An Apostle’s Counsel to Married Couples
From 1 Peter 3:1–7
By George O. Wood
Without a doubt, marriage is in trouble — even among Christian leaders. You know the stories and the statistics. Few of us are immune to marital strife.
I think of the apocryphal story of the young couple who went back to the minister who married them. They were on the verge of breaking up. The minister reminded the husband, “But you took her for better or for worse.”
“Yeah,” he replied, “but she is worse than I took her for.”
Several years ago Ann Landers received a letter from a distraught wife who complained that her husband of 5 years continually spent on himself and neglected household bills. The situation had become so extreme she suffered from weeklong headaches and high blood pressure.
Ann replied: “Forget about changing him. No way. Now that you have an opinion from your doctor, I suggest you get one from your lawyer. This I can tell you: No man is worth week-long headaches and high blood pressure.”
Do you agree with Ann? Do you think the apostle Peter would agree with Ann?
The wives Peter addresses in 1 Peter 3:1–6 were, for the most part, probably married to non-Christians. You will notice he devotes six verses to them and only one verse to husbands. The reason? The lives of women were much more socially difficult than men. Many of these women were in unpleasant situations.
I wonder if Peter ever received a letter such as this:
Dear apostle Peter,
I became a Christian 2 years ago. My husband does not like what has happened to me. Occasionally, he curses at me and Christ. He makes fun of my Christian faith and me personally. He has made my life hell with his unpredictable anger. Sometimes he gives me the silent treatment and will not talk to me for days. I have tried witnessing to him, but he will not listen.
In our prayer group at church, I have met a wonderful, unmarried Christian man who could give my children and me a good Christian home. My husband does not want to divorce me, and I know he has been faithful to me, but I am tired of his treating me this way. Furthermore, we are not compatible. I want out. What do you think? And would you perform my remarriage to this wonderful Christian man if I divorced my husband?
Tired of being mistreated
What would your answer be? We know Peter’s answer because he gives it in 1 Peter 3:1–6. He lists the three essentials of a healing wife.
Counsel to the Wife
The healing wife is submissive (3:1,5,6)
There it is — that dirty word — submissive. Probably no word in the contemporary discussion of a wife’s role in marriage is more maligned or misunderstood than the word submission.
When Marabel Morgan’s book, The Total Woman, was at the peak of its popularity,The Wittenberg Door ran a cartoon of a frazzled Christian woman with her hair in rollers and her feet in a basin of warm water and Epsom Salt. The cartoon was captioned, “The Totaled Woman.” For many, that is the negative image of a submissive wife.
However, we have no problem knowing what Peter means by submission, because he uses the word in his instructions to citizens in 2:13 and slaves in 2:18. It means to place yourself under the authority of. It has nothing to do with inherent worth. It has everything to do with living without resort to escapism or violence. Submission is the opposite of doing your own thing.
Submission does not involve doing what is morally wrong (Sapphira wrongly submitted to Ananias’ lie in Acts 5:2,7–10), yielding up your sanity, or becoming a doormat of cowering passivity.
It does involve following the example of Sarah who, despite her own troubled marriage, respected Abraham by calling him “lord.” In other words, she did not demean him. She stayed true to Abraham despite the fact he frequently changed locations and occasionally mistreated her. She won through her behavior. She kept the right attitude, she took the right actions, and she kept the right affection — blessing her husband rather than cursing him.
Some might say, “Well, if Sarah lived in today’s culture, she certainly would have alternatives now that she did not have then.” But would she have taken them? Each of us may choose the path of what we perceive to be self-fulfillment, or we can hear the call of Jesus to embrace self-denial, take up our cross, and follow Him. Self-denial for wives or husbands means staying committed to their spouses even when the marriage is less than ideal.
We must also notice that the apostle Paul’s counsel on submission is not exclusively for the wife. The husband also has responsibility for submission: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
The healing wife is virtuous and respectful (3:2)
Peter counsels wives in difficult marriages that they may actually win over their husbands “without words” by their behavior when husbands “see the purity and reverence of your lives.”
The wife of great Russian writer, Leo Tolstoi, wrote this about their married life: “There is so little genuine warmth about him; his kindness does not come from the heart, but merely from his principles. His biographies will tell of how he helped the labourers carry buckets of water, but no one will ever know that he never gave his wife a rest and never — in all these 32 years — gave his child a drink of water or spent 5 minutes by his bedside to give me a chance to rest a little from all my labours.”
