Strangers And Aliens (13a): Living Among The Pagans (1 Peter 3:1–6)

1Likewise, 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, 2when they see your respectful and pure conduct. 3Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— 4but 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. 5For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, 6as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening (ESV). 1Ὁμοίως [αἱ] γυναῖκες, ὑποτασσόμεναι τοῖς ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν, ἵνα καὶ εἴ τινες ἀπειθοῦσιν τῷ λόγῳ, διὰ τῆς τῶν γυναικῶν ἀναστροφῆς ἄνευ λόγου κερδηθήσονται, 2ἐποπτεύσαντες τὴν ἐν φόβῳ ἁγνὴν ἀναστροφὴν ὑμῶν.3ὧν ἔστω οὐχ ὁ ἔξωθεν ἐμπλοκῆς τριχῶν καὶ περιθέσεως χρυσίων ἢ ἐνδύσεως ἱματίων κόσμος 4ἀλλ᾿ ὁ κρυπτὸς τῆς καρδίας ἄνθρωπος ἐν τῷ ἀφθάρτῳ τοῦ πραέως καὶ ἡσυχίου πνεύματος, ὅ ἐστιν ἐνώπιον τοῦ θεοῦ πολυτελές. 5οὕτως γάρ ποτε καὶ αἱ ἅγιαι γυναῖκες αἱ ἐλπίζουσαι εἰς θεὸν ἐκόσμουν ἑαυτὰς ὑποτασσόμεναι τοῖς ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν, 6ὡς Σάρρα ὑπήκουσεν τῷ Ἀβραάμ κύριον αὐτὸν καλοῦσα, ἧς ἐγενήθητε τέκνα ἀγαθοποιοῦσαι καὶ μὴ φοβούμεναι μηδεμίαν πτόησιν.

vv 1–2: Modeling Christ Through Voluntary Subjection
The chapter divisions we see in our Bibles were not present originally. Stephen Langton (c. 1150–1228), a Paris theologian and, later, Archbishop of Canterbury, is usually credited with introducing the divisions that know. This is one place where we see the artificiality of the chapter divisions because Peter is carrying on the same (Ὁμοίως) argument he made with respect to servants (slaves). In this section, however, he turns to another socially marginal class, wives. That Peter spends so much time addressing those in the congregation whom the world then regarded so little tells us something about the sorts of people who composed the early Christian congregations in (modern) Turkey to which Peter wrote. We should not exaggerate this fact, however. There is clear witness in the New Testament that there were wealthy members of the congregations too, who are mentioned in the NT. Nevertheless, it is clear in 1 Peter he regards the congregations as composed not so much of the socially powerful but the socially powerless.

The Ancient world wives would ordinarily have adopted their husband’s religion. Peter, however, assumes that some of the wives to whom this epistle was being read (in the assembly of the congregation), had come to faith and remained married to their non-Christian (pagan) husbands. Thus, we have an interesting dynamic at work. The very act of rejecting their husband’s paganism was a sort of divinely-ordained rebellion. By God’s grace, these women had been given new life and true faith in Christ and in that new life and faith they had rejected put the Triune God ahead of their husbands. They feared God more than their husbands. Yet, Peter insists, there are limits to the rebellion. He did not seek to overturn the Greco-Roman social order but to subvert it quietly from within.

Peter enjoins these women (γυναῖκες) to “be submitting yourselves” (ὑποτασσόμεναι) to your own men” (ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν) i.e., to their husbands. We should not think of this submission as being imposed from above from as being drawn out, as it were, from below. As he urged servants to imitate Christ’s submission to the Father, so he urges Christian wives to imitate Christ by voluntarily adopting a posture of submission to their unbelieving husbands.

That purpose is signaled by his use of a purpose clause: “in order that, if (or in the case that) some disobey the Word (ἵνα καὶ εἴ τινες ἀπειθοῦσιν τῷ λόγῳ). Below he will elaborate on this principal more generally but his interest here is the special case of an believing woman married to an unbelieving man. This is the same verb he used in 2:8 to refer to reprobates, those unbelievers who stumble at Christ as they were destined to do. He also uses it in 3:20 to describe those of Noah’s generation who did not believe the Word (and thus perished). It occurs in 4:17 where it is used of those who are found in an unbelieving state at the judgment.

