Today, we continue our examination of 1 Peter. The verses below are not part of any of the three-year Lectionary readings, which makes them candidates for the ongoing Churchmouse Campanologist series, Forbidden Bible Verses, passages which are also essential to our full understanding of Scripture.
The passage below might be controversial for some readers, particularly those who are chance visitors. St Peter has many of the same instructions to women as St Paul. However, the commentary to follow will put all into perspective, particularly when we reflect that Christ was in perfect obedience to God the Father (the Crucifixion) and the Church (Christ’s bride) is in obedience to Christ. Therefore, there is a macro view to obedience in the New Testament. It’s not about feminism!
Also, men from other (or no) faiths who are married to Christian women will find a pastor’s observations near the end of the post. The pastor is on your side — don’t miss what he has to say! Christian wives, that goes doubly for you!
Today’s reading is from the King James Version. Exegetical commentary is from two Calvinist ministers, Matthew Henry (17th-18th c.) and Vincent Cheung (20-21st c.). You can find out more about Mr Cheung here.
1Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives;
2While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear.
3Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel;
4But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.
5For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands:
6Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement.
7Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.
In the first verse St Peter instructs wives to submit to their husbands, even those who have not converted to Christianity. He wants to ensure that women maintain their role as wives and not have the idea that, because their husbands remain Jewish or pagan, their requests and decisions can be ignored.
The Apostle adds that one of the surest ways a wife can convert her husband to Christianity is through a good example: ‘conversation’, which means ‘conduct’. Some modern translations use the word ‘conduct’ instead.
Matthew Henry notes:
A cheerful subjection, and a loving, reverential respect, are duties which Christian women owe their husbands, whether they be good or bad; these were due from Eve to Adam before the fall, and are still required, though much more difficult now than they were before, Gen. 3:16; 1 Tim. 2:11.
The second verse follows on to give the husband’s anticipated reaction to his wife’s virtues. Husbands will observe this example ‘coupled with fear’ — meaning deep admiration and awe (not terror!). On this verse, Henry adds observations on those who have no faith; this is important to note, as we see it in many interactions with atheists and agnostics today (emphases mine throughout):
[1.] Evil men are strict observers of the conversation of the professors of religion; their curiosity, envy, and jealousy, make them watch narrowly the ways and lives of good people. [2.] A chaste conversation, attended with due and proper respect to every one, is an excellent means to win them to the faith of the gospel and obedience to the word.
In verse 3, Peter instructs the new female converts not to be ostentatious or vulgar in their hairstyles, jewellry or attire. So many women in the UK fall into this trap today with their revealing clothes and bling! Why not wear classic clothes and a normal hairdo? Because — they wouldn’t stand out in a crowd!
Instead, the Apostle tells the ladies to focus on having pure hearts and good outward behaviour — ‘the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit’ — which is ‘of great price’ in God’s eyes (verse 4).
Matthew Henry provides historical insight into these verses:
Here are three sorts of ornaments forbidden: plaiting of hair, which was commonly used in those times by lewd women; wearing of gold, or ornaments made of gold, was practised by Rebecca, and Esther, and other religious women, but afterwards became the attire chiefly of harlots and wicked people; putting on of apparel, which is not absolutely forbidden, but only too much nicety and costliness in it. Learn, First, Religious people should take care that all their external behaviour be answerable to their profession of Christianity: They must be holy in all manner of conversation. Secondly, The outward adorning of the body is very often sensual and excessive; for instance, when it is immoderate, and above your degree and station in the world, when you are proud of it and puffed up with it, when you dress with design to allure and tempt others, when your apparel is too rich, curious, or superfluous, when your fashions are fantastical, imitating the levity and vanity of the worst people, and when they are immodest and wanton. The attire of a harlot can never become a chaste Christian matron.
He adds this thought, which both sexes can appreciate:
A true Christian’s chief care lies in the right ordering and commanding of his own spirit. Where the hypocrite’s work ends, there the true Christian’s work begins.
