A Christian mother carting her children off to church on Sunday morning while her husband sits at the table drinking coffee and waiting for the ballgames to begin is an all too familiar scene in America today. The children eventually question their mother as to why they have to go to church if dad doesn’t go. Some days she wonders what use there is in stressing their need for Christ and to hear his word while she gets no support from her husband. She sits at church surrounded by families with husbands and wives holding hands as they sing to the Lord. Their children seem eager to be there. She realizes that the most important part of her life is something that her husband tolerates but has no interest in talking to her about. She contemplates how long she can live this way, and if God wants her to go on living this way. Maybe for her own spiritual wellbeing and that of her children she would be better off as a single mom. Thoughts like these roll around in the minds of many Christian women on Sunday morning. Sunday mornings in the Lord’s house can be the loneliest times in their lives. They feel alone, confused, and uncertain as to what God’s will is for them in their present circumstances. How can they possibly glorify God in their current situation? Does God have any word for them?. The answer is yes; God does have a word for women in these circumstances, as well as a strategy for evangelizing their husbands.
Ministry to families is often difficult at best. This is especially true when only one spouse is a believer. Most sermons and teaching on the family do not address this very sensitive and difficult issue. As a result of this failure to instruct people in this situation, Christians are often unclear as to what their responsibilities are to their unbelieving partner. While few passages in the Bible speak directly to this issue, two crucial passages provide sufficient insight and guidance. This article will examine these passages and the implications that can be drawn from them. In addition, consideration will be given to the influence a Christian parent can have over their children in a mixed marriage.
A STRATEGY FOR WINNING UNBELIEVING HUSBANDS TO CHRIST (1 PETER 3:1–6)
The most extensive passage on this topic is 1 Peter 3:1– 6. Here Peter gives specific instructions for how a Christian wife can evangelize her unconverted husband. In the first century it was not uncommon when a husband converted to a religion for the entire family to follow. However, when the wife converted to a religion it was less likely that the husband would follow automatically. Peter offers wise counsel to these women. He provides for them a strategy for wordless evangelism. I do not mean by this that Peter would discourage Christian wives from speaking the gospel to their unconverted husbands. It is more likely that he is warning them against “badgering” them with the gospel. Peter encourages Christian wives to influence their husbands by their godly behavior.
Peter gives more detailed instructions to Christian wives (3:1–6) than to Christian husbands in this passage (3:7) (1). The reason for this is seen when the larger context is considered. In the larger context Peter is instructing those who are in a vulnerable position to live out their hope in God by submitting to those in authority over them. This larger context goes back to 1 Peter 2:11–12. There Peter speaks of his readers as “sojourners and exiles.” The imagery suggests that the believer’s true home is not this world. In light of this reality Peter wants believers to live godly lives in order to highlight the gospel. He then gives several examples of how believers are to live in this “foreign land”: Citizens are to live in submission to the governing authorities (2:13–17), slaves are to be subject to their masters (2:14–25), and wives are to live in submission to their husbands (3:1–6). The goal is that they (governing authorities, masters, and unbelieving husbands) would see the believer’s good works and “glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:13) (2).
This passage will be examined around four thoughts. First, Peter admonishes Christian wives to be submis- sive to their “disobedient” husbands (3:1). The word “submission” is one of the most detested words in our culture. This is no more evident than when the topic comes up in the discussion of male and female roles in the family. (I am writing from a complementarian position. See endnote 3). A Christian wife is to joyfully embrace the divinely ordained headship of her husband as the leader of their home, whether he is a Christian or not. Thus the primary duty enjoined on the wife is submission. The phrase translated “in the same way” (homoios) should not be interpreted to mean that a wife is to submit to her husband like a slave submits to his master (4). The word is used here as a connective much like “and” (5). This same construction is found in verse seven.
The command to submissiveness suggests no sense of inferiority—spiritual, moral, or intellectual; rather, it is subordination of function involving a wife’s role within the marriage and home. Submitting is certainly easier said than done when a woman is married to an inconsiderate man. This challenge necessitates that a woman be convinced her greatest motivation for submitting to her husband is the glory of God. A wife’s submission is a means of glorifying the God of her salvation. She does not submit to her husband for her husband’s sake, or even her own. Rather, she submits to him for the Lord’s sake (2:13). She submits to her husband for the sake of the one who bore her sins in his body on the tree so that she could die to sin and live to righteousness (2:24). True submission is to be willingly given and conducted in a way that is in keeping with God’s character. Her submission is to be motivated by faith, hope, and love in the Lord, not fear. Just as Jesus entrusted himself into the hands of the one who judges justly (2:23) she can do the same. This elevates the practice of submission from being a mere commandment to a glorious means of expressing one’s devotion to the Lord. The special purpose given for the command is expressed in the latter part of the verse (3:1b).
