Around the time I began seminary I applied for several pastoral positions in the Louisville area. Looking back, I was probably too young and ill-equipped for that, but that’s beside the point. I remember one email correspondence I had with a member of a search committee at one of the churches to which I applied. She asked for my view on women serving as pastors. So I laid out a case for why I believed women should not be ordained as pastors, drawing especially from Paul’s teaching about that in 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Her response to my argument went something like this: “There are passages in the Bible about braided hair and jewelry that we don’t obey today, so why should we obey that one?” That is a lesson on how we must not treat the Bible. If we approach biblical passages with the assumption that says, “Well, this is one of those passages that we can just ignore because that’s what everyone seems to do,” then we are not honoring biblical authority. We are instead placing some standard, drawn from our own experience, above the Bible and filtering everything from Scripture through that standard. If we carry that out consistently, we will end up allowing the Bible to say to us only what we already believe, and thus we will allow it no ability to correct us.
I do want to mention in passing here that I am not saying that everything in the Bible applies to us in the same form in which it was originally written. Times change, and cultural forms change, and that means that the particular form of cultural expression by which we obey Scripture will change at different times and places, but the point is that, even while recognizing that reality, our goal must always be to obey all of Scripture, even the passages that are politically incorrect, like this one.
Before getting into the details of this text, I want to clear away two possible objections that you may have that could possibly stand in the way of it reaching your heart today. The first objection is this: one could argue that what Peter says here doesn’t apply to us anymore because Peter was writing to believers who lived in first-century Greco-Roman households, which were ordered in a certain way with the husband as head and authority, and Peter wanted to make sure that Christians did not act as social revolutionaries who overturned the order of society. So he commanded wives to submit in that setting, but since our social order is very different today, he wouldn’t say the same thing to wives today. One could point to the fact that Peter has just addressed slaves in 2:18-25, commanding them to submit to their masters, as an argument for this objection. After all, if we can read that passage about slaves today and acknowledge the major social change that has occurred since then, even acknowledging that the elimination of slavery in our context was a very good thing, could we also do the same here? Could we say that the elimination of any notion of a husband’s authority over his wife in marriage that is now commonly accepted in our society is a good development, so Peter’s commands here really can’t apply directly to our setting?
That argument might work if we didn’t have the rest of the Bible. But we do have the rest of the Bible, and among numerous places we might go to test that claim, I would point to Genesis 2:18-25, where God, at the beginning of creation before sin ever entered the world, created Eve from Adam and for Adam and brought her to him. And he named her “woman,” demonstrating his authority over her from the beginning as her husband. Nowhere in Genesis 1-2 do we read of God creating a slave for Adam. The institution of slavery came after the fall. But marriage was designed by God from the beginning, with a structure of authority from the beginning. I would also point to Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:22-33, where he argues that marriage was actually a mystery in former times that has now been revealed as a picture of the gospel, where the husband represents Christ and the wife represents the church. And in this relationship there is a clear hierarchy of authority with corresponding responsibilities. So yes, cultures change, but God’s design for marriage has not changed, and what Peter gives us here is a picture that reflects that design that continues to speak powerfully and directly to our marriages today.
And now here’s a second possible objection that could prevent some of you from hearing this word today: what if you’re not married? Does this text say anything to you at all? Well, if you’re not married right now, you fall into one of two categories. You are either not married, but you will be married someday. In that case, this passage matters very much for you because it will help prepare you for your future calling as a husband or wife. Or you are not married, and you won’t ever be married (or perhaps married again) in the future. If that is your situation, I want to argue that this passage still matters to you, because you do not walk the path of the Christian life alone. You walk it with brothers and sisters in the church, many of whom are married or will be married one day. And they need your gifts, your encouragement, your help in discipleship. Even if marriage is not in your present or future, it is certainly possible that helping a brother or sister (or both) navigate the challenges of marriage is, and thus you too must give careful attention to all that the Bible says about marriage, including this passage.
