Marriage: A Three Part Harmony
1 Peter 3:1-7
Monica was married in an arranged marriage at a young age to Patricius, an older man who served as a Roman civil servant and did not share his wife’s religion. They lived in the 4th century AD, at the height of the greatness of the Roman Empire. Together, they raised 3 children: Augustine, Nagivius, and Perpetua although they did not always see eye-to-eye as to what was best for their children.
As a Catholic, Monica wanted to have her children baptized, but he would have nothing of it. Patricius had a volatile temper, something he inherited from his mother, and she lived with them. But he did not take his anger out with physical violence towards his family. He was adulterous. Although married life was difficult for Monica, she maintained a cheerful disposition and prayed for the conversion of her pagan husband. Monica’s prayer, witness and counsel helped other wives who found themselves in similar circumstances with equally difficult husbands. Monica’s alms, deeds and prayer habits annoyed Patricius, but it is said that he always held her in respect. In time, Monica’s prayers for her husband bore rich fruit. He was baptized into the Church a year before his death in 371. His mother eventually placed her faith in Christ as well.
What do you do when you find yourself following Christ, and your spouse is hostile to your faith? Turn with me to 1 Peter 3:1-7.
As with the passage on slaves and masters that we looked at last week – and if you missed that message, it is available on our web site and YouTube page – there are some key things regarding context that we have to understand if we’re going to understand what Peter is saying here.
First, we have to remember who Peter is writing this letter to. As he opens this letter, he calls them “elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1:1). This is not the heart of the Roman empire. We’re talking about smaller towns and villages, not significant commercial and political centers. These are poorer, unimportant, backwater areas. And the people who made up the church in this area were primarily members of the slave class, and also women, the wives of the men who probably owned the slaves who were a part of these churches as well as well. We know this because Peter doesn’t mention masters at all, although they are mentioned by Paul in similar passages to letters he wrote to larger, more metropolitan areas. And although he mentions husbands here, he doesn’t spend as much time on them, although what he has to say is incredibly significant. He spends less time on husbands not because they don’t need to be talked to, but because there were very few of them in the churches who would receive this letter.
In fact, these words to husbands and wives make up a significant part of a larger section outlining the expected behavior of the church before an unbelieving world. He has talked about the disposition of followers of Jesus to their regional and national human government. Their relationship to Caesar in light of their relationship with Jesus. And he has talked about the relationship of believing servants to their unbelieving masters. And now, he talks about the relationship between believing wives and their unbelieving husbands. His overarching point is our perspective on unjust suffering, because of our faith, in front of an unbelieving world. And he hits the three big spheres of life – politics, the marketplace, and the home.
So why doesn’t Peter talk about husbands and their unbelieving wives? Because in THAT culture, that was unheard of. When a man converted to another religion, his entire household – his wife, his children, even adult ones, his grandchildren, on down the line, all converted to the new faith. If he was a man of means, so did his servants. It was unheard-of for a man to follow Christ and not have servants and spouse and children follow suit. But most men allowed their spouse and their servants to worship their own gods, provided they also worshipped his god too. And this is exactly where Christian servants and wives would find themselves in trouble, because while they were permitted to follow Jesus, they would have been expected to worship the master’s god, and Caesar, too. And this they could not do. For scripture says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). “I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God” (Isaiah 45:5).
Second, we need to understand that this passage has been incredibly misinterpreted and mis-used throughout the history of the church as a defense of patriarchy. In recent times it has been used to assert the control of men over women in the church, and that actually isn’t Peter’s point at all. The church has a huge problem with men physically and emotionally abusing their wives. I spoke to a man just this week who told me he would never again enter a church of a certain denomination because he had seen too many women come to church with bruises on their faces and arms, many of them the spouses of church leaders, and those in the church didn’t say or do anything about it. The church has an abuse problem, and it is a problem that cannot be tolerated any longer. And I promise you, as your pastor, I will not.