The fact that the husband does not obey (apeithousin) the word implies an open and hostile response to the word. The thought suggests more than a rejection of the gospel, but of a lifestyle that is in opposition to it (6). The implication is that the wife is living under difficult circumstances. Many Christian wives married to unconverted men think that they would be willing to live in submission to their husbands if they were at least good husbands. But Peter seems to be writing to those whose husbands live in direct rebellion to God’s word. For these unbelieving husbands to continue in disbelief and rebellion will be fatal to their souls.
For many Christian women this is descriptive of their husband. Many women (and men) faithfully attend Christian worship, bring their children to church, and seek to faithfully follow God, but their spouse discourages them. Peter’s words should be an encouragement to these Christians that God can use their godly conduct in the life of their unbelieving mate. The term “behavior” (NASB) or “conduct” (ESV) (anastrophe) is one of Peter’s favorite. He uses it six times in this letter, while it is used only seven times in the rest of the New Testament. One final point should be made in regard to a wife’s submission to her husband. In most situations believers are to obey those whom God has placed over them (Rom 13:1–7; Eph 5:22–6:9; 1 Pet 2:13–3:6). However, in certain situations God’s people must refuse to submit if that submission would bring them into direct disobedience to the clear teach- ings of God’s word. This has been clearly illustrated in the Bible when the apostles refused to be silenced by the religious authorities concerning speaking the gospel (Acts 5:20). The same was true of Daniel when he refused to quit praying even though Darius outlawed prayer (Dan 6:1–28). A woman is not required to submit to her husband if what he asks her to do violates the clear teaching of the Bible.
Peter’s second point is that this “wordless” evangelism is observed by the unbelieving spouse (3:2). Chris- tian wives are to live a life toward their husbands that is “pure and respectful.” As he observes (epopteusantes) his wife’s conduct and reflects upon it, he can be led to conclude that the gospel is true. The two qualities in particular that catch the husband’s eye are his wife’s “pure” and “respectful” behavior (7). The portrait painted here of the submissive wife is one that shows deference and respect toward her husband for God’s glory while keeping her husband’s eternity in view. Again, this “wordless evangelism” should not be taken to mean that a wife never shares her faith with her husband. It does not mean that she never invites him to attend church with her. But it does realize that one’s godly character is a means by which God softens the heart of an unregenerate husband.
Peter’s third point is that Christian wives should not be consumed with their outward adornment but instead should focus on the cultivation of Christian character (3:3–4). Peter is not saying that she is to have no concern for her appearance, but that the cultivation of inner beauty is more important than overemphasizing external beauty. The art of the first two centuries testify to the preoccupation with hairstyles, make-up, and jewelry in the ancient world. Peter, however, draws a sharp distinction between outward and inward beauty. This verse has been read by some as a prohibition against make-up, jewelry, and similar kinds of outward ornamentation. These restrictions, however, miss the point. Instead, Peter’s words are intended to be a caution against a distorted sense of values. The primary thought is that a Christian wife will not win her husband to Christ by a superficial approach to life, but by the development of godly character. True beauty is that which is expressed in Christlike character (3:4a).
The “hidden person of the heart” refers to the center of one’s character. This inner beauty, which is “imperishable,” consists of a “quiet and gentle” disposition that is “precious in God’s sight” (3:4b). The word “spirit” refers to her disposition, much like what we mean when we say, “he has a ‘good’ spirit about him.” The term “gentle” describes the wife as considerate and humble in her actions toward others, especially her husband. The term “quiet” denotes a calmness and tranquility, a spirit not easily ruffled. This kind of life can only be truly lived when a woman has given herself fully to God. Consequently, what is precious to God and attractive to an unbelieving husband is not a domineering personality, but a gentle and kind disposition.
