Instructions for Wives (1 Peter 3:1-6)

Sermon by Rev. Daniel L. Sonnenberg | October 30, 2011


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. (1 Pet. 3:1-6) 


We’ve been talking for several weeks about living a good manner of life among unbelievers, generally for two main purposes: 1) to stop their mouths from accusing us of doing wrong, and 2) to win them to Christ.

This passage is a continuation of the same theme. Wives of unbelievers are encouraged, even commanded, to live a good life before the watchful eyes of her husband in order to win him to Christ.

Peter shows us four things in this passage:

  •  The purpose of submission
  • The conduct/behavior of submission
  • The adornment/beauty of submission
  • The example of submission

He shows us first,

The purpose of submission

The purpose of submission to unbelieving husbands is to win them to Christ.

1 Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won …

He is writing to wives of unbelieving husbands. We know that Peter is speaking of unbelieving husbands here because he says of them “even if some don’t obey the word…”

Earlier in this letter we read that unbelievers do not obey God’s word. “[Jesus] is the stone that makes people stumble, the rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they do not obey God’s word…” (1Pe 2:8 NLT)

In the NT era, married women might have unbelieving husbands for two main reasons: 1) because the wives were exposed to the Gospel and were converted to Xity after they were married; or 2) they were converted before they were married, but were placed in an arranged marriage with an unbeliever.

In modern times, the first reason may be the same: some wives are exposed to the Gospel and converted to Xity after they are married. But the second most common reason today is that some Christian young ladies unadvisedly marry unbelieving men thinking they will convert them to Christ after they are married. They unwisely ignore the Scripture that tells them not to become unequally yoked with unbelievers (2 Cor 6:14) and bring a lot of pain on themselves.

This passage is not intended to contradict 2 Cor 6:14, but it does give some hope and purpose to those who find themselves in this situation. Paul tells wives of unbelievers not to leave them. Like Peter he writes, “Don’t you wives realize that your husbands might be saved because of you…?” (1Co 7:16 NLT)

This tells us also that

 The purpose of these wives in regard to their unbelieving husbands is to win them to Christ.

It says, “so that they may be won…” The pharse “So that” is usually the beginning of a purpose clause. “So that they may be won” is the wives’ purpose. “May be won” is in the future tense, so the author is giving these wives a purpose and hope for the future. Their purpose and hope for the future is to win their husbands, to Christ.

This tells us also that…

The means to accomplish their purpose is submission. It says “be subject, or submit to your own husbands” using the same verb we’ve seen earlier where we’re told to submit to civil authorities and slaves are told to submit to their masters. This is not to imply that wives are in the same category as slaves, necessarily, but merely to indicate that there is an order of authority in marriage that is ordained by God which was established in creation and the fall as we read earlier.

In ancient Greece, women were considered inferior to men. Wayne Jackson writes (in the Christian Courier) that Aristotle viewed women somewhere between slaves and freemen where wives lived lives of seclusion and practical slavery. In Rome women enjoyed greater practical freedom, though not legal, than in Greece, but licentiousness was rampant. Chastity and modesty among women were virtually unknown. Wives in Rome were truly second-class persons; more honor was shown to a man’s mistress than to his wife. Jewish opinion of womanhood during the time of Christ was strongly influenced by the heather culture and was only slightly better. For example, a male’s morning prayer expressed thanks to God that the he was neither a Gentile, a slave, or a woman. Earlier, under the law of Moses, practically speaking, wives and mothers in Israel enjoyed the greatest of dignity. Mothers were to be honored (Exodus 20:12) and to rebel against, or show disrespect for, one’s mother was a most serious offense which could be punished by death (Deut 21:18ff; 27:16). And Jesus did much in his day to raise the view of women through his teaching and especially his fair-handed treatment of them. But more about this later….

All that is to say – in the ancient Middle Eastern culture, submission to one’s husband was expected and obedience was the rule, whether the husband was a believer or not.

