Gentleness in First Peter
I have heard Christians say that gentleness is a feminine virtue—a quality for women, especially, to cultivate. 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. 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 7 and in some postscripts 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 New Testament Books
The adjective 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, Zechariah 9:9 is quoted and applied to Jesus: “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle (praus) and riding on a donkey …'”
The noun prautēs, which is related to the adjective praus, 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  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. It also involves cooperating 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 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.
 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 especially 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 involved, among other things, avoiding unnecessary conflict. These wives were relatively powerless in their marriages, so Peter encouraged and comforted them by saying that behaving with modesty, quietness, and gentleness towards their husbands “is precious in God’s sight.” (See also footnote 3 for the social context of Peter’s words to wives.)
 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).
 Paul advises quietness because the Christian wives in Asia Minor were in a difficult situation. They were part of the fledgling church that was being slandered, and at least some of the women were afraid of what their husbands might do to them. It was expected that wives would worship the same gods as their husbands, but these women were not doing that. They were following Jesus. 1 Peter 3:1–6 is about “damage control.” But Peter also offers hope. If the wives don’t make waves and continue to abide by cultural standards of respectability, including submission to their husbands, perhaps some husbands may even be won over to the Christian faith. This is the context of Peter’s words to the wives.
 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.
 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).
 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 below.)
© Margaret Mowczko 2017
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Postscript 1: Abraham Lived 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) and justness/ righteousness.” 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.
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).
Similarly, when the men entering the promised land are circumcised under Joshua’s leadership, they were quiet (hēsuchia) (i.e. they rested) until they healed: περιτμηθέντες δὲ ἡσυχίαν εἶχον αὐτόθι καθήμενοι ἐν τῇ παρεμβολῇ ἕως ὑγιάσθησαν (Joshua 5:8 LXX).
The noun hēsuchia occurs six more times in the canonical books of the Septuagint: 1 Chronicles 4:39–40; 1 Chronicles 22:9; Job 34:9; Proverbs 7:9; Proverbs 11:12; Ezekiel 38:10–11.
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 verse 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 translation)
Postscript 5: “Gentleness” and “Quietness” in the Acts of Thomas (March 26, 2023)
In the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, written in the 220s or 230s, gentleness (or, meekness) and quietness are mentioned several times as cardinal virtues, and women aren’t singled out. In chapter 85, gentleness and quietness are mentioned side by side.
But become well-pleasing to God in all good things, in gentleness and quietness (πρᾳότητι καὶ ἡσυχίᾳ). Acts of Thomas, chapter 85.
Commenting on chapter 85, A.F.J. Klijn notes that in ancient Christian literature, the adjectives praus and hēsuchios, and the nouns prautēs and hēsuchia, were often used together, and he cites 1 Peter 3:4. He further cites the Shepherd of Hermas: Mandates (Commandments) 5.2.6 and 11.8.1, and Visions 523 and 623, as well as 1 Clement 13:4 and Barnabas 19:4. Klijn, The Acts of Thomas: Introduction, Texts, and Commentary, 2nd revised edition (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2003), 166. (A pdf of this book is here.)
Postscript 6: “Quiet” in Isaiah 66:2 LXX (August 10, 2023)
The adjective hēsuchios which occurs in 1 Peter 3:4 and 1 Timothy 2:2, occurs once in the (canonical) books of the Septuagint. In Isaiah 66:2 LXX God says: “… who will I look upon? but upon ‘the one who is lowly/ humble and quiet and who trembles at my words'” (τὸν ταπεινὸν καὶ ἡσύχιον καὶ τρέμοντα τοὺς λόγους μου).
Hēsuchios here is an imprecise translation of וּנְכֵה־רוּחַ in the Hebrew text of Isaiah 66:2. וּנְכֵה־רוּחַ seems to mean a “dejected, afflicted, or contrite spirit” rather than “quiet.” The NASB translates Isaiah 66:2b as, “But I will look to this one, At one who is humble and contrite in spirit, and who trembles at My word.”
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez via Unsplash.
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