With those two objections out of the way, I want to invite you to listen closely to this text, with all of its politically incorrect edges. Let it poke you. Let it expose false patterns of thought you have about marriage in general, or about your marriage in particular. Let it lay bare hidden sins of your heart and home that need to be identified for what they are and put to death. And let it give life to your heart, your home, and your marriage, that God intends it to give. Husbands and wives who obey this text together, toward one another, will find deep and lasting joy in marriage. But some of you may find yourselves in a marriage situation in which you seem to be the only partner who wants to obey this teaching. God intends this passage to give life to you as well, because Peter addresses that very issue along the way. So let’s unpack these seven verses, noting first the instructions Peter gives to wives and then to husbands.
First, Peter gives
I. Instructions to wives (vv. 1-6).
Peter gives the bulk of his instruction to wives here in six verses. He gives one command in verses 1-2, another command in verses 3-4, and then an example to emulate in verses 5-6. Let’s take a look at these two commands and see how the example helps us understand them.
The first command Peter gives to wives is this:
(1) Submit to your husband; it may win him over.
One big reason a wife might have trouble with this command is because she assumes that it applies to the degree that her husband shows himself worthy of it. As we will see, submission in this passage is deeply tied up with respect, and the tendency of the flesh is to say, “Well, I would respect him, but he hasn’t proven to me that he is all that respectable.” I want you to notice how Peter takes that idea and detonates a nuclear bomb right over it.
Look at verses 1-2: “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.” Peter knows that he is writing to at least some wives who are married to husbands who are disobedient to the word of the gospel. They do not submit themselves to the lordship of Jesus Christ. It is likely that the women in this situation heard the gospel and believed after they were already married, but their husbands, to this point, have heard it and have said, “No, that’s not for me.” If anything would mark out a husband as unworthy of respect, you would think it would be his blatant denial of the truth about God, about his sin, and about the redeeming work of Christ held out in the gospel. And yet Peter says, “submit to your own husbands.” Wives, the point to understand here is this: the responsibility to submit to and respect your husband is based on the office he holds as your husband, not based on his merit. So I’m going to reason in this direction: if Peter could command wives to submit to their non-Christian husbands, how much more should you who are married to Christian men submit to the leadership and authority of your husbands?
If you look closely at the texture of these verses in the Greek, an important nuance emerges that seems to have massive importance. Notice that Peter begins verse 1 with the word “likewise.” That word seems to refer back to 2:18, where Peter wrote, “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect.” I pointed out in my sermon on 2:18-25 that the phrase translated “with all respect” uses the word that is normally translated “fear,” and in 1 Peter consistently refers to the fear of God. So I think what Peter meant in 2:18 is, “Servants, be subject to your masters in the fear of God.” Now, when he turns to address wives with the word “likewise” in 3:1, he means, “Wives submit to your husbands in the same way: in the fear of God.” Verse 2 also speaks of “respectful” conduct of wives. Guess what: same Greek word there too. I think Peter is speaking there as well of conduct that demonstrates the fear of God. So what’s the bottom line for you, wives? It’s that you submit to your husbands, not because your husbands have earned that from you, but because you fear God, and God has appointed your husbands as your authorities.
One motivation for this submission, says Peter, is that it may result in unbelieving husband being won over to the gospel without the need for his wife talking him into it. Here let’s keep in mind the verse that is the heading for this entire section of the letter, which is 2:12: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” So how do we as Christians live honorable lives that adorns the gospel in society? We respect the order of society. We submit to governing authorities (vv. 13-17). Slaves are to submit to masters (vv. 18-25). Wives are to submit to husbands.
And yet, even in the way Peter commands this, he subtly indicates that the submission of a wife to her husband cannot be absolute. Writing to a society in which wives were expected to worship the same gods their husbands worshiped, Peter speaks of wives fearing God and conducting themselves in purity. These terms would not be applicable to pagan worship, and thus Peter indicates that, where a husband’s expectations conflict with God’s, a wife must never follow him into sin. But she should submit to him insofar as it does not involve sin on her part. That’s the first command.
