“The Beauty of a Gentle and Quiet Spirit” – (1 Peter 3:1-7) – Words from Peter to the Pilgrim Church (Part Six)

“The Beauty of a Gentle and Quiet Spirit” – (1 Peter 3:1-7) – Words from Peter to the Pilgrim Church (Part Six)

One of the places we must challenge the unbelief around us is by reminding ourselves that God’s standards of conduct are often not those of modern America. Despite everything our culture tells us, a woman’s beauty is not external, it is inward–the beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit. A man’s greater strength is not a sign of superiority, but carries with it the duty of loving and honoring our wives, seeing in them a weaker vessel for whom we are to provide, and of whom we are to love and protect. In doing these things we not only honor our spouses, we honor the Savior who gave himself for us for all of those times we have failed to do these very things.

Christians in American do not encounter the same kind of persecution which Christians among Peter’s first century audience were facing. Many of those to whom Peter was writing were forcibly displaced from their homes and land by an edict from a previous Roman emperor, Claudius, because they refused to worship pagan deities, and did not consider the Roman emperor to be a “god.” Peter speaks of these struggling Christians as elect exiles and describes them as a chosen race. The apostle is writing to remind them of their living hope and sanctification in Christ, which will help them cope with the very difficult circumstances which they were then facing. Peter’s original audience experienced open hostility from their government and their pagan neighbors. The opposition we face is a bit more subtle, but no less dangerous. In the thoroughly secularized America in which we live, we are not persecuted so much as we are pressured to conform to non-Christian ways of thinking and doing. Peter’s discussion of the relationship between husbands and wives will expose some of these non-Christian ways, and challenge us how to think of this foundational relationship within human society in the light of God’s word.

In a lengthy section of his first epistle (vv. 2:13-3:7), Peter is addressing specific societal relationships held in common by Christians and non-Christians–elements of the unwritten but widely accepted “household code” which defined many of the social relationships within Greco-Roman society. These relationships include the authority of civil government, the relationship between slaves and masters, and the relationship between husbands and wives. All of these fall under the heading of what we now call natural law. Although Christians and non-Christians both value these social institutions, God has spoken about these same relationships in his word, and so Peter is writing to do two things: 1) To remind his hearers that Christians do indeed regard these relationships as the foundation of society just as do Greco-Roman pagans, and 2). To correct whatever misconceptions his Christians readers/hearers may have regarding these relationships in light of God’s word.

When we study a letter such as 1 Peter which is filled with imperatives and commands, we must remind ourselves that these imperatives are given to Christian believers whom God has chosen and then caused to be born again, and who already have been set apart (sanctified) by God through the sprinkled blood of Jesus to live lives of holiness before the Lord. The imperatives of 1 Peter are given to Christian believers so as to identify themselves as citizens of a heavenly kingdom who look forward to a heavenly inheritance even while they dwell in the civil (or common) kingdom. Christians distinguish themselves from non-Christians through our doctrine (our profession of faith in the triune God who sent his son to save us from our sins) and in how we live our lives. We are to fix our hope upon Jesus, we live holy lives which reflect the holiness of our creator and redeemer, and we live in the fear of the Lord, because the one we invoke as our Father is also judge of all the earth.

In the first half of chapter 2, Peter exhorts his readers to keep their conduct honorable before the Gentiles who are persecuting them, so that those who speak evil of God’s people will be silenced and forced to give glory to God on the day of judgment. Christians must realize that the pagans who distrust them are watching how Christians conduct themselves. Peter is concerned for church’s witness to the saving work of Jesus Christ, as well as with discrediting those false accusations pagans were making against Christians–i.e., that Christians reject all civil authority because they do not worship Caesar.

In the last half of chapter 2 (vv. 13-17), Peter instructs the elect exiles to whom he is writing to submit to the civil magistrate who persecutes and oppresses them, while in vv. 18-25, Peter instructs Christian who are slaves and servants, to likewise respond to their masters with proper submission. Peter directs all oppressed and persecuted believers to keep the example of Jesus before their eyes, who, Peter reminds them, suffered on behalf of his people as the perfect sufferer, whose life and death secures the salvation of God’s people, and earns for them a heavenly inheritance beyond all human imagining.

