“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)
Verse 7 begins, “likewise.” Recall that Peter characterizes Christians as holy exiles and elevates submission as the virtue that should characterize our relationships in this world, whether in the workplace or at the home.
Peter addresses citizens: citizens, submit to the government. But he does not address the government. He doesn’t say, “If you are a Christian government official, use your authority in a way that builds others up”—although this is true.
Peter addresses servants: servants, submit to your masters. But he does not address masters, as Paul does in Ephesians 6:9 and Colossians 4:1. Paul address servants and masters, but Peter does not.
Peter address wives: wives, submit to your husbands. But this is a unique case. In this case, he does address husbands. In fact, he says, “Likewise, husbands…”
I would suggest that this is because husbands have a kind of submission to practice in the home “as unto the Lord.” It is not same as a wife’s submission. This is clear. A wife’s submission centers on acknowledging her husband’s headship authority, like Sarah did when she called her husband “lord.” A wife’s submission is characterized by quietness and meekness. A husband’s submission is different in kind.
We see this in the Ephesians 5. Verse 21: “submit to one another.” Verse 22: “Wives, submit to your husbands, because the husband is your head.” Verse 25: “Husbands, love your wives.” We never read, “husbands, submit to your wives.” But we see in Paul and Peter’s letters that husband’s duties in marriage amount to a kind of submission.
While a wife submits by coming under her husband’s authority, respecting him, and obeying him, a husband submits by serving his wife in love. He submits his personal desires to her best interests.
The apostle Paul often reminded the churches of his authority as an apostle; but just as often, he called himself their servant. Servants are usually those in submission—not those in leadership or positions of authority. But this is exactly the point: Biblical leadership is servant leadership. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 10:8 that God gives authority for building others up, not tearing them down. Husbands are given authority by God for one purpose: to build up their wives; to pursue their wives’ best interests; to lead their homes in a way that helps everyone move towards the goal of Christ-like holiness and heaven.
Imagine hiring someone to be CEO of your company and telling them, “You must make this company flourish, but we are not going to give you any authority. Nobody needs to listen to you.” That makes no sense! You are setting them up for failure! Likewise, God has given authority to men because it is consistent with the massive burden of leadership that he has placed upon their shoulders.
If the home is a mess, God will eventually come knocking at the door, and he will ask for the man of the house. Harry S. Truman kept a sign on his desk in the oval office that said, “The buck stops here.” In the home, the buck stops with the man. Having authority comes with certain rights, but those rights are to be submitted to the family’s ultimate good. I think this will be even more clear as we look at the remainder of verse 7.
According to Knowledge, Give Honor
Peter goes on to say that Christian men should live with their wives “according to knowledge” (KJV), “in an understanding way” (ESV, NASB) or “considerately” (RSV). In this case, “according to knowledge (gnōsis)” is a very literal translation.
In Romans 15:4, Paul writes, “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge (gnōsis) and able to instruct one another.” In 1 Corinthians 8:10 he asks, “if anyone sees you who have knowledge (gnōsis) eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols?”
This is the way that I think Peter is using the word “knowledge” in verse 7: knowledge that Christian men have, which should inform the way that they interact with their wives. JFB agrees that Peter refers to “Christian knowledge: appreciating the due relation of the sexes in the design of God.” This means that Peter is saying, “husbands, live with your wives in a way that is consistent with the knowledge that you have as Christians.”
A husband’s life according to Christian knowledge is marked by honoring the woman. For mature Christian men, chivalry is not dead. A man should honor his wife because he knows at least two things: women are physically weaker and women are spiritual equals.
The Knowledge of a Woman’s Physical Weakness
The first reason that husbands should honor their wives is because they know that they are, generally speaking, physically weaker.
Peter says that women are weaker vessels (skeuos). This word is translated as “body” in 1 Thessalonians 4:4: “control his own body (skeuos) in holiness and honor.” 2 Corinthians 4:7 says that “we have this treasure in jars (skeuos) of clay,” referring to our bodies. Peter is saying that women, generally speaking, are physically weaker and therefore more vulnerable. Some think that Peter also has in mind that women are, generally speaking, more emotionally vulnerable.