Peter gives a second command to wives:
(2) Adorn yourself with virtue; it pleases God.
Verses 3-4 read, “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.” These verses sound very controversial at first glance, but it’s worth noting that Peter doesn’t technically forbid braided hair or jewelry here. He simply says that a wife should not seek her primary adornment in the way she makes herself look. You’ll notice that Peter mentions “the clothing you wear” in verse 3. That doesn’t mean he is forbidding the wearing of clothes! He is making the point that a wife should let her character lead the way in making her beautiful and not dress herself up in a way that is meant to draw excessive attention to her. But don’t draw the opposite conclusion here either, namely, that a wife should care nothing about her appearance. Wives, it is a good thing for you to want to make yourself look good to your husband (but without trying to draw the attention of every other man in the room). Just understand that, as you seek to present yourself as beautiful to him, your inner character is the source of your greatest beauty.
Peter speaks here of a gentle, quiet spirit. This is a disposition of respect toward your husband, a willingness to speak to him in ways that build him up instead of tearing him down. It is the opposite of a nagging, critical spirit that seeks to dominate your husband, to point out and correct his every fault. Men are built with a longing primarily for respect. Wives, you have incredible power to cut and wound your husband when you speak of him disrespectfully. Of all the seven billion people who live in this world, I can almost guarantee that one person’s respect matters to him more than that of all others combined, and that is yours. A gentle, quiet spirit that exudes respect for the man God has placed over you has the power to do wonders for his own sense of manhood, and thus his own abilities to be a good husband to you and a father to your children.
But even apart from the effect it might have on your husband, here’s a far more important thing to consider: the cultivation of a gentle, quiet spirit of respect in you is pleasing to God. Peter says it is “very precious” in God’s sight. So let me put it this way: if you notice a real lack of respect for your husband in your heart, and you repent of that and begin cultivating a gentle, quiet spirit toward him, and you submit to his leadership, you speak respectfully to him and about him toward others, you look for opportunities to praise the way he works hard for your family and to notice his accomplishments, you show him with your actions that when he pursues you, you welcome his pursuits—if you do all of these things, all the while hoping that you will see some change in him toward you on the other side of this equation, and that change never happens, you know what? It’s all worth it anyway. Because your motivation in obeying God should not be first and foremost to get a better husband out of the deal. Your motivation should be to please God, and Peter says this is how wives please God. When you come to the end of your life and look back over the years you had on this earth, no matter how you evaluate the quality of your marriage, what matters more is how God evaluates your character. You ultimately have no control over whether or not your marriage will be a great marriage. But you do have control over whether or not you will be a wife who fears God and, because she fears God, respects her husband.
In verses 5-6 Peter draws from biblical examples to illustrate his point: “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.” The most important thing Peter tells us about the holy women of old is that they “hoped in God.” The direction of their lives was oriented by their faith, which gave them the inner strength to adorn themselves with virtue by submitting to their husbands. In particular, Peter mentions Sarah, who obeyed Abraham, calling him “lord.” Peter apparently refers here to Genesis 18:12, where Sarah speaks, not to Abraham directly, but to herself, and as she does, she speaks of him as “my lord.” That was a culturally appropriate way for Sarah to speak of Abraham. Wives, should you refer to your husbands today as “my lord”? No, I wouldn’t argue that. The word “lord” is not a common word in our vernacular. The only time I use it is when I am referring to the Lord himself. Peter isn’t saying we have to adopt foreign cultural practices. What he is saying is that wives should imitate Sarah by speaking respectfully of their husbands (even when talking to themselves!) and submitting to them.
