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 ESV)
What does Peter mean by referring to the woman as the “weaker vessel”? As I thought about this, the first question I asked myself was, “In what way are women weaker than men?” In order to make sense of Peter’s comment, we have to answer that question. It is undeniable that Peter is saying that the woman is in some way weaker. Rather than be offended by this or to reject the word of God outright, we have to come to grips that the Holy Spirit is really saying that the woman is weaker.
Sometimes when we react against something we read in the Bible, it is due to our own hardness of heart and unwillingness to submit our thoughts to the infinite wisdom of God. (see Francis Chan’s excellent thoughts on this here) Other times, what we are reacting against is a misinterpretation of what the Word is actually saying and we end up mad at God over something he never said in the first place.
I think Peter’s words here can easily fall into this second category. When we hear Peter say that the woman is weaker, we hear, “not as valuable” or “not as capable”. But is this really what God is saying to us in this verse? It’s interesting that the verse also includes a very strong statement of equality, “they are heirs with you of the grace of life.”
As I thought through what this verse could possibly mean, the first and most obvious possibility that came to mind is that Peter is referring to physical weakness. It is pretty much undeniable that in general men are stronger than women.
This does not mean that men are more valuable than women or that men are somehow superior to women. It simply means that the male/female relationship is impacted by the fact that men are stronger physically. Because of the fallenness of the human race, this strength differential, combined with a sinful distortion of the male/female role differences that God himself ordained, has led men to dominate women in sinful ways to the extent that we cannot even talk today about male headship or male authority without all kinds of misunderstandings of what the exercise of that headship looks like.
While many men would never dream of using their physical strength differential (or even the threat of it) to dominate the women in their lives, we still tend to operate from a sinful sense of superiority over women, and while we may not dominate them physically, we do hold on to sinful understandings of the male/female relationship that cause us to assert our own wills over the will of the women in our lives.
So what Peter is challenging us as husbands to do in honoring our wives as the weaker vessel is to refuse this sinful exercise of the strength prerogative in our relationships with our wives. Because my wife is weaker than me physically, I could force her to do my will, but rather than do that, Scripture commands me to honor her as a joint-heir of the grace of life.
You might think by this point in the post that I am arguing what theologians call the “egalitarian position” in male/female relationships. Actually I would consider myself to be firmly in the camp of the “complementarians” because I believe that Scripture clearly presents that there are different roles that God has designed for men and women. I also affirm that the Scripture clearly teaches that men are designed by God to be in authority over women. But I believe that much of the controversy that swirls around this question stems from an unbiblical, fallen understanding of authority.
The previous verse, 1 Peter 3:6, states with approval that “Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.” This is obviously a clear reference to male authority.
What I am arguing for from verse 7 is that we as men in authority honor our wives, treating them as the helpers that God designed them to be, understanding that we are incomplete without them, and that God has the same eternal inheritance reserved for them that he has for us.