Fourth, Peter appeals to the example of godly women of the past to reinforce his point (3:5–6). He highlights three thoughts about them (3:5). First, they were “holy;” that is, they were called by God and set apart for Him (cf. 1:14–15). They lived holy lives in the most difficult of situations—not in isolation from various troubles, but in interaction with their unbe- lieving spouse. Second, these women “hoped” in God. They lived their daily lives with the expectancy that God would accomplish what he had promised (1:3, 21; 3:15). This hope enabled them to be submissive to their husbands under trying and disappointing circumstances. Third, they “adorned themselves” with the character trait of “submission.” With another reference to submission, Peter returns to the primary theme of his paragraph.
Sarah is highlighted as an example of this kind of submissive attitude (3:6a). The reference that she called Abraham “lord” (kyrios) is likely an allusion to Genesis 18:12. What is interesting in this passage is that Sarah is referring to Abraham in an off-handed comment, suggesting that even at this stage of their lives she still showed him deference and respect (8). This is astounding considering the serious mistakes Abraham had made in their marriage. The word translated “obey” carries the thought of listening to someone and then carrying out their instructions. In this passage “obey” refers to Sarah’s deference to Abraham. Christian wives who follow her example are her spiritual children. Two qualities further delineate those who are Sarah’s spiritual children. First, they “do what is right”; that is, they do what is right in the Lord’s eyes as they interact with their husbands. Second, they are not to be afraid (“without being frightened by any fear”). They are not to be afraid of doing what God has called them to do in relationship to their husbands.
While Peter does not spend much time on the obli- gation of the Christian husband to his believing wife, he does address the subject briefly (3:7). Peter places two responsibilities on the husband followed by a statement designed to encourage his obedience. Husbands are to live with their wives in an “understanding way.” The thought is that the husband is to live with his wife in a way that takes into consideration her needs and desires. He should ever seek to learn more and more about his wife. The word “weaker” should be understood that the woman is weaker in a physical sense. Furthermore husbands are to grant their wives honor (3:7b). This is likely one way that a husband lives with his wife in an understanding way. It is to treat one’s wife with respect. The reason for treating her in this way is that she is a “fellow heir” of the grace of life. She is a sister in Christ. Peter gives an incentive for a husband to care for his wife in this manner (3:7c). If they do not treat their wives in this way their prayers will be affected. For one’s prayers to be hindered is to have them “cut off ” from God. Peter could not have put it more directly. If a Christian husband does not treat his wife in a godly manner his prayers will go unanswered.
While it is likely that Peter was writing mostly to married persons with Christian spouses, it was not true of all. Peter’s intention is to give wise council to those women in particular that lived with unbelieving husbands. He sought to encourage them, give them hope, and a plan of “attack” in evangelizing their spouse. Thus, while living out the gospel they were to demonstrate themselves as an “alien” people passing through and on the way to their eternal home.
IS DIVORCE AN OPTION? (1 CORINTHIANS 7:12–16)
Many Christian women may have labored for years caring for a godless and ungrateful husband who takes advantage of their godly disposition. Some wonder if they may not be better off single, especially if they have children that are adversely affected by a lost husband. Paul deals with this situation in 1 Corinthians 7:12–16.
In these verses Paul handles the issue of the permissibility of divorce in the case where one partner is a believer and the other an unbeliever. It may be helpful to set this passage within its larger context in 1 Corinthians. The preceding portion of this epistle has dealt with matters brought to Paul’s attention by “Chloe’s people” (1:10–6:20). Beginning in chapter 7 the discussion takes a new direction. The reference to “the matters you wrote about” suggests that Paul is responding to questions and issues addressed to him in a letter from Corinth (7:1). The reoccurring phrase, “now concerning” (peri de), is used by the apostle to introduce the various topics mentioned in their letter to him: marriage and divorce (7:1), fathers giving their virgin daughters in marriage (7:25), food offered to idols (8:1), spiritual gifts (12:1), and the collection of the Jerusalem offering (16:1). Paul is dealing systematically with a series of issues over which the Corinthians were struggling.
Chapter 7 relates to a cluster of questions, having to do in some way with marriage. When we study this passage we must not separate it from the occasional nature of its context. Paul is not writing a general treatise on marriage; he is dealing with specific issues related to the Corinthians. After setting forth some general principles related to marriage and celibacy (7:1–9) Paul gives advice to married people relating to divorce (7:10–16). We might summarize these verses in the form of three questions: first, “Is divorce permissible in a marriage in which both partners are believers (7:10–11) (9)? Paul states that Jesus has spoken to this matter and that they should not divorce, but if they do, they are not permitted to remarry unless they remarry one another.