And did you realize that Sarah spoke this way about Abraham in Genesis 18? Genesis 18 comes after Genesis 12 and before Genesis 20, and in both chapters Abraham tells Sarah to lie and say that she is his sister as they sojourn among foreigners because Abraham is afraid his beautiful wife will draw the attraction of men who would kill him over her. So in both chapters Sarah does so, and both times she is taken into the harem of another man! Abraham selfishly put his own safety above the well-being of his wife, and if it had not been for God’s intervention in both cases, Sarah could have become a sex slave. Wives, whatever ways your husband has failed, I’m guessing he has never done anything that bad! So Peter holds up Sarah as an example of a woman who respected her undeserving husband. And he tells Christian wives that they are children of Sarah—those who imitate her character and receive the inheritance of salvation that comes through her offspring—if they do good and do not fear anything that is frightening. It makes perfect sense that Peter would refer to doing good here, which is a common theme in this section of the letter. But why would he mention not fearing anything that is frightening? I think it is because Peter knows that at least some of the wives hearing this letter are in a precarious situation, married to pagan husbands and threatening to upset the social order by refusing to worship their husbands’ gods. What might an unbelieving husband do in that situation? Could he become violent or abusive toward her? That certainly seems possible. So just as Peter had told slaves to submit to their masters, not out fear of their masters, but out of the fear of God, here he tells wives of unbelieving husbands to do the same.
Wives, submit to your husbands. Adorn yourselves with virtue. Peter indicates that these are not really two distinct commands, but one and the same.
In the last verse, Peter addresses husbands. So we come now to
II. Instructions for husbands (v. 7).
Although this section is much shorter, we can identify two commands that Peter gives.
(1) Live with your wife according to knowledge; she is the weaker vessel.
The phrase “in an understanding way” in the Greek means literally “according to knowledge.” So what does it mean to live with your wife “according to knowledge”? It means don’t be a fathead. Don’t be oblivious to what your wife needs from you and what God has commanded that you give to her: love, affection, stability, provision, protection, leadership. Just as you will draw strength from her respect for you, so will she draw strength from your love for her. Living “according to knowledge” means understanding how God has designed marriage to work and thus what he requires of you in relating to “the weaker vessel.”
What does it mean to say that a woman is “the weaker vessel”? It seems to refer to the fact that women are naturally weaker than men in a physical sense. On average, women are smaller and have a significantly smaller amount of muscle mass. It’s also worth noting here that throughout most of history, women have been weaker in their standing in society, and that is probably a result of the fact that they are simply physically weaker than men on the whole. For a husband to recognize this reality about his wife enables him to understand how to live together with her in a God-honoring way. It would be easy for most husbands to dominate their wives physically, to use their size, strength, or even force of personality to run over their wives. But Peter’s call to live together “according to knowledge” is the opposite of that. A husband with knowledge of God’s will for marriage is a husband who understands what his wife needs from him, and instead of being resentful or frustrated by her weaker nature, instead he seeks her good above his own.
And then Peter gives a second command to husbands:
(2) Show your wife honor; she is a fellow heir of the grace of life.
Instead of running over her, you must show honor to her. Why? Because, Peter says, women who are in Christ are fellow heirs of the grace of life. I have made reference before to the Roman dream of the good life, the dream of being written into someone’s will and becoming an heir of fortune and social standing. This dream was only available to a small number of people, and they were almost exclusively men. Daughters were usually not heirs because they were expected to marry into another family. But Peter here says to Christian men that their believing wives are “heirs with you,” precious daughters of God, who stand to inherit the same world to come through Jesus Christ that you will inherit. If you are living together with someone in whom God delights, how dare you act toward her in any other way than to show her the honor that she deserves?
As you put these two commands together—living according to knowledge and showing your wife honor—again you see that these are not really two distinct commands but two ways of saying the same thing. Husbands, you have the natural ability plow over your wife, to dominate and demean her. But you dare not if you fear God at all. Love her and live with her in gentleness and tender care.
