Was the apostle Peter a misogynist? In response to this question one writer said, “99% of people in his culture were—so sure.” If we take Peter’s words at face value, we might think so. In his first epistle he writes some instruction that can trip up the twenty-first-century reader. After telling slaves how to deal with unjust masters, he adds this word to the wives:
In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior. And let not your adornment be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands. Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear (1 Peter 3:1–6).
It seems like Peter believes wives should be seen, not heard. And he seems to teach they should wear fashions as appealing as gunny sacks. And what’s that stuff about calling him “lord”?
To understand Peter’s meaning, as well as apply his instruction to our lives, we must imagine our way back to first-century life in the Roman Empire.
The Householder’s World
In Peter’s day a wife was considered property, could not speak for herself in a court of law, and was expected to worship the same god(s) as the householder. The paterfamilias was a bit like Thomas Jefferson at Monticello or Lord Grantham at Downton Abbey—only with the latter owning slaves instead of employing servants.
Recall that servants lived with their masters as part of one household. And back then, the householder’s god ruled. We get a glimmer of this when we read about the conversion of Lydia of Philippi. When she believed, she and “her household were baptized” (Acts 16:15). A similar situation occurs with the Philippian jailer and his household (v. 34). The paterfamilias—usually male, though clearly not always—chose the household god. And this god was usually honored daily in the home.
So imagine a wife in that context believing in Christ and no longer able, in good conscience, to worship her husband’s god. Peter describes the husband in question as “disobedient to the word”—that is, an unbeliever. Imagine what could happen if his wife got cocky and trash-talked Apollo or Hecate. Even Paul when speaking of Artemis in Ephesus did not “blaspheme the goddess” (19:37). No, the wise believer would earn respect by remaining quiet about it while also being loyal to Jesus “without being frightened by any fear” (1 Pet. 3:6).
As for adornment, to understand Peter’s meaning when it comes to braids, jewelry, and dresses, it helps to bear in mind that the honorable upper-class wife wore the signs of her social status on her person. In contemporary settings when we hear exhortations for women to be “modest,” we tend to think only of sexual modesty. But Peter probably had class in mind when mentioning braids, jewelry, and dresses.
In his day, every diamond and pearl was real. This reality is foreign to those of us for whom an enormous clear gem is probably cubic zirconia and a fat pearl might be fake. Back then, a wife wore her signs of status for all to see.
A woman whose hair was covered with braids made the class statement that she had time for leisure and the budget to pay someone to pamper her. Indeed, gold and braids and pearls were signs of wealth, so that by her very adornment such a wife announced her social status. And wearing her status was the opposite of what Paul elsewhere said he wanted Christian wives to do when the church gathered. Over in that apostle’s first epistle to Timothy (2:9–10), we read that Paul told wives their dress should be “with modesty and self-control. Their adornment must not be with braided hair and gold or pearls or expensive clothing, but with good deeds, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God” (2:9–10).
Notice the contrast between Paul’s and Peter’s advice? Paul told wives not to adorn themselves with braided hair and gold or pearls or expensive clothes. Their dress was to be devoid of anything that might pose a threat to unity.
But Peter seems to assume that the wife in question would have no choice but to wear such emblems of class. Thus he stresses that the women in such situations were to adorn themselves in a way that was not “external only.” Indeed, unlike Paul’s audience where both husband and wife were told to be “filled with the Spirit,” Peter’s reader might be married to a “disobedient” man. If so, she was to add something to her wardrobe—the internal apparel of a gentle, quiet spirit that is so pleasing in the sight of God.
And she was to be courageous in her silent witness. Recall that Peter was writing in a context in which a woman could not call a hotline that would guarantee shelter if her husband threatened or hurt her. She had to do her best both to keep from setting him off and to gain his respect while retaining her loyalty to Christ. Doing so would require great courage. Perhaps this is why Peter urges her not to be “frightened by any fear.”
(Next time we’ll talk about what it means that woman is the “weaker vessel.” Stay tuned!)