The Beautiful Faith of Fearless Submission
From Gospel Translations
By John Piper
Part of the series Marriage, Christ, and Covenant: One Flesh for the Glory of God
1 Peter 3:1-7 Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, 2 when they see your respectful and pure conduct. 3 Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— 4 but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. 5 For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, 6 as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.
We continue in our series on marriage, and today we focus on what it means for a wife to be submissive to her husband. I am very eager that men and women, single and married, old and young (including children) hear this as a call to something strong and noble and beautiful and dignified and worthy of a woman’s highest spiritual and moral efforts.
To set the stage for that impact, notice two phrases in 1 Peter 3:1: “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands.” Notice the word own in “your own husbands.” That means that there is a uniquely fitting submission to your own husband that is not fitting in relation to other men. You are not called to submit to all men the way you do to your husband. Then notice the phrase at the beginning: “Likewise, wives.” This means that the call for a wife’s submission is part of a larger call for submission from all Christians in different ways.
First Peter 2:13-3:12
In 1 Peter 2:13-17, Peter admonishes us all to be subject, for the Lord’s sake, to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as set by him. In other words, keep the speed limits, pay your taxes, and be respectful toward policemen and senators.
Then in 2:18-25, Peter addresses the household servants (oiketai) in the church and admonishes them to be submissive to their masters with all respect, both to the kind and to the overbearing.
Then, in 3:1–6, Peter instructs the wives to be submissive to their husbands, including the husbands who are unbelieving. This is the part we are focusing on as part of our series on marriage.
Then, in verse 7, he instructs husbands to live considerately with their wives as fellow heirs of the grace of life.
Finally, in 3:8-12, Peter tells the whole church to have unity and sympathy and love and tenderheartedness and humility toward one another, and not to return evil for evil. In other words, submit to each other and serve each other. So, as we saw in Ephesians 5, submission is a wider Christian virtue for all of us to pursue, and it has its unique and fitting expressions in various relationships. Today we are focusing on the relationship of a wife to her husband. What does submission look like there?
Peter’s Powerful Portrait of Womanhood
Before I describe what submission isn’t and what it is, let’s gaze for a few minutes and the powerful portrait of womanhood that Peter paints for us in these words. What we see is deep strong roots of womanhood underneath the fruit of submission. It’s the roots that make submission the strong and beautiful thing that it is.
Start with verse 5: “This is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands.”
The Deepest Root of Womanhood: Hope in God
The deepest root of Christian womanhood mentioned in this text is hope in God. “Holy women who hoped in God.” A Christian woman does not put her hope in her husband, or in getting a husband. She does not put her hope in her looks. She puts her hope in the promises of God. She is described in Proverbs 31:25: “Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.” She laughs at everything the future will bring and might bring, because she hopes in God.
She looks away from the troubles and miseries and obstacles of life that seem to make the future bleak, and she focuses her attention on the sovereign power and love of God who rules in heaven and does on earth whatever he pleases. She knows her Bible, and she knows her theology of the sovereignty of God, and she knows his promise that he will be with her and help her strengthen her no matter what. This is the deep, unshakable root of Christian womanhood. And Peter makes it explicit in verse 5. He is not talking about just any women. He is talking about women with unshakable biblical roots in the sovereign goodness of God—holy women who hope in God.
The next thing to see about Christian womanhood after hope in God is the fearlessness that it produces in these women. So verse 5 said that the holy women of old hoped in God. And then verse 6 gives Sarah, Abraham’s wife, as an example and then refers to all other Christian women as her daughters. Verse 6b: “And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.”
So this portrait of Christian womanhood is marked first by hope in God and then what grows out of that hope, namely, fearlessness. She does not fear the future; she laughs at the future. The presence of hope in the invincible sovereignty of God drives out fear. Or to say it more carefully and realistically, the daughters of Sarah fight the anxiety that rises in their hearts. They wage war on fear, and they defeat it with hope in the promises of God.
Mature Christian women know that following Christ will mean suffering. But they believe the promises like 1 Peter 3:14, “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled,” and 1 Peter 4:19, “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.”
That is what Christian women do: They entrust their souls to a faithful Creator. They hope in God. And they triumph over fear.
A Focus on Internal Adornment
And this leads to a third feature of Peter’s portrait of womanhood, a focus on internal adornment, rather than external. First Peter 3:5 begins, “This is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves.” This adornment refers back to what is described in verses 3-4:
Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.
We know this does not mean that all jewelry and all hair styling is excluded because then all clothing would be excluded as well, because it says, “Don’t let your adorning be external . . . the clothing you wear.” What he means is: Don’t focus your main attention and effort on how you look on the outside; focus it on the beauty that is inside. Exert more effort and be more concerned with inner beauty than outer beauty.
And he is specific in verse 4. When a woman puts her hope in God and not her husband and not in her looks, and when she overcomes fear by the promises of God, this will have an effect on her heart: It will give her an inner tranquility. That’s what Peter means in verse 4 by “the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.”
A Unique Kind of Submissiveness
That leaves one more feature of this portrait of womanhood to see. First, there was hope in God. That leads then to fearlessness in the face of whatever the future may bring. Then that leads to an inner tranquility and meekness. And, finally, that spirit expresses itself in a unique kind of submissiveness to her husband. Verse 1: “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands.” Verse 5: “This is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands.”
That is a brief look at the portrait of the kind of woman Peter has in mind when he calls a woman to be submissive to her husband. Unshakable hope in God. Courage and fearlessness in the face of any future. Quiet tranquility of soul. Humble submission to her husband’s leadership.
