(1 Pet. 3:3) Does this mean that women should not wear makeup and jewelry?

CLAIM: Peter writes, “Your adornment must not be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses” (1 Pet. 3:3). Some of the early church fathers (e.g. Tertullian and Cyprian)[1] and modern day Seventh-Day Adventists have used this passage to argue that women should never wear jewelry or makeup (c.f. 1 Tim. 2:9-10; Isa. 3:16-24). Is this the case?

RESPONSE: The NASB adds the word “merely” in this translation—even though it doesn’t occur in the original Greek. However, they add this word for good reason: If Peter was unilaterally banning women from braiding their hair and wearing jewelry, then this would also mean that he was banning clothing of any kind! The term “dresses” (himation) literally means “clothing” (BDAG, p.475). Thus, the text literally states, “Let not your adorning be the outward adorning of braiding of hair and wearing of gold or putting on of clothing.”[2] Thus, to be consistent in this reasoning, we would need to think that Peter is teaching women to walk around naked. Not only is that an absurd interpretation, but it also speaks directly against the spirit of the passage: Peter is stating that women should not derive their source of beauty from their outward appearance, but from their beautiful character. In a world that so often objectifies women as mere objects, this message is incredibly liberating for women—not just for the first century culture, but also for our own.

In addition, Peter gave this teaching for cultural reasons: In Greco-Roman culture, women who paid excessive attention to their appearance were viewed as promiscuous. Karen Jobes explains:

Outward adornments were often perceived as instruments of seduction (Philo, On the Virtues 7.39; Plutarch, Advice §30), and a woman’s use of cosmetics was viewed as an attempt to deceive; both were unnecessary if a woman stayed at home (Xenophon, Oeconomicus 10.2).[3]

If a woman was leaving the house to meet with fellow Christians for a Bible study, this would immediately arouse suspicion in her unbelieving husband. Plutarch wrote that “a wife ought not to make friends of her own, but to enjoy her husband’s friends in common with him.” In this culture, it was suspicious for a woman to have a network of friends other than her husband’s. Plutarch adds, “It is becoming for a wife to worship and to know only the gods that her husband believes in, and to shut the front door tight upon all queer rituals and outlandish superstitions.”[4]

Therefore, what would an unbelieving husband think if his wife was dressing up with nice clothes and jewelry to frequent a Bible study? In this culture, he would assume that his wife was seeking to have an affair. This is why Peter tells wives to show such deference to their unbelieving husbands.

For further reading, see our earlier article “Christianity and Women.”

[1] Blum writes, “Many have taken Peter’s words to be an absolute prohibition of any outward adornment. The early fathers Tertullian and Cyprian did this, and many rigorists have followed them. But Peter’s emphasis is not on prohibition but on a proper sense of values.” Edwin A. Blum, “1 Peter,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews through Revelation, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 236-237.

[2] Wayne A. Grudem, 1 Peter: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 17, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 148.

[3] Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 204-205.

[4] Plutarch, Advice to Bride and Groom, 140.19.