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Peter about the Woman in Marriage

A Bit to Read 

Peter about the Woman in Marriage

In the previous Bit to Read I drew attention to the fact that our world commemorated in March the 100th anniversary of the founding of International Women’s Day.  In response to this anniversary I began an examination of what the apostle Peter wrote (1 Peter 3) about the place God has given to man and to woman.  The Scripture passage in question read as follows:

Wives, in the same way be submissive to your 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, 2 when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. 3 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. 5 For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful. They were submissive to their own husbands, 6 like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear. 
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, so that nothing will hinder your prayers. 

I indicated last time that I intended to draw out in a subsequent article what Peter means with his description of the place of the woman and the man in marriage.  Since Peter addresses the wives first, we shall too.  Next time, the Lord willing, we’ll get to Peter’s instruction about the husband.


According to vs 1, some of the women Peter is writing about were married to men who “do not believe the word” and so were not regenerated by the Holy Spirit.  Given the culture of the day (see previous Bit to Read), it is to be expected that these husbands (some? all?) followed the pattern of behaviour characteristic of the pagans of the time, ie, “living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing” (4:3).

To women married to men as these Peter says, “Wives, … be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives” (3:1,2).  We’re surprised by Peter’s instruction, and dismayed!  Ought Peter not to tell wives of such men to protest their circumstances, resist being treated as property and toys, and stand up for their rights?  Given that Peter is a leader, he ought, we think, to organize some sort of International Women’s Day….


He doesn’t.  Why not?  Allow me to suggest two reasons.  In first place, Peter seeks to be faithful to the Scriptures he’s appreciated from youth.  These Scriptures tell him that God created the man first, without the woman, and told him to take care of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15).  God thereafter observed that “it is not good for the man to be alone,” and so determined to “make a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18).  The woman God created was fashioned from man so that man does not come from woman but woman comes from man.  The picture flowing from these data of Genesis 2 is that the man is the leader and the woman is his help.  The consequence of this structure of things was that the woman was to submit to the man.   The pages of Scripture that follow Genesis 2 contain many examples of how the Lord God intended this divine ordinance to look in the marriage relation.  Peter himself summarizes this instruction when he reminds his readers that “the holy women of the past … were submissive to their own husbands,” and refers to Sarah in particular as one who “obeyed Abraham and called him her master” (3:5,6).  (We’ll come back to Peter’s reference to Sarah later on.)  Given this divine ordinance from the beginning, Peter has no option but to tell the wives he addresses, renewed as they are by the Holy Spirit, to “be submissive to your husbands” (3:1).  Had he said anything else, he would have contradicted earlier Scripture.

The second reason behind Peter’s instruction to wives to submit to their husbands lies in the purpose for this submission.  In the culture of the day, people of “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia” (1:1) understood that wives were to be submissive to their husbands; in fact, in the culture of the time husbands were masters of their families not unlike what we hear the case to be in the Middle East today.  Yet had Peter urged Christian wives to buck against that position (for, fundamentally, their husband’s attitude to them is unscriptural), those unbelieving husbands would have been publicly embarrassed and humiliated by their rebelling wives.  How, I ask, would that have helped these husbands come to know Christ?  Remember Peter’s point in this section of his letter, as formulated in 2:12: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits us.”  Peter would have the unbelieving husbands “won over without words by the behaviour of their wives” (3:1), and that surely will not happen if the wives humiliate their men.

Note that Peter used the same form of argument in relation to slaves.  Though slavery is an unscriptural concept, Peter did not encourage convert slaves to flee from their masters, but instructed them instead to “submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh” (2:18).  The Christian is not to pursue own advantage, but is to seek the advantage and salvation of the neighbour.  In the circumstances of the culture of the day, this meant for slaves that they had to accept their slavery, and then work within the system for the master’s eternal benefit.  In the words of 2:12, “Live such good lives among the pagans that … they may see your good deeds and glorify God ….”  The same line of thinking drives Peter to tell wives to “be submissive to your husbands so that, if any do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives” (3:1).


