What *does* the Bible teach us?
I have often enjoyed reading Kevin DeYoung’s writing, so I skimmed a recent email from Crossway advertising his new book and read this comment on 1 Peter 3:
Feminine Beauty and Masculine Strength
Peter enjoins women to be respectful, pure, and gentle. He exhorts men to show honor, be understanding, and exercise caring leadership. From this passage, I conclude that the crowning characteristic of a woman is true beauty and the crowning characteristic of the man is true strength. The word crown is important. I’m not suggesting true strength and true beauty are the only things to say about men and women, just like a crown is not the only piece of a monarch’s regalia. But it is usually distinctive. We can look at a crown and think, “That is fit for a king,” or, “That was made for a queen.” A crown sits on top of the head as a final marker of kingly or queenly splendor.Kevin DeYoung, April 2021
I’ve highlighted a phrase in the middle of that quote in bold. That’s where I think we have a bit of a logic error.
Kevin has concluded — and has a nifty crown graphic to go along with it — that 1 Peter 3 is talking about what is a crowning characteristic of men and women. It is entirely possible I’m misunderstanding him on this point, but that seems to twist the scripture unnecessarily.
The passage Kevin was looking at was this one:
[After teaching slaves to be submissive to their masters. Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust…] Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening. Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. (1 Pet. 3:1–7)1 Peter 3:1-7 (ESV)
Is this really teaching us about what a crowning characteristic is?
Or is it actually recognising that our culture may teach us that physical beauty is a defining characteristic of a woman and physical strength is associated with real men, but then strongly subverting that cultural assumption and submitting it to the gospel?
I think this is a crucial distinction. It’s far too easy for Christians to rush to their Bibles ostensibly (and maybe sincerely) to understand the world, but come away only seeing what conforms to their culture (Christian or otherwise). In other words to be careful handlers of this message from God, when we ask “What does the Bible teach?” We need to ask, “What does it assume? What does it affirm? What does it attack? What does it subvert or undermine?”
What is assumed is not necessarily affirmed. In this case, it doesn’t seem that Peter is interested in challenging the connection between beauty and women, strength and men any more than he was interested in challenging the status of slaves. Challenging those kind of things is something for the political/social activist to do. (I’ll not comment on whether there’s any point in that, or whether there may be just as much chance of harm coming as any good when you rattle the structures of society.) Somehow Peter doesn’t fulfil the role of social activist. But that doesn’t mean he is merely reinforcing these conservative values either. He’s assuming them. He knows that they drive people to behave in certain ways. What Peter IS doing is subverting them.
Women and girls: You want true beauty? Fine. Have it. Quietly, respectfully do good, don’t fear.
(Be the strong, silent type of hero?!)
Men: You want to be the best? Good. Understand your wife (!) Honour her. No, really! Actually honour her.
(You’ll probably look weak in a macho world, won’t you? Have you got the guts for that?)
I do hope I’m not doing Kevin DeYoung a disservice. I’m grateful to him making me think. But we need to be more keenly aware of how the gospel gets under the skin of our world, and suspicious of our own tendencies to twist and neuter its impact.
I think I sense Kevin desperately trying to plot a course through the cultural confusion all around us about what makes men men and women women, but I fear he has ended up looking for the wrong things in the Bible. After all we don’t really need the Bible to teach us what are primarily male and female characteristics; they are fairly obvious if we stop closing our eyes. But they also matter much less than our culture might press on us.
We don’t need to ask the Bible, “How can I be a really girly girl?” or “How can I be a really manly man?” We need to ask, given the pressures I face, how do I live as God’s child most appropriately? What does living right-way-up look like in an upside-down world? Not “What structures can I challenge in this fallen world?” but “Given the structures how do I put gospel first?”
I think that’s what Peter was doing in his letter. Yes, he’d got it wrong many, many, many, many times with Jesus and also after. But he really seems to have learnt something about what the gospel does that subverts human ingenuity, reasoning, strength, cunning and tradition. And he seems to be reminding us that it’s people God saves, not structures.