The Silent Wife
A Paradigm for the Times
By: Eric C. Huber|Published: October 20, 2009 4:00 AM
Topics: Church Issues
“Don’t say a word.”
“No, but pastor, seriously, what should I say?”
“Well, will you talk to him?”
“You won’t talk to him and I can’t talk to him?—Can’t someone get through to him?”
“No, he wouldn’t listen anyway.”
“But you don’t understand. He won’t go to church. He doesn’t pray with our family. He treats me and the children badly. I don’t even think he believes at all.”
“But how then will he change if he doesn’t hear of another way?”
“Live it quietly and he’ll see it.”
As it turns out, we evangelicals aren’t so good at being quiet. Peter’s advice to the wife of the unbelieving husband sounds strange to us. All of our lives we have been told that we need to speak up. We need to shout it from the mountain tops. After all, how shall they hear without a preacher?
And so we talk. We talk to our neighbors and our colleagues. We talk to our families. We write letters and articles to newspapers. We take classes in how to talk with people and how to write letters to editors. We have countless Christian TV and radio stations. We think we just might change the world through our insightful blogging. We protest decisions. We tell people how wrong they are to support abortion or same-sex “marriage.”
We talk and talk and, well, we complain a lot.
And yet, the culture has slipped away. As the Western church, we have tried fundamentalist pietism, which paid little attention to the world and focused on saving and nurturing the soul. We have tried to elect and legislate our way to greater morality. We have tried to have the Church imitate the world and make its services less threatening and more like what people experience out there in the world. We have tried praying obscure prayers from the Old Testament. We have tried special 40-day programs of renewal. We’ve even tried hanging kitschy Christian art in our homes and posting verses from Scripture on motivational posters and bookmarks. And yet the culture, and if we are honest, the Church, continue their downward slide.
If Peter could address us, might he say politely, “It is time to shut-up”? Or perhaps we might heed the words of the Preacher and recognize that now is the “time to be silent” (Ecclesiastes 3:7)? Or maybe the words of Amos, “Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time”?
When silence is golden
So why did Peter tell her to be silent? We know the passage well enough to know that he was convinced that living the gospel before her unbelieving husband would actually be more effective than speaking the gospel. But consider this question: Would his advice have been the same to husbands of unbelieving wives? Before addressing that question, let’s agree together that the Gospel is never merely words. In so saying, we acknowledge that we are all called to “live out” the Gospel. But given that, would Peter have made the same special emphasis to the husband to be quiet and let her see your deeds?
I don’t think so. A close look at the book of First Peter reveals a broader pattern that shapes this counsel. Peter is very concerned with the question of authority in his letter. He considers specifically questions of authority related to marriage, the workplace, the Church, and the government. He is acutely aware that as individuals and as the Church in that day, believers had no culturally accepted authority in these situations. In the centuries to come, that cultural influence would belong to the Church in the form of what we now call Christendom. The Church would be able to speak definitively and even commandingly into all of those areas of life, but not in Peter’s day.
Peter’s recipients were a tiny minority of scattered churches around the modern region of northern
The culture had no room for verbal protestations based on Christian theology. It would have sounded like an appeal based on nothing. You can’t argue that something is right unless you have some fundamental presuppositions that you share with your opponent. Telling your unbelieving husband that Peter says you should treat me better and come to church with me, just won’t carry much weight. After all, who is Peter?
One would suspect that an appeal to apostolic authority would not have met with much acceptance or success in husband reform or marital harmony. The unbelieving husband does not accept the presupposition of God’s authority communicated through Scripture or through apostles.
The believing wife and the other members of this new sect were considered to be nuts, or perhaps not considered at all. Or to be more Petrine, they were aliens, strangers, and peculiar. They were exiles, elect exiles mind you, but exiles nonetheless. And by definition, they had no voice.
What do you do when you have no voice? How do you communicate when you speak different languages? Peter’s instruction to them is both situationally appropriate and eternally wise—you keep silent and do what is good.
On losing our voice
Peter’s inspired counsel is timeless, but it is given in a specific time to a group of people living in a particular culture, and it is carefully crafted to suit that situation. The simple fact is that it was a godless and pluralistic culture that did not embrace the authority of one God, His Word, His Son, or His Son’s followers. The culture gladly accepted a pantheon of beliefs, rituals, and philosophies as long as they would submit themselves to the authority of the emperor. Fascinatingly, Peter even tells them to submit to that godless emperor and do more than that—honor him!
Does this not sound vaguely familiar to us?
In its history, the
We must come to grips with the fact that as the modern
We have lost our voice.
So what do we do? Peter has a response for believers who have no voice in their culture. Look at the letter and you will see that, in every situation, Peter calls them to an extraordinary life with this deceptively simple phrase: do good. Do you have a lousy boss? Do good. Government treating you unfairly? Do good. Husband disobedient to the word? Do good. People sinning against you and saying all kinds of bad things about you? Do good. Suffering? Do good.
Talk about dumb faith! Humanly speaking, this is crazy advice. It makes no sense. “Americanly” speaking, it is an abomination. Our credo is that we stand up for our rights. When something is wrong, we say so. We fix it. We don’t endure it patiently. How passive. How foolish. How weak. Our motto is Change—Yes we can! OK, maybe all of us wouldn’t claim that as our current motto, but you have to admit that it is quintessentially American.