When you read that, can you not feel her pain? Her husband was perhaps like some ministers — well-regarded by the outside world, but careless and selfish in his relationship with his wife and children.
After 32 years, it is clear that this lack of warmth gnawed at Mrs. Tolstoi. It would affect any wife. I feel for her. But I also wonder, Did she show any warmth toward him? Did she ever look him in the eye, and say, “Leo, I love you, but we need to talk about your behavior toward me and the children.”
Did Mrs. Tolstoi become a thermometer or a thermostat in their marriage? Did she withhold affection and sex as punishment? A thermometer reflects the temperature of the room while a thermostat changes the temperature. If Leo was cold, did Mrs. Tolstoi simply give cold back? Would Leo have changed if she had projected back warmth?
The apostle Peter takes this tack in his counsel to wives. He does not promise it will always be successful. He notes the husband “may be won over” (emphasis added). But, clearly, Peter believes it is worth attempting.
The healing wife is inwardly beautiful (3:3,4)
Peter counsels wives to have inward beauty. His words on outward beauty, however, have often been misunderstood. Peter does not prohibit the wife from looking good outwardly; he simply notes that real beauty is internal, “that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”
When a wife has a difficult husband, she may let her inner beauty fade by becoming argumentative, hostile, aggressive in an unwholesome sense, or domineering. Her attempts to change her husband denigrate into nagging. The more she nags, the more he resists.
Peter says that the wife needs to calm down and have a quiet spirit. A quiet spirit does not mean a door mat personality nor does it mean silence — it means a spirit at rest.
Years ago, the late Alice Reynolds Flower, a pioneering mother in Pentecost and the Assemblies of God, wrote a book on marriage entitled,The Home: A Divine Sanctuary. As a teenager, I won that book in a contest. Of all the youth, I took the best notes from the pastor’s messages on dating and marriage.
As I grew older and got to know the Flowers, I realized that the phrase — a divine sanctuary — described their own home. When you stepped into their humble dwelling, you always felt such a presence of peace. Why? Because there was great love, great prayer, and humble service to Jesus Christ and family.
The apostle Peter pleads with wives to make their homes divine sanctuaries. My own mother exemplified that. Rising before dawn every day, she would spend the first 2 hours of the day in prayer and the Word. She made our home a place of peace, and she was a beautiful woman because she had a gentle and quiet spirit.
Counsel to the Husband
Without a doubt, every church has struggling marriages. And if the truth were told, many who hold ministerial credentials have struggling marriages.
William Barclay commented: “Any marriage in which all the privileges are on one side and all the obligations are on the other is bound to be an imperfect marriage with every chance of failure.”
Next, Peter talked to husbands (3:7). Granted, he took six verses to speak to wives, and only one to husbands, but he packed that one verse with strong counsel.
The healing husband shows thoughtful consideration for his wife
Notice that 3:7 and 3:1 use identical phrases: “in the same way.” What is the antecedent of “in the same way”? The example of Christ. “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (2:21).
Both husband and wife must pattern their response to one another after Christ’s response. How would Jesus treat your husband? How would Jesus treat your wife?
I can tell you some things Jesus would never do to your wife. He would never:
- curse at her.
- yell at her.
- insult her.
- hit her.
- be rude to her.
- bully her.
- treat her like a slave.
- tell her to shut up.
- allow her to or demand that she wait on Him hand and foot.
- give her the silent treatment.
- insist that His demands be met without consideration of her own needs.
- be unfaithful to her.
Several years ago a friend declined to attend the wedding of a leading Christian author who had divorced his wife without biblical cause and was now marrying another woman. When my friend confronted him, this author replied, “Well, I just cannot understand why God would not want me to be happy.”
What happened to this man? He took his eyes off Jesus and failed to treat his wife as Jesus would. How exactly would Jesus treat your wife?
He would model the response He desired. Did Jesus want His disciples to learn to be servants? Rather than lecturing them, He demonstrated service by taking a towel and washing their feet. Although headship was His by right, He earned it. Even as there are those who want an honorary doctoral degree without having to work for it, some husbands want the title of head but have never earned it.
