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
Weakness in Today’s World
We live at a time that does not really know how to deal with weakness. This is a dog-eat-dog world. What time do we really have for those who are weak? Because we think only the fittest survive, some people try to bury their own weakness, hiding or denying their limitations or frailties. We see this in dysfunctional marriages. Other people try to defend the weak by denying reality; they paper over the facts and assure us that women and men are the same in all their strengths. We see this in our culture’s gender wars.
Some among us hide or deny weakness. Others take advantage of it. Sadly, we’ve all seen men who intimidate, humiliate, neglect, control, and criticize their wives because of what they see as weakness. Peter calls husbands in particular to honor their wives in their weakness. So let us comment on what that weakness might be, how a husband should treat his wife, and why.
What Is Meant by “Weaker Vessel”?
Scholars offer more than one option of what this weakness in 1 Peter 3:7 could be. One perspective studies the word that Peter uses when he refers to “the woman,” which is plausibly translated “the one who is feminine.” According to this perspective, the feminine one is a weaker vessel because she shows a wider range of emotions and consistently loses in arm-wrestling contests. A husband is not to take advantage of her feminine characteristics, not least when it comes to his businesslike approach to problems or his physical power. Alternatively, Peter may have in mind a perception of weakness arising from the wife’s position as one who is not the higher authority in the home. She is weaker in that he is the head and she is not.
Of course, whatever the definition of weakness we might use, we are not denying that women have many different important strengths where men have profound weaknesses. Nor should we pass over the reality that women are called to great strength of character in the previous verses. And to speak of a woman’s comparative strength is to say nothing about her physical endurance. To choose only the most obvious example, women endure pain in childbirth that makes a man shudder even to contemplate. Giving birth is still the gold standard for human toughness as well as human love. And yet let us own Scripture’s message here: a wife has weaknesses unique to who she is, and eventually even the thickest husband will catch on to this. When he does, he is to prize her for everything that she is and not despise her for anything she is not.
Whatever the precise definition of weakness, a husband’s responsibility is clear. Husbands are to prize, to treasure, to value our wives, not just because they are people but because they are women. And there is a public aspect to honor, for it is very important how she is presented and discussed before others. A friend of ours took this fact about homelife into his workplace and made it clear to his male colleagues that there would be no negative comments about their wives. He insisted that they honor their spouses or not talk about them at all.
A woman is a wonderful gift to a man. This is obvious for those with eyes to see, and yet a husband can sometimes find it hard to value his wife as a woman if she slows him down, processes problems differently, or offers distinct perspectives. So what are men tempted to do? They are tempted to push, to put down, to ignore. They are tempted to dishonor their wives, taking advantage of the ways in which they are weaker vessels, or simply different.
Consider how often men are critical because they think they could have done something better than their wives. The truth, Chad says, is that we men are often wrong, and we’d botch the job entirely. But even if we are right, we’re behaving wrongly. Elsewhere men are called to love their wives. Here men are told to actually honor them. Peter very deliberately shuts off men’s usual escape routes when he calls them to honorable living.
How Does a Husband Honor His Wife?
So how is a husband to deal with any perceived weakness in a wife? The first thing that Peter calls men to do is to live with their wives “with understanding” or “in an understanding way” (1 Pet. 3:7).
This could mean that he is to live with an understanding of all that God calls him to be and do; in this context, he would be called to understand, among other things, what God requires of him with respect to his wife. Alternatively, Peter could mean that a husband is to live with understanding of his wife in particular; husbands are to live with real consideration, a considerate life that is characterized by knowledge.
Husbands are to prize, to treasure, to value our wives, not just because they are people but because they are women.
Either way, for the purpose of better honoring her and making her duties easier, a husband is to learn his wife’s strengths and weaknesses, her likes and dislikes, her fears and insecurities. His privileged information about his God-given responsibilities and his knowledge of his wife is not to be used against her but for her.
Although husbands sometimes forget, living with a woman is not like rooming with a man. It takes minimal effort for men to understand each other. Television plus food offers a fairly predictable formula for male happiness. Experience tells most of us that it is possible to live with a roommate for a long time and acquire very little wisdom about relationships, in part because buddies can be replaced in ways that wives cannot.
Living with a wife requires real thoughtfulness, some of which comes only from on-the-job training. For those who have tried to understand their wives, many can testify that they found the learning curve steep, almost vertical, and devoid of plateaus. Learning the other sex is complicated, and it takes honest work.
It doesn’t help that both men and women think that their needs are fairly obvious and that their communications are usually clear. But the main challenge is not only with the lines of communication in a marriage, but with the kind of content, or lack thereof, being communicated.
A subset of the times that Chad sins against Emily, he has a sense that there is much more to the problem than he even realizes. On some of these occasions he has had to say, “Emily, I’m sure that this should be obvious, and I’m sorry that I have to ask, but I am so lost that I’m not really sure what I should say here. Tell me what I should say, not so that I can avoid thinking for myself, but so that I can learn to understand you and what I should be seeing in this situation.” Thankfully, she is graciously committed to making his job as a husband easier. She sees that this kind of exchange is a win in marriage, much better than trading defensive comments or offensive evaluations—something we also sometimes do.
Peter calls husbands to live with their wives in an understanding way. This is closely tied to his second how comment in verse 7: he needs to live with her in such a way that he is showing her honor. A man honors his wife by respecting her, listening to her, maintaining her authority before others in the home, protecting her from harm, upholding her good name, supporting her financially, and placing a proper trust and confidence in her. A man honors his wife as he prizes her counsel and seeks her correction. Perhaps there are better ways to communicate the idea of honor, but the real surprise is that husbands are called to honor their partners at all.
Peter earlier summed up the duty of Christian citizens by telling them to honor the emperor. Here he sums up the duty of Christian husbands by telling them to honor their wives. Now there is surely a difference in the way in which a man honors the emperor and the way in which a man honors his wife. But there is a sense in which a man is to roll out the red carpet for the woman in his life. If a man’s home is his castle, his wife should be its queen.
Peter’s word choice, honor, can hardly have been more elevated—which is a good thing to remember after what he said in verses 1–6. If anyone complains that in her calling as a wife, she is reduced to a servant by verses 1–6, we also need to complain that she is elevated to a princess by verse 7. Scripture is not privileging one party in the marriage over another.
Chad did not always get this emphasis on honor, and it was only in writing the final draft of Gospel-Shaped Marriage that he admitted to Emily that he went to two different friends to complain about her, once in the first year of their marriage and again five years later. These men proved true friends to both of us. They said no. Willing to embarrass Chad by shutting him down—firmly—they explained that they were not going to listen to him vent about Emily, and they gave reasons why. One of these brothers was married, the other not, but both of them understood more clearly than Chad in that moment that it was his calling to uphold and honor his wonderful, even if imperfect, wife.
This article is adapted from Gospel-Shaped Marriage: Grace for Sinners to Love Like Saints by Chad Van Dixhoorn and Emily Van Dixhoorn.
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