The debauchery, lust and orgies characterizing the behaviour of the pagans of Peter’s time resulted (even as in today’s western society) in an emphasis on the body and hence on cloths, jewellery and hairstyle.  A man had a function to attend in the community and took his wife along – and she could and did dress herself in such a way as to turn a man’s head.  Now Peter says to the Christian women: submit to your husband, go along with him to his function; don’t embarrass him.  But don’t spend your time and energy on beautifying your externals; instead, spend your time beautifying what’s inside.  That’s 3:4, where the apostle commends “the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”  

Why is a gentle and quiet spirit of great worth in God’s sight?  Peter had reminded his readers that they had received new birth into a living hope (1:3,23) so that they were changed persons, alive in the Lord.  His readers’ focus, then, was no longer the here and now, but their focus was now the inheritance God has prepared for them in Jesus Christ (1:4).  With their focus in heaven they were obviously to cultivate heavenly attitudes, like the gentle and quiet spirit.  The women amongst Peter’s readers, then, did not need to covet someone else’s hair or jewellery or clothes; such externals were mere reminders of the “empty way of life” once learned from pagan fathers (1:18), were all passing anyway and of no consequence to one focused on life eternal.  The person born again has his delight fixed on the Saviour, and so wants to draw attention to Him – and that’s to say that you seek to reflect the same attitudes He reflected in the course of His life on earth.  He Himself said that He was “gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29), and said too that the “meek” would inherit the earth – same word (Matthew 5:5).  Paul even mentions the same word as a fruit of the Spirit – “gentleness” (Galatians 5:23).  How fitting, then, that the godly woman cultivate in her marriage (for the benefit of her unbelieving husband and the circle of friends with whom she associates on account of him), that very same spirit the Saviour cultivated.  It’s a spirit that trusts in God and so is quiet and at peace even when things go wrong (cf Ps 62).  It’s the attitude Christ Jesus reflected even in the abuse hurled at Him on the cross of Calvary.  As Peter wrote in the verses directly before his instruction to the wives: “When they hurled their insults at Him, He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats.  Instead, He entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly” (2:23).  That’s the gentle and quiet spirit the Lord would have wives exemplify in their marriages.  It’s a beauty that far surpasses “outward adornment” of “braided hair and the wearing of gold jewellery and fine clothes.”  This is a beauty that turns heads in a whole different way, for it makes pagans stop to consider why you’re different – and how fortunate that husband is to have a wife whose beauty is more than skin-deep.

This, of course, is the emphasis mothers and fathers of all ages need to press upon their girls.  Though they may certainly dress well, no Christian parent will let his daughter emphasise the body, but will instead teach his daughter from childhood to cultivate that inner beauty of the heart.  Similarly, godly parents will teach their boys to look not at outward beauty as they seek a relation with a girl, but look instead at what’s inside. 

The look of a gentle and quiet spirit

What, now, does “submission” look like if it’s characterized by “a gentle and quiet spirit”?  Does such a spirit not leave a wife vulnerable to abuse?  We’re inclined to say Yes….

But Peter shows his readers the better way.  Says he: “This is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful.  They were submissive to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master.”  Notice the reference to “putting their hope in God”.  Does being submissive to one’s (unbelieving) husband –with a gentle and quiet spirit too yet!– make you vulnerable?  Humanly speaking, the answer is yes, of course, especially if he gives himself to debauchery and drunkenness, etc.  But at the heart of the gentle and quiet spirit Peter commends is the notion of trust in God.  One may think of such Old Testament passages as Psalm 62: “My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from Him.  He alone is my rock and my salvation; He is my fortress, I will never be shaken” (vss 1f).  And this, says Peter, is what “the holy women of the past” did; they “put their hope in God”.  An example?  Peter asks his readers to consider Sarah “who obeyed Abraham and called him her master.”

When did she do that?  Consider, for example, this passage from Genesis 12:10-20.   

10 Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. 11 As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. 12 When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.” 
14 When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that she was a very beautiful woman. 15 And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. 16 He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels. 
17 But the LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai. 18 So Pharaoh summoned Abram. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!” 20 Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had.

