Saintly submission part 2 - 1 Peter 3:1-7
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Erica Jong is a poet, but not just any poet, she is a feminist poet and was a major player in what was called ‘second wave’ feminism. Shortly after she had her first baby, she was invited to a poetry reading before an audience of radical feminists. And so she decided to read several poems which expressed her deep feelings of becoming a mother. And for her troubles she was booed off the platform. Understandably she felt devastated. Since then Erica Jong has moved on to write more critical articles on feminism and some of its failures, which, she argues, are rooted in the unwillingness to recognise the central fact in the lives of the vast majority of American women, namely, that they have children and resent being made to feel guilty about it.
It is almost impossible to underestimate the effect feminism- first wave and second wave- has had on the social landscape of the West- much of it, it let it be said- for the good. The blatant sexism of the 1960’s in which I grew up which idealised women as real, live Barbie dolls was rightly challenged- as was also the treatment of wives as being little more than unpaid skivvy’s -and not a moment too soon. I well remember both my grandfather’s treating my grandmothers in the most appalling way, how they were spoken to couldn’t be repeated in a gathering like this. Equal pay and equal opportunities were rightly fought for- and in many cases- won.
But as with a good number of movements which begin with laudable aims and achieving many of their goals, when the original vision is lost, a mutation can appear with regrettable results which may not have been foreseen by the original proponents, not least, in this case, negative effects on men and the relations between the sexes. This was expressed a few years ago by the feminist and contemporary of Germaine Greer, Rosalind Miles: ‘Over the past twenty years, feminism has been redrawing the maps, rewriting the rules and redefining the meaning of things unquestioned for thousands of years. But we have hardly given any thought to the men. And many men are left feeling like lost boys in this post-patriarchal world where their prerogatives and perks have been blown away.’
In other words, as with many movements, there is always a downside- not least in the confusion and tension of how men and women are to relate especially in the home.
What may come as a surprise to some of us tonight is to discover that the world of Peter was not that different from our world in this respect and so what he has to say on the issue of husbands and wives is more relevant than we might first think.
Here in the Roman world of the Christians was a kind of pre-wave feminism beginning to exert itself. As early as 195 BC the matrons of Rome- wives of leaders- came out in force onto the streets in their hundreds blocking the homes of male politicians. They were protesting against what was called the ‘opium law’ which restricted the activity of women in the city. And so powerful was the demonstration that Markus Porcius Cato- Cato the Elder- was moved to speak to the Roman senate in the following way: ‘Romans, if every married man made sure his own wife looked up to him and respected his authority we should not have half the trouble with women in general as we have now. We have failed to control each woman individually and so we find ourselves quailing before a body of them.’ In the centuries that followed women became more vocal and belligerent, changing the way they dressed for example, some even appearing to look more like high class prostitutes than respectable wives. And so by the beginning of the Christian era what were called ‘the new women’ appeared in Rome in particular, but elsewhere- like Corinth- who were quite a formidable bunch and so the rulers concern for social stability was a real one.
Given that this was part of the immediate social context the early Christians were living, to which we can add the suspicion in which Christians were held, (hence their ejection from Rome), we can begin to understand why Peter says what he does.
You see, it is always tempting to try and fit in with the way the world is going- to ‘go with the flow’ instead of thinking about things Biblically. But we would be wrong to conclude that what we have here is Peter’s reactionary response to disturbing developments in the hope that Christian women will not get caught up in this kind of thing such that the Christian faith gets tarred with the feminist brush and for Christian men to behave like pagan husbands in coming down hard on their wives as the Roman leaders wanted them to. Of course there is an evangelistic concern that Christians do not to behave in a way which would bring the Gospel into disrepute, but the main concern is that Christians live according to God’s revealed truth as strangers and exiles in this world and if that courts unpopularity-so be it, we have to do what is right and leave the consequences to God. Look again at 2:11 which is the guiding rule, ‘Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.’
Peter has already shown how this is to work itself out in two of the basic spheres of human activity where there are distinct authority structures: the area of government (citizens and rulers-2:13-17) and the area of work (slaves and masters- 2:18-25) and in both cases there is to be what he calls ‘submission’, that is a respectful recognition of authority. That doesn’t mean there can’t be a challenging of abuse of authority, especially when claims are made by human authorities to have powers which belong to God alone (Revelation 13), but it does mean that order is preferred over anarchy and, if needs be, Christians will have to put up with difficulty, as did Jesus and so we follow his example- 2:23ff.
Now Peter turns to the third sphere, the home and relations between wives and husbands.
