1 Peter 3:1–7
In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior. And let not your adornment be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands. Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear. You husbands, likewise, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with a weaker vessel, since she is a woman; and grant her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.
The text this morning is a call for women to be women of valor—especially those who are married to non-promise-keepers. You can see what I mean by "non-promise-keepers" in verse 1. There Peter talks about women who are married to men who are "disobedient to the word." If you are disobedient to the Word, you are a "non-promise-keeper." And you can see what I mean by "women of valor" from verse 6. The women who are married to these non-promise-keepers are called to be daughters of Sarah (Abraham's wife), and not to frightened by any fear. A woman of valor does not act out of fear. She conquers fear.
Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper
So the text deals with women of valor for non-promise-keepers. Most of you know that I am taking the term promise-keeper from the remarkable movement that drew 250,000 men together this summer in different stadiums around the country to worship together and to re-commit themselves to being what Christian men are supposed to be. The kind of men described in verse 7: "You husbands likewise, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with a weaker vessel, since she is a woman; and grant her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered." Tens of thousands of them made seven promises this summer as a climax to the Promise Keepers ministry:1
- To honor Jesus Christ through worship, prayer, and obedience to God's Word in the power of the Holy Spirit.
- To pursue vital relationships with a few other men, understanding that he needs brothers to help him keep his promises.
- To practice spiritual, moral, ethical, and sexual purity.
- To build strong marriages and families through love, protection, and biblical values.
- To support the mission of the church by honoring and praying for this pastor, and by actively giving his time and resources.
- To reach beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity.
- To influence his world, being obedient to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.
Those are good, solid, biblical commitments. And to be married to such a man would be a good thing. Or to be a single person in a church filled with that kind of men would also be a wonderful thing. But the Bible is very realistic. Some Christian women are not going to have promise-keepers for husbands. They're going to be married to non-promise-keepers.
The Realism of the Bible
As the power of the kingdom moves through the world converting people—bringing them out of rebellion and unbelief into submission and faith—it does not always convert married couples together. Sometimes one is converted and the other not. Remember what Jesus said, "Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two, and two against three" (Luke 12:51–52).
And Peter says here in this text that sometimes the wife is in the group of two who are converted, and the husband is in the group of three who are not.2 They are on opposite sides. And this text is about how the Christian wives should live in that situation.
What About the 90% Not in This Category?
Now I know that at least 90% of the people in this room are not married to a man who is a non-promise-keeper, because you're not married at all, or you're a man, or you're a woman who's married to a believer. So the question is: should the 90% tune out while I deal with women of valor for non-promise-keepers? I don't think Peter wanted everybody else to tune out while 1 Peter 3:1–6 was written. Which may be why he wrote it the way he did. He wrote it so that there is specific guidance for women married to non-promise-keepers; but he also wrote it so that the foundation of her relationship to her husband is the same foundation all of us can have—and ought to have—under all our relationships.
So let me say a word directly to the women who are married to non-promise-keepers; and then broaden out the application to all of us.
"Be Submissive to Your Own Husbands"
The first thing Peter says in verse 1 to wives married to non-promise-keepers is, "Be submissive to your own husbands." Then he repeats that admonition in verse 5: "For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands."
It is a great sadness that in our modern society the complementary roles of biblical headship for the husband and biblical submission for the wife are despised or simply passed over for fear of being called terrible names. Some people just write them off as sub-Christian cultural leftovers from the first century. Others distort and misuse them—I actually sat in my office once with a husband who believed that submission meant his wife should not go from one room to the other in the house without asking his permission.
Six Things Submission Does Not Mean
The truth lies between these two extremes, and 1 Peter 3:1–6 is tremendously helpful in getting at what submission is and isn't. Consider six things that submission does not mean.
1. Agreeing with Everything
Submission does not mean agreeing with everything your husband says. You can see that in verse 1: she is a Christian and he is not. He has one set of ideas about ultimate reality. She has another. Peter calls her to be submissive while assuming she will not submit to his view of the most important thing in the world—God. So submission can't mean submitting to agree with all her husband thinks.
2. Leaving Your Brain or Will at the Altar
Submission does not mean leaving your brain or your will at the wedding altar. It is not the inability or the unwillingness to think for yourself. Here is a woman who heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. She thought about it. She assessed the truth claims of Jesus. She apprehended in her heart the beauty and worth Christ and his work, and she chose him. Her husband heard it also. Otherwise Peter probably wouldn't say he "disobeyed the word." He has heard the Word and he has thought about it. And he has not chosen Christ. She thought for herself and she acted. And Peter does not tell her to retreat from that commitment.
3. Avoiding Every Effort to Change a Husband
Submission does not mean avoiding every effort to change a husband. The whole point of this text is to tell a wife how to "win" her husband. Verse 1 says, "Be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won." If you didn't care about the biblical context, you might say, "Submission has to mean, taking a husband the way he is and not trying to change him." But if you care about the context, you conclude that submission, paradoxically, is a strategy for changing him.
The goal of this text is to help wives bring about the most profound change in their husbands that can be imagined—the transformation from being a spiritually dead unbeliever to a spiritually alive believer. Submission does not say, "I renounce all efforts to change my husband." What it does say we'll see in a moment.
