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)
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.
These two categories—feminine beauty and manly strength—recur throughout Scripture. First Peter 3 focuses on instructing women to pursue the right type of adornment. Paul gives similar instructions to women in 1 Timothy 2:9–10:
Likewise also . . . women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.
The message in both passages is the same: pursue beauty on the inside more than beauty on the outside.
As for men, 1 Peter 3 tells them to display the right kind of strength toward their wives, not frightening and domineering but honoring and understanding. Men were made to be strong—usually with bigger muscles and taller stature than women. That’s why the Bible associates strength with manliness. “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Cor. 16:13–14). To be sure, this is a command to the whole church, so men and women are called here to be manly. But surely it is telling that Paul here associates strength and fortitude with masculinity. The word andrizomai (“act like men”) was used in the ancient world as a call to courage in the face of danger.3 It’s the same perspective shared by a dying David when he told Solomon, “Be strong, and show yourself a man” (1 Kings 2:2).
Act Like Men and Women
What can we learn from Scripture’s emphases on female beauty and masculine strength?
Though not universally true, it is broadly true that most women pay at least some measure of attention to cultivating external beauty, from time spent putting on makeup and fixing hair to how they dress. This attention to beauty signifies something about the created order. Women are wired for beauty. The Bible appeals to that natural feminine impulse and warns women not to settle for any lesser beauty than the internal beauty of Christlikeness. Women are made for this type of beauty; it is their crowning characteristic.
God made us as men and women to act like men and women.
Similarly, men generally are physically stronger, more interested in sports, more willing to indulge war movies, and more inclined to activities that involve competition and risk. The hours in front of the TV watching world-class athletes run and jump and swing and shoot and shove and tackle may be telling us something. We were wired for strength, for confidence in the face of risk.1 Tenderhearted, self-sacrificing, risk-taking strength is the crowning characteristic of men.
What do we say then to our sons and daughters who ask, “Daddy and Mommy, what does it mean to be a man or a woman?” Tell them they are made in the image of God and for union with Christ. And then tell your daughters that they should strive to be beautiful in the way God wants them to be beautiful. And tell your sons to strive to be strong in all the ways God wants them to be strong.
Yes, the cultural winds are blowing stiff and strong against the church on these issues. But the good news is that behind us lies a massive river of divine design in every human person. Ultimately, God’s created order cannot be reengineered by sinful human ingenuity. Manhood and womanhood will reassert themselves. The question is whether it will be healthy or unhealthy. God made us as men and women to act like men and women. The more we see in nature (partly) and in God’s word (mainly) what it means to be men and women, the better our marriages, our children, our churches, and our society will be.