On Wives and Their Place in Family Life


by A. W. Tozer


In the third chapter of First Peter; 1 Peter 3:1-7.

Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; [conversation here, means conduct — and not talk] while they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear.

Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; but let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.

For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands: even as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement.

Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; [and this do] that your prayers be not hindered.

Now through all history — of course — the biological positions of the two sexes have remained unchanged but the psychological attitudes and the social relations have been altered very radically from time to time and there has occurred in recent years — very much all over the world, having its origin in United States — a psychological and social revolution with respect to the relation of the sexes and this has amounted to a positive and radical revolution.

Now I'm not going to go into that; I'm not prepared to do it and I would be very unwilling because the topic would be extremely distasteful. But I can only say this much that for the Christian of either sex there is only one rule to settle the problem, and that is, What does the Bible say?

We have been committed to the Word of God. We've been committed to a Man and a Book: the Man being the Man, Christ Jesus, and the Book being the Holy Scriptures. And when we have discovered — on any subject at all — when we have discovered what the Bible says and what pleases the Man in the Glory then there is no place for argument. He said it, and if He said it, that settles it; there is no place for argument — and certainly there is no place for humorous remarks.

It is my belief that in dealing with the touchy subject of home and the relation and proper position of the husband and the wife and the child in the home, a great deal of damage — damage that can never be repaired — has been done by public speakers; particularly preachers, who deal with the subject as though it were humorous. It is anything but funny in the light of the coming judgment and the presence of the Lord at his coming!

Now it says here, "Ye wives be in subjection to your own husbands" and here is what the Bible would seem to teach, that the man is the head of the race and the home. Go back to Genesis and you will find that God made Adam out of the dust of the ground, blew into his nostrils the breath of life and then because man was not good being alone God made the women of the part of the man. And the woman must understand this and accept it.

But on the other hand there was never any authority in the scriptures; neither precept nor biblical example anywhere, for the brutal lord who rules his home with an iron hand. That is completely unknown in the scriptures.

Read the story of Abraham and Sarah and you will find there the noble leadership of the man Abraham but he never ruled with an iron hand. Go on to poor old Jacob with all his domestic difficulties. There was always a graciousness and a kindness in the family. Come on down through Old Testament history — even though it was a bit in the shadows compared with the brilliant light of the New Testament — still, and nevertheless, there never was any brutal domination.

So the Bible seems to teach that the husband and the wife should supplement each other — being together what neither one could be apart. But on the other hand, the dominant and rebellious wife is unknown in the scriptures — or if she is known in the scriptures, she is never approved. The idea is never approved. The dominating wife is the product of sin and unbelief and has no place whatsoever in the will of God, so that there is not to be rivalry according to the scripture — there is to be cooperation.

There is to be understanding that there are two people by force of circumstances and their choice, living in the same home and that the husband being in the scripture and according to the will of God, the head of the home, and the man the head of the race, and must yet be according to Peter's remarks notice it, how very gently it says, "ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, [that is, use your head] giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life". That is, they are children of God together and are equal heirs of the grace of life — remember that.

I think chivalry was born here, Christian chivalry as we understand it. The 'weaker vessel' it says and there's an awful lot of joking about that in cartoons love of this passage to show the great large-biceped woman leading a meek little lamb of a man down the street. They love to play on this 'weaker vessel' business.

But the scripture says that they are heirs together of the grace of life — the husband and the wife, if they are both Christians are Christian heirs together they are brethren in Jesus Christ their Lord.

Then he says, this being over, "that your prayers be not hindered". I suppose there's many a praying husband whose prayers are not being answered and he blames it on Malenkov or Cardinal Spellman when the fact is he is simply a great big overbearing baboon when it comes to his wife and if he would straighten out and live with her according to knowledge and treat her with the chivalry that belongs as being the weaker vessel and remembering that she's his sister in Christ, his prayers would get answered in spite of the Devil and Malenkov!

The trouble lies not in the Kremlin or the Vatican but it lies in the heart of the man who just can't resist the temptation to growl and dominate — well, there's no place for it in any home. There's place for recognition of the proper relationships and positions but there is no place for domination.

Now, it says that the Christian wife who has an unsaved husband, what about that? And I suppose that if I were to ask what the greatest problem is, even in a congregation as modest as this one, there would be many who would say, Well, how do I adjust my Christian life so that I am obedient to the Scriptures when I am living with a man who hates God and who allows me to go to church only reluctantly and with much grumbling? Well, the Bible deals with that, too.

And it says, in effect, that the quiet cooperative Christian wife is a powerful instrument for good in the home. That she is, without saying much, an evangelist hard to resist and that the man, though he may reject her doctrine and laugh at her faith, in his deep conscience he's badly smitten by the evidence of her meek and quiet spirit and her chaste conversation, coupled with fear. And there's many a woman who prays about her husband's conversion who will never live to see her husband converted. Because she refuses the scriptural position that God has given her and because, bluntly, the husband doesn't see anything there that he wants.