In our country, over 460,000 victims of rape and sexual assault REPORTED each year. I can promise you the actual number is much higher than that. And over 10 million people experience domestic violence in our country each year. The vast majority of those, not all, but the vast majority, are men abusing women. Again, I can promise you, the actual number is much high, because just like with rape, many instances of domestic violence go unreported. And most instances of rape aren’t about sex. They’re about power and control. Our culture devalues women, viewing them only as sex objects and servants. Working women, even those who work full-time, are often expected to fulfill all of the housekeeping and child rearing duties as well. And the church has been complicit in this – empowering and hiding men who abuse their spouses, and the American church needs to repent of that sin.
And the truth is, Peter’s primary concern here isn’t how Christian husbands and wives relate to one another, although as we unpack this passage, we’ll see that what he has to say does apply. No, his primary concern here is evangelism – bringing your spouse into the kingdom of God.
So what exactly IS Peter saying here? For starters, he makes it very clear that men and women are equal. Look very carefully at V. 7. When Peter turns his attention to the few husbands in his audience, he tells these men “live with” their wives. The actual words are “live TOGETHER with.” The word Peter used means “to dwell together.” Not just in the same space physically, but on the same page. He tells these men, make sure you’re on the same page as your wife. And make sure you are together. Equals.
Later in the same sentence, he tells husbands that wives are “heirs with you of the grace of life.” Fellow heirs. Equal. Not one above the other, but side by side. On the same page, in agreement. He doesn’t tell husbands to make sure your wives agree with you, which is often how we understand this passage. And that understanding has led to a lot of physical and emotional abuse of wives. He tells husbands, you, make sure the two of you are on the same page. In other words, make sure you’re communicating and working things out. Why say this to the men? Because historically, and I can promise you, today too, women have been the ones able to and longing to communicate. It is the men who don’t know how. So what is Peter saying here? “Step up your game, men. Learn to communicate well so that the two of you are on the same page, and remember, you are equal.”
In fact, men, you are to become a student of YOUR wife. Look again at V. 7. In fact, men, I’m giving you a homework assignment. I want you to memorize this verse. “Live with your wives in an understanding way.” Understand her. Study her mind and heart just as much as you study her body. You should be working toward a Ph.D. in (insert the name of your wife here). Your every breath should include with it an understanding of your wife. What she thinks and what she feels about … anything. Especially those things that have an impact on your family and your life together as husband and wife. And you can’t understand if you assume. You can only understand and really KNOW her if you communicate. If you ASK her questions and LISTEN to her response. Your only assumption should be that she has something valuable to add to every issue you face together.
AND (Peter isn’t done yet), you are to HONOR her. “Show honor to the woman as the weaker vessel.” By “weaker vessel,” Peter isn’t NOT saying that women are of less value than men, or are less capable leaders than men, or are less able to fend off sin than men. He’s saying that women TEND to be physically weaker than men. We’re seeing that lived out in our culture right now in the argument over whether transgender athletes who are biologically male and who identify as women should be allowed to compete in women’s sports. And the lightning rod for that has been a swimmer who, as a male, was at best a mediocre intercollegiate swimmer, and who, now as a female, is a dominant swimmer.
As a general rule, men tend to be more physically strong than their female counterparts – faster, stronger, and more violent. And what do we as men do when we don’t get our way? We posture, don’t we. In other words, we seek to physically intimidate. We draw ourselves up. We thrust out our chest and square our shoulders and deepen our voices, making them louder as we do. Our body movements quicken and we become aggressive. At the extreme, we force compliance with our way by hitting. And Peter makes it absolutely clear, that has no place in the kingdom of God. He says, “Yes, husbands, your wife is probably smaller than you. So under no circumstances at all are you to ever try to physically intimidate her to get your way. Ever.” Peter says a lot to husbands in that one sentence, doesn’t he?
So what does he say to wives? Look back up at Vv. 1-2. There’s that nasty word that we hate to use. “Submit.” But remember, it’s the same word Peter has used to describe our relationship to the government and to employers. “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (2:13). “Be subject to your masters with all respect” (2:18). And remember that St. Paul doesn’t use the word “submit” in reference to wives until he has made it clear that in the kingdom of God, men and women are to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). It is only after hammering that point home for 21 verses that Paul turns to wives and then husbands.
