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 Peter 3:7
The themes of this blog are more thoroughly explored in Real Marriage where Grace and I together unpack these issues in great detail. Click here to purchase.
At Mars Hill, we love healthy marriages and families that are based on the Bible and centered on Jesus. Unfortunately, in our society, marriage is often a joke—as are the men who enter into marriage (or avoid it like the plague). In our culture of extended adolescence many men work as little as possible, play as much as possible, and take as much as possible—especially from women. In addition, the worst men are also bullies and abusers of women.
That’s one reason why we are so stern with men in our church. The Bible calls men to be something radically different than what we find in our society today. A man is to be tough for his family to provide for and protect them. A man is to be tender with his family to love and serve them. Any man who is only tough will abuse his family. Any man who is only tender will allow others to abuse his family. We are stern with men because we want to see them change by the power of the Holy Spirit to be like Jesus who was perfectly tough and tender.
In 1 Peter 3, the Apostle Peter, gives some teaching on how godly marriages and families should operate by God’s grace. He tells wives in 1 Peter 3:1 to “be subject to your own husbands.” In our day this is a controversial enough statement in itself, but then he goes on to tell husbands in verse 7 to “live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel.” If “being subject” to one’s husband grates against modern feeling, calling a woman a “weaker vessel” does little to help. But what does Peter mean exactly? Is he actually insulting women? Or is something else going on here?
Men and women are equal but different
The first thing we should establish is that we believe that men and women are equal. One is not better than the other or more loved by God than the other. Men and women equally bear the image of God. God’s salvation through Jesus is available to all and freely given. Paul makes this clear in Galatians when he writes, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (3:27-29).
That being said, the Bible also teaches that men and women have complementary roles (Ephesians 5, 1 Peter 3, Genesis 2). In some ways this is like a left and right hand that are similar but different and that work together with one hand taking the lead. Within the covenant of marriage, men are the head and women are the helpers. It should be said that being a helper is not a bad thing or a denigrating term. God in places like Psalms and Hebrews calls himself our helper.
Still some people today have problems with what the Bible says about marriage. For some the problem is a lack of understanding of the context and culture surrounding the Bible’s writings on marriage, men, and women. For others, it’s simply a matter of believing the Bible is wrong and culture is right.
For the first set of people, I want to help you understand that Peter is not here denigrating women but instead pushing men to be godly, loving, and considerate husbands. For those in the second set of people, I’d ask you to humbly ask whether you are exchanging the truths of Scripture for the lies of culture and to ask the Holy Spirit to help you place the Scriptures as the highest authority in your life.
And, let us remember that in a culture where women were denigrated, treated as second class citizens, and often regarded as little more than property, the Bible’s emphasis on men loving, serving, dying for, and being considerate with their wife was revolutionary and despised by bad men. The women heard this teaching as liberation and protection, which is exactly as was intended.
What does Peter mean by “weaker vessel?”
Very quickly, we’ll examine one of the bigger tripping points in this passage for modern readers. Quite frankly, many people lose the great truths that this verse is teaching about husbands by focusing inordinately on this one phrase, “weaker vessel.” So, I want to clarify what it does and does not mean so that we can then focus fully on what Peter is saying to husbands.
You may have seen the phrase “weaker vessel” translated differently, such as “weaker sex” (RSV) or “weaker partner” (NIV). But the second word in the phrase literally means “vessel” (skeuos in Greek). This word could be used in a general sense of almost any object used for any purpose (in Matthew 12:29 it is the “goods” of someone’s house), including a jar or dish (think of “jars of clay” in 2 Corinthians 4:7). But figuratively, it can also be used in reference to be people with a focus on some kind of function.
For instance, in Acts 9:15, Paul is called God’s “chosen vessel” to carry his name before the Gentiles (cf. also “vessels of mercy/wrath” in Rom 9:22-23). In 1 Thessalonians 4:4 believers must control their “vessels” (that is, bodies) in holiness and honor.
In 1 Peter 3:7 we see this figurative use of the word to describe wives. It should be pointed out, though, that by implication Peter calls men “vessels,” too, since the use of “weaker” shows that a “stronger” vessel exists, which would be the husband.
The word for “weak” (asthenēs) in the NT usually means “weak” or “sick.” Here the meaning is “weak,” but possibly with a nuance that is closer to “delicate” (cf. to the “weaker” parts of the body in 1 Corinthians 12:22), as opposed to “weak” in a more derogatory sense. It is also in a comparative form, which means it is translated not “weak” but “weaker.” So Peter’s main point is not to call a woman “weak,” but rather to emphasize that she is “weaker” in comparison to something else, in this case her husband. The husband must be mindful of this in how he treats his wife.
