“Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear. Do not let your adornment be merely outward—arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel— rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God.”1 Peter 3:1-4
Some topics excite people, and then there’s the topic of submission. It’s not a popular topic, even in conservative churches. The most common application of submission in Evangelical circles is that when a husband and wife discuss a matter and they are deadlocked, the husband gets the tie-breaking vote. There’s much more to this biblical principle than that. Just as tanks weren’t made to help children cross the street, submission is not a pragmatic solution to avert marital strife. It’s one of the foremost weapons God has given for us to overcome the world. In marriage, it’s God’s way of leveling the playing field between a husband and wife.
Patriarchy in Roman society is nothing like Christian patriarchy today. A Roman husband could do whatever he chose to the women in his home. His wife had little recourse, except to use her feminine charms to accomplish what she wanted, often luring another man to get her way. History is littered with examples of this behavior: Potiphar’s wife, Helen of Troy, and Cleopatra are just a few. While we don’t know what these women’s husbands were like, the women all used their wiles to gain power. Peter presents a surprising alternative for Christian women whose husbands are not following God – that of submission.
He begins by saying a wife should “be in submission” to her husband. Submission is a state of heart and mind, not just something to which we assent in one particular area. We are good individualists, seeing the maintenance of our rights as the top priority. Scripture presents a different perspective. When we come to Christ, we give up our rights and instead receive responsibilities, the first of which is submission to the multi-layered authorities God places over us. We think we’re submitting by simply acknowledging that we’re under authority, but that’s only the beginning. Submission in marriage means that a wife pursues the good of her household while following the path her husband sets, even if it’s not the direction she wants to go. That doesn’t cut off communication. Husbands need to hear from their wives. Rather it means that a wife is called to pursue the vision her husband desires rather than pursuing her own, separate vision. Some leaders make it easier than others, but the principle remains.
This raises the “But what about…” questions. I know life is complicated and while we can’t address every situation, certainly no woman should remain in a home if her husband is physically abusive to her or her children. Also, if a husband demands his wife to do something sinful, she is not required to submit. Yet we usually get bogged down in the “But what about’s” and end up evading the command. Knowing the hardened patriarchy of ancient times, submission was at least as difficult back then as it is now, if not more so. It’s never been easy, and that’s part of the point. Real submission is supernatural – it comes from our Heavenly Father and spreads the aroma of grace in our homes.
Peter then describes the blessing that often accompanies submission: the husband may be won through his wife’s holy life. It’s not a 100% promise but is a means through which God intends to work in difficult husbands. This is not just for wives of non-Christian husbands. One who “does not obey the word,” can apply to any husband who is neglecting God’s word in a particular area. A wife’s greatest weapon is not whining, bribing, or any other common trick; these weapons are faulty and will only result in temporary change (at best). The greatest weapon at her disposal is a godly life, submitting to him, and honoring him as best as she possibly can. This “weapon” does not harm. Like the whole armor of God, it blesses both the user and the one who receives it.
It’s easy for a wife to think she can submit to God without submitting to her husband. Scripture doesn’t talk that way. When she submits to her husband, she is submitting to God and His work in her. Whether we like it or not, He uses our authorities, even husbands who are sinners, to accomplish His work. A wife, like anyone who is under authority, can either resist and make it harder or can follow Peter’s later instruction to “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time” (I Peter 5:6). When we walk in submission, we are yielding to the work of the Holy Spirit.
Peter then describes how godly submission looks. He contrasts outer beauty – something women have used for thousands of years to get what they want – with inner beauty. Peter is not saying wives should forgo physical beauty, but they should not prioritize outer beauty to get what they want. While it may be temporarily successful, this tool fades over time. Instead, one should pursue the adornment of a beautiful heart. Though more difficult, the resulting beauty doesn’t fade but grows throughout eternity. Peter gives Sarah as an example of this inner beauty and submission. She honored Abraham even though he made choices that were certainly difficult for her.
Sarah portrays the loveliness of submission as well as the danger of trying to lead her husband in the example. Abraham’s greatest mistake was when he followed her advice to take Hagar, her maid, as a concubine and produce Ishmael. Nevertheless, Sarah is an example of one who obeyed her husband with a submissive heart. It is also interesting that the one upheld as an example of submission and inner beauty in Scripture also maintained her physical beauty longer than most.
Despite the examples in Scripture, it doesn’t make sense to our modern intellects. How does submission accomplish anything but make one a doormat? It’s the same way going two miles with a Roman soldier instead of only one brings God’s kingdom to bear. For every wife who submits as unto God, He promises to support and overshadow her with His presence. God takes wives who submit to their husbands, women like Sarah, Hannah, and Mary, and uses them to change the course of nations. He used them because of their submission, not despite it. They didn’t understand how He would work, but they obeyed in submissive faith. When a wife follows their example, pursuing the inner beauty of a quiet and joyful heart, no power on earth can withstand what God will do through her.
This is a companion article to “Husband and Headship,” which can be found by clicking here.
Matt Carpenter is the Associate Pastor at Trinity Reformed Church. He taught history for fifteen years and has served in pastoral ministry for eleven years. He is married to Amanda and they have four children: Phoebe, Simeon, Emmaline, and Olivia. In his spare time he enjoys cooking, reading, hiking, and fishing.