Postmodernism has left many scars on modern evangelicalism. One that is particularly deep is the practice of defining biblical concepts in our own terms. Bible studies often revolve around the question: “What does this verse mean to you?” Sermons and Bible lessons begin with the phrase: “To me this means . . .” And “context” has more to do with the interpreter and not what’s being interpreted.
The postmodern reader exercises authority over the text, functioning like God’s editor. As a result, many biblical doctrines have been rewritten or expunged. Prominent among those is the biblical role of women.
Tragically, the biblical prohibition against women assuming church leadership roles are often misunderstood or rejected entirely. Some have misapplied that prohibition and impeded a woman’s ability to minister in any capacity, forcing them to cede all ministry work to men. Others take it as a stripe of chauvinism running throughout Scripture that must be cut out and cast aside for the Bible to be applicable and relevant in a postfeminist culture.
But the role of women in the church cannot be defined merely by the prohibitions against eldership and pulpit ministry. The sad irony is that those who supposedly champion the cause of women in the church are the ones trampling and belittling God’s true, high calling for women. The narrow, misguided focus on women preaching has led many to completely overlook the vital ministry roles that God specifically designed women to fulfill.
Winning the Unbelieving Husband
To begin with, the godly woman has a full-time ministry to the unbelievers in her home—particularly an unbelieving husband. The apostle Peter said it like this:
Wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior. (1 Peter 3:1–2)
Pastors and counselors commonly hear women protest against this principle. “Look, you don’t know my husband. He refuses to obey God. He is not a Christian. How can I submit to such a man?” But that type of situation is precisely what Peter was dealing with: “Even if any of them are disobedient to the word,” submit anyway. There is no exemption for wives who are married to unbelieving husbands. In fact, far from making such wives an exception to the rule, Peter used them as an example of what godly submission can accomplish in a marriage. The submissive wife may be God’s chosen means for winning an unbelieving husband.
A believing wife by her submission can have a more powerful influence on her unbelieving husband than she ever will by nagging or sermonizing. By her conduct, Peter said, she may win him to Christ “without a word” (1 Peter 3:1). What kind of conduct? “Chaste and respectful behavior” (1 Peter 3:2). Purity of life coupled with deep respect (a kind of reverential “fear”) for the husband: that is how a godly wife shows submission.
Displaying Godly Beauty
Notice also the corollary: “Your adornment must not be merely external—braiding the hair and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses” (1 Peter 3:3). Peter’s words could not be more timely today. Women shaped by contemporary society’s values tend to be obsessed with external adornment. But Peter said that is not where a woman’s priorities should be focused (Paul said something similar in 1 Timothy 2:9–10).
Don’t misunderstand what this means. The apostles were not completely forbidding jewelry, stylish hair, or other feminine adornments; they were simply saying those things are not what is most important. The way a woman looks is not the measure of her true beauty, and attempts to call everyone’s attention to the way she looks is actually showing a lack of submission to her own husband.
Instead, Peter said, women first of all need to cultivate inner beauty. They should be primarily concerned with “the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God” (1 Peter 3:4). It’s hard to imagine anything Peter might have said that would be more out of step with twenty-first-century notions of political correctness! He was saying that women ought to be gentle and quiet and submissive, not loud and boisterous and pushy. They ought to be concerned with their own character, and not with the world’s fashion. In other words, the real attractiveness of a godly woman—and her true strength—is that she is supportive of her husband and submissive to him, and she shows that submission through gentleness and serene stillness. That may not play well in a feminist culture, but it is what the Bible says.
Holiness Through Submission
Peter certainly wasn’t teaching that women must blindly follow everything their husbands say—as if they could never offer a contrary opinion or think for themselves. But he was suggesting that a godly woman will seek to “win” her husband by quiet, gentle, respectful means—not by rebelling against him or by trying to take over his place as head of the family.
Peter then set all of this in a biblical and historical perspective:
For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands; just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear. (1 Peter 3:5–6)
Peter was not making any new rule. And regardless of what modern notions of political correctness might suggest, these aren’t outmoded principles, either. Holiness is what godly women have always been most concerned with.
Teaching in a Vital Role
Women who fulfill God’s high calling in submission to their husbands also become qualified for a vital teaching ministry.
Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored. (Titus 2:3–5)
The expression “older women” refers to mature women—not necessarily elderly women, but veteran wives and mothers who are already experienced at raising families and keeping a household in order. The duties Paul gave them are simple and straightforward. They are to be women of holy character (“reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine”). And they are to be teachers (“teaching what is good”). Whom are they to teach? Younger women. What are they to teach? Paul listed a series of simple duties for wives.
This section of Titus gives a beautiful pattern for women seeking a ministry where they can put their gifts to the best use. Older women should teach younger women the skills and disciplines needed to have a successful home and marriage. Experienced wives and mothers will find their greatest avenue of ministry in teaching younger wives what they need to know to be effective wives, mothers, and homemakers.
Overseeing the Home
Notice, by the way, that all the woman’s biblical priorities are centered in the family and the home: “to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands” (Titus 2:4–5). The starting point is love—the woman’s love for her own husband and children. And she expresses that love in her virtue and her self-sacrifice, chiefly in the arena of her own family home. The home is where the truly godly woman flourishes. It’s where she finds her greatest joy. And it’s where she has her most important influence.
All of that is wrapped up in what Paul meant when he urged wives to be subject to their own husbands (Ephesians 5:22).
Next time, we’ll look at his instructions to husbands.