You can win your husband without a word to avoid being a nagging wife (1 Peter 3:1-2). How? For the wife can win over the husband by being righteous. Read or listen to this chapter from Your Marriage God’s Way to learn more.
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Through my ministry Living God’s Way, I put on marriage conferences across the country. In between sessions I’ll meet with people. They almost always ask me questions that are difficult to answer, and oftentimes they hope that I can help fix a problem they’ve been experiencing for years in a five-minute answer.
For example, a wife will ask, “My husband won’t lead our family spiritually. What can I do to get him to pray and read the Bible with us?” If a woman married an unspiritual man, what are the chances that I can tell her something that will encourage him to be spiritual?
A husband will ask, “My wife disrespects me at home and she’s rude to me in front of my friends. What am I supposed to do?” If a man married a rude and obnoxious woman, how can I tell him, in a brief conversation, how to have a gentle, respectful woman?
These kinds of dilemmas typically take hours of counseling to resolve.
There is one question I get asked at almost every conference, and ironically, it’s one of the easiest to answer: “Should I submit to my spiritually immature or unbelieving husband?” Why is this so easy to respond to? Because the answer is spelled out in Scripture: “Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear” (1 Peter 3:1-2).
These verses are directed to wives and once again deal with submission—but with a new twist. We have established that wives are not expected to submit to abuse, sin, or even other men. But is a spiritually mature wife expected to submit to a spiritually immature husband? According to 1 Peter 3:1-2, submission is called for not only to a spiritually immature husband, but also to a spiritually bankrupt husband—or more specifically, an unbeliever.
How do we know that unbelieving husbands are what Peter had in mind? Each human author of the Bible has a recognized style of writing. When Peter mentioned husbands who “do not obey the word,” we know that he was referring to unbelieving husbands because he used similar terminology for non- Christians elsewhere. For example, in 1 Peter 1:2, he described believers as “elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience.” Peter equated obedience with salvation, and rightly so. While obedience is not what saves us, Scripture makes it clear that believers should be obedient. In 1 Peter 2:8, he similarly described unbelievers as “being disobedient to the word.” Because Peter used “obedience” to refer to believers and “disobedient” to refer to unbelievers, we can know that when he wrote about men who “do not obey the word,” he was referring to unbelieving husbands.
Now, just because a man is an unbeliever doesn’t mean he is a scoundrel. He may be kind, affectionate, and hold to a high moral standard. However, if he has not taken the first step of obedience—that is, the obedience of faith, which leads to salvation in Christ—then he is properly identified as disobedient.
A wife whose Christian husband is not as spiritually mature as she would like should be encouraged, because although submitting to an immature believing husband may be difficult, it’s not as difficult as submitting to an unbelieving husband. Because God’s Word commands wives to submit to unsaved husbands, how much more willing should wives be to submit to spiritually immature believing husbands? A Christian husband might not be as spiritually mature as his wife longs for, but at least she can be thankful that he is indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
What If You Are Married to an Unbeliever?
For wives who find themselves in marriages with unbelieving husbands, Peter offers encouragement and hope. Through a wife’s example of godly submission, her husband may be won to faith in Jesus. In a parallel passage found in 1 Corinthians 7:13-16, Paul explains why a believing wife is called to submit to her unbelieving spouse rather than leave him to find a spouse more compatible with her spiritual commitment:
[If] a woman…has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?
Paul’s teaching here is twofold. First, a believing spouse is called to remain in marriage to an unbeliever. “Sanctified” means “set apart” or “holy.” By staying married, the believing spouse can have a spiritual influence on the unbelieving spouse, who is “set apart” due to constant exposure to the believing spouse’s faith. This can help open the door for the unbelieving spouse to come to faith as well. Logically, we understand that one of the best ways for unbelievers to come to salvation is through relationships with believers. An unbeliever could have no more intimate relationship with a believer than through marriage.
Likewise, the children in that family are far more likely to be exposed to godly living when the believing spouse remains in the home and creates a Christian environment. The alternative breaks up the home, possibly leaving the children in the custody of the unbelieving parent. In 1 Corinthians 7:13-16, this issue is directed primarily at the believing wife—perhaps because at the time Paul was writing, husbands had sole legal possession of any children born within a marriage. A believing wife who abandoned the marriage would also be abandoning her children to the custody and sole influence of an unbelieving husband. As Paul concluded, a believer staying in the marriage may provide just the influence necessary to bring an unbelieving spouse or child to faith. It is not guaranteed, though, for Paul wrote, “How do you know…?,” pointing out that this a possibility and not a promise.
