Complementarianism. Egalitarianism. Female Preachers. Patriarchy. And so on. If you’re one of those Christians who spends any time on social media, you have probably noticed a good deal of recent discussion between Christians of various stripes about the roles of men and women in the home and in the church, and lots of debate about what certain people have had to say about all of that. This post is about these things, just to warn you. To state my intentions up front, my desire in this post is to look at what God has to say about male leadership in the home – in marriage, specifically – in one particular verse of the Bible.
That verse reads,
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 Pet 3:7 ESV)
In my view there is more wisdom contained regarding God’s design and intention for a husband’s leadership in a marriage, than most all of the recent hubbub has had to offer. What should male leadership in a marriage actually look like? I see five aspects of a husband’s leadership in marriage that are called for here in 1 Peter 3:7.
First, a husband’s leadership in marriage is about intentionally sharing his life with his wife. (“husbands, live with your wives…”)
The first part of the command here to husbands is that they “live with” their wives, which refers to all aspects of the married relationship – from living in the same home to sharing the same bed in a sexual union. The idea here is that every husband should share the whole of his life with his wife.
In the way that Jesus does with his church, a Gospel-driven husband seeks to make it clear to his wife that his life is hers; that he is there for her and is ready to serve her; that he wants to be her friend and is eager to pray for her and seek God’s grace for her and with her.
This is because marriage is not about self-fulfillment, but is about self-giving and self-offering. It’s not about getting from another person what you desire; it’s about giving of yourself to another person as God commands and doing so for his glory. Marriages thrive and reflect God’s original intent when two people give of themselves selflessly to the other.
But, as Peter shows us here, husbands are called to lead the way in this. To set the example in this. To share the whole of their lives with their wives. To lay down their lives for the glory of God and the good of their neighbors, with neighbor #1 always and in every case being their wives.
Second, a husband’s leadership in marriage is about seeking to know his wife well. (“live with your wives in an understanding way…”)
Literally the text reads, “live with your wives according to knowledge.” That’s the knowledge of your wife. If you are a husband, you are to live with your wife in a way that is adaptive to your personal knowledge of who she is, of how she works, of what she is dealing with, of what she’s struggling with, and of what she needs from you.
It has been said that women are a mystery. That may be true. It could also be that we men are a lazy when it comes to understanding them. In some sense, this is okay, except as it relates to one specific relationship; your relationship with your wife. Dan Doriani says it well: “Husbands are scientists with a narrow field of inquiry.” So, some of the pressure is off, guys. You don’t need to understand women categorically. But if you are married (or if you ever intend to get married) you are called to understand your wife.
And so, you have to apply yourself to learning them. You have to be a student of your wife. You have to learn her, talk with her, listen to her. You have to invite her to share with her joys and her struggles with you. And just in case there’s any confusion, let there be no mistake; this takes serious work and initiative, and dare I say it, leadership.
Third, a husband’s leadership in marriage is about intentionally treating his wife with great care. (“as the weaker vessel” or “as with a delicate object”)
The majority of commentators take this as a reference to physical strength and see Peter as noting that men are typically physically stronger and perhaps more intimidating than women. That certainly is a possible interpretation and an important consideration for men in any case.
Yet, I wonder if the reference to a woman’s “weakness” is broader than that. A simple translation of the text would say “as with a delicate object.” A “vessel” in the NT is often a reference to a “dish” or a “pot” (clay pot) or a household object of some kind. The word before that simply means weak, or