So what is Peter saying here? It doesn’t mean what your husband says goes. If you read the rest of the passage, which we’ve already talked about, you’ll see that. It means, make sure he knows that you aren’t a threat. That you’re on the same team, on his side.
For the sake of the gospel and the potential salvation of your spouse’s soul, respect your husband. Listen to what he has to say. Don’t just do your own thing. Meet his needs as best you can. Don’t be critical of him. If you have a complaint, certainly bring it up, but there is a difference between complaining, which is legitimate, and criticizing, which isn’t. And don’t teach your children to be critical of him. Men are, in many ways, a caricature in our culture today. Buffoons to be ridiculed. Good at nothing but fighting and drinking beer. And perhaps we’ve earned that reputation. In many circles, we’ve been absent from the home, more interested in work, where we have some level of control, than in the home, where we feel like we don’t. We’ve refused to come alongside our wives in raising children and keeping the house up (except of course for mowing the lawn). So yes, we’ve likely earned it. But wives, it is also important for you to not criticize. Bring your complaints, but not in front of the kids. And refuse to make fun of your husband or tear him down with your words.
Now, look at Vv. 3-4. Don’t internalize culture’s sexualized view of women. He isn’t saying that you can’t dress nicely, according to the customs of your culture. What he’s saying is, “don’t dress just to get the attention of others,” whether it is to make your husband jealous or simply because you like the attention. But we have to understand too that Peter isn’t giving a specific set of rules. In that day, braids were a status symbol, as was a lot of gold jewelry and fine clothing. Ok, pretty much the same as today minus the braid thing. He isn’t saying that no women anywhere at any time could braid their hair. Or men for that matter. He’s saying, focus more on internal virtue than on status symbols and attention seeking.
It’s the same principle God instructed Samuel to use in the Old Testament as God used him to anoint Israel’s second king. “But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). There it was applied to a man. Here, Peter applies it to wives. As with all of the principles Peter applies here, they actually apply to both men and women. But he isn’t writing a theological treatise. He’s writing a letter to specific people in a specific place with specific challenges that he wants to deal with. Here, the challenge was a congregation mostly full of believing women whose husbands didn’t yet believe. And, because of their newfound freedom in Christ, some of those wives were tempted to leave their unbelieving husbands behind and move on, or were now living in ways that caused their husbands trouble, and Peter wants to remind them that they can lead their husbands to Christ without saying a word, just by the way they live their lives, if they live according to the principles of the kingdom of God. Their husband’s soul lies in the balance. Look again at V. 1.
Now, this is not some kind of unquestioning, servile, submission. If the unbelieving husband asks the wife to do something that lies outside of what life in the kingdom of God allows, they can refuse. Just as servants must at times refuse their masters and people at times must disobey their governments. The same principles apply to all three situations. So if the unbelieving husband wants his wife to accompany him to a ceremony worshipping Caesar, she need not go, and she need not live in fear of her husband’s response. Look at V. 6. “Do not fear anything that is frightening.” Don’t be afraid of your husband when he dislikes your worship of God, your following of Christ. Jesus said it this way, “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. 5 But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell.” Who has the authority to do that? No, not Satan. Only God can do that. God alone is the just judge. Fear only God, and remember that your fear of God trumps all other human allegiances.
I find it interesting that Peter makes sure to point out that we can lead someone to Christ without ever saying a word about it, just by the way they live. He isn’t saying that there isn’t a place for proclamation of the truth of Jesus. “How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom. 10:14) asks Paul. No, what Peter is saying is, in the home, don’t beat your spouse over the head with the gospel and don’t be argumentative about it. Just live the kingdom life in the home and let your family watch. That’s what Monica did. And her wayward and loose living son became the greatest theologian in human history, and her husband and her mother-in-law both gave their lives to Christ before they died. Not because of what she said, but because of how she lived. Let us pray.