-6 (ESV)
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.
These verses are tough to explain and apply in light of our modern culture. It’s tough enough to teach about the submission of wives to godly husbands. But to teach that wives should submit even to husbands who are ungodly seems cruel and insensitive.
Wife abuse is widespread…even among Christians. Furthermore, we live in a society that values individual rights, especially of those who are pushed down by the system (such as women). We’re constantly encouraged to stand up for our rights and to fight back when we’re wronged.
Self-fulfillment is a supreme virtue in America, and those who are unfulfilled because of a difficult marriage are encouraged to do what they have to do to seek personal happiness. Submission to one’s difficult husband is not usually one of the action points!
To understand our text, we must see that Peter’s theme (which began at 2:11) is still Christian witness in an alien world. Peter didn’t want to compound the problem with a wife’s defiant behavior. So he gives instruction on how Christian women could live with their unbelieving mates in a way that would bear witness for Christ.
We need to understand several things in approaching this text. First, the qualities Peter encourages these women to adopt apply to all Christians, both men and women. We all are to develop a submissive spirit, to be chaste, reverent, gentle and quiet, with an emphasis on the inner person rather than on outward appearance.
Second, Peter’s comments do not encourage a Christian to enter a marriage with an unbelieving mate. Scripture is clear that believers are not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14; Exod. 34:12‑16; Ezra 9:1‑4). Also, the Apostle Paul clearly states that if an unbelieving mate consents to live with a believer, the believer must not initiate a divorce (1 Cor. 7:12‑13).
What do these verses NOT say?
- Do not leave.
- Do not lead.
- Do not nag him to death.
Rather, the believing wife should follow the principles Peter sets forth here, namely, that …
A Christian wife should live with a difficult husband so that he is attracted to Christ by her behavior.
Peter’s point is that godly conduct is a powerful witness, much more powerful than words without conduct. He does not mean that verbal witness is not important. In the proper context, words are essential to communicate the content of the gospel. Peter’s point is that disobedient husbands are more likely to be won by godly practice than by preaching from their wives. They will notice attractive behavior and through it be drawn to the source of that behavior—a relationship with Jesus Christ. I want to look at seven aspects of such attractive behavior and then answer three practical questions that arise.
1. Attractive behavior involves submission.
Paul recognizes a sense in Christian marriage in which each partner submits to the other under Christ, but he also goes on to state that the husband is the head of the wife, just as Christ is the head of the church. There is a sense in which Christ submits Himself to the church in self‑ sacrificing service, but at the same time, clearly He is in authority over the church.
Two things about authority and submission. First, the purpose of authority is to protect and bless those under authority, not to benefit the one in authority. Because of sin, those in authority commonly abuse it and God will hold them accountable.
Second, God never tells husbands to get their wives to submit to them. All the commands to submit are directed to wives. A husband who focuses on his authority is out of line. His responsibilities are to love his wife sacrificially (Eph. 5:25) and to live with her in an understanding way, granting her honor (1 Pet. 3:7).
What, then, does submission mean? The Greek word is a military term meaning to place in rank under someone. But the biblical spirit of submission involves far more than just grudgingly going along with orders (as often happens in the military). Rather, submission is the attitude and action of willingly yielding to and obeying the authority of another to please the Lord.
Attitude is crucial. A disobedient little boy was told to sit in the corner. He said, “I may be sitting on the outside, but I’m standing on the inside.” That’s defiance, not submission.
Submission involves an attitude of respect and a recognition of the responsibility of the one in authority. Rather than trying to thwart his will through manipulation or scheming, a submissive wife will seek to discover what her husband wants and do it to please him, as long as it doesn’t involve disobedience to God.
The source of many marital problems is that the wife is seeking to control the husband to meet what she perceives as her needs and the husband is seeking to dominate the wife to meet what he perceives as his needs. So you have a constant tug of war going on. That’s not the biblical pattern for husbands or wives.
2. Attractive behavior involves purity.
This means that a wife who wants to win her husband to Christ must live in obedience to God. She will be morally pure. Her husband won’t distrust her because she’s a flirt with other men. She won’t use deception or dishonesty to try to get her own way. She will learn to handle anger in a biblical way. Her hope will be in God (3:5) so that she will have a sweet spirit, even toward a difficult husband. He will see Christlikeness in her.
3. Attractive behavior involves reverence.
The idea is that a godly wife will live in the fear of God, aware that He sees all that is going on (“in the sight of God,” 3:4). To live in the fear of God means that we recognize His holiness and wrath against all sin and therefore live obediently, even when it’s hard.
4. Attractive behavior involves not nagging.
Nothing will drive a man further from the Lord than a nagging wife. Solomon said it 3,000 years ago, and it’s still true, “It is better to live in a corner of a roof, than in a house shared with a contentious woman” (Prov. 21:9). And, “the contentions of a wife are a constant dripping” (Prov. 19:13b). Nagging will drive your husband crazy, but it won’t drive him to Christ.
Nagging will do one of two things to men: Either it will make him resist and become obstinate, or he will give in to keep the peace.
Either response is not good for the wife. If the husband becomes more obstinate, he can become abusive. This creates distance in the relationship. If he gives in to keep the peace, he becomes passive and the wife is put in the role of the decision maker, out from under the covering of blessing and protection that God designed proper authority to be.
Thus attractive behavior involves submission, purity, reverence toward God, and not nagging.
5. Attractive behavior involves a gentle and quiet spirit.
“Quiet” does not mean mute, but rather tranquil or calm, not combative. A quiet woman exudes a confidence in her role and giftedness. She is not out to prove anything, because she is secure in who she is in the Lord. She may be “quiet” and yet be articulate and persuasive in presenting her point of view.
6. Attractive behavior involves doing what is right.
You have become Sarah’s children “if you do what is right.” Peter emphasizes this concept (2:12, 14, 15, 20; 3:6, 11, 13, 16, 17; 4:19). It always occurs in the context of others doing wrong toward us and points to the fact that our behavior shouldn’t be determined by how others treat us. We’re so prone to react to wrong treatment with more wrong treatment and then to blame our sin on the other person’s sin. But God wants us to be prepared to respond to wrongs against us by doing what is right.
7. Attractive behavior involves an emphasis on the inner person over outward appearance.
The point of 3:3‑4 is not that a woman should neglect her outward appearance, but rather that her emphasis should be on the inner person. He is not forbidding all braiding of hair or wearing of jewelry, or else he’s also forbidding wearing dresses!
A young officer who was blinded during a war met and later married one of the nurses who took care of him in the hospital. One day he overheard someone say, “It was lucky for her that he was blind, since no one who could see would marry such a homely woman.” He walked toward the voice and said, “I overheard what you said, and I thank God from the depths of my heart for blindness of eyes that might have kept me from seeing the marvelous worth of the soul of this woman who is my wife. She is the most noble character I have ever known; if the conformation of her features is such that it might have masked her inward beauty to my soul then I am the great gainer by having lost my sight.” (Donald Barnhouse, Let Me Illustrate [Revell], p. 156.)