Women are not weaker morally, intellectually, or spiritually. But, generally speaking, they are physically weaker, and more likely to be overpowered or exploited by a domineering or selfish husband.
It’s sad to watch as transgender athletes (men who identify as women) are being permitted to participate in women’s sports. These men are easily breaking women’s records by massive margins. A former Olympic volleyball player from Brazil, Ana Paula Henkel, commented on the decision of the Olympic committee to allow trans women to compete: “This rushed and heedless decision to include biological men, born and built with testosterone, with their height, their strength and aerobic capacity of men, is beyond the sphere of tolerance.”
Men are, generally speaking, physically stronger, and we all know it. For the first time in history, society is turning a blind eye to this basic reality of human existence. But this is only because they have first denied that men and women are different in other, more significant ways.
Emil Brunner explains that “the physical differences between the man and the woman are a parable of physical and spiritual differences of a more ultimate nature.”
This is where husbands needs to apply the knowledge that they have as Christians. Christian men understand that a woman’s physical weakness (and perhaps emotional vulnerability) is consistent with God’s intention for her to be protected by, provided for by, and led by her husband.
Even with the prevailing cultural insanity surrounding male and female, most women still want this. In my study, I bumped into several studies that conclude that women like a man with muscles. This is not breaking news. Why? I think it comes back to what Peter is getting at in this verse: a man’s physical strength, while absolutely no guarantee of mature masculinity, points to something very basic in God’s creation: men are supposed to protect, provide, and lead. There is an existential hope that lies behind a woman’s physical attraction to masculine strength.
To control a woman because she is physically vulnerable is a heinous abuse of a man’s God-given authority. Rather, a man should nourish and cherish his wife, like he nourishes and cherishes his own body.
The Knowledge of a Woman’s Spiritual Equality
The second reason that husbands should honor their wives is because they know that they are spiritual equals.
Galatians 3:28 reminds us that there is no spiritual advantage to being a man: “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.” In ancient times, it was the man who received the inheritance; daughters could not inherit their father’s estate. But God’s spiritual inheritance is given equally to his sons and daughters. Peter says that wives are “heirs together” with their husbands; they are equal, co-heirs to the grace of life.
As if to predict that some men would look down on their wives because of their physical or emotional weakness, Peter checks this attitude by reminding husbands of their wives’ equal standing with God. It may seem harmless to joke about a woman being moody or needing a man’s help to open a pickle jar, but I doubt that anyone makes those jokes when standing in front of Queen Elizabeth. That’s what Peter is saying: If you really understand the Christian gospel, that your wife is an heiress who will inherit the universe, it will help you with your attitude.
Peter has just characterized godly women as meek and quiet. Matthew 5:5 says, “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” It is as though Peter is saying, “Your wife, with her meek spirit, is going to inherit the ground you are walking on. So act like it, buddy. Treat her like that is true. Treat her like she’s an actual princess—because she is.”
The Princess Image
These two pieces of knowledge are vital for godly husbands to understand. On one hand, your wife is weaker than you. She needs you. She needs your protection, tenderness, love, and leadership. She deserves your honor because she is weaker, and God always honors the weak. On the other hand, your wife is the King’s daughter. She’s going to inherit the ground you walk on. She deserves your honor because she is strong as God’s child.
These two motifs converge in the timeless princess image. People have been fascinated with princess stories for centuries. They tap into something very basic about our male-female relationships. Every little girl wants to be the princess: beautiful, graceful, and royal. But she’s always missing something: her prince. Every little boy wants to be that prince. He wants to be brave and step up and lop off the dragon’s head and rescue the princess from the tower. And when the princess and the prince get together, everything just seems right. Together, they are more than they could ever be apart. In recent years, Disney has been trying to rewrite the princess narrative, but they will never be able to take it out of the deepest heart of boys and girls.
God has placed the desire to be a princess in the heart of a woman, and because of the gospel, it can become a reality. God calls men to live in a way that is consistent with this knowledge: to understand that women are treasures to be cherished, protected, and honored.
Men are to take this very seriously, lest their prayers be hindered. If you fail to love and honor your wife, “you will find it impossible to pray properly” (Philips). But if you love her as Christ loves the church, God will honor you.