Now let me address the opposite error here, just because we live in a culture that has swung very far to the other side. We are not a society that naturally encourages men to be men. Instead, we mock, criticize, and heap condemnation on masculinity. Boys grow up not knowing how to be men, not knowing how to walk in the confidence of their manhood, and when they become husbands, they think their main calling as husbands is to avoid ever doing anything that would upset their wives. And so they become, as Douglas Wilson describes it, “Mr. Nice Guy.” Mr. Nice Guy isn’t comfortable with the idea that he has any authority in the home. He fears any disagreement or disapproval from his wife, and he assumes that she is morally superior to him, so he doesn’t trust himself even to know how to lead his family in what is right. Husbands, hear me on this: your wife doesn’t need Mr. Nice Guy. She needs a man who will lead her, a man who will acknowledge that he bears responsibility for his family, and who is willing to make the tough calls that have to be made and then to own complete responsibility for making them. She needs a man who is willing to lead the way in repentance, but in doing so also to show her how to repent. She needs a man who will take a stand and say, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Husbands, don’t run over your wife, but also don’t assume that means you have to make her head of the home. Walk in the confidence of your office as husband. God has given you the authority to lead, so lead your family for the glory of God.
Peter closes out verse 7 with a remarkable statement that says why a husband must live with his wife according to knowledge and show her honor: “so that your prayers may not be hindered.” I can’t think of a more weighty statement Peter could have made about the importance of loving your wife well. Peter says that a failure to do so will bring the discipline of the Lord upon you, so that he will refuse to answer your prayers. Any man who prays obviously desires the blessing of God upon his life, upon his pursuits, upon his activities out in the world. He wants to make a difference, to glorify God in his work, to make the world a better place. And God will refuse to listen to him if he doesn’t get his house in order first. Do you want to serve God out in the world? Learn how to serve him at home. Husbands, the next time you feel welling up in you the words that you know will feel like daggers in her heart, the next time you feel like storming off in anger, the next time you feel like giving her the silent passive-aggressive treatment (and I acknowledge, to my shame, that I can do that one particularly well), let the words “so that your prayers may not be hindered” echo in your mind. Let those words remind you that you answer to God for the way you exercise authority in your home, and God has no patience for one who abuses his authority.
We live in a society that has lost all sanity when it comes to marriage. What started with the “no fault” divorce movement of the 70’s and 80’s became the gay rights movement of the 90’s, leading to the complete redefinition of marriage by the Supreme Court in 2015 to include same-sex couples, now giving way to the gender identity movement that has tried to scramble completely our understanding of what a man or a woman even is. Meanwhile, regarding procreation (one of the God-ordained goals of marriage), birth rates in America are on the decline, and as a nation we have now legally murdered somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty million unborn children since 1973. Culturally, we are living through an open rebellion against God with respect to marriage and sexuality. Where marriage goes from here, we can only imagine. Children, youth, college students, the pressure is going to be put on you to deny what you know the Bible teaches on these matters, and you will face pressure from friends, from authority figures, from institutions, to turn your back on the truth about marriage and human sexuality in order to avoid the condemnation of the social justice mobs. You very likely will lose opportunities to advance yourself if you hold fast to the Bible. Be ready. Don’t wait until that moment comes to decide what you will do. Jesus is worth enduring it all. We love you and are here for you.
We who are sojourners and exiles in this world must embrace a vision of marriage that is biblical and beautiful and pass that on to our children. If they don’t see the beauty of marriage in our lives and in our teachings, how in the world do we expect them to suffer for the truth when the pressure comes? Husbands, wives, this is not just about you. It’s about the children you are raising, whose hearts are being formed about marriage from what they see from you day after day. May we recognize the beauty of the order that God has established in the home, and may we seek to cultivate marriages that reflect the respect of wives for husbands and the love of husbands for wives that Scripture teaches. This will not be an easy task, and we won’t do it perfectly, but Christ has died to make us holy, including holiness in our homes, and Christ will have the reward for which he suffered. Amen.