Think of it this way. Generally speaking, a woman is like a fine crystal glass and a man is like a thermos. One is not better than the other, but they are different. And, if you slam them together, the thermos always wins. Men are taught throughout life—from sports to business—to find a weakness and exploit it. But that kind of thinking, while fine in some arenas of life, will destroy a wife and a marriage.
Practically, this means that, as a general rule, men can be treated more toughly than women, and that a husband must be very careful to not treat his wife like one of the guys. Guys tend to emotionally and physically treat one another in a way that is inappropriate for a man to treat a woman. In its worst form, men who ignore this command become emotional bullies of their wives and threaten, intimidate, and verbally abuse them. Or they physically intimidate, harm, beat, rape, or even kill women. I Peter 3:7 boldly confronts this sort of behavior by commanding men to use their strength to love and protect, not abuse and harm, their wife.
I want to be emphatically clear that the Bible is here speaking about physical weakness only. Women are not spiritually, morally, emotionally, or mentally weaker. But, in most marriages if a husband and wife had a physical fight, she would be abused and he would win. Knowing that, God’s men are to make every effort to never even go in the direction of using their strength in any abusive way.
For Grace and I, this explains why, since I first met her, she has often said she felt safe with me. She had been around men before we met who made inappropriate comments, tried to force themselves on her, and made her feel unsafe and vulnerable. Early in our dating, I actually had to physically come between her and a guy who was stalking her and was willing to ensure her safety no matter what. I told him that for the rest of his life any access to Grace would literally have to come through me, and I was willing to do whatever it took to ensure that never happened. He left, and we have not seen him since. It then dawned on me that she often walked around feeling unsafe in a way that I never had. It became one of my life goals to ensure that she feels safe because of my toughness for her and my tenderness with her.
Practically, this means when we go for a walk, I walk on the side of the walkway closest to the cars so that if something happens I can get her out of harms way and be the one to get hit by the car. When we go out to eat, I sit at the edge of the booth with easiest access out so that if anything happens I can get between her and danger. Grace’s safety and well-being is constantly on my mind as her protector and friend.
I grew up around violence, much of it directed by women from men. I now pastor a church where the women who have been sexually assaulted by a man number enough to constitute their own mega-church. These women enter our church having suffered at the hands of men. Jesus becomes the first man they've ever trusted. And I want their male friends, boyfriends, and husbands to reflect Jesus to them.
In addition to providing things like Redemption Groups and books like Rid of My Disgrace, both created by our church leaders to help women who’ve been abused by men, I also want to continually be clear to the men about what God and we expect from them. For those who hear my angry rants outside of the context of our church and the men and women who call it home and me pastor, I understand how this can be confusing at times and hope this blog is clarifying for the times I have not articulated things clearly or been interpreted rightly.
The duty of a godly husband
And this leads us into the main point of Peter’s writing: husbands are to be good men who love their wives by living with them “in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman” (emphasis mine).
As the head of the family, a man is in an important and unique role given by God to be stewarded well to the heath of the family and the glory of God. Unfortunately, in our culture, most men abdicate their role and make a mockery of it before the world and God.
For a woman, the decision to trust a man to be her husband, to live with her without endangering her and lead her without harming her, is a frightening one, especially when that man turns out to be a sinning husband who leads poorly and abuses his role. Men, understand the gravity of your call as a husband and as a dad. Do not abuse it.
Peter’s call to husbands is to love your wife by understanding her and honoring her.
Understanding and honoring your wife
You need to know your wife well to develop true intimacy with her. Another way of saying intimacy is “into me see.” Your wife wants you to be with her, to talk with her, to hear her, and to understand what she loves and what makes her tick. You can’t get there by coming home and watching sports or poking around on the Internet until bedtime.
Love your wife well by being present with her, conversing with her, enjoying time with her, and laying down the things you find valuable to do the things that she finds valuable.
In looking at 1 Peter 3:7, it’s clear that Peter’s intent is not to make a commentary on gender so much as to push men to be good, loving, safe, selfless, and considerate husbands. Practically, this means that as a husband your priorities should be ordered as such: Christian, husband, father, and employee. Everything else comes after that or not at all.
The call to biblical manhood is a high one but it costs much. You wife needs you to be a strong man who leads sacrificially by loving her and your kids well, not in a domineering or weak way but in a tough and tender way that shows you’re willing to work hard to provide and protect, and to do the hard work of being available emotionally and leading spiritually out of deep love for her and your kids. In doing so, you’ll fulfill Peter’s call in 1 Peter 3:7 and God’s desire for you as a husband.
I preached two sermons in our “Trial” series on 1 Peter 3:1-7 that can be used as supplemental resources to this blog post.
“Marriage and Women” (1 Peter 3:1-6)
“Marriage and Men” (1 Peter 3:7)
 Walter Bauer, Frederick William Danker, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilber Gingrich, eds., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. [BDAG] (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 927-28.
 See Peter J. Achtemeier, 1 Peter, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 217.