If we are going to really benefit from what Peter says- (and for some of us it will be uncomfortable because we are foreigners and strangers living in this world and foreigners always feel uncomfortable in someone else’s country), we have to remind ourselves of where we began in this sermon series, namely, recognising that this is God’s take on things- we are dealing with the Word of God. Peter writes as an inspired apostle, so what he says, God says. But, there is a context in which he says these things and part of understanding the meaning of what he says and working out the application turns on getting that context right.
As we have seen, there is the immediate historical context which gives a bit of colour to the instructions. But this is not the main context. Even if we were not aware of the new women of Rome, what Peter says here could still be understood.
The main context is theological. Christians live in a hostile world under the Lordship of their Saviour Jesus Christ, living in the present in the light of the future. They are living stones incorporated into God’s temple and are a kingdom of priests whose task is to proclaim the praises of the God who has saved them with the hope that others will be saved too (2:9). And so by definition they are to be different from the world because they are different, just as Jesus was different and he was not treated all that well.
The theological context arises out of the immediate biblical context. Peter begins in chapter 3, ‘Wives in the same way submit yourselves’. In what ‘same way’? Is it the same way as slaves back in chapter 2:18 or everyone to rulers in chapter 2:13? In part, yes. But I think it is more closely linked to what has immediately gone before. What is that? Look at verse 20, ‘But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps.’ And then we are given a description of Jesus passion on the cross. That is what happens when Christians do good, when Christian wives submit to their husbands and Christian husbands show ‘consideration’ of their wives. It may lead to the suffering of ridicule and estrangement as the non -Christian feminists deride Christian wives for acting in this godly way. It might be the case, that non-Christian husbands take advantage of this, as do some Christian husbands to their great shame. It may be the case that Christian husbands who show the kind of care for their wives we are going to look at in a moment are also laughed at for not being macho enough and expressing their masculine strength over a woman. Well, so be it- that is to follow in the footsteps of Christ. As he submitted to his Father’s will whatever the consequences because it was right, ‘in the same way’ Christian wives and husbands are to do the right thing.
So, first how are Christian wives to live in the same way as Christ? Peter tells us; they are to submit to their ‘own husbands or ‘men’’. Why say that? Whose other husbands are they going to submit to? Why does Peter in verse 2 talk about their husbands being impressed by their ‘purity’, a word which has sexual connotations? And why does Peter in verse 3 make a big deal out of Christian wives not having ‘braided hair’ (which is the literal translation of ‘elaborate hairstyles’) and wearing gold jewellery?
Do you remember the ‘new women’ I spoke of earlier as the vanguard of the women’s liberation movement? Well, part of that liberation was sexual. You see some Roman husbands felt at liberty to have sex outside the marriage bed, not least with temple prostitutes. And so some of the new women reasoned, ‘what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander’- if the men behave in such a way why can’t they? Furthermore, some of the matrons of Rome had their equivalent of toy boys who they slept with. In some cases they slept with other wives husbands. This became so bad that Caesar Augustus made adultery a criminal offence for the first time in Roman history. What is more, these liberated women dressed themselves like high class prostitutes to make themselves more sexually alluring. And what characterised prostitutes dress? You have guessed it- braided hair and gold jewellery.
Now can you see why Peter spells out all of this and how it applies today? Christian wives are not even to flirt with other men, let alone mess around sexually. Christian women are not to wear sexually provocative clothes so that they are indistinguishable from the non-Christian who is out to impress and catch men. In the kind of highly sexed atmosphere of the first century, and even more so the 21st century, Christian women, both young and old are to have a different standard of dress and behaviour. That is the application. Christian women- are you willing to do that? It doesn’t mean looking dowdy, but it does mean thinking carefully.
And far from emulating perhaps some of the most strident and outspoken features of the new women, the Christian woman is to have a different demeanour, one of gentleness, a ‘gentle and quiet spirit’ v 4 which is more precious in God’s sight than perishable jewels. In other words, what is to be really worked on is not how you look on the outside but on what you are like on the inside. There is to be a Christ-like character which is to be nurtured so that no matter what happens to your looks as you get older -and there will be wrinkles and sags- your spirit gets more and more beautiful. And you know that inner beauty does sometimes show itself in outer beauty too. I have seen it. Christian women who have so cultivated their walk with the Lord, developing Christian virtues of gentleness, kindness, patience, and love such that even (especially) in their old age they have a kind of glow about them which comes from within and it is something lashings of oil of Ulay (old spelling) cannot bring about. Such women are genuinely beautiful, like the saintly women of the Old Testament- vv5-6- such as Sarah who was 90 when she gave birth to Isaac and so was hardly a spring chicken in the looks department- but who inwardly was a gem. That is the kind of beauty Christian women should be working at. And do you know when that starts? It is the moment you become a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. You could be a little girl, a teenager, a young woman and older woman- it doesn’t matter- work as hard at getting to know Jesus and so becoming like him. And let me say it is a joy to be part of a church which there are many such women some of you are quite gorgeous in the 1 Peter 3 sense!