But Peter understood that the Gospel, when fully comprehended, was all about goodness; and often it needed to be a “dumb” goodness. For Peter, you do good and keep silent because that is what Jesus did. And He did it unto death. The Gospel is the mission for the restoration of that which is good. When God created the world, he made it good—indeed, very good. Sin changed all that, but the Gospel is changing it again. Jesus inaugurated that change through silent suffering. For Peter, that is both our life and our mission to emulate. The change we seek is not to come from declarations, pronouncements, conferences, or manifestos. But rather the restoration of goodness has a decidedly un-triumphalist ring. This glorious Kingdom revolution sounds forth in the quietness of un-trumpeted good deeds and suffering endured with stillness of heart and lips.
Make no mistake. Peter was totally confident of the reign and ultimate victory of King Jesus. He knew that there would be a day of vindication and judgment. And in addition to the example of Jesus, Peter used his understanding of these critical elements of eschatology to justify the calling of the Church to be holy and do good quietly.
A Means to an End?
Peter did not see doing good merely as a means to an end. This is critical. Many of us evangelicals have made this mistake. We look at the call to the wife of the unbelieving husband as the way in which she would build a platform that would lead to the main thing—the verbal declaring of the Gospel to her husband. We look at good deeds as the foundation that will lead someone to ask that wonderful Petrine question about the reason for the hope that is in us. In such a situation, it can seem that the good deeds have then served their purpose—earning us a hearing.
To be sure, there is some truth to this and Peter is not unaware of it. He is in fact counting on it. But, this divinely ordained benefit is secondary to the main calling. For Peter, the doing of good is in fact a tangible expression of the coming of the Kingdom. Perhaps we can understand it by saying that the call to goodness stands above the call to evangelism. Imagine this hyper-Calvinistic conundrum: What if Peter somehow knew that the husband of the unbelieving wife would never confess the faith for he wasn’t one of the elect? Would the call to her be any different? The answer is of course, “No.” Doing good is pervasive. In every relationship and situation, that call is the same regardless of what other benefits may incur from it. The doing of good is in itself glorifying to God.
In his seminal book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, the ever-provocative Lesslie Newbigin pokes us in the eye as he tells us how hard it is to find a specific call to evangelism in all of the letters of Paul. However much we might want to argue with him over that point, we can at least say that the same cannot be said of the call to do good. The call to goodness is ubiquitous in both the Old and New Testament.
I am, of course, well aware that this suggestion of silence is quite unbalanced. “Woe to me if I don’t preach the Gospel,” said Paul, and many of us can say that we feel something of what he felt. We are called to speak, and so we shall. I am not against the verbal sharing of the glorious Gospel of our Lord. One could also argue that being silent may lead to serious physical abuse in marriage, and I am not suggesting that we should ignore such cruelty. One might think that I am somehow suggesting that we minimize truth and emphasize goodness after the pattern of the early 20th-century liberals. Woe to us and the world if we would do that.
But the painful reality is this—the Church has lost the public square. We were granted it in the original Christendom and in Reformational Christendom as well. But we have lost it now. And no amount of shouting, writing, or demanding our say will bring it back.
We need not fear, however, for this war belongs to the Lord. Our only question is one of strategy and the strategies we have been employing since the reformation are those of Christendom. Our strategies make the assumption that we have common presuppositions with the culture. We don’t. Our strategies are built on the idea that we can speak from a position of acknowledged (if only begrudgingly) cultural legitimacy. We no longer have that. And so our strategies must shift. In every age, we are called to do good and preach, but ours is now an age in which we must repent for our many words and seek to win them without a word. We must focus again on adorning ourselves with inward beauty and outwardly with a gentle and quiet spirit.
To some extent, we must redefine our mission as the Church. For too long we have boldly proclaimed the idea of transforming cultures in our mission statements. For too long we have defined “living our faith” as reading the Word, Bible studies, Sunday school teaching, and prayer. It would be foolish to deny the importance of such things, but if that is all we think of when we think of ministry, we have missed the point. This glorious work of Christ in our hearts has given and is giving us new life. We need to allow it to bring forth good fruit. We are created and redeemed—unto good works. The Word equips us—for every good work. We are to –overcome evil with good. And as Paul said to Timothy concerning the church—they are to do good, and to be rich in good works.
My grandmother understood this, and so she took in children of her siblings when there were deaths in the family. She knitted hats and blankets for children at the local hospital. She made cookies—lots of them. In fact, she and my grandfather worked all their lives in the market as bakers. They built the business Huber’s Fancy Cakes and Cookies long before the girl in Stranger Than Fiction ever thought of changing the world through cookies.
So get out your knitting needles. Find the cookie tray. Invite the widow and the single mother into your home for a meal. Adopt the orphan. And let’s seek the next reformation through the pursuit of Spirit-empowered, Christ-exemplified, Father-glorifying, mouth-stopping good deeds
Eric Huber, his wife Lauren, and their children are voiceless exiles serving as missionaries in Ukraine for the past 11 years. They have joyously continued the family tradition of baking, sharing and enjoying cookies. Eric is a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America and the country director for Mission to the World’s church planting team in Ukraine.
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