In the first seven verses of chapter 3, Peter addresses yet another element of the Greco-Roman household code, this time the relationship between husbands and wives. As in our earlier discussion of both civil government and slavery, some historical background here is essential if we are to make sense of Peter’s discussion, and then draw appropriate application to our own situation. Peter has been concentrating on those circumstances under which Christians have little power, and in which they can face especially cruel and harsh treatment from unbelievers.[1] All of Peter’s readers face a hostile Roman government, but are to submit to the governing authorities except in those circumstances where Caesar commands that Christians violate God’s will–under such circumstances Christians are to obey God rather than men (cf. Acts 5:29), even if Christians must take their lumps for doing so.

Some of Peter’s readers are servants or slaves–a large social class (or caste) of former prisoners of war or their descendants bound to serve all kinds of masters (some cruel, some kind and generous) under all kinds of circumstances (from forced labor to education of the household’s children). Peter tells the servants in his audience to submit to their masters just as Jesus submitted to those who abused him and put him to death. This not only bears witness to pagans about the truth of the gospel (Christ’s sinless life and sacrificial death), but gives the cruel master no reason to abuse his Christian servants.

When we come to chapter 3, Peter’s focus shifts to yet another social group which figures prominently in the household code–husbands and wives, including wives with unbelieving husbands. In the Greco-Roman world of Peter’s day, wives had few legal rights and were considered the property of their husbands, much as slaves and servants were viewed as property of their masters. Just as slaves were to submit to their masters even when their masters were cruel, so too, Christian wives are to submit to their husbands, even if they are unbelievers. Peter urges such submission on two familiar grounds: 1). To be a witness to the saving merits of Jesus, and 2). So as to not give cruel husbands a reason to abuse their wives.

Since the Greeks and Romans viewed wives as property of their husbands who could do whatever they wished to them, Peter is writing, in part, to correct this erroneous notion by making sure (in v. 7) that Christian husbands treat their wives with appropriate honor, and show them the respect due them as fellow believers and co-heirs in Christ. In contrast to the low-standing of wives (and of women in general) in the Greco-Roman household codes, the Scriptures are clear that wives are divine image-bearers as are their husbands (Genesis 1:26), that Christian husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25), and that a wife even has authority over her husband’s body (1 Corinthians 7:3-4), meaning that a husband is bound to be faithful to his wife and have no other sexual partners.

In this sense, Christianity is thoroughly counter-cultural and challenges the Greco-Roman household code at a number of fundamental points. There can be no question that it is Christianity has done the most to advance the rights and equality of women throughout the history of Western Civilization. When we view the New Testament as a whole, women are given equal status with men before Christ (Galatians 3:28), and because they excel at prayer, mercy, and charity, they are to use these gifts in the church for the common good. Nevertheless, the New Testament is also clear that the offices of minister, elder, and deacon (through which Christ rules his church) are limited to men, and that Christian wives are to submit to Christian husbands in those matters related to spiritual things within the home–unless through unrepentant sin and abusive conduct the husband disqualifies himself as one worthy of such submission.

Peter is writing to first-century people living under a Greco-Roman household code derived from natural law but which has been corrupted to a large degree by human sinfulness. Peter’s readers have never once entertained the thought of an egalitarian view of gender roles as we find them in the modern world, and they could not even conceive of women as emancipated individuals with the same societal rights as men–as our culture does. The influence of Christianity across the centuries enables us to take for granted what was not even on Peter’s radar. The apostle is writing to first century Christian wives facing a situation quite common in the Mediterranean world in which Christianity was spreading rapidly–what does a wife do when she becomes a Christian, and her husband does not? If she is now bound to Christ (as his servant) is she then free to ignore her obligations as a wife because she has a pagan husband? Peter’s answer is “no.” How does she now relate to the household code of that day which grants her few if any rights, and in which she is expected to submit to her husband no matter pagan or cruel he may be. Peter tells her.

In verses 1-2 of chapter 3, Peter writes, “likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.” The same principle applies here as it did in relationship to an anti-Christian government and to a cruel master abusing his servants. Wives are to be subject to their husbands–even non-Christian husbands–in order that their conduct honor Christ (in the case of believers) and will point their unbelieving husbands (should they have one) to the saving work of Jesus.

One commentator puts the matter this way. “Peter engaged in a play on words, saying that those who are disobeying `the word’ (logos) may be converted `without words’ (lit., `without a word,’ aneu logou) by their wives’ behavior.”

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