In the same way, wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, even if some disobey the word, they may be won over without a word by the way their wives live when they observe your pure, reverent lives. Don’t let your beauty consist of outward things like elaborate hairstyles and wearing gold jewelry or fine clothes, but rather what is inside the heart—the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. For in the past, the holy women who put their hope in God also adorned themselves in this way, submitting to their own husbands, just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. You have become her children when you do what is good and do not fear any intimidation.1 Peter 3:1—6
My wife’s late grandfather was not a Christian. But he’s said more than once about our family that he doesn’t understand how people who have so little can be so happy. And he knew the gospel. He heard it several times. And it wasn’t always easy, because he could have some pretty nasty things to say about churches. Needless to say, we always prayed that he would put his trust in Christ.
How do we live as followers of Jesus when not everyone in our family—in our home—follows Jesus? How do we handle this? Do we bring it up repeatedly? Do we ignore the topic? It can be such a tricky thing, because family relationships can already be complicated. We have to be sensitive to the dynamics at play.
Our passage from 1 Peter “is addressed to Christian wives who had unsaved spouses. These verses focus on Christian wives living a holy life in front of an unsaved husband in such a way as to win him to Christ.” And I think this passage also helps us with any loved one or family member that isn’t a believer. How our passage begins is where most people stumble. Peter tells the believing wives: submit yourselves to your own husbands. We bristle at words like “submit.” But what does Peter mean here?
So, keep in mind the situation. This is the 1st century Roman empire. The home and family are the centre of Roman life. The family and home provided stability. There is a slogan that was used at the time: “Everyone with a place, everyone in their place.” And remember, pagan religion permeated the culture, which means it permeated family life also. “A family’s religion was transmitted through males, and the paterfamilias [the ranking male in a Roman household] was the chief priest.” You didn’t just change religions. Wives certainly didn’t.
Plutarch, a historian from the period, wrote: “A woman ought not to make friends of her own, but to enjoy her husband’s friends in common with him. The gods are the first and most important friends. Hence, it is becoming for a wife to worship and to know only the gods that her husband believes in, and to shut the door tight upon all strange rituals and outlandish superstitions.”
So, you get the idea. The context is incredibly important for understanding what Peter is talking about here. Now, picture a married couple in this culture. The wife becomes a Christian believer. How does she handle her situation?
To come back to the idea of “submission,” Peter is counseling these wives to remain with their husbands. They’re not to withdraw from the marriage because they’ve become Christians. Now, elsewhere in Scripture provision is given in the event that an unbelieving spouse wants to leave the marriage [1 Corinthians 7:12—16]. But that’s not what Peter is addressing.
It’s also important to understand that the submission Peter is talking about is strongly qualified. Our human relationships—even marriage—are always subordinate to our obedience to God. For these Christian wives, this means no longer worshiping pagan gods but instead worshiping the Lord Jesus Christ. Being a part of the worshiping Christian community also means having friendships outside of her husband’s social circle.
Put simply: Living with loved ones who aren’t believers means putting Christ first despite the risks to the relationships.
Here’s the thing. Jesus knew that following him could lead to difficulties even in family life. In Matthew 10:34—38 Jesus says: Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.For I have come to turn “‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
The truth is these wives were taking a huge risk in becoming believers. When Peter counsels them to submit to their unbelieving husbands, he’s counseling them to follow the cultural expectations short of compromising their loyalty to Jesus. He understood they were in a very precarious position.
Think about stories of Muslims who become Christians. Their situation in our day is even more perilous—they risk being killed by family for apostasy.
Perhaps we don’t face that kind of risk as followers of Jesus, but it is possible that being a Christian will make our family life more difficult. This is true whether our spouse isn’t a Christian or our kids or our parents or whoever. Living with loved ones who aren’t believers means putting Christ first despite the risks to the relationships.
You see, that’s one of the reasons we need Christian community. Because when we become followers of Jesus we become members of a new family. Have you ever had family conflict because of your faith in Jesus? How has living out your faith among loved ones who don’t believe been challenging?