The second matter Paul addressed was that of an unbelieving spouse choosing to leave the believing spouse. While believers are instructed to stay in the marriage and be an influence to win their spouse to faith, they can’t force an unbelieving spouse to remain. This is especially pertinent when a wife or husband comes to Christ after getting married—an unbelieving spouse may end up rejecting a spouse who becomes a Christian.
Notice what Paul’s instruction is based on: “God has called us to peace.” If the conversion of one spouse to Christianity has become the source of continued conflict, then the believing spouse should not quarrel over the unbelieving spouse’s departure. This would be antithetical to the Christian’s calling to peace. In addition, unbelievers are never won to Christ through heated arguments. It is more important to be true to the Christian testimony of peace than to attempt to keep an unbeliever in a marriage by force or argumentation. This elevates the Christian faith above even an unstable marriage. It’s better to let the unbeliever depart than to sully Christ’s reputation.
This brings us to an important point: Paul’s permission for Christians to allow an unbelieving spouse to “depart” should not be interpreted as permission to divorce. As we already discussed in connection with abuse, a separated spouse is commanded to remain single while seeking reconciliation: “If [a wife] does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife…A wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives” (1 Corinthians 7:11, 39; see also Romans 7:2). The principle is that even when separated from an unbelieving or sinful spouse, a believer may still be an influence for change and repentance through faithfulness to the unsaved person. God’s design is always reconciliation and never divorce.
I will be the first to acknowledge that marriage can be difficult enough for two people who are already believers—and much more so for believers married to unbelievers. But how tragic it is—and disobedient to God’s Word—for Christians to divorce an unbelieving spouse when that believer constitutes the unbeliever’s greatest chance to be drawn to faith. I have heard Christians talk about wanting to leave an unbelieving husband or wife, usually because of how terrible that spouse is. I don’t doubt what they say, but in my mind I am thinking: Yes, this sounds terrible, but the worse you make the person sound, the more obvious it is just how much your spouse needs Christ. And that person needs to be exposed to Christ through you!
A Wife’s Nagging and a Husband’s Stubbornness
Let’s take a closer look at two important contrasting points in 1 Peter 3:1: “[Husbands], without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives.” Wives are told
- how not to try to win their husbands—with words.
- how to try to win their husbands—with their conduct.
In Genesis 3:16, God told Eve, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” This verse reveals two struggles husbands and wives face because of the fall. As we learned earlier, the first half of the verse speaks of wives’ desires to control their husbands. This often manifests itself as nagging, which we find described in Proverbs:
- “The contentions of a wife are a continual dripping” (Proverbs 19:13; see also Proverbs 21:9, 19; 25:24).
- “A continual dripping on a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike; whoever restrains her restrains the wind, and grasps oil with his right hand” (Proverbs 27:15-16).
Not only is the tendency to nag ongoing, but as Proverbs 27:15-16 confirms, it’s virtually impossible to stop. When a man responds to a nagging or contentious woman, she usually becomes more contentious and argues and nags even more.
The second half of Genesis 3:16, “and he shall rule over you,” reveals the corresponding struggle men have with stubbornness. God created men to be leaders in the marriage relationship, so by nature there may be times when they are less receptive to what their wives say to them. Let me illustrate through two incidents that occurred in my relationship with Katie.
For the first few years of our marriage, every couple weeks I would grow a beard, then shave it off. At some point I asked Katie, “Do you think I should grow a beard?” She said, “Why do you ask me that? You know you’re never going to keep one. You grow a beard for a couple weeks, but then shave it.” I’ve had—and kept—a beard since that conversation!
One day I was putting wood in our fireplace. One piece was rather big and should’ve been split into two or three smaller pieces. Katie said, “You’re not going to be able to get that big piece of wood into the fireplace.” I was determined to prove her wrong and almost pulled a muscle or burst a vein when I lugged that piece of wood, but you can be sure I got it into the fireplace.
When husbands are told not to do something, frequently their all-too-human response is to do it anyway because they are inclined to be stubborn:
- Katie: “You’re not going to grow a beard.”
- Genesis 3:16 in action: “I’m going to grow the longest beard you’ve ever seen.”
- Katie: “You’re not going to get that piece of wood into the fireplace.”
- Genesis 3:16 in action: “I don’t care if I have to hold one end of this piece of wood outside the fireplace as the other end slowly burns and I push it in over the next few hours—it’s going in there.”
Two realities about our fallenness make the tension between husbands and wives even worse:
- Husbands seem to struggle with stubbornness even more when they feel they are being nagged.
