A gentle and quiet spirit, 1 Peter 3:4

Gentleness in First Peter

I have heard Christians say that gentleness is a feminine virtue—a quality for women, especially, to cultivate.[1] Is this what the New Testament teaches? In First Peter, gentleness is mentioned in connection with wives, but later, in the same chapter, it is mentioned without specifying gender.[2] Let’s take a look.

1 Peter 3:4 is about the conduct of wives towards their, mostly, unbelieving husbands. Here Peter writes that “the unfading beauty of a gentle (praus) and quiet spirit … is precious in God’s sight.” Like other verses that apply to women, this text has been overemphasised by some Christian teachers, and the disposition of “a gentle and quiet spirit” has been described as something uniquely or essentially feminine. [“Quiet” (hēsuchios) is briefly discussed in footnote 6 and in some postscript below.]

1 Peter 3:15-16 is about the conduct of Christians, both men and women, as they respond to people asking them about their hope in Christ. In this context, Peter writes, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness (prautēs) and respect (phobos)” (1 Pet. 3:15 NIV).

In both these situations, Peter advises a gentle demeanour. Considering his use in verse 15, it seems he did not regard gentleness as an especially feminine virtue.

Gentleness in other Books of the New Testament

The adjective praus (praus) occurs four times in the New Testament, once in 1 Peter 3:4 (about wives) and three times in the Gospel of Matthew where it is sometimes translated as “meek.” It seems Jesus did not regard gentleness, or meekness, as a feminine virtue or disposition.

  • In Matthew 11:29, Jesus says of himself, “I am gentle (praus) and humble in heart.”
  • In Matthew 5:5, Jesus taught, “Blessed are the meek (praus) for they will inherit the earth.
  • In Matthew 21:5, the Gospel writer quotes Zechariah 9:9 and applies it to Jesus: “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle (praus) and riding on a donkey …'”[3]

The noun prautēs which is related to the adjective praus and means “gentleness,” occurs twelve times in the New Testament: once in 1 Peter 3:15, nine times in Paul’s letters, and twice in James’s letter. None of these verses primarily address women. In fact, a few of these verses refer to certain men.

  • In 1 Corinthians 4:21, Paul indicates it is preferable if he comes to Corinth “with a spirit of gentleness.”
  • In 2 Corinthians 10:1, Paul refers to the gentleness, or meekness, of Christ, and prautēs is paired with epieikeia (forbearance or fairness).
  • In Galatians 5:23, gentleness is listed as one of several fruit of the Spirit, immediately before enkrateia (self-control).
  • In Galatians 6:1, Paul again uses the phrase “with a spirit of gentleness.”
  • In Ephesians 4:2 and Colossians 3:12, gentleness is one of the traits of leading a life “worthy of the calling to which you have been called” and of being God’s chosen. In Ephesians 4:2, gentleness is mentioned with humility and patience. In Colossians 3:12, gentleness is mentioned with humility, patience, and also kindness.
  • In 1 Timothy 6:11[4] and in 2 Timothy 2:25, gentleness is a quality for Timothy to pursue and employ.
  • In Titus 3:2, gentleness is one of several traits that Titus must remind the Cretans of.

In James’s letter, the noun prautēs occurs in James 1:21 and 3:13.

Importantly, the contexts of every verse in the New Testament where the noun and adjective appear shows that being meek or gentle has nothing to do with being shy, demure, passive, or weak. Rather, it involves both self-control and humility when dealing with others.[5] It also involves cooperation with the work of the Holy Spirit.

The gentleness that Jesus and the apostles taught and demonstrated has little to do with gender. They taught that a gentle and quiet[6] spirit is a Christ-like or Christian virtue, and not just a feminine virtue. The quality of gentleness is for all followers of Jesus to pursue and cultivate.


Footnotes

[1] For example, Nancy Leigh DeMoss (author of Lies Women Believe: And the Truth that Sets Them Free) states, “Meekness is especially, in Scripture, commended to women.” (Source) Meekness or gentleness, however, is commended specifically to married women only once in the New Testament. In comparison, it is commended to Timothy twice (1 Tim. 6:11; 2 Tim. 2:25), and is associated with Jesus a few times (Matt. 11:29; 21:5; 2 Cor. 10:1). I hope this truth will set women free from the guilt and second-guessing that comes with an undue emphasis on 1 Peter 3:4.

Martha Peace (author of Becoming a Titus 2 Woman) observes: “Counselling ladies to have a “gentle and quiet spirit” is a common problem. In fact, most of the ladies you talk to will probably struggle somewhat in this regard.” Sadly, Martha is contributing to this problem, because she also states, “All Christians are to be gentle with others and not contend against God, but the ladies have a special mandate in 1 Peter 3:3-4.” (Source) Married women, and not women in general, are specifically addressed in 1 Peter 3:3-4, but Peter’s instruction about having a gentle spirit does not constitute a special mandate. Rather, it is in keeping with other directives in the New Testament about how we are to relate to one another (e.g., Col. 3:12ff). Furthermore, Martha’s phrase “and not contend against God” is unhelpful and potentially misleading. 1 Peter 3:1-6, including verse 4, is not about contending against God, but about the conduct of believing wives towards their mostly unbelieving husbands that involves, among other things, avoiding unnecessary conflict. These wives were relatively powerless in their marriages, so Peter encourages and comforts them by saying that behaving with modesty, quietness, and gentleness towards their husbands “is precious in God’s sight.”