Nevertheless, here, in this context, the final state of unbelieving husband is less in view than is the attitude of the believing wife. She is to freely submit to him in order that, for the purpose of winning him to Christ. That purpose is even clearer in the last clause where Peter writes, “through (διὰ) the conduct (ἀναστροφῆς) of the wives they might, without words, win (κερδηθήσονται) [the husband].”

Verse 2 gives us the circumstances in which Peter says this is to occur: “having seen” (ἐποπτεύσαντες) or “after seeing your pure conduct (ἁγνὴν ἀναστροφὴν) in fear” or “in respect” (ἐν φόβῳ). Peter Davids tells us that the Roman ideal was that a 30-year old man might marry a woman of 15.1 Peter supposes that the (likely) older unbelieving husband, observing that the Christian faith is not revolutionary, is more likely to be receptive. Perhaps more importantly, Peter (like the second-century fathers after him) was convinced that “pure conduct,” i. e., outward conduct that is marked by moral purity and devotion to Christ (reflected by the voluntary submission) will be a compelling witness. We have already discussed, under earlier passages, how important this is for Peter. Few things are as damaging to Christian profession as a hypocrisy. It is the first thing that unbelievers throw back in our faces. When, however, our lives are marked by a simple (in the mathematical sense of single) purpose, that becomes evident over time. By “fear,” or “respect” I take Peter to refer back to his earlier mention of fear (1:17). This is not a servile fear of one’s husband but a due respect to his person and office. The Christian faith does have subversive effects upon social relations and institutions over time but Peter does not imagine that we may say to our spouses, “I am free in Christ and if you do not like it, too bad for you.” That is exactly what he does not want.

The temptation of a new convert might be to badger the unbelieving spouse. Husbands and wives live together in such intimacy that it creates a certain tension, especially in the rush of excitement of a new-found faith. In part the wife is anxious for the husband to be united with them in that faith. She also wants him to know the truth that he has been given to see. It is easy to forget that we came to faith only by the sovereign grace of God. It is a temptation to try to do the work of the Spirit. Peter counsels a wordless witness. It’s an analogy with his understanding of our relations to the broader pagan society. Peter knows nothing of a Christian social transformation of society. He knows about obeying Christ in his world and living in light of the gospel and in anticipation of the coming judgment and salvation. The wife’s relationship to her unbelieving husband is a subset of that larger program. It is God’s business, not ours, to bring people to faith. We are not to be indifferent but nor are we to become a nag either culturally or in the home.

This teaching is perhaps particularly difficult to receive in an age when all enlightened, intelligent men and women are supposed to be feminists of some sort. The historical truth is that the social, economic, and sexual relations between men and women that exist today are fairly revolutionary. They have changed dramatically even in my lifetime. We certainly cannot anachronistically impose an order that is fluid and ever-changing, about which their is uncertainty on all sides, on the past that knew little or nothing of roles that some in our culture take as self-evident and ordinary. If we are to be faithful Christians, however, we must get to grips with the teaching of Scripture, read in its immediate social, literary, and broader redemptive-historical context and we are obligated to believe it, even if it contradicts values deeply held in contemporary culture. In such cases we must not be superficial. As I have already suggested, Peter’s teaching is, in its own quiet way, subversive of the existing order so it is not captive to its own cultural setting. It is not an expression of Greco-Roman patriarchalism any more than Christ’s submission to the Jewish and Roman authorities was an expression of cultural norms. The cross was in its own, quite unexpected way, a subversively revolutionary act. Christ conquered death through death. He took sin with him to the cross and nailed it there. He was winning even as it seemed to all the world that he was losing and lost. So it is in the home. What seems to late-modern eyes like humiliation is actually a powerful witness to a profound Christian truth. Christ freely gave himself for us so that we can freely give ourselves, in response, to others. Our self-image and self-worth lies not in our exercise of power. Rather, our power is that when we are weak (to the world) we are really strong because we belong, body and soul, to him who was weak, dead, and raised from the dead, who rules the nations and shall come in power and glory to bring justice to all.

This instruction in verse 1 is, of course, only the beginning. Peter has more to say about the roles of women and men and we will get to it in the next installment.

Here are all the posts in this series on 1 Peter.

NOTE

  1. Peter Davids, “1 Peter,” in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 4.136.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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One comment

  1. Thank you, sir! I am one of those women who became a Christian after my marriage to a “pagan” man whom I love dearly, but not more than Christ. I look forward to reading more from you on this subject. 🙂

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