We know Abram as a godly man, and indeed he was.  But Scripture portrays him as finite and weak….  It was his duty before God to care for his wife, protect her and love (see below on 3:7).  But when famine came upon the Land of Promise Abram failed miserably to be for Sarah the husband God wanted him to be.  He headed off to Egypt, even though he knew that Pharaoh was likely to demand his wife for his harem.  Along the way he admitted as much to Sarah, for he told her to tell a lie lest “they … kill me but … let you live” (12:12).  Clearly, if they would kill Abram but let Sarah live, that could only be because they want to have her – and if they’re willing to kill her husband for her they surely wouldn’t be gentle on her!  Point: Abraham knew that the men of Egypt did “what pagans choose to do – living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies…” (1 Peter 4:3), and Sarah could be their victim.  Yet he was willing to take his wife there!!  We want to scream it out: Abraham, how can you do this to your wife?!  What kind of a selfish wimp are you?!

The question now arises: how should Sarah respond?  Should she get angry with her husband, and refuse to follow Abram to Egypt on grounds that she doesn’t want to run the risk of being made Pharaoh’s trophy?  Truth be said, we’d find such reactions so understandable!

But Scripture, dear reader, tells us how Sarah in fact responded.  The Holy Spirit has Peter record the truth of the matter; she “put [her] hope in God” (3:5).  In keeping with the spirit of Psalm 62, she “entrusted [herself] to Him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23), and so took to heart the instruction of God as it came to her in Genesis 2; she was “submissive to [her] own husband” (1 Peter 3:5), she “obeyed Abraham” (3:6), followed him to Egypt, and so in her deeds “called him her master” (3:6).  By such submission she did “what is right” and did “not give way to fear” (3:6).

We read this with horror, convinced that such apparent passivity is the road to disaster.  Further events in Sarah’s life seem to confirm our conviction that this submission is the wrong way to go because –report the Scriptures– “Pharaoh’s officials … praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace” (Genesis 12:15), and we correctly understand that to mean that Sarah was added to Pharaoh’s harem….  Talk about being vulnerable to the lusts of man!  It’s obvious, we say, that her confidence in God was badly misplaced….

Yet that’s a conclusion the Lord would not have us embrace.  Scripture shows us how her trust was not put to shame, for “the LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai” (Genesis 12:17), with as result that Pharaoh quickly restored her to her husband.  For the wives amongst Peter’s readers the lesson is evident: hope is God never disappoints, and giving way to fear is never helpful.  “You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear” (3:6) in the midst of the dangers that may come in living with a pagan husband.

In Sum

We realise: the sort of hope-in-God that accepts in faith the man God in perfect wisdom gives doesn’t follow its own head to protect oneself from husbandly abuse, but trusts in God to work it all for good.  This trust includes straight-forward obedience to God’s commands, an obedience rooted in the conviction that God’s laws and ordinances are good and wholesome (see Psalm 19:7ff).  This includes acknowledging-in-deeds that God has instructed the wife to submit to her husband.  The vow in the Form for the Solemnization of Marriage puts it this way to the bride: “Do you promise to love and obey him … according to the holy Gospel?”  That Gospel promises God’s gracious and wise care, and so accepting-in-deeds the (broken) man God has given.

This is sort of evidence of hope in God speaks loudly to the conscience of a carousing, lustful and drink-loving man, and, indeed, to all who observe.  This display of trust-in-God makes plain to such a husband that his wife is devoted to him, will not humiliate him, will submit – and the purpose of the submission is to win the husband for the Lord (3:1).  That, you’ll recall, is precisely Peter’s point in this entire section of his letter.  His readers were to “abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul” (and that includes the desire to take matters in your own hands instead of hoping in God); more, they were to “live such good lives among the pagans that … they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits us” (2:11,12). 

Something in us cringes at the implications of this Biblical instruction.  It is good to remind each other, then, that the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ will never leave or forsake us.  Yes, one may believe the sure promise of God that He will always give His aid and protection, even when His daughters (and sons) least expect it.

That leaves for next time Peter’s instruction to husbands.

C Bouwman
April 29, 2011