And notice that there is a purpose in this godly submission- v1, ‘Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.’ This is a verse which should never apply to those here who are at the moment single Christian women because you are meant to only marry a Christian. But in the early church, and today, some wives do get converted while their husbands are not. And the temptation will be to badger them into becoming Christians, preaching to them and going on at them. The same applies to young people who get converted at university and go home trying to convert their parents. That is not the appropriate way of conducting yourself as Christians for that is not the way these relationships are structured. The Christian child does not tell his parent what to believe and get all pushy. Similarly a Christian wife is not to usurp her husband’s position by telling him what to believe. But you can be pretty sure of this: when non-Christian parents or husbands start to see a change in your behaviour, seeing how thoughtful you are, how you do tidy up your room (students and Mark2), how caring for your husbands wellbeing and showing thoughtfulness in every department of life-including the sexual department- then they will start to ask: ‘Why the change? And then you will be able to gently share the Gospel with them.
So what of Christian husbands- actual and potential? Well, God expects husbands to be different to the pagans too- very different in fact. And if wives have husbands like this then it will be much easier to submit.
Notice again what Peter says, ‘in the same way’. What same way? The same way as Christ who set us an example to follow- 2:21. How is the Christian husband to behave which is Christ-like? Peter tells us, ‘be considerate as you live with your wives’ which is not the most helpful translation in the world. We think of being considerate as being well mannered, thoughtful. The original actually says, ‘according to knowledge’. And ‘living with’ –cohabiting- with your wives, with has a sexual connotation. So a Christian husband is to treat his wife, especially, but not exclusively, in the bedroom ‘according to knowledge’, that is knowledge with respect to two things: first, she is physically weaker than you, and second, she is equal to you as a Christian. A Christian man must always have those two things in his mind which should shape the way he treats his wife.
By saying that the woman is the weaker partner- literally ‘weaker vessel’, Peter is simply stating what is generally true. By and large men are physically stronger than women, their physiology is different, which is why standards in sport are different for men and women to take this fact of nature into account. What will qualify a man to gain a gold medal in the 1500 metres will be different from what would qualify a woman. And if it is the case that what Peter is primarily, but not exclusively referring to is related to sex, then Peter is more than hinting that the man must not use his strength in a way which demeans the wife- physically or sexually. Again bearing in mind the historical context and the demand being made by the rulers to bring wives back into line, it does not require much of a stretch of the imagination to see how some husbands would use sex to do just that. Not the Christian man. He will not treat his wife in that way, forcing her to do things she does not want to do in the bedroom, or dominate her by his shear bulk. There is to be gentleness and respect, and that will be quite different from the way the world often views the way women as conquests of men.
And Christian men are not to twist any notion of ‘headship’ or ‘leadership’ in the home so that he considers his wife to be inferior spiritually. It is dreadful when a wife is made to look ridiculous in public with a put down comment or treated as the butt of a joke by her husband. Christian men should not treat their Christian sister in that way because Jesus shed his blood for her, and, as the apostle Paul reminds husbands in Ephesians 5, that is what husbands should be willing to do in a heartbeat for their wives. She is completely and absolutely equal with you as an heir to the glorious hope which is to come at the appearing of Jesus Christ; so do not make her Lord angry by treating her otherwise. This is what is behind the final reason Peter gives as to why wives should be treated ‘according to knowledge’-‘so that nothing will hinder your prayers.’ It is similar to what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that if we do not forgive each other God won’t forgive us’ (Matt 6:15). If there is a wrong relationship with your wife because of the way you treat her, you can expect your relationship with God to be in the wrong too to such an extent that he won’t hear your prayers and it doesn’t get much more serious than that! This is a very high standard that God is setting here for husbands and would-be husbands and he is not going to lower it because it is all part of being ‘holy’ as he is holy. Let us pray.
 See Dr Bruce Winter ‘You were what you wore in Roman law. Decoding dress codes in 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2’- Evangelicals Now December 2005.
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