Do you wonder why Peter and Paul seem to make such a fuss about submission of wives to husbands? One reason is that wives who were new converts to Xity enjoyed such a new-found freedom in Christ and in worship that they were tempted to step out of their culturally submissive role to behave in non-submissive ways. Some wives, whose husbands were believers, for example in Corinth, out of their enthusiasm to learn about their new faith, improperly spoke out across the room during the worship services to ask questions of their husbands about what was being taught. This caused confusion in the church and would have embarrassed the men and the church in a society that upheld the submission of women. Therefore, Paul instructed the wives to be silent in the church and if they wished to learn something to ask their husbands at home (1 Cor 14:35).

Peter’s audience, on the other hand, obviously included wives of unbelievers. These wives were tempted to assume an improper attitude of superiority over their unbelieving husbands because of their new-found freedom and identity in Christ. They were likely hearing Galatians 3:28 (NAU) read in church by this time, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This may have tempted them to act as if they were equal to their husbands in authority and to obey them less frequently.

Peter is telling them that if they want to win their husbands to Christ they must continue to submit to their God-given authority even if their husbands are unbelievers.

The situation is quite a bit different today in the western world, yet Peter’s advice to wives of unbelievers is still valid as we will see.

This passage shows us secondly

The behavior of submission

 It tells us what kind of behavior these wives should practice to accomplish their purpose.

He says the proper behavior to win their husbands to Christ is not found in words but in deeds. The wives are not to depend primarily on evangelistic words to win their husbands to Christ, but rather to depend primarily on respectful and faithful deeds that are pleasing to him.

It says, …without a word by the conduct of their wives, 2 when they see your respectful and pure conduct.

Peter engages in a little word play here to make his point. He writes that their husbands “don’t obey the word.” Therefore the wives should win them “without a word.” Since the husbands don’t have respect for God’s word enough to obey it, then it would be fruitless to try to use words to convince them of its truth. Instead, Peter says they should demonstrate their new-found faith by engaging in deeds that demonstrate their respect and faithfulness to their husbands.

What does this respect and faithfulness look like? As we have seen in recent weeks, we are to respect all human creatures in their God-appointed positions, some of whom he has placed in a position of authority over us. Our responsibility is to respect that authority for the Lord’s sake, in order to live a good manner of life among those who are unbelievers, to shut the mouths of those who would falsely accuse us of doing wrong and to win some to Christ as they observe our good works. Here, the wives’ responsibility is to show respect for their husband’s authority as the head of the marriage and head of the home.

Just as we should show respect for civil authorities and employers, wives should show appropriate respect for their husbands whether they are believers or unbelievers.

A wife should also be faithful to her marriage vows even if she has an unbelieving husband. She should not leave him simply because he is an unbeliever (1 Cor 7:11). She should not give in to the temptation to have an extra-marital affair with a Christian man who shows her some kindness or gives her some extra attention in the mis-belief that God will bless that union since they are both Christians. He will not. What he will bless is her faithfulness to the marriage she have already taken up. Paul writes that if the unbelieving husband wishes to leave his wife she is not bound (1 Cor 7:15). However, if consents to stay with her, she should not seek to leave unless there are mitigating circumstances such as infidelity (cf. Mat 19.9; Mar 10;11,12).

But there is a limit to his authority. Since God is the Christian’s ultimate authority and the husband’s authority is derived from that, as we have seen before, if the husband demands the Christian wife do something that God forbids or if he forbids her to do something God commands she must obey God rather than man. However, she must make some accommodations and exhibit some flexibility in the relationship.

For example, some wives expect in return for their submission to their unbelieving husbands that he act as the Scriptural head of the household. Most unbelieving husbands don’t want to be considered the head of the house as the Scripture describes this role. They don’t want the wife to expect him to lead the family in prayer or to read the Scriptures to them or to take them to church. To expect him to do this is like expecting a dog to meow instead of bark. It’s not in his nature – yet. She should be patient and flexible in her approach.

