Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 3.1-4

1 Peter 3.1-4

[1] Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, [2] when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. [3] Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. [4] Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.



I’m afraid that this is one of the times when I feel the need to both defend Calvin and make excuses for him. As much as I would love to be able to say that Calvin was a feminist a few hundred years before anyone else really was, I cannot. Of course, this is the same kind of thing that we must remember with reference to the writers of the biblical text. We must judge them in light of their cultural situation, and not in light of our own. With reference once again to Calvin, it should be noted that despite what he may say in certain texts such as this, he really had a rather robust view of the male-female relationship in marriage, a relationship that he saw as full of reciprocity, tenderness, and love (in all the best senses of the word). If you want to get a taste of that, I recommend Calvin’s commentary on Genesis.

This material naturally divides into two portions: first, the material having to do with influencing husbands; and, second, the bit having to do with jewelry, hairstyles and how women dress. What Calvin fixates on in the first section is the notion that wives might win their husbands to Christ without words. He points out that what Peter means is that wives can do much “to prepare their husbands, without speaking to them on religion, to embrace the faith of Christ.”

The second section is, admittedly, the one with the embarrassing quotes. Here is one: “wives are to adorn themselves sparingly and modestly: for we know that they are in this respect much more curious and ambitious than they ought to be” (italics are mine). But, does this mean that absolutely no adornment and, what is more, absolutely no clothing is permitted to the Christian? Calvin’s intense commitment to the notion of moderation means that one need not worry about him being too extreme on these issues (cf. Calvin’s Institutes 3.19 for his treatment of Christian freedom). Calvin breaks down these questions into their various parts, and identifies the focus of the passage on the evil of vanity (not without an embarrassing phrase or two): “Peter did not intend to condemn every sort of ornament, but the evil of vanity, to which women are subject.”

So, what of the clothing question? “Two things are to be regarded in clothing, usefulness and decency; and what decency requires is moderation and modesty.” This makes a lot of sense. When wearing clothes, we need to think about wearing things that make sense for what we will be doing in those clothes, and we need to be decent with reference to our cultural standards. And, with reference to decency, we need to be modest (again, I would say – and I think that I could make the case for continuity with Calvin – that this refers to cultural standards) and moderate. The talk of moderation here is the bit that directly has to do with vanity. One should not dress in order to feed one’s ego. Of course, we would argue (and I suspect that Calvin would also) that this refers to both men and women; it is a shame that Calvin thinks it applies especially to women in any essential (and not a culturally conditioned) sense.

NB: For anyone who is looking for a good exegetical resource on women in the New Testament, I recommend Craig Keener’s Paul, Women and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul. It only covers Paul, but it is excellent and the patterns established in the Pauline letters (household codes, etc) carry over into the sort of passage that we have here in 1 Peter.


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