Now in between I've mentioned the dominating gorilla of a husband who's prayers aren't answered because he's just too much of a man. Now I've mentioned the woman who's life does not show godliness but in between those two, thank God, there's a whole world of good, decent, Christian people that try to do the best they can and if there are any irritations, they try to overlook them and get along as best they can. Thank God for that great mass of believing men and women who get along together and who manage somehow to set a fairly good example to the neighborhood and to their friends.

Now we come to a problem that would be very distasteful to me but I may die tomorrow and I wouldn't want to die knowing that the day before I had cowardly run out — cowardly is an adverb, in spite of what you say — that I had cowardly run out on a text of Scripture that I was too timid to deal with. Now, I'll read it again; Peter, help me, here. "Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; but let it be the hidden man of the heart". Peter's all mixed up here, talking about a woman and then says it's to be the hidden man of the heart. Because he lifts — he's not mixed up, of course — he lifts the whole thing off of the plane where there is division between sexes and he puts it up on the spiritual plane where there is no division and says it's the hidden being of the heart that matters.

Now, "not that outward adorning". What does the Bible teach here? It says that a woman is not to seek to be attractive by outward adorning of the plaiting of the hair, of the wearing of gold and the putting on of apparel. Now, does this passage forbid these things? Let's say, Yes, and then go on from there, and see where we land. Now about the plaiting of the hair, now I used to call that braiding, when I was a little boy and every girl had a pigtail that came down to her hips and the longer the prouder they were of them, with ribbons on the end and very carefully braided, 'platting' is the word that's used in America, 'plaiting' in England, but 'braiding' we always called it. My sister always used to wear braided hair, and that's what it means. Does it say, 'Don't be adorned with braided hair' — if we say, Yes, that's what it says. All right, that rules out the braiding of your hair. OK, it's out. Now "whose adorning let it not be the wearing of gold" does that mean there's not to be gold ever worn by a Christian woman, if we say — and we're agreeing for the moment — OK, all right, that's out. "Nor the putting on of apparel" — wait a minute, we're in it here, because it certainly doesn't mean that the woman is not to put on apparel, so what does it mean if it doesn't mean she's not to plait her hair ever, nor wear gold, nor put on apparel, if it doesn't mean that, what does it mean? It means your true attractiveness is not outward but inward and that therefore as a Christian woman you should remember that you cannot buy true attractiveness — that it is of the heart and not of the body. Now there's what Peter meant and anything we read further into that is fanaticism and narrow private interpretation for that's exactly what he said!

There is not one line here that would lead us, not one comma, nor semicolon that could lead us to believe that Peter said it was wrong for a woman to braid her hair — you have to do something with it! Nor is there anything in the scriptures that would lead anybody to teach that it would be unscriptural and wrong for a woman to wear gold — God Almighty made gold and strung it all around us. It's pretty to look at and it's an element in itself and all that, and if you can afford any of it and have any of it; nothing in the scriptures says don't wear it any more than it says don't put on apparel. It says, don't let your apparel be your true attractiveness — nor your gold.

Now I can see where when Peter smiled a wry smile when he wrote that because I suppose — and I'm quite sure that history would bear me out — that they had customs in those days, vogues, and I suppose the vogue was to make the braided hair alluring somewhat and the wearing of gold of course I suppose was carried to ridiculous extremes no doubt that worldly unsaved pagan women were being seen on the streets dressed like the proverbial Christmas tree. So Peter rather dourly says, you Christian women are another kind of person altogether and you, you're interested more in character than you are in your clothing and therefore you Christian women shouldn't seek to adorn yourself and make yourself attractive by the use of gold and hairdos and apparel but your true attractiveness is inward, not outward.

Now I may get in trouble here but not with anyone in this congregation, of course — and it wouldn't be too desperately serious if I did. But while true attractiveness never is outward yet no Christian woman ever can be a sloven. You ask me, a woman who is a proverbial dowdy and who lives and moves around, carries her big Bible and yet is a sloven, I see them sometimes — tell it not in Gath — on busses and streetcars on their way to church, with a big Bible on their lap and the Sunday School quarterly — evidently a teacher — and you would shrug, you'd say did that woman go to the old barrel in the attic, and just pull it out and put it on, or how did it get on, did she sleep in it? I see them. Now, they can't impress me with their spirituality; I don't believe in that kind of spirituality. There's no place in the heart of Jesus Christ, there's no place in that artistic, tender, poetic Holy Ghost for dowdiness nor dirt nor slovenliness.

I remember the old Quaker brother who went to visit a Quaker sister making a call of some sort and after they had stood off from one another you know how they did and boxed — shadow-boxed — very properly and talked awhile in a very dignified manner about the things of God, when she said, Brother, would you care to pray with me before you go? he said, No! She said, Why? He said, Your house is dirty. He said, God Almighty never told me to get down on my knees in a dirty house! Clean it up and I'll come back and pray!

I believe he had more of the Spirit than she had. She probably was too busy praying to clean up! But I believe that if she had cleaned up, she could have prayed better. Now, I say that this gives no room whatsoever for the female dowdys. There are four words, if any of you may care to take them down — not my address please, just these four words — but if any of you ladies care to take them down, here are the four words: Clean, Neat, Modest, and Appropriate — now that's the outward adorning. There's got to be some kind of outward adorning but you're not to depend upon that and you're to remember that apart from the hidden man of the heart there never can be any lasting beauty.

