The Beauty of Holy Womanhood
|1 Peter 3:1-7|
Reading this passage, I am reminded again how truly counter-cultural the Bible is. That first verse, “Wives . . . submit yourselves to your . . . husbands” alone is enough to spark endless debate and angry charges of male chauvinism. Some people just write it off as a sub-Christian cultural leftover from the first century. Others distort and misuse them.
I have heard of husbands who believe that submission means that their wife must ask their permission to go from one room to the other—even the bathroom. That kind of pathological interpretation adds to the widespread rejection in society—and the Church—today of the biblical call to submissiveness. But, more about that later.
In our passage for this morning, Peter paints a powerful portrait of womanhood. I want all of us, men and women of any age, but especially wives and mothers this morning, to see this as a call to something strong and noble and beautiful and dignified and worthy of a woman’s highest spiritual and moral efforts.
What we see are deep roots that make Christian womanhood strong and beautiful.
Start with verse 5: “For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves.”
The deepest root of Christian womanhood mentioned in this text is hope in God. “Holy women who put their hope in God.” A Christian woman does not put her hope in her husband, or in getting a husband. She does not put her hope in her looks. She puts her hope in the promises of God. She is described in Proverbs 31:25, “She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.” She laughs at the days to come and everything the future might bring, because she hopes in God.
She looks away from the troubles and miseries and obstacles of life that make the future seem bleak, and she focuses her attention on the power and love of God who rules in heaven and does on earth whatever he pleases. She knows her Bible, and she knows her God, and she knows his promise that he will be with her and help her and strengthen her no matter what. This is the deep, unshakable root of Christian womanhood. And Peter makes it explicit in verse 5. He is not talking about just any women. He is talking about women with unshakable biblical roots in the goodness of God — holy women who hope in God.
The next thing to see about Christian womanhood after hope in God is the fearlessness that it produces in these women. So, verse 5 said that the holy women of old hoped in God. And then verse 6 gives Sarah, Abraham’s wife, as an example and then refers to all other Christian women as her daughters. Verse 6b: “You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.”
So, this portrait of Christian womanhood is marked first by hope in God and then what grows out of that hope, namely, fearlessness. She does not fear the future; she laughs at the future. The presence of hope in God drives out fear. Or to say it more carefully and realistically, the daughters of Sarah fight the anxiety that rises in their hearts. They wage war on fear, and they defeat it with hope in the promises of God.
Mature Christian women know that following Christ will mean suffering. But they believe the promises like 1 Peter 3:14, “But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” and 1 Peter 4:19, “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.”
That is what Christian women do: They commit themselves to a faithful Creator. They hope in God. And they triumph over fear and continue to do good.
And this leads to a third feature of Peter’s portrait of womanhood, a focus on internal adornment, rather than external. First Peter 3:5 begins, “For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves.” This adornment refers back to what is described in verses 3-4:
3 Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. 4 Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give any attention to your outward appearance. What he means is: Don’t focus your main attention and effort on how you look on the outside; focus it on the beauty that is inside. Exert more effort and be more concerned with inner beauty than outer beauty.
And he is specific in verse 4. When a woman puts her hope in God and not her husband and not in her looks, and when she overcomes fear by the promises of God, this will have an effect on her heart: It will give her an inner tranquility. That’s what Peter means in verse 4 by “the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”
That leaves one more feature of this portrait of womanhood to see. First, there was hope in God. That leads then to fearlessness in the face of whatever the future may bring. Then that leads to an inner tranquility and meekness. And, finally, that spirit expresses itself in a unique kind of submissiveness to her husband. Verse 1: Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands.” Verse 5: “This is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands.”
To set the stage, notice two phrases in 1 Peter 3:1: “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands.” Notice the word own in “your own husbands.” There is a uniquely fitting submission to your own husband that is not fitting in relation to other men. This means that the principle of submission doesn’t mean that a woman can’t be a supervisor over men at work. It doesn’t mean that a woman can’t be President of the United States. But, in the context of marriage, the woman is called to submit to the leadership of her husband.
Then notice the phrase at the beginning: “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves . . .” This means that the call for a wife’s submission is part of a larger call for submission from all Christians in different ways. In 1 Peter 2:13–17 Peter first speaks of the Christian being subject to governmental powers; then, in 2:18-24, he exhorts servants to be obedient to masters; in 3:1-6 wives are instructed to submit to their husbands; and in vs. 7, husbands are to live considerately with their wives; finally, in 3:8–17, all believers are to have tenderness, love and humility toward one another. Thus, submission of th wife to her husband is only one part of a broader application of the principle of submission. As Paul says in Ephesians 5:21, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
Those who rail against submission need to remember that it is an attribute of Christ who submitted himself to the will of God the Father and “[became] obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 5:8).
Because the biblical teaching of headship and submission is so widely misunderstood today let’s ponder from this text first what submission is not, and then what it is.
Here are six things it is not based on 1 Peter 3:1-6.
1. Submission does not mean agreeing with everything your husband thinks. You can see that in verse one: 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. 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 of Christ and his work, and she chose him. Her husband 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. 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, “submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives.” If you didn’t care about the Bible you might say, “Submission has to mean taking a husband the way he is and not trying to change him.” But if you believe what the Bible says, you conclude that submission, paradoxically, is sometimes a strategy for changing him.
4. 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. Submission to Jesus relativizes submission to husbands — and governments and employers and parents. When Sarah called Abraham “lord” in verse 6, it was lord with a lowercase l. It’s like “sir” or “m’lord.” And the obedience she rendered is qualified obedience because her supreme allegiance is to the Lord with a capital L.
5. Submission does not mean that a wife gets her personal, spiritual strength primarily through her husband. A good husband should indeed strengthen and build up and sustain his wife. He should be a source of strength. But what this text shows is that when a husband’s spiritual 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, in fact, assumes just the opposite. She is summoned to develop depth and strength and character not from her husband but for her husband. Verse five says that her hope is in God in the hope that her husband will join her there.
6. Finally submission does not mean that a wife is to act out of fear. Verse 6b says, “You are her [Sarah’s] daughters, if you do what is right and do not give way to 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.
If that’s what submission is not, then what is it? Submission is the divine calling of a wife to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts. It’s the disposition to follow a husband’s authority and an inclination to yield to his leadership.
It is a disposition and inclination because in any Christian marriage there will be times when a submissive wife will have serious misgivings about the wisdom of her husband’s decision. That’s because, unlike Christ, men are not infallible. It’s time we admit it, guys. And, in those times, it is completely within the bounds of biblical submission for a wife to say, “I don’t think that’s a very good idea. Let’s talk about it.” And, guys, when your wife says something like that, pay attention. God may be speaking to you though the wisdom of the good and wise woman you married.
So, what is the goal of all this? First, marriage is not mainly about staying in love. It’s about covenant keeping. And the main reason it is about covenant keeping is that God designed the relationship between a husband and his wife to represent the relationship between Christ and the church. This is the deepest meaning of marriage. And that is why ultimately the roles of headship and submission are so important. If our marriages are going to tell the truth about Christ and his church, we cannot be indifferent to the meaning of headship and submission. And let it not go without saying that God’s purpose for the church — and for the Christian wife who represents it — is her everlasting holy joy. Christ died for you to bring that about.