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There are some passages in the Bible that are really controversial - some passages in the Bible that get people really wound up and angry. And today’s passage from 1 Peter is one of those passages…
In fact, any passage that seems to lay down guidance on how husbands and wives are to relate is bound to cause a bit of upset; especially because these passage often seem to give women a hard time and seem to suggest that submission as the weaker sex is the natural order of things.
So how on earth are we supposed to read these sorts of passages?
Do they contain for us timeless truths about the status of wives and husbands - or are they culturally-bound pieces of advice that, 2,000 years on in a different culture, we are free to ignore? But if we can ignore them, why are they in the Bible, the Word of God to us?
Well, one of the great things about doing sermon series, preaching through a book of the Bible from the first verse to the last verse, is that we can’t ignore the hard bits – the passages we would normally skip over. So we are going to tackle this passage this morning and see what God has to say to us about husbands and wives and what we can take from this passage for ourselves today.
If you want to follow it with me, you’ll find it on page 250 in the second half of the pew Bible.
So what is really going on in these verses?
Let’s look at verses 1 and 2: “You wives too must defer to your husbands, so that any among them who are disobedient to the word might be won over by their wives’ conduct without a word – once they have observed your reverent and pure conduct.”
Let’s break this down a bit to see what Peter is saying to us.
Firstly, it is clear that Peter is describing the relationship between Christian wives and non-Christian husbands because he refers to those “who are disobedient to the word”. You remember from Chapter 2 that disobedience to the word implies not having faith in Jesus Christ.
We need to be aware of the cultural context of this, of course: remember that this letter was written to converted Gentiles in the Roman world where wives were expected to diligently follow their husbands. So there was something already deeply subordinate going on in a marriage where the wife was refusing to follow her husband’s religious beliefs. This, of course, in and of itself, would be causing marital tensions and Peter’s concern here is that the problem does not become exacerbated by any other pattern of behaviour that would wind up the husband.
So he writes in verse 1 about this idea where the non-believing husband “might be won over by their wives conduct without a word”. That’s to say, the husband might be converted not by the wife preaching the Gospel to him but through the unspoken testimony of her behaviour.
Peter isn’t saying that a Christian wife should never preach the Gospel to an unbelieving husband - but that it is not obligatory to do so and, at times, it is actually unhelpful to do so. A non-believing husband may become annoyed if he feels badgered by the wife’s preaching - but he can never deny the testimony of a pure and upright life.
So what conduct is expected of a Christian wife with a non-believing husband that will bring him closer to faith in Jesus? Verse 2 has the answer: “reverent and pure conduct”.
Does this imply submission to the husband? A meek and mild spirit under the lordship of a husband?
No, that is not what Peter is saying!
3 times in the previous chapters, Peter has used the word ‘reverent’ or ‘revere’ and on each occasion, it has referred to our attitude to God, not human beings. The wife is not being called to revere or show reverence to her husband but to live out in her life her reverence to God as a top priority. Likewise, her conduct is called to be ‘pure’ and again, we have seen that Peter has a very definite understanding of purity as being a gift of grace from God rather than a specific pattern of behaviour.
So the example that will bring a non-believing husband closer to Christ is not one whereby the woman behaves mild and obedient to her husband and is frightened to pursue her passion for God for fear of offending him. On the contrary, she is to be strong in faith, confident in her calling to purity, showing reverence towards the God she worships.
When the husband sees how important this is to her, even if she never preaches to him, Peter suggests that he will eventually be moved by her witness and testimony and, we trust, enquire more deeply about the faith.
This is such an important thing for us to grasp because so many people in the churches across our nation are women who have unbelieving husbands. And there is, of course, a very real pressure to get the balance right between undertaking the household duties in a responsible way and engaging with the church as a primary activity of faith expression. And by and large, many women either stop coming to church or retreat from regular involvement for fear of upsetting their husband or fear that the husband may think she is shirking in her role as wife.
But Peter is absolutely adamant that this is not the way forward. If the Christian wife of an unbelieving husband gives off the message that Christianity is nothing more than a hobby, something to take or leave, then the unbelieving husband will never take the faith seriously. And it is then that the husband will start to get annoyed about the wife’s faith involvement and will never consider the claims of Christ for himself.
Peter is encouraging wives to take a different approach that may, at first glance, appear a more difficult route but which, in the long term, may produce more fruit…
Wives are to show their husband – not by preaching at them or guilt-tripping them - that faith in Christ is not a hobby so much as a defining feature of who they are: it is not something to take or leave but is an identity-forming aspect of them that is an indispensable part of life. Let your faith permeate your being, be absolutely resolute in your commitment to church and ministry - and a husband will eventually sit up and take notice and, given the right circumstances, will eventually consider the faith for himself.
So contrary to how this passage has so often been interpreted, it is not saying that a wife should submit meekly to a non-Christian husband in order to keep the peace. This passage is calling for radical and uncompromising discipleship that shows a husband the true importance of Jesus Christ in our lives. It may not be easy; but we are called to travel the steep and rugged pathway, aren’t we?
And then, in verses 3-6, he moves on to a bit more specific detail.
