Sanctified Marriage: Part 3

Family 001

(see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 4)

In the previous part of the series, I discussed how Christians are to live as servants and to sacrificially live holy lives in order to sanctify their spouses. Let’s continue the theme by discussing another passage of scripture on sanctification in marriage, this time dealing specifically with unbelievers.

Unbelieving Husband

In the same way, wives, submit to your own husbands, in order that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by the way of life of their wives as they observe your reverent, pure way of life. Your adornment must not be merely external—elaborate braiding of the hair and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on fine clothing—but let your adornment be the hidden self of the heart with the incorruptible beauty of a meek and quiet spirit, which is highly valued in the sight of God. For in this way in earlier times the holy women who hoped in God also adorned themselves, submitting to their own husbands, just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him “Lord,” whose children you are when you continue to do what is good and are not afraid of any intimidation. (1 Peter 3:1-6, Revised English Version)

Peter opens by saying “In the same way…”, so we ask “In the same way as what?” or “What is the context of this submission?”

Just prior, 1 Peter 2:18 tells…

“…Household servants, submit to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and reasonable, but also to the cruel.”

Peter goes on to instruct slaves to obey their abusive master’s authority to the full extent possible, short of committing sin, just as Christ suffered but did not sin or act deceitfully.[1]  The submission described is a matter of respect (or fear) in less-than-ideal situations. Slaves may not sin in response to their unfortunate situations, but they should do good even if it goes against what is expected, to be an example of holy living. In the same way, wives are to submit[2] to their unbelieving husbands.

There is something striking about Peter’s command that wives submit so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by the way of life of their wives as they observe your reverent, pure way of life.”  The cynical might complain that this is instruction for how to best manipulate[3] her husband, but that is exactly what it is.

As with the slave, the wife is not spiritually submitting to her unbelieving husband. Her allegiance is to Christ. Rather, her goal is to maneuver to win him over. If her husband does not obey her words[4], then she must attempt to convert him by example of her holy living.[5] The issue is the method she uses, not whether or not she does it.

Sarah and Abraham

Peter highlights that Sarah—though childless and barren—was meek and quiet, living holy, submitting to Abraham, and putting her hope in God that she would have a child of her own. When Sarah found out she was going to have a child, she scoffed at it and lied about it, yet God’s word held true. We are all children of Abraham and Sarah, we who do good and do not fear the suffering that comes.

Twice Abraham placed Sarah in fearful and dangerous situations by lying about her being his sister and not his wife. Twice men took Sarah home with them (to have sex with her) because Abraham was afraid for his life. When Abram and Sarai lied to the Egyptians, God intervened by sending a disease. When Abraham lied to Abimelek, God intervened in a dream.

It is Sarah, not Abraham, that Peter holds out as honorable. Peter says that Sarah obeyed her husband because she put her trust in God, not her husband. When she put her trust in her husband’s command, God to intervene to prevent her defilement. Despite these errors, God remained true.

Unbelieving Wife

But what about a husband who has an unbelieving wife?

In the same way, husbands, live in a knowledgeable way with your wife as with a weaker vessel, showing honor to them as also being co-heirs of the grace of life, so that your prayers are not hindered. (1 Peter 3:7, Revised English Version)

Once again, we see the context is “the same way”: an ungodly wife.[6] This is especially relevant today, where many wives are disobedient to God (e.g. refusing to have sex with their husbands). Husbands in this situation must learn to live with their wives[7], yes even to suffer, just as a slave has to live with an ungodly master and a wife has to submit to her ungodly husband, as co-heirs of the grace of life, the promise to Abraham and Sarah[8]. This includes not dishonoring her, for to dishonor her would hinder your prayers from being answered.

Marital Sanctification

This passage really doesn’t have anything to say about sanctification of types of relationships, including those between a believing husband and wife, which are explained in Ephesians. A believing spouse’s response in this context is clearly regarding a potentially very bad situation (see “Further Context” below) for a very specific purpose: winning over the unbelieving spouse at almost any cost. It is not a commandment that a wife should passively obey her husband in all things without question.

