1. Likewise you wives, be submissive to your husbands, so that some, though they do not obey the Word, may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives,
2. when they see your reverent and chaste behavior.
3. Let not yours be the outward adorning with braiding of hair, decoration of gold, and wearing of robes;
4. but let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.
5. So once the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves and were submissive to their husbands,
6. as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are now her children if you do right and let nothing terrify you.
Here St. Peter is speaking primarily of the women who at that time had heathen and unbelieving husbands. On the otherhand, he is also speaking of believing men who had heathen wives. For in those days, when the apostles were proclaiming the Gospel among the Gentiles, it often happened that the one became a Christian and the other did not. Now since at that time wives were commanded to be submissive to their husbands, how much more this should be observed today! Therefore St. Peter wants to say that it is the wife’s duty to be submissive to her husband, even though he is a heathen or an unbeliever. And he gives the reason for this.
So that some, though they do not obey the Word, may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, when they see your reverent and chaste behavior.
That is, when a husband sees that his wife conducts and adapts herself properly, he may be induced to believe and to regard the Christian estate as proper and good. Even though women have no command to preach, yet they should deport themselves in such a way in the matter of gestures and conduct that they induce their husbands to believe, as we read about St. Augustine’s mother, who converted her heathen husband before his death. Later she also converted her son Augustine.[1.]This, of course, is an external thing, which should not be done for the purpose of becoming pious in this way. Obedience does not save you, for it may well be that you can find an obedient wife who is nevertheless an unbeliever. But you must obey for the purpose of serving your husband in this way. For this is the order established by God when He says to the woman in Gen. 3:16: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” This is also one of the penalties God imposed on women. But such conduct, I say, is external; it pertains to the body, not to the spirit.
But it is important to know what kind of works one must perform to please God. We should strive hard to achieve this, just as we see that the world has striven to accomplish what it has invented. It is a high and noble treasure for a woman to have when she conducts herself in such a way that she is submissive to her husband, for then she knows that she is doing a God-pleasing work. What greater joy can come to her? Therefore a woman who wants to be a Christian wife should think as follows: “I will not consider what kind of husband I have, whether he is a Gentile or a Jew, whether he is pious or wicked; but I will take into account that God has placed me in the state of matrimony and wants me to be submissive and obedient to my husband.” If she renders such obedience, then all her works are golden.
But if she does not let herself be induced by this, she will not be helped in any other way. For you will accomplish nothing with blows; they will not make a woman pious and submissive. If you beat one devil out of her, you will beat two into her, as the saying goes. Oh, if married people knew this, how well they would fare! But no one enjoys doing what God has commanded. On the other hand, everybody hastens to do what men have invented. God insisted to such an extent on obedience to this command that He authorized husbands to annul vows made by their wives if the husbands express disapproval, as we read in Num. 30:8. The reason for this is that God wants peace and quiet to reign in a household. This is one point. Now the apostle goes on to tell how a woman should conduct herself toward other people.
Let not yours be the outward adorning with braiding of hair, decoration of gold, and wearing of robes; but let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.
Not only a wife but also a husband should have this internal treasure. Here someone might ask whether or not what St. Peter says about adornment is commanded. We read about Esther that she wore a golden crown and precious adornment, as befits a queen (Esther 2:12, 17). The same thing is said about Judith (Judith 10:3–4). But it is also written here that they disdained adornment and were compelled to wear it (Esther 14:16). Therefore we say: A woman must be so minded as to pay no regard to adornment. Otherwise, when people acquire ornaments, they do not know when to stop. This is the way they are by nature. Therefore a Christian wife should disdain it. But if the husband wants it, or if there is any other proper reason for her to adorn herself, it is all right. Yet, as St. Peter says here, she must be adorned “in the hidden person of the heart with a gentle and quiet spirit.” You are adorned beautifully enough when you are adorned for your husband. Christ does not want you to adorn yourself to please others and be called a pretty wench. But you must see to it that you wear the hidden treasure and precious ornament imperishably in your heart, says St. Peter, and that you lead a chaste and decent life. It is a good sign that there is not much spirit when so much stress is placed on adornment. But if faith and spirit are there, they will trample adornment underfoot and say, as Queen Esther said (Esther 14:16): “Thou knowest my necessity—that I abhor the sign of my proud position, which is upon my head on the days when I appear in public. I abhor it like a menstruous rag, and I do not wear it on the days when I am at leisure.” Such a wife will be all the more pleasing to her husband. Therefore, as St. Peter says, wives must be intent on adorning “the hidden person” where an imperishable, quiet spirit dwells. Not only should they shun extravagance, lest they be pushed aside and come to shame; but he means that they should see to it that the soul within them remains in the true faith, lest their faith be harmed.
This leads to a heart that does not start thinking about how it appears before the world. Such a heart is a glorious thing before God. If a woman were to adorn herself with nothing but gold, gems, and pearls down to her feet, this would be extraordinarily splendid. But you could not hang so much on a woman that it could be compared to the sumptuous adornment of the soul that is magnificent in the sight of God. Gold and precious stones are magnificent in the eyes of the world, but before God this is a stench. But that woman is attired well and gloriously before God who goes her way in a gentle and quiet spirit. Therefore since God Himself considers this magnificent, it must be something glorious. A Christian soul has all that Christ has. For, as we have said, faith brings us all Christ’s possessions put together. This is a great and precious treasure and an adornment such as no one can praise sufficiently. God Himself also regards it highly. Therefore one should keep and restrain women from adornment, since otherwise they are inclined in this direction. If a Christian woman hears this, takes it to heart, and thinks: “I will pay no attention to adornment, since God pays no attention to it either; but if I must wear it, I will do so to please my husband,” then she is properly adorned and decorated in the spirit. Next St. Peter also cites an example of saintly women for the purpose of urging them to lead a Christian life. He says:
So once the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves and were submissive to their husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.
As these women adorned themselves, he wants to say, so you do too, just as Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. Thus Scripture says in Gen. 18:10, when the angel came to Abraham and said: “A year from today Sarah shall have a son.” Then she laughs and says (v. 12): “After I have grown old, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” St. Peter undoubtedly had these words in mind when he mentioned Sarah as an example here. For she would not have called Abraham a lord if she had not been submissive to him and had not called this to his attention. Therefore the apostle continues:
And you are now her children if you do right and let nothing terrify you.
What does he mean by this? This is what he means: It is commonly the nature of women to be timid and to be afraid of everything. This is why they busy themselves so much with witchcraft and superstition. One teaches the other, so that it is impossible to tell what kind of hocus-pocus they practice. But a Christian woman should not do this. She must go along freely and with confidence and not be so timid. She should not practice witchcraft and superstition and run hither and thither, uttering a magic formula here and a magic formula there. Whatever her lot, she should let God rule, and she should remember that she cannot fare badly. For since she knows how she is faring and that her position in life is pleasing to God, why should she fear? If your child dies, if you become ill, be of good cheer; commit it to God. You are in a God-pleasing station. What better lot can you desire? These are words preached to wives.
[1.] Augustine, Confessions, Book IX, ch. 9, par. 22.