So, Peter tells these Christian wives to submit in part so that their unbelieving husbands may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives. It is this idea that Peter spends most of his time on. He talks about the purity and reverence of the wives. He goes on to say: Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. 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.
In the culture of the day, clothes were an expression of status and wealth. “A person was her clothing.” So, again, Peter is counseling the women to be countercultural for the sake of the gospel, as an expression of their faith in and loyalty to Christ. Instead of spending an inordinate amount of time on fashion or physical appearance, Peter is telling them it’s more important to focus on cultivating inner beauty—on growing in Christlike character. This kind of beauty doesn’t fade with time. And it is worth a great deal more. You might say that in this scenario, wives are also called to be covert evangelists. Peter says that these unbelieving husbands may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives.
With respect to the phrase won over without words, it’s not that wives should never talk to their husbands about Christ and their faith. Rather, as one writer puts it, “Peter encourages them to persevere in seeking to win their husbands to Christ. Wives are not to try to achieve this end by preaching at them or by nagging. The situation requires not pressing words but testifying conduct.”
Our faith in Christ should make us easier to live with, not less. And, of course, we can still talk about our faith. But many of us know that such conversations go more smoothly when the unbelieving loved one brings it up. It’s an area where we need to exercise prayerful patience and wisdom.
But it also means that whatever we say, when we share our faith in Jesus, how we live better line up with our words. But we need to live lives of integrity. Underlying all this, I think, is the idea that the believing family member—wife, parent, child—ought to live their faith in such a way that it becomes a positive influence in the home and family—inasmuch as it depends on them.
Living with loved ones who aren’t believers means we should seek to influence them for Christ. Make a list of your loved ones who aren’t believers. Do they know what it means that you are a believer?Which of your loved ones are more open to Christ? How might your behaviour encourage them to consider becoming a follower of Jesus?
Peter also says: For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands,like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear. So, what does this have to do with the rest of the passage?
In Genesis 12 and 20, Abraham’s deceitful actions put his wife Sarah at risk. Out of fear he tries to pass Sarah off as his sister. Joel B. Green, in his commentary on 1 Peter, puts it this way: “Peter seems to extrapolate Sarah’s entrusting herself to God who oversees human history and intervenes on behalf of his people, rather than Sarah’s fearing what might befall her, either from her husband or on account of her husband’s machinations.” Peter uses the story of Sarah as an example to these Christian wives. Even though Sarah had been put in danger, she still entrusted herself to God. Her hope was in God. She had cultivated that inner heart of purity and reverence.
Peter was writing to women in a potentially divisive situation. He wanted them to trust God with their circumstances. And none of these women were alone either. They had one another. They could understand what one another were going through. That’s also true of us. Having loved ones who aren’t believers is quite possible one of the most common things we share as believers.
Living with loved ones who aren’t believers means trusting God: with our loved ones, with our witness, with the family circumstances we’re in. We don’t have to give into worry and fear.
Who do you know who would understand what it’s like to have unbelieving loved ones? Have you ever talked about it with them?How can you exercise your trust in God when it comes to loved ones who aren’t believers?
So, when we think of our own loved ones who are not believers, we can trust God with them. We need to understand that their eternal fate doesn’t rest on our shoulders. We can share the gospel. We can share the difference Jesus had made to our lives. And we can conduct ourselves in a way that’s pleasing to God. But only God can change their hearts. Only he can draw them to himself. This is the same God, Paul says, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus,who gave himself as a ransom for all people [1 Timothy 2:4—6].
For this reason, we can trust that God knows what he’s doing. I don’t know what he’s up to in each person’s heart but I know what his heart is for each person. Why do some people seem to resist the good news? Here’s the thing: we’re not always going to know. Maybe we rarely know. Maybe that person doesn’t even know exactly. But we have to learn to trust that God knows what’s doing.
Remember this story from the gospels? Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” Yes, we’re not Jesus. And, yes, he was making a point. But he still knew what it was like to have loved ones who rejected him as Messiah. So whether we are able to lead our loved ones to the Lord or not, we have a Saviour who identifies with us completely, who knows us, and who loves us—and who loves our loved ones even more than we do. And if had the power to change our hearts, he has the power to change anyone’s heart.