First of all, Clean. Everybody understands that. However poor we may be, we can still be clean — there's always water available. Neat: nobody ever needs to look as if she had been in a cyclone and hadn't got accumulated yet. And the word, Modest. I think everybody knows what that word Modest means. We can laugh that off if we want to but those are words that we'll face in that great day.

And the fourth word is Appropriate. Appropriate to two things. Every Christian woman — now if you want to know; if you don't want to know, it's all right, but if you want to know — every Christian woman should dress appropriate to the circumstances and to her income. A Christian woman giving out tracts, loudly dressed, or inappropriately dressed, or badly dressed, or un-neatly dressed, is a very, very bad ad for the gospel of which she is talking, or trying to talk, to the public.

Now what do I mean by appropriate to the circumstances? I can only give you a grotesque illustration of what I mean. Some time ago I saw on a streetcar one day — that's a wonderful place to go, some of you people who have never ridden a streetcar, it'll cost you seventeen cents to observe human nature in the raw and you'll get a lot out of it if you're alert and watchful! I saw a lady, now here's the way she was dressed. She had on high heels, slacks a great, heavy — and rather lovely — fur coat and babushka. And I looked at this woman and thought to myself, how did they ever let her get out that way, at all? Why didn't somebody stop her at the door, and say, Mama, please, don't go out like that! People will think you've escaped! Now, she wasn't dressed appropriately. You say, well, we only have just a little money, and all that. But we don't have to be grotesque, even if we only have a little bit of money. So there's no excuse for that and the woman — I don't know that she was a Christian at all — but if she was, she'd have had some explaining to do if she tried to talk Jesus Christ to anybody.

Second is, appropriate to the income. Now, I mention this because of two reasons. One is that a great many single women are working so hard they're making themselves old in order to get money enough to buy clothes to make themselves look young. And the contradiction is grotesque. It doesn't reflect any credit on the common sense or spirituality of any woman who goes out of her financial bracket to decorate herself for the sake of appearances. If she lives and comes from a home where those things are taken for granted, all right. But always dress according to the circumstances, appropriately. Neatly, modestly, and of course, plainly.

Now I rather sound like Mr Anthony or Albert Boyd over here but Peter said it, I didn't and it's before us. Now what is the true adorning of the Christian woman? The true adorning is the inward adorning, that lasting beauty which is within, the hidden being of the heart which is more conspicuous, though it is hidden, than all the jewels that one can buy. A meek and quiet spirit always makes a woman attractive, be she young or old.

And now our conclusion: Christian women, take not as your models the wrong people. Take not as your model Mrs Roosevelt, Clare Boothe Luce, Jane Russell, et al. Take for your model, Sarah, a princess, as it says here "even as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord as holy women in olden times who trusted in God adorned themselves" - so take Sarah. We don't know how she dressed, of course, we only know that her adornment was inward.

Susanna Wesley is a woman whose name is golden in the annals of the church of Christ and yet nobody knows how she dressed. I never heard of her having ... I know she dressed, but I don't know how. I don't know what she wore. I don't know a thing about it. I only know that she had seventeen children and the two of them were Charles and John Wesley.

I'm glad she went on to have seventeen because John was the last and if she hadn't have had seventeen, we'd never have had John Wesley. Now could she have added anything to her glory if she had been know as one of England's ten best dressed women? Never. That would have passed away and been forgotten and been put as a footnote at the bottom of the page but that she brought into the world those princes of song and theology, John and Charles Wesley and taught them herself, has placed her name high in the hall of God Almighty's everlasting fame!

So if you want to take models, don't take the models of the globe-trotting females, making gravely-voiced speeches about things of which they know not. Nor coop artists!

But take Sarah and Susanna and Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton and Mary Fuller. There are plenty of good examples — take them.

Remembering the last word: this is serious. And the great day of God will declare all our works, yours and mine, so we'd better take it seriously. It can neither be shoved off nor laughed off, for the judgment shall declare every man's works. But we should reverently obey, both the woman of verse one and the husband of verse seven.

And if we do this, and if we remember that there is to be no domination, no rebellion, no iron hand, but Christian understanding and fellowship and when it comes to adornment let it not be out of the Ladies Home Journal but within circumstances, decently, modestly, practically ... appropriately.

I don't think we can ever have revival in the church of Christ until these things that have been laughed off by evangelists are brought back before our gaze and reverently considered, not humorously but seriously in the light of judgment!

And when that time comes and you begin to take God seriously maybe God will begin to take our plaintive prayers for revival a bit more seriously than He's taking them now. But until that time comes we can go on beating the bench asking for revival but we'll get revival when we begin to obey reverently in the will of God and not make quips out of texts, or subjects for funny stories out of Holy Writ!

So God help us all, men and women, whatever marital, social or domestic status in order that we might do the will of God and thus win our crown.

(This sermon was preached in 1956 and transcribed in 2004 by neve-family.com)

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