Instead of telling first-century wives to submit because they are inferior, as many believed at the time, Peter urges them to be submissive for a very different reason—so that their husbands might find true life (1 Peter 3:1). Peter encourages these wives to be subversive (keep worshiping Christ—which hubby may not like) in a cloak of respect (submit to your husband) so as to achieve a good end. Here is his rationale:
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, NAS).
In Peter’s day, a wife was considered property, could not speak for herself in a court of law, and (of key significance here) was expected to worship the same god or gods as the householder.
A number of Peter’s readers have husbands whom he describes as “disobedient to the word.” Doubtless, some of these wives in his readership are from households where Hecate or Apollo are worshiped, and great harm could come to these women if they spoke in a cocky way about Zeus or trash-talked Leto, false as these gods are. Even Paul when speaking of Artemis in Ephesus, was described as not blaspheming the goddess (Acts 19:37).
Instead, in such a world, the wise believing wife is told she should show her fear of God by remaining quiet about her faith, while also remaining fiercely loyal to Christ (a radical idea) “without being frightened by any fear” (1 Pet. 3:6). Notice Peter does not tell wives to stop worshiping Christ and obey by worshipping their husbands' gods, which is what one would expect a good Roman family man to say. We must read between the lines to see how clever (indeed, subversive) he is in his advice to submit. It’s what he doesn’t say that makes it so interesting. He's telling wives to submit to husbands, but he's expecting these wives to keep worshiping Christ, whom the "disobedient" householder would object to her worshiping. But she is to keep quiet about it and actively seek to change his loyalty to his god with her own character.
The writer of these words is not a man out to put down women; he is looking out for wives’ interests while working within existing structures and having as his first priority the advancement of the gospel that equalizes.
The word translated “reverent” in this passage is not actually an adjective, but is the object of a prepositional phrase “in fear.” A wooden translation would be “as they observe your pure conduct in fear.” And the fear or respect is actually not directed toward the husband here. In Peter’s usage, such fear is always directed toward God—not in a terrified way, but in a reverent one. The point here, then, is not actually that the wives should be reverent toward their husbands, but rather that these women should live purely “in the fear of God” as part of their silent witness.
Peter goes on to use the image of adornment three times within the short space of three verses to make his case. One reference is to the wives’ external signs of status (3:3). One is to their internal character (v. 4). And one is to the adornment of the past holy women of God (v. 5).
Put off externals. Peter begins his argument by saying, “Let not your adornment be external” (v. 3). Many translations have added “merely external,” which suggests that these wives could have some external adornment. Other translators have rendered the text as saying, “Let not your adornment be external only.” But the modifiers “merely” and “only” are not in the original.
After telling wives not to adorn themselves externally, Peter immediately specifies the sorts of external adornments he means: braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on apparel. And Peter’s readers understand he is not telling wives to be plain.
To understand his meaning when it comes to braids, jewelry, and dresses, we must bear in mind that the honorable Greco-Roman wife wore the signs of her social status on her person. Many think the apostle’s earlier reference to “pure and reverent conduct” (v. 2) suggest he is concerned primarily with sexually provocative dress. But while dressing suggestively would be inappropriate, Peter appears to have more of a class than a moral concern in mind when mentioning braids, jewelry, and apparel.
In the first century, every single piece of gold, diamond, and pearl was real. And wearing her external status was the opposite of what Peter envisioned for reverent wives. Usually letters like Peter’s were addressed only the people with social power—the householders. But in his epistle he directly addresses wives and slaves. (Radical! Elevating!) And the same person who elevated those with less social power by addressing them directly wanted godly wives to dress in a manner devoid of anything that would suggest superiority.
Put on internals. Instead, Peter urges the wives in his audience to adorn themselves with something far more precious—something that is of great value to God—a gentle and quiet spirit. By coupling “gentle” with “quiet” Peter intensifies the virtue. And his hope is that the wife’s virtue will reveal a different value system to her husband and others in her sphere of influence.
The spirit Peter envisions is not something the wife takes on and off as she would gold or apparel. Rather, it is permanent ornamentation, thus imperishable. Back in chapter 1, verse 7, he wrote that gold was “passing away”; in 1:18, he described gold and silver as “perishable.” And these references that appear only a few chapters earlier inform how he wants readers to understand his use of “imperishable” in this passage as applied to the wife’s virtue. The gentle and quiet spirit is the only kind of beauty that a woman can put on that will never be taken from her. It will not wrinkle or sag with age. Humans consider gold precious. The God who will one day pave the streets of his city with it considers something else far more precious—character.
The “gentle and quiet” language has at times been mistaken both as a criticism of extroverted women, and also as a source of pride for introverts and/or husbands married to them. Yet by describing the godly woman as having a “gentle, quiet spirit,” Peter is not saying extroverted women have less godly personalities than introverted women. Nor is he saying that women with spiritual gifts that involve speaking should stop exercising these gifts and remain silent. The gentle, quiet “spirit” here is not a personality type; it’s a virtue. And “putting on” such a virtue, especially in the face of injustice, is an equal-opportunity option.
The quietness Peter has in view is also not absolute silence. Rather, it is a refraining from speaking “words” the wife might think it wise to say to win her husband (3:1). Peter’s instruction in many ways takes the pressure off her to craft the most winsome argument that will lead her husband to conversion. Her silent spirit allows the Holy Spirit to do his work. This wife's hope must not be in herself, but in God.
Watch this. Peter returns to the adornment image to give a rationale for this counsel about wives’ internal apparel. He writes,
“For in this way [that is, internally] 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’ . . . (3:5–6).
Once again the word “adorn” has appeared, and in this context it is a continuing action on the part of holy women. These matriarchs of the faith hoped in God—the very thing Peter wants all his readers to do. His readers can draw hope from the fact that someone ahead of them in the race has faced the same challenges and finished well.
Next time we’ll consider why in the world Peter would think it was a good thing for Sarah to call Abraham “lord.” Seriously? Who does that? Stay tuned…
Update: Here's a link: Why Peter Would Not Want a Wife Today to Call Her Husband “Lord”