- Wives seem to struggle with nagging even more when they feel their husbands are being stubborn.
This can create a vicious cycle that sucks the joy out of a marriage. God is aware of this, so He has revealed how to bring such contention to an end—not with words, but with godly behavior.
If you are a believing wife, most likely there are certain activities you want your husband to do, such as pray and read the Bible with you. Perhaps you also want your husband to do things of a less spiritual nature, such as finish a couple of projects around the house or take the family on a trip he promised years ago. There might also be things that you want your husband to stop doing, such as watching ungodly movies or spending too much time on a certain activity.
The truth is, nagging your husband won’t bring him any closer to being the man you desire him to be or increase the likelihood that he’ll do what you want. On the contrary, because men are stubborn, nagging will probably make him less inclined to do what you want and could possibly even push him in the opposite direction. What a wife needs to do instead is obey Peter’s command to win over her husband not with words, but with godly conduct.
The Line Between Helping and Nagging
Earlier, I shared about my addiction to World of Warcraft right after Katie and I got married. One reason I felt so convicted about my behavior was that I had married a wonderful woman, and even at the worst of my addiction, Katie continued being a godly wife. If she had nagged me, I wouldn’t have felt as bad.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Katie let me know how much it bothered her that I was playing; I already mentioned that she had a little breakdown over it. But she spoke to me honestly out of her pain instead of in anger; she didn’t nag me. Part of the conviction I felt came from being married to such a godly woman who deserved better than a husband addicted to a video game. Had she nagged me, she would not have seemed like a woman who deserved better. Katie’s godly conduct while I was being a lame husband helped convict me of my selfishness.
Hopefully, you see the balance I’m pointing out here: I’m not advising wives to refrain from ever asking their husbands to do or not do certain things, or from giving their husbands reminders. After all, God created a wife to be a helpmeet to her husband. Sometimes husbands forget things, and a reminder (or two) can be a blessing.
Also, sometimes husbands are not aware of how much they may have hurt their wives, children, or friends. It’s common for men to be oblivious to how others feel about what they’re doing, and wives can help their husbands to see what they themselves don’t see. There have been times Katie and I were driving home from spending time with people, and she said, “When you said that, it sounded rude,” or “He was talking, and you interrupted him.” Was Katie nagging me? Not at all! She was helping me grow. But there can come a point when attempts to be helpful can turn into nagging.
When wives share with their husbands what they want and how they feel, they should keep two points in mind:
- The frequency with which a wife says things is important. At some point, a request made a few times moves from being a reminder to nagging.
- The way a wife makes requests is important. Yelling and disrespecting a husband will not convict him. Lovingly and respectfully petitioning him about the way he is acting and the pain he is causing will. When a wife speaks to her husband with grace and patience, he will likely feel terrible for mistreating such a wonderful woman.
Husbands, in turn, need to let their wives know when they have moved from being helpful to nagging, but do so in a gentle and loving manner. Husbands who respond stubbornly to their wives are not going to help their wives stop nagging. When a husband stubbornly raises his voice at his wife or gets angry with her he is sinning, and he is also pushing her to yell and nag in response.
A Warning About Winning Over Your Husband
It’s possible for a wife to win over her husband yet not necessarily in a positive way. We have already looked at two examples of this:
- Sarah convinced Abraham to take Hagar as a concubine.
- Jezebel convinced Ahab to steal Naboth’s vineyard.
Scripture gives another example of a man who made a habit of allowing the women in his life to win him over with their words, with disastrous consequences. Ironically, Samson was the strongest man in history, but he was easily overcome by the persistence of two women who could be called the Queens of Nagging.
Samson, an Israelite, disobeyed God’s command forbidding intermarriage when he chose a Philistine for a wife. During the wedding festivities, he posed a riddle to 30 men from his bride’s town. If they didn’t solve the riddle, each one would have to supply him with a set of clothing. If they solved it, he would supply each of them with a set. Wanting the answer, the men secretly went to Samson’s wife, who agreed to help her fellow Philistines. For seven days she wept and complained, “You only hate me! You do not love me! You have posed a riddle to the sons of my people, but you have not explained it to me” (Judges 14:16).
Samson’s new bride “pressed him so much” (verse 17) that he finally told her the answer, and she, in turn, told the Philistine men. Feeling betrayed, Samson rejected his wife, and she went on to marry one of the 30 men (verse 20).
Sadly, Samson did not learn from his mistake. Sometime later he fell in love with another Philistine woman, Delilah (Judges 16:4). By this time, the Philistines were furious over Samson’s successful attacks against them. They offered Delilah a large reward if she would find out the source of Samson’s great strength so they could defeat him.