He would initiate communication and reconciliation. Who repairs the relationship between Jesus and Peter after Peter’s three-fold denial? Jesus. After His resurrection, He personally appeared to Peter. If the husband is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, it falls to the husband to initiate the steps needed to repair trouble in a marriage. Why is it that nearly 80 percent of counselees with marriage difficulties are wives rather than husbands? Husbands need to take the lead in repairing marital damage and not leave it to their wives.
He would exhibit responsibility, provide security, and take the lead in demonstrating tenderness. Jesus would not come home from a day’s work, sit in a lazy chair, and begin barking orders. He excelled in giving love to others, and always looked for ways to help, strengthen, and encourage.
The healing husband is gracious
Peter calls on husbands to treat their wives with respect as the weaker partner. What does he mean by this? He was not speaking about wives being weaker spiritually or morally. Rather, he speaks to the wife being weaker physically.
Christ has the same relationship with us. He treats us with respect as the weaker partner.
He does not lead from the power of His position. Jesus never won people by barking orders, but through drawing us in love.
The husband cannot say, “I am the boss — you follow orders.” Pride of position and an authoritarian spirit are destructive to relationships.
In 1551, Bishop Becke translated 1 Peter 3:7 as follows: “And if she be not obedient unto thee, endeavor to beat the fear of God into her head, that thereby she may be compelled to learn her duty and to do it.” Obviously, he misread the text and put himself too much into it.
Husbands must not lead from the vantage point of superior to inferior (“I am better than you”), from a need to control, or through utilizing fear to get agreement. Jesus tells us that whoever would lead must be servant of all.
The healing husband comprehends his wife’s spiritual equality
Peter counsels husbands that their wives are “heirs with you of the gracious gift of life.” The wife, therefore, is not a thing or property. She is equally a child of God, and a joint heir of all the blessings that come with belonging to Christ.
This means that the husband needs to see his wife as a full partner in life — his friend, the one he talks with, plans with, prays with, and plays with.
The husband needs to encourage the full development of all the gifts and graces that the Holy Spirit has given his wife. Rather than be jealous of her strengths, he needs to rejoice in them and provide every opportunity for her ministry to mature.
The healing husband guards the marriage’s relationship to God
If husbands do not properly relate to their wives, Peter says their prayers will be hindered. Failure to live considerately and appropriately with your wife negatively impacts your relationship to God.
Paul S. Rees said: “Marriage is not an end in itself; it is a means by which we may grow in the Lord, and realize His glory. Selfishness breaks communion, destroys prayer.”
The Early Church father, Tertullian, wrote this letter to his wife around A.D. 202. It represents for all time the ideal relationship between husband and wife.
“How beautiful, then, the marriage of two Christians, two who are one in hope, one in desire, one in the way of life they follow, one in the religion they practice.
“They are as brother and sister, both servants of the same Master. Nothing divides them, either in flesh or in Spirit. They are in very truth, two in one flesh, and where there is but one flesh, there is also but one spirit.
“They pray together, they worship together, they fast together; instructing one another, encouraging one another, strengthening one another.
“Side-by-side they face difficulties and persecution, share their consolations. They have no secrets from one another, they never shun each other’s company; they never bring sorrow to each other’s hearts … Psalms and hymns they sing to one another.
“Hearing and seeing this, Christ rejoices. To such as these He gives His peace. Where there are two together, there also He is present, and where He is, there evil is not.”
How well is it in your home? Are you a healing wife? A healing husband?
Unlike Tertullian, Sam Shoemaker once talked about the fact we may not find utopia in the Christian home, that “the Christian home is not one in which relationships are perfect … but one in which imperfections are acknowledged and where problems are worked out in prayer and obedience to the light God sends. In such homes there is great freedom for people to say what they think and express what they feel. … People are allowed to grow up, to make mistakes, to be themselves, to laugh.”
I pray that for your home.
Several years ago, I officiated a marriage where the flower girl stole the show. As she came down the aisle, she stopped after every step, carefully extracted a few petals from her basket, and carefully placed them on the runner. It was a long 18 rows to the altar, and I thought she would never make it. The congregation had titters of joy as this child carefully went about her work of preparing for the bride.
As the wedding concluded, I turned to the groom and said: “Now you have the same task as the flower girl. Your job, as husband, is to strew flowers on the path your wife will walk.”
We will all have good marriages when we do that for one another.