This passage is not promoting authoritarian control. When husbands and wives try to grasp control of the relationship, it becomes about the balance of power. In a power struggle, sanctification—holiness—becomes impossible.[9] Peter instructs foreigners, slaves, and believing spouses to suffer greatly for the cause of Christ, so that they might be holy examples to their unbelieving rules, masters, and spouses.

Peter agrees with Paul that the way to sanctification—even in the case of an unbelieving spouse—is through holy living and sacrifice.

Authority vs Status

When Peter tells servants to submit to their abusive masters, he instructs them to respect (or fear) them. He also tells husbands to honor their ungodly wives. The concepts of respect and honor refer to the status of the recipient, not their authority.

Patriarchal men claim that the respect due husbands in Ephesians 5, the respect due masters in 1 Peter 2, and the honor due rulers in Romans 13 is based on authority, but the honor a husband gives his wife is not based in authority. This is logically incoherent.

A master has a higher status than the servant or slave, but the slave is not obligated to sin on behalf of the master, for God is the servant’s master. Similarly, while the unbelieving husband is higher status than the wife and she is obligated to obey him, he cannot command her to sin.

But something changes with believing husbands and unbelieving wives. Neither Peter nor Paul tell ungodly wives to obey their believing husbands, granting them honor and respect. No, Peter instructs believing husbands to honor their unbelieving wife, granting her the status of co-equals for the purpose of guiding her to sanctification. This flips the script! The husband has the authority and the obligation to do so, lest his prayers go unanswered.

Further Context

1 Peter was written to Jewish exiles.[1][10] Its primary theme is suffering for the sake of Christ. Here is its outline:

1:3-12: Christians are promised a glorious inheritance with Jesus when he returns.

1:13 – 2:3: Christians should be holy.

2:4-10: Jesus is the foundation of the church and believers are its priests.[11]

2:11 – 3:7: Foreigners and exiles, slaves, believing spouses, are to submit without fear to the unbeliever: governments, masters, unbelieving spouses (respectively), in expectation of suffering for the sake of winning them to Christ, but they are not to sin or retaliate.

3:8-3:22: Christians are to be good when faced with evil. To suffer is to be blessed. Do not fear.

4: Christians will suffer, but remain holy and pure. Love each other. Obey the Word of God.

5: After suffering, with the return of Christ comes glory. But for now, be humble and submissive, alert, living holy lives.

A quick summary of 1 Peter is “In this life, as an exile and foreigner, you will suffer at the hands of unbelievers, but stand holy and pure, submit to others even if by doing so you suffer, and await the glorious inheritance that is yours when Christ returns.”


[1] A few verses earlier, Peter calls Christians ‘foreigners and temporary residents’, unwelcome outcasts who must nevertheless submit to kings and governors.

[2] As noted here, based on Ephesians, if members of the church are to submit to clergy, then “a wife need show no more deference and no more enthusiasm in her submission to her husband than he displays toward their pastor.” How many husbands submit to their pastor’s judgment with the same fervor and completeness that they demand of their wives?

[3] To use modern parlance, “positive behavioral modification.”

[4] Which she is obviously making. An unbelieving husband can’t refuse to obey her words if she isn’t making them. Implicit in this instruction is that a wife is obligated to follow the Great Commission, even towards her unbelieving husband.

[5] It would be impossible to live a holy life if a wife obeyed her husband’s command to sin.

[6] In the very next verse, Peter changes the context: “Finally, all of you…”

[7]  Divorce is never to be chosen.

[8] God said to Abraham “one who will come from your own body shall be your heir”.

[9] Genesis 3:16 gave one of the punishments for women for sinning: that she would be ruled by her husband. Any woman, married to an unbeliever, will experience the fallen nature of man. She will likely be ruled, especially in a patriarchal society. A wife in such a state needs to live the life of Christ and win her husband over by her behavior: she is unlikely to convince him with her words.

[10] 1 Peter 1:1 “…To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of …”

[11] If all believers are priests, then who is their charge, that is, to whom do they have a duty to? Each other and unbelievers. This is the Great Commission, to go and make disciples, including those unbelievers in government, our masters, our spouses.



  1. Pingback: Sanctified Marriage: Part 4

  2. Pingback: Headship: Authority or Preeminence?

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