It is a great sadness that in our modern society—even in the church—the different and complementary roles of biblical headship for the husband and biblical submission for the wife are despised or simply passed over. Some people just write them off as sub-Christian cultural leftovers from the first century. Others distort and misuse them—I actually sat in my office once with a husband who believed that submission meant his wife should not go from one room to the other in the house without asking his permission. That kind of pathological distortion makes it easier for people to dispense with texts like these in the Bible.
But the truth of headship and submission is really here and really beautiful. When you see it lived out with the mark of Christ’s majesty on it—the mutuality of servanthood without cancelling the reality of headship and submission—it is a wonderful and deeply satisfying drama. So let’s ponder from this text first what submission is not, and then what it is.
What Submission Is Not
Here are six things it is not based on 1 Peter 3:1-6.
1. Submission does not mean agreeing with everything your husband says. You can see that in verse one: she is a Christian and he is not. He has one set of ideas about ultimate reality. She has another. Peter calls her to be submissive while assuming she will not submit to his view of the most important thing in the world—God. So submission can’t mean submitting to agree with all her husband thinks.
2. Submission does not mean leaving your brain or your will at the wedding altar. It is not the inability or the unwillingness to think for yourself. Here is a woman who heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. She thought about it. She assessed the truth claims of Jesus. She apprehended in her heart the beauty and worth of Christ and his work, and she chose him. Her husband heard it also. Otherwise, Peter probably wouldn’t say he “disobeyed the word.” He has heard the word, and he has thought about it. And he has not chosen Christ. She thought for herself and she acted. And Peter does not tell her to retreat from that commitment.
3. Submission does not mean avoiding every effort to change a husband. The whole point of this text is to tell a wife how to “win” her husband. Verse 1 says, “Be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives.” If you didn’t care about the Bible you might say, “Submission has to mean taking a husband the way he is and not trying to change him.” But if you believe what the Bible says, you conclude that submission, paradoxically, is sometimes a strategy for changing him.
4. Submission does not mean putting the will of the husband before the will of Christ. The text clearly teaches that the wife is a follower of Jesus before and above being a follower of her husband. Submission to Jesus relativizes submission to husbands—and governments and employers and parents. When Sarah called Abraham “lord” in verse 6, it was lord with a lowercase l. It’s like “sir” or “m’lord.” And the obedience she rendered is qualified obedience because her supreme allegiance is to the Lord with a capital L.
5. Submission does not mean that a wife gets her personal, spiritual strength primarily through her husband. A good husband should indeed strengthen and build up and sustain his wife. He should be a source of strength. But what this text shows is that when a husband’s spiritual leadership is lacking, a Christian wife is not bereft of strength. Submission does not mean she is dependent on him to supply her strength of faith and virtue and character. The text, in fact, assumes just the opposite. She is summoned to develop depth and strength and character not from her husband but for her husband. Verse five says that her hope is in God in the hope that her husband will join her there.
6. Finally submission does not mean that a wife is to act out of fear. Verse 6b says, “You are her [Sarah’s] children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.” In other words, submission is free, not coerced by fear. The Christian woman is a free woman. When she submits to her husband—whether he is a believer or unbeliever—she does it in freedom, not out of fear.
What Submission Is
If that’s what submission is not, then what is it? I suggested a couple weeks ago from Ephesians 5 what is true here as well: Submission is the divine calling of a wife to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts. It’s the disposition to follow a husband’s authority and an inclination to yield to his leadership. It is an attitude that says, “I delight for you to take the initiative in our family. I am glad when you take responsibility for things and lead with love. I don’t flourish in the relationship when you are passive and I have to make sure the family works.”
But submission does not follow a husband into sin. What then does submission say in such a situation? It says, “It grieves me when you venture into sinful acts and want to take me with you. You know I can’t do that. I have no desire to resist you. On the contrary, I flourish most when I can respond joyfully to your lead; but I can’t follow you into sin, as much as I love to honor your leadership in our marriage. Christ is my King.”
The reason I say that submission is a disposition and an inclination to follow a husband’s lead is because there will be times in a Christian marriage when the most submissive wife, with good reason, will hesitate at a husband’s decision. It may look unwise to her. Suppose it’s Noël and I. I am about to decide something for the family that looks foolish to her. At that moment, Noël could express her submission like this: “Johnny, I know you’ve thought a lot about this, and I love it when you take the initiative to plan for us and take the responsibility like this, but I really don’t have peace about this decision and I think we need to talk about it some more. Could we? Maybe tonight sometime?”
The reason that is a kind of biblical submission is 1) because husbands, unlike Christ, are fallible and ought to admit it; 2) because husbands ought to want their wives to be excited about the family decisions, since Christ wants the church to be excited about following his decisions and not just follow begrudgingly; 3) because the way Noël expressed her misgivings communicated clearly that she endorses my leadership and affirms me in my role as head; and 4) because she has made it clear to me from the beginning of our marriage that if, when we have done all the talking we should, we still disagree, she will defer to her husband’s decision.
The Goal: Everlasting Holy Joy
So I end with the reminder that marriage is not mainly about staying in love. It’s about covenant keeping. And the main reason it is about covenant keeping is that God designed the relationship between a husband and his wife to represent the relationship between Christ and the church. This is the deepest meaning of marriage. And that is why ultimately the roles of headship and submission are so important. If our marriages are going to tell the truth about Christ and his church, we cannot be indifferent to the meaning of headship and submission. And let it not go without saying that God’s purpose for the church—and for the Christian wife who represents it—is her everlasting holy joy. Christ died for them to bring that about.