Remember the story of Esther. She is a good example of such flexible behavior. She was Jewess who was a true believer. She was married through an arranged marriage while the Jews were in exile in Persia to King Xerxes, who was an unbeliever. Esther was not allowed to enter the king’s presence unless requested to do so by the king. She respected this edict, but then was faced with a dilemma. She learned of plot, motivated by the jealousy and rage of King Xerxes’ chief adminstrator, to annihilate all the Jews in the land. Esther bravely entered his presence unbidden and was received by the king, but she did not make her request known immediately.

She found a way to “butter up” her husband the King through a series of banquets and her submissive attitude so that when she finally made her request he was willing to grant it.  Listen the respectful way she made her request. “If I have found favor with the king, and if it pleases the king to grant my request, I ask that my life and the lives of my people will be spared.  For my people and I have been sold to those who would kill, slaughter, and annihilate us. If we had merely been sold as slaves, I could remain quiet, for that would be too trivial a matter to warrant disturbing the king.” (Est.7:3-4).

Some Christian wives who served in our choir in a former church who, because the husband was either an unbeliever or a very young believer, at his request, would leave the choir loft and sit with him during most of the worship service, so that he would not have to sit alone. We know other wives who had to curtail some of their activities at the church for certain periods of time when their unbelieving husband asked them to do so. They did so in the right belief that if they showed respect for his reasonable wishes, they might eventually win him to Christ. Some did so.

We’ve spoken of the purpose of submission and behavior of submission, now let’s look at…

The beauty of submission

What will attract unbelieving husbands to Christ is not mere outer beauty with the embellishments which the world considers valuable, but rather the inner beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit which God considers valuable.

 This first tells wives what the beauty of submission is not. The beauty of submission is not merely spending more time at the hair salon to get the latest cut or style, or shopping for more dazzling new jewelry or the purchasing the latest styles in clothing.

It says, “3  Do not let your adorning be external–the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear–

The world tells you that the way to get and keep a man is to dazzle him with your looks. Commercials in the media tell you that you need longer, fuller lashes, flawless skin, a radiant complexion, perfectly colored hair that floats in slow motion through the air when you spin your head; name brand clothing that makes you look hot; and speaking of hot, you need the jewelry with fire, sparkle and brilliance from the finest jeweler in town.

There is nothing wrong with dressing up, fixing your hair and wearing some jewelry to please your husband. He will appreciate it. Peter is saying that in order to win him to Christ, you can’t spend all of your time focusing on your outer appearance.

Peter goes on to say what the beauty of submission is. It is in cultivating your inner life with Christ in order to develop a gentle and peaceful spirit which is valuable to God.

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.

It says wives should pursue an imperishable beauty. In contrast to outer beauty embellished by things that are valuable to the world like trendy hair-styles, jewelry and clothing which turns gray, tarnishes or is goes out of style and is thrown away, inner beauty lasts forever. It is the character that you will take into old age and into eternity. The inner qualities you develop in prayer with God, in the study of his Word, the choices you make when you experience temptation or trials or persecution go with you into your later years and into eternity. Billy Graham, when he was asked what he would like inscribed on his grave stone, replied, “He was faithful.” He didn’t want to be remembered for the flashy things, but for the inner qualities he developed over many years.

How do you want to be remembered? Do you want to be remembered as the most popular guy or girl in your class, or the best looking or the trendiest dresser? That’s what’s put in most yearbooks. Or do you want to be remembered at your 10th or 20th or 30th class reunion for being one who was faithful to Christ, even when it might have been unpopular. How do you want to be remembered when you’ve left the place you’re now working? This tells us that inner beauty is imperishable, it will never fade or pass away. Even when it passes from men’s memory, it will not fade from God’s and it will accompany us into eternity.

It says also wives should pursue a gentle and quiet beauty. This sometimes causes confusion or frustration for women who are naturally outgoing or extroverted.