The second question is more pertinent to our study: “Is divorce permissible in a marriage where one spouse is a believer and the other spouse an unbeliever” (7:12–16)? This is a more complex issue than the previous question. It is possible that neither spouse were Christians when they married, or possibly one of them was a Christian and married an unbeliever. It seems more likely in the original setting that neither spouse was a believer when they married. One specific example of this situation is Eunice, Timothy’s mother (2 Tim. 1:3–5; Acts 16). It seems that although she was Jewish she married a Gentile. We will look closer at her situation below.
Paul deals with two different scenarios here. In the first, he addresses the issue of a mixed marriage where the unbeliever wants to remain married (7:12–14) and in the second where the unbeliever insists on a divorce (7:15–16). The first of these two situations is more important for our present considerations: a believer married to an unbeliever who is willing to continue the marriage relationship. While Jesus did not specifically address this issue (unlike 7:10–11), Paul writes with the authority of an apostle writing under the inspiration of the Spirit (7:12). The continuation of the marriage is greatly dependent on the attitude of the unbeliev- ing spouse (7:13). Paul is clearly not dealing with the exception Jesus made for adultery (Mark 10:11–12). The believing spouse might fear for the spiritual well-being of their children and think that they should seek a divorce for the sake of their children or even for her own spiritual well-being. Paul, however, provides the rationale for preserving the marriage: there are derivative blessings for the non-Christian spouse and children that come from having even one member of the family that knows the Lord. Paul makes clear in verse 16 that “sanctified” and “holy” cannot mean “saved.” Rather they refer to the moral and spiritual impact of the life of the believer on the rest of the family, making those other members set apart in a very special place as God’s object of blessing. These comments should put the believing spouse/parent at ease in God’s care and give them great hope in what God can do through them in their family.
Next, Paul addresses the case of a believer married to an unbeliever who refuses to continue the marriage relationship (7:15–17). Paul’s advice is to acquiesce in such a situation (7:15). Of course we should not assume that Paul is suggesting that one merely give up at the first mention of divorce; that seems to go against the tenor of the entire discussion. However, once the unbeliever is determined to proceed with a divorce and there seems to be no preventing it, the believer should finally relent. Paul gives three reasons for this approach: (1) the believer is not bound in such a case (7:15b; cf. 7:39); (2) the believer has been called to peace (7:15c); (3) the possibility of the spouse’s conversion is uncertain (7:16) (10).
Many suppose that it is better to live happily divorced than unhappily in marriage. This common way of thinking is fallacious on several levels. First, most who think they will be happier divorced soon discover that they are not happier. Second, even those who do experience some measure of happiness themselves do not take adequate account of the effects on their children or their ex-spouse. Finally, the premise of such an argument is self-centered and flies directly in the face of the fundamentally selfless nature of Christian living.
THE INFLUENCE OF A GODLY MOTHER IN A MIXED MARRIAGE: EUNICE AND TIMOTHY
The final passage that we will consider gives hope to every Christian parent in a mixed marriage. Paul’s second epistle to Timothy provides a specific example of a believer married to an unbeliever. In Acts 16, Timothy’s mother is identified as a believer and his father an unbeliever. Palestinian Judaism considered intermarriage between Jews and pagans to be a horrible sin (11). It appears that the Jewish community at Lystra was likely quite small and this might explain the intermarriage (cf. Acts 14:8–10). In light of the fact that Lois, Eunice’s mother, appears to have been Jewish as well, it is not likely that Eunice was a convert to Judaism. In Judaism a child took the religion of its mother; therefore Timothy should have been circumcised and raised as a Jew (12). But in Greek society, the father’s religion was the religion of the children. So, while Timothy was uncircumcised, like his father, this did not keep his mother and grand- mother from teaching him the Scriptures.
Paul states in the opening lines of 2 Timothy the importance of a godly heritage for both he and Timothy. Paul recognizes the great influence one’s family can have on a child for good or ill. Second Timothy 1:5 speaks of the sincere faith of Timothy’s grandmother Lois and of his mother Eunice. Although Timothy was the child of a mixed marriage, God used the godly influence of his mother and grandmother and the truth they taught him to draw him to faith in Christ despite an unconverted father. This example should bring great encouragement to parents in a mixed marriage who have serious concerns for the spiritual well-being of their children. The power of a godly life, fervent prayer, and instruction in the sacred writings (2 Tim. 3:15) are powerful instruments in the Holy Spirit’s arsenal in bringing children (and adults!) to faith in Christ.