4. Putting a Husband's Will Before Christ's Will
Submission does not mean putting the will of the husband before the will of Christ. The text clearly teaches that the wife is a follower of Jesus before and above being a follower of her husband. He is going on the path of unbelief. She does not follow him in that, because she has been called to be a disciple of Jesus. Submission to Jesus relativizes submission to husbands—and governments and employers and parents. When Sarah calls Abraham "lord" in verse 6, it's lord with a little "l." It's like "sir." And the obedience she renders is secondary obedience, under and because of and filtered through obedience to the LORD with a capital "L."
5. Getting Personal, Spiritual Strength from a Husband
Submission does not mean that a wife gets her personal, spiritual strength from her husband. A good husband should indeed strengthen and build up and sustain his wife. He should be a source of strength. There are ways in which a wife is the "weaker vessel" as verse 7 says. But what this text shows is that when a husband's spiritual nurturing and leadership is lacking, a Christian wife is not bereft of strength. Submission does not mean she is dependent on him to supply her strength of faith and virtue and character. The text assumes just the opposite. She is summoned to develop depth and strength and character not from her husband but for her husband. Verse 5 says that her hope is in God, not the husband.
6. Acting out of Fear
Finally submission does not mean that a wife is to act out of fear. Verse 6b says, "You have become [Sarah's] children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear." In other words submission is free, not coerced by fear. The Christian woman is a free woman. When she submits to her husband—whether he is a believer or unbeliever—she does it in freedom, not out of fear.
What Submission Does Mean
What then is submission? It is the disposition to follow a husband's authority and an inclination to yield to his leadership. It is an attitude that says, "I delight for you to take the initiative in our family. I am glad when you take responsibility for things and lead with love. I don't flourish when you are passive and I have to make sure the family works." But the attitude of Christian submission also says, "It grieves me when you venture into sinful acts and want to take me with you. You know I can't do that. I have no desire to resist you. On the contrary, I flourish most when I can respond creatively and joyfully to your lead; but I can't follow you into sin, as much as I love to honor your leadership in our marriage. Christ is my King."
The Foundation Under All Relationships
What makes all this especially relevant for all of us is that the foundation Peter gives to these wives is a foundation that can and should be under all our relationships—especially with unbelievers. Let me mention them quickly.
1. God as the Source of Strength
The source of her and our strength is not ourselves or our family, but God. Verse 5: "For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands."
The secret to flourishing in difficult relationships is not to get your strength from those relationships, but from God. Hope in God. Look to God for the love and the security and the joy that you long for. Then you will be able to have strength for others—believer or unbeliever in your life.
2. Becoming Gentle, Quiet, Fearless People
Let your hope in God go to work on your inner being and make you a gentle, quiet, fearless person. I'm talking to men and women here. It will have its distinct, complementary form and expression in men and women, but it will be there in both, if they hope in God and not themselves or in other people or circumstances. Verses 3 and 4 show us the way: "And let not your adornment be merely external— braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God."
In other words, when you hope in God, you're not all caught up in externals like makeup and hairstyles and earrings and clothes. What you are caught up in is becoming a deep, settled, strong, tranquil, gentle, fearless person—what I like to call a woman of valor. Or a man of valor. That's what begins to happen when you pin your hopes on God and not man.
3. Winsome Behavior
People who hope in God and begin to become deep, tranquil, strong, gentle, fearless persons on the inside start to act outwardly in ways of purity and reverence and humility and servanthood that are visibly winsome.
You can see that this is what Peter is really after in verses 1b–2. He wants the unbelieving husband to be won over. He wants him to be saved—to be a fellow heir of the grace of life with his wife (as v. 7 says). But notice how he hopes this will happen: "[So that] they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, 2 as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior." The "hidden person of the heart" in verse 4 is now visible. What you become on the inside by hoping in God eventually shows in behavior that is pure and respectful and winsome.
Let Us All Be Like the Holy Women of Old
Some of us are married to non-promise-keepers. All of us know and relate to some non-promise-keepers. The burden and the passion of our hearts more and more should be to win them for the Lord's sake and for their own eternal joy.
To that end I call us all to be like the holy women of old, and to hope in God, not in husband or wife or children or job or insurance or investment or government, but in God.
And from that great security in God cultivate the imperishable inner person of depth and tranquility and stability and quietness and strength and fearlessness that Peter says is very precious to God. Be men and women of holy, God-centered valor.
And from that inner person let your behavior become more and more pure and reverent and servant-like—if by any means we might win some non-promise-keepers to Christ and his kingdom.
1 These promises are taken from Al Janssen and Larry K. Weeden, eds., Seven Promise of a Promise Keeper (Colorado Springs: Focus on the Family Publishing, 1994), p. 8.
2 We know that Peter is referring to unbelieving husbands in 3:1, because "disobedient to the word" in 1 Peter does not mean Christians who fall short of being good husbands. It means non-Christians. We know this because in 1 Peter 2:8 the very same phrase occurs, "disobedient to the word," and we can see from 2:7 that these people are called "those who disbelieve." See also 1:23 and 4:17.