[2] The Greek adjective for “gentle/meek” (praus-πραΰς) is used in 1 Peter 3:4 and the related noun for “gentleness/meekness” (prautēs-πραΰτης) is used in 1 Peter 3:15b (or verse 16a, depending on what translation or Greek text is used).

[3] Apart from the reference in 1 Peter 3:4, the Greek adjective praus occurs three times in the New Testament, all in Matthew’s Gospel: Matthew 5:5; 11:29; 21:5. The noun prautēs occurs 11 or 12 times, depending on the Greek text: 9 or 10 times in Paul’s letters, twice in James, and once in 1 Peter.

[4] In better Greek texts, the cognate compound noun praupathia occurs in 1 Timothy 6:11, rather than prautēs.

[5] With a couple of exceptions, gentleness is brought up in Paul’s letters and in 1 Peter in contexts where there is the threat of conflict:

  • the context of Paul and his relationship with the church at Corinth where there were arrogant people who were opposing him (1 Cor. 4:21; 2 Cor. 10:1-2);
  • the context of not allowing grievances to spoil the unity and peace of the church (Col. 3:12-13; cf. Eph. 4:1-3);
  • the context of correcting those who disagree (2 Tim. 2:25; cf. 1 Tim. 6:11-12);
  • the context of believing wives with unbelieving husbands (1 Pet. 3:1-6);
  • the context of explaining the Christian hope to unbelievers (1 Pet. 3:15).

[6] The Greek adjective meaning “quiet/tranquil/peaceable/still” (hēsuchios) occurs once more in the New Testament, in 1 Timothy 2:2, in a verse that applies to Christian men and women. The related noun hēsuchia occurs four times: in Acts 22:2 and 2 Thessalonians 3:12; and in 1 Timothy 2:11 and 2:12 which address the behaviour of a woman in the Ephesian church. (More on 1 Timothy 2:11-15 here.) Quietness, like gentleness, is not an especially feminine virtue. (See postscripts 1, 2 and 4.)

Postscript 1: Abraham who live in quietness and gentleness

In the Testament of Abraham, a Jewish work written at roughly the same time 1 Peter was written, Abraham is described as having lived all his life “in quietness (hēsuchia) and gentleness/meekness (praotēs-πρᾳότης) . . .” There are a few clues that indicate the author of 1 Peter was either familiar with Test Abr or that he was familiar with some traditions that are recorded in Test Abr but not the text itself. (Here’s a link to the English text and a link to the Greek text.)

Here’s a screenshot showing the Greek nouns meaning “quietness” and “gentleness” in the Testament of Abraham 1.3.

gentle quiet spirit 1 Peter 3

Postscript 2: Esther and Mordecai and Quietness

I read the book of Esther in the Septuagint in January (2020) and Queen Esther uses the word “quietness” (hēsuchia) in a prayer when she tells God that she doesn’t wear her crown on her quiet days (i.e. on the days when she has no royal duties): ἐν ἡμέραις ἡσυχίας μου/en hēmerais hēsuchias mou  (Greek Esther C 16). The related verb of hēsuchia is used when Mordecai is resting quietly in the courtyard: καὶ ἡσύχασεν Μαρδοχαῖος ἐν τῇ αὐλῇ/kai hēuchasen Mardochaios en tē aulē (Greek Esther A 12).

Postscript 3: Meek Warhorses (July 20 2020)

While some Christians claim that the adjective praus (“gentle/meek”) is a feminine quality, a few others are using their concept of praus to promote a masculine expression of Christianity. I recently became aware of dozens of blog posts that use the example of warhorses when attempting to explain the sense of praus. I’ve investigated the ancient evidence for this idea of meek warhorses in a blog post here.

Postscript 4: “Gentle” and “Quiet” in the Didache (September 15 2020)

I saw today that “gentle/meek” (praus) and “quiet” (hēsuchios), the same two Greek words that occur in 1 Peter 3:4, also occur in a sentence in the Didache, the circa AD 100 church manual. These words are addressed to all Christians, men and women, again showing that a gentle and quiet spirit is not just a feminine virtue.

But be meek (praus), since the meek shall inherit the earth. Be patient, merciful, innocent, quiet (hēsuchios) and good, trembling at the words that you have heard. Do not elevate yourself, or let your soul become overconfident. Your soul must not be joined with the lofty, but abide with the just and lowly. Didache 3.7 (my own translation)

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