In verses 5 and 6, Peter points out that even the great women of the Old Testament practiced virtue and led good lives, respecting their husbands’ authority. Henry explains:
Of Sara, who obeyed her husband, and followed him when he went from Ur of the Chaldeans, not knowing whither he went, and called him lord, thereby showing him reverence and acknowledging his superiority over her; and all this though she was declared a princess by God from heaven, by the change of her name … Learn, [1.] God takes exact notice, and keeps an exact record, of the actions of all men and women in the world. [2.] The subjection of wives to their husbands is a duty which has been practised universally by holy women in all ages. [3.] The greatest honour of any man or woman lies in a humble and faithful deportment of themselves in the relation or condition in which Providence has placed them. [4.] God takes notice of the good that is in his servants, to their honour and benefit, but covers a multitude of failings; Sara’s infidelity and derision are overlooked, when her virtues are celebrated. [5.] Christians ought to do their duty to one another, not out of fear, nor from force, but from a willing mind, and in obedience to the command of God. Wives should be in subjection to their churlish husbands, not from dread and amazement, but from a desire to do well and to please God.
We’ll explore this in more detail later in the post. Henry adds a brief note and Cheung explains this passage in a socio-historical context, which is essential to our proper understanding of it.
Husbands receive only one verse of instruction towards their wives (verse 7). They are to approach their wives intelligently and honour them by bearing in mind the differences betweem the sexes (e.g. physical strength, business acumen, lack of income). Yet, they are told to bear in mind that women, as well as men, are heirs to God’s kingdom and have a mediator in Christ Jesus. The last phrase ‘that your prayers be not hindered’ is a warning that good and gracious living bring forth prayers worthy of God. Too much marital strife hinders our focus on Him and His divine grace.
Henry adds his observations about physical separation, sexual appetites, physical treatment and material provisions:
1. The particulars are, (1.) Cohabitation, which forbids unnecessary separation, and implies a mutual communication of goods and persons one to another, with delight and concord. (2.) Dwelling with the wife according to knowledge; not according to lust, as brutes; nor according to passion, as devils; but according to knowledge, as wise and sober men, who know the word of God and their own duty. (3.) Giving honour to the wife-giving due respect to her, and maintaining her authority, protecting her person, supporting her credit, delighting in her conversation, affording her a handsome maintenance, and placing a due trust and confidence in her …
Learn, (1.) The weakness of the female sex is no just reason either for separation or contempt, but on the contrary it is a reason for honour and respect: Giving honour to the wife as unto the weaker vessel. (2.) There is an honour due to all who are heirs of the grace of life. (3.) All married people should take care to behave themselves so lovingly and peaceably one to another that they may not by their broils hinder the success of their prayers.
Mr Cheung also adds fascinating historical observations, much as he did on Roman slaves in last week’s commentary. His writings are gaining greater currency in Reformed (Calvinist) circles and rightly so. Pages cited are from his book (PDF) on 1 Peter.
First, the context of Peter’s letters:
Submission to human institutions is emphasized. This is perhaps because with all its talk about having one Master and the freedom that he brings, it has been inferred that Christian doctrine incites rebellion against authority and aspires to overturn the existing social structure. (p. 117)
Next, historically, wives were expected to follow their husbands’ religion, be it Christian, Jewish or pagan. What he writes explains that Peter’s views are not anti-women but a reassurance that Christianity did not come to topple order in the family home:
Ancient civilization recognizes the husband as the head of the house. His authority is so extensive that his religion is also the household religion, which everyone under him is expected to follow …
On the other hand, trouble arises when the wife converts to Christianity while the husband rejects the gospel and remains in paganism. To leave the husband’s religion for another could be taken as a sign of insubordination. Then, for the wife to abandon the former beliefs and abstain from all pagan rituals could be seen as a direct challenge to the husband’s authority. Naturally, the teaching of this new religion that has so transformed the wife would become suspect as well. Therefore, it is a matter of utmost urgency and importance to convince the husband that the Christian faith does not encouragee rebellion in the wife. In fact, it reinforces her submission, not by the authority of tradition or culture, but by the very command of God. (p. 118)
Now to specific questions, which I have added for easier navigation.