Throughout history the influence of a godly mother has been demonstrated time and time again. Two outstanding examples are Monica, the mother of Augustine, and Susannah, the mother of John and Charles Wesley. Augustine’s father, Patricius, was a pagan, and his mother, Monica, was a Christian. Augustine wrote a great deal concerning the influence of his godly mother in his Confessions. Much the same is true of Susannah Wesley, whose husband Samuel was a terrible husband and father. While neither Monica nor Susannah married men who loved the Lord, these women lived in submission to the Lordship of Christ and God used them to influence their children to faith in Christ. These are two of most famous examples of Christian wives and mothers married to inept husbands and fathers; there will be, however, an innumerable number of saints who will rise up on the last day and proclaim that they were blessed by a godly mother that loved them more than they loved themselves. They will affirm from a human perspective that the life and prayers of their mother were instrumental in their coming to faith in Christ.
(1) It must not be forgotten that Paul places much greater responsibility on Christian husbands than he does upon Christian wives in Ephesians 5:22–33.
(2) There is debate as to whether “the day of visitation” is a reference to salvation, judgment, or the second coming.
(3) I do not intend to argue here for this understand ing but direct the reader to the helpful discussions from a complementarian perspective: John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991); A. J. Kostenberger and T. R. Schreiner, and H. S. Baldwin, eds., Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:9–15 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995); and James Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective (IVP, 1981). For a discussion of the issues from an egalitarian perspective see Gilbert Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles: A Guide for the Study of Female Roles in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985); Ben Witherington, Women and the Genesis of Christianity (Cambridge University Press, 1990). For books that present the arguments and responses from the various positions see: Craig Blomberg and James Beck, eds., Two Views on Women in Ministry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001) and B. Clouse and R. Clouse eds, Women in Ministry: Four Views (IVP, 1989).
(4) It is helpful to note that Peter does not use the stronger term kathos, meaning “even as” or “in the same way.”
(5) J. R. Michaels, 1 Peter, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1988), 156.
(6) Walter Baur, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2d ed., rev. F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker (Univer- sity of Chicago Press, 1973), 82.
(7) The word translated “respectful” is literally “in fear” (en phobo). I understand the behavior to be directed toward the husband and the thought to be that of respect or deference. On the other hand, the other uses of fear in 1 Peter are in reference to God. If this is the case then the thought is that a Christian wife is to live a pure life in reverence toward God.
(8) Thomas R. Schreiner, 1 Peter, New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H, 2003), 156.
(9) There are four major suggestions among evangelicals on this difficult subject: 1) those denying divorce or remarriage is ever permitted, 2) those who believe that at times divorce may be permitted but never remarriage, 3) those that hold that adultery and desertion are permissible grounds for divorce and permit remarriage in these cases, and 4) those that permit divorce for other reasons (believing the Bible does not address every case) like abuse, addictions, etc., and permit a broader approach to remarriage.
(10) It is possible to take verse 15b as supplying a further rationale for verses 12–14. This understanding takes verse 15a as parenthetical and God would be calling people to the peace of preserving marriages. Verse 16 would then be translated more hopefully than in the NIV, as in the NRSV, “Wife, for all you know you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you may save your wife.” The problem with this inter- pretation is that it makes the “nevertheless” in verse 17 almost unintelligible. One has to take it as contrasting not with the immediately preceding verse 16 but with verse 15a. Far more straightforward and plausible is the approach taken above. For a more complete dis- cussion of these verses see Sakae Kubo, “1 Corinthians VII.16: Optimistic or Pessimistic?” New Testament Studies 24 (1978): 539–44.
(11) Tobit 4:12; 1 Esdras 8:68–96; 9:7–9:12 Mishnah Qiddushin 3:12. Some would argue that the Mishnaic evidence is too late (ca. A.D. 200) to maintain that the matrilineal law was in effect in Paul’s day.
About the Author: William F. Cook, III is Associate Professor of New Testament Interpretationat The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In addition, he serves as senior pastor at Ninth and O Baptist Church, Louisville, Kentucky. Before coming to Southern he taught at the Baptist College of Florida for nine years. Dr. Cook has written a number of scholarly articles and has extensive ministry experience.
[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in The Journal of Discipleship and Family Ministry 2.2.]