A person with a gentle spirit is “amiably friendly, not rough, bad-tempered, or brusque”. A gentle person does not attack back but waits on God to judge in the end, knowing he is just (Num 12.3; Mat 5.5) (Peter Davids). She is like Jesus of whom it was said, “he is gentle and humble of heart.” (Mat 11.29) He could be gentle and humble because he trusted in his Father to accomplish his will in and through him. Yet he was not passive. Remember how he drove the money-changers out of the temple? He was assertive – meaning he was under control – he did what was appropriate to the situation but in submission to his heavenly Father.

Wives are spiritual co-equals with their husbands in Christ – 1 Peter 3.7 says we are “joint heirs with Jesus Christ” and Gal 3.28 says “[T]here can be no male and female; for you all are one in Christ Jesus”, yet we have different functions in marriage and in the church. Just as Christ and God are co-equal in power and glory, yet they have different functions as Father and Son.

A person with a peaceful spirit is calm, tranquil, not restless, rebellious, disturbed or insubordinate (Isa 66.2). For the sake of winning her unbelieving husband to Christ, she has learned to bring her personality under control, under God’s control. This does not happen overnight. Esther, when she was being prepared to be examined by the unbelieving king to see whether she would be his queen-elect, underwent extensive beauty treatments for at least a year. We’ll call this the pre-wedding preparations.

However, she made extensive inner preparations after she became queen in order to fulfill her responsibilities to her people while not offending her husband the king. She did not rush aggressively into his presence, but carefully considered what she should do and did it with a gentle and peaceful spirit trusting in God to protect her.

You should pursue a beauty that is valuable to God. It says it is “very precious in God’s sight.” In contrast to the worldly value of the latest hair-styles, jewelry and clothing, a gentle and quiet spirit are precious or valuable to God. He values things that are inward and eternal over things that are merely external and temporal.


The example of submission

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.

You demonstrate your trust in God when you follow the example of such behavior and beauty found in the lives of the faithful women of the Scriptures. Women of the OT like Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, Miriam, Deborah, Abigail, Ruth, Esther, …. are held up throughout the Scriptures as examples to modern women.

These women trusted in God. It says they “hoped in God.” This simply means they believed in him. They were Jews who were true believers in the coming Messiah.

These women sought inner beauty BY respecting the authority of their husbands.

It says “[they] used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their husbands…”

They made themselves beautiful, so to speak, by gently, quietly, peacefully submitting themselves to the derived authority of their husbands, under the Lord’s authority. They may not have trusted their husbands in themselves at times, but as Beth has said to me in the past, “I trust the Lord in you” meaning she trusts the Lord to be working in me and to straighten me out when necessary.

The specific example of Sarah. “Sarah obeyed Abraham.” For example, fearful Abraham twice told those whom he feared might harm him, that Sarah was his sister….. She trusted God even when he asked her to do something crazy. God was faithful to deliver her from Abe’s crazy plan.

Sarah “called him ‘lord’” which is a respectful way of calling him her “husband.” It would be the equivalent of calling someone today your esteemed husband.

“You are Sarah’s children when – “you do good.” That is, when you submit to your husbands in a way that’s pleasing to the Lord. Peter has often referred to “doing good” in the context of our relationship to unbelievers. We are to live a good manner of life among believers in order to shut their accusing mouths or to win them to Christ. Wives are to “do good” by living a good manner of life with unbelieving husbands.

You are Sarah’s children when you “do not fear anything that is frightening.” In other words, “when you are intimidated by your unbelieving husband” (Davids). Since a husband is more often than not, stronger than his wife, and can therefore threaten her with bodily harm, she should be aware of the difference, yet not be intimidated by this cowering in fear. Instead, like Sarah, she should trust in God to deliver her.

Click here for the series of twenty-three sermons on the entire book of 1 Peter.

Categories: 1 Peter, 1st Peter: The Church in the World, 2011, Sermons

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