Must a woman obey every man? (1 Peter 3:1)
The verse does not say that every woman must submit to every man, but that every wife must submit to her own husband. Although this is the consistent testimony of Scripture (Ephesians 5:22; Colossians 3:18; Titus 2:5), it is opposed by many professing Christians, who use various tactics to neutralize it …
If the submission of the wives means anything less than obedience, then the submission of the church to Christ would also exclude obedience. That is, at least in principle, the church could exhibit perfect submission but complete disobedience to Christ. If to say that “wives should submit to their husbands in everything” means that they only need to “yield their rights” (whatever this means) to their husbands in everything without having to obey them in anything, then this is the attitude that the church may take toward Christ as well …
In fact, in Ephesians 5, the only ones who are told to yield their rights are the husbands. Paul instructs them, “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25). The church never gave up anything for the benefit of Christ, but Christ sacrificed himself to save the church …
Now if anyone says that the wives do not need to obey in everything, he must also say that the church does not have to obey Christ in everything. No one should call a Christian anyone who asserts something like this … (pp. 118-121, which gives a lengthy treatment of the verbs used in these verses)
But why must women be so obedient to their husbands?
For at least three reasons, we understand that the biblical command for wives to obey their husbands is a universal teaching that transcends culture, tradition, and even the fall of man. First, it is rooted in creation. It did not arise from sin, although sin has made it likely for men to abuse their authority and for women to resent this authority. Second, all of the passages related to the topic are immune from being neutralized or condemned to irrelevance by an appeal to the culture in which they were written.
Third, because the marriage relationship is analogous to the enduring and transcultural relationship between Christ and the church, and because this is stated in the context of the submission of wives, the command is therefore likewise enduring and transcultural. (p. 122)
Is there any point when wives will be liberated from obedience?
It will apply until there is no longer such a thing as marriage between men and women. As Jesus says, “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30).
Even then, it will be different not so much because the divine command will be annulled, since Christ will still rule over his church, which is his bride. But the command will no longer apply between human creatures only because they will become as the angels, who do not marry one another. Therefore, until the resurrection, the command that wives must obey their husbands remain in force. (p. 122)
The Q&A ended, I shall now give you Mr Cheung’s pointed observations on wives during his time as a pastor. He has something highly important to convey to Christian women and their non-Christian husbands! Please note the following:
Like Peter, there are not many good things that I can say about non-Christians. Men are foolish and wicked without Christ, and this is why they need salvation. But if I must commend non-Christian men for something, it would be the way that they put up with their Christian wives. What a testimony to the strength of the human spirit, even in its depraved condition!
In fact, without exaggeration, I marvel that there are not many more cases of divorce, suicide, domestic violence, and even murder incited by the nagging, domineering, selfrighteous Christian wives. Speaking superficially, some unbelievers are quite tolerant of their wives’ faith, at least in the beginning, and they are even supportive of their church activities. But many wives appear to have an almost supernatural ability to make the Christian faith repulsive.
There are so many types of examples that we cannot possibly consider them all. Some wives are just self-righteous and hypocritical … Or, because they consider themselves morally superior (even though they are not so in behavior), they feel that they have the right to condemn their husbands for everything and to manipulate family decisions.
Some wives embarrass their husbands by acting like lunatics before friends and relatives, and think that by this they are being brave witnesses for the gospel. They do not seem to understand (or care) that their husbands are unlikely to be converted just because they constantly irritate them, referring to God in a thoroughly unrefined manner before other people, praying and praising in the most unexpected and inopportune moments, as if to test their patience.
I have known women who would scream “Praise the Lord!” after their husbands spent several hours or more trying to fix a problem or to avert a crisis. Christians would understand this behavior, but what would non-Christian husbands think? Will they fall on their faces and repent of their sins because of this? No, they would resent the fact that they have devoted so much into serving their families only to have the credit go to some God that they do not believe in. To them, this is not piety, but a slap in the face. But the wives think that this is what it means to be spiritual. What a difference it would make if they would say, “Thank you for doing this” …
Christian wives present one of the greatest obstacles to the conversion of their husbands. They drive these men away from the faith precisely because of the irritating behaviors that they exhibit when flaunting their piety and the infuriating tactics that they use when drawing attention to their religion. Therefore, if you are one of these women, the best advice that I can give for facilitating your husband’s conversion is to SHUT YOUR MOUTH. Stop making the Christian faith appear as unintelligent and repulsive as you are … Do not drop hints
here and there. Do not play sermon tapes and make him overhear them. Although I would not condone it, it is a wonder that he does not slap you across the face. (p. 123 – 124)
Next week: 1 Peter 4:9-11