Verse 3: “Your adornment should not consist of externals, such as your braided hair and the gold you put on, or the clothes you wear.” Is this saying that women shouldn’t wear make-up and jewellery or make an effort to wear nice clothes and so on? Because that is how it has often been interpreted through the centuries, isn’t it? But, to understand this, we need to put it into two cultural contexts: that of wider Roman society and that of Roman religious practice.
Firstly, the wider context of Roman society. There is a great deal of evidence from existing manuscripts that the outward adornment of Roman women was a contentious issue. Some writers even suggested that braided hair, gold and fine dress, were a symbol of unfaithfulness. Perhaps here, Peter was showing understandable concern that if a woman was getting all dressed up and then saying to her husband, “I’m off out to church now”, the husband might get the wrong idea and suspect her of having an affair!
But secondly, flamboyant dress amongst women was a key aspect of their participation in the worship of the Artemis religious cult. So perhaps Peter is suggesting here that if women get dressed up too much to go to church, their husbands may think they are involved in some kind of cult.
So I think these instructions are actually pretty liberating for a woman not oppressive. Peter is writing to women who are already fairly liberated, inasmuch as they are following their own faith and not their husband’s. But he saying that, in their liberation, they should not do anything to exacerbate their husband: dress appropriately, don’t preach at them, don’t give them cause for suspicion, don’t do anything to bring disrepute on God and, in that way, their husbands are more likely to warm towards the Christian faith.
So he then goes on in verse 4 to say, “It is rather the person hidden in your heart, with that imperishable quality of a humble and quiet spirit. It is an adornment most lavish in God’s sight.” Peter calls this inner person “the hidden person of the heart” because it is in the heart where our allegiances are formed; where we develop our allegiance to God, our faithfulness to Christ.
And then, in verse 7, Peter turns his attention to husbands: “You husbands in turn must know how to live with a woman”. This is an interesting challenge to the men because it suggests that men must work hard to know how to treat a woman well: we mustn’t take our wives for granted but we must constantly work at our marriages to get it right.
And then he goes on to make this curious statement that has caused so much pain over the centuries: “You husbands too must know how to live with a woman, showing her respect as someone weaker…”
Out of this verse, of course, has come the belief that women are ‘the weaker sex’ - mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually - and that the role of men is somehow to protect women in their weakness. But the Greek phrase that Peter uses does not intimate this at all…
He does not call women “the weaker sex”. What he says is “as somebody weaker”. And the word ‘somebody’ is a very specific word that can refer to an object or very often the human body. He is not suggesting that women have emotional, mental or spiritual weakness but that, physically, women are generally weaker than men and so husbands need to be protecting and nurturing and caring in that sense.
Now, if you are a liberated woman in 21st-century Enfield, you may still find this an offensive idea. But don’t forget that this was written to Roman society in Turkey 2,000 years ago - and so we need to draw out the principle rather than the letter of the law, which is to say that this is not a comment on the weakness of a woman so much as an instruction for husbands to behave lovingly and compassionately. And that can never be a bad thing, surely…
And finally, Peter moves away from the husband and wife relationship and gives instructions to us all about how to live in peace and harmony with others, from verse 8 through to 12.
So, in verse 8, Peter writes: “All of you, be of one mind, sympathetic and full of brotherly affection, good-hearted and humble of mind.” The idea of us being ‘of one mind’ does not mean that we always have to agree with each other but that we are able to live in harmony together, even when we disagree.
So having outlined the attitude that believers should have for believers, Peter goes on in verse 9 to describe our relationship with non-believers: “Do not return evil for evil or insult for insult” - and this idea of non-retaliation is at the heart of the Gospel message and the teaching of Jesus in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, of course.
But more than that, not only are we not to retaliate, we are to bless - and that has two primary meanings in the Bible. The first is to speak well of someone; to only use words that are encouraging and positive. The second is to offer people the possibility of salvation. And, of course, there is a real challenge to us to do either of these forms of blessing to those who are insulting us or causing us pain. But, as Peter reminds us in verse 9: “this is what you are called to do, so that you may inherit blessing”.
Then in verses 10 and 11, Peter turns to Psalm 34: “For those who choose to love life and see good days must stop the tongue from evil and the lips from speaking deceit. They must turn from evil and do good; they must seek peace and pursue it.” And the thing to note here, of course, is the link between speaking and doing: “stop the tongue from evil, the lips from speaking deceit…turn from evil and do good”.
And Peter concludes with a final thought for us to ponder on in verse 12: “For the eyes of the Lord are on the just and his ears are open to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is set against those who do evil.”
So Peter is setting us a very strong teaching here that, ultimately, the Christian faith is lived out when we show respect and love to others. Wives are to respect and love their husbands. Husbands are to respect and love their wives. Christians are to respect and love fellow-believers. Christians are to respect and love even those we seek to do them harm. As we are re-discovering week after week through studying 1 Peter, it’s all above love…practical love worked out in the way we show respect and compassion to others.
As Christians we are called to a life of love. Sometimes it is easy to love, sometimes it is hard to love. But at the end, love is all there is. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians: “And these three remain: faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love”