Delilah nagged Samson, and he lied to her on three separate occasions (Judges 16:6-14). Each time she would wait until Samson was asleep, then she would call the Philistines and act on the lie he had told her. Because Samson was lying, he was able to easily defeat the Philistines who came against him. Finally, Delilah played the victim: “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me? You have mocked me these three times, and have not told me where your great strength lies” (verse 15).
Does this sound familiar? It is almost identical to what happened with Samson’s first wife. Delilah “pestered him daily with her words and pressed him, so that his soul was vexed to death” (verse 16). She made Samson so miserable with her nagging that he wished he would die. He then finally admitted, “No razor has ever come upon my head, for I have been a Nazirite to God from my mother’s womb. If I am shaven, then my strength will leave me, and I shall become weak, and be like any other man” (verse 17).
Samson knew that Delilah would turn him over to the Philistines, but he told his secret to her anyway. This is a strong testament to the power of a woman’s nagging. In a scene that is painful even to read, Delilah cut off Samson’s hair while he slept, and when he awoke, he discovered his strength was gone. The Philistines captured him, put his eyes out, and turned him into a slave. He remained in captivity until his last-ditch stand that resulted in his death along with the deaths of 3,000 Philistines.
The lesson here is that some wives will attempt to manipulate their husbands like the two women in Samson’s life. They will play the victim and act as though they are being mistreated. They will nag until their husbands’ soul, like Samson’s, is vexed to the point where death feels like a better alternative. Their words can eventually wear down their husbands until they give in. They win over their husbands, but they do so in the wrong way
Win Your Husband Over by Godly Conduct
As 1 Peter 3:1-2 states, husbands “without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear.” Wives are not called to win over their unbelieving husbands by what they say, but by their lifestyle. The gracious submission of a Christian woman to her unsaved husband is the strongest evangelistic tool she has.
What does this look like in practical terms? Comparing 1 Peter 2:18 with 1 Peter 3:1- 2 can help with the answer because of the parallel language that appears in the verses:
- “Servants, be submissive to your masters” is similar to “Wives… be submissive to your own husbands.”
- “Not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh” is similar to “even if some do not obey the word.”
- “With all fear” is similar to “your chaste conduct accompanied by fear.”
With both passages, it is important to understand Scripture is not speaking of servants or wives submitting out of fear to their masters or husbands, but rather, out of fear and reverence for God. The NIV translation says, “Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters.” First Peter 1:17 supports that this is the intent in both passages—there, Peter used similar terminology when he wrote to believers as a whole: “If you call on the Father…conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear.” When an unbelieving husband sees his believing wife’s heart for God, that will serve as a powerful witness. His wife’s godly behavior will convict him of his need to be a godlier husband. Her life will speak louder to him than any words.
If a wife wants her husband to read God’s Word more, pray more, or be a more godly man, rather than nagging him, she herself should read God’s Word more, pray more, and be a more godly woman. Wives should be encouraged by Jesus’s promise in John 16:8, which says, “When [the Holy Spirit] has come, He will convict the world of sin.” Notice the emphasis is on the Holy Spirit doing the convicting. This includes husbands, unbelieving or otherwise! Wives are not supposed to take over the Holy Spirit’s role in their husbands’ lives. Wives should pray, and then trust the Holy Spirit to do the work of convicting their husbands.
No unspiritual husband can watch a wife’s godly example without feeling ashamed. A husband might pretend that he is not convicted, and his wife might not be able to tell by looking at him that he feels convicted, but he does. In contrast, when a wife is angry, nagging, and unsubmissive, the husband does not see God through her, and, as a result, avoids feeling convicted.
Jesus Sets the Example of Godly Conduct Versus Words
Jesus is the greatest example—not just for wives, but for all of us—of demonstrating godly conduct with actions versus words. Consider His silence before His unbelieving accusers:
- “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth” (Isaiah 53:7; see also Acts 8:32).
- “While He was being accused by the chief priests and elders, He answered nothing” (Matthew 27:12).
- “Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth”; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously (1 Peter 2:22-23).
These verses point to Jesus’s conduct during the unjust trials that led up to the crucifixion. He was willing to endure the shame and eventually the cross for our sake. While we were yet unbelieving and lost in sin, Jesus willingly laid down His life to win our salvation. This is the example to which we are called, whether wives or husbands. We are to be willing to live in such a way that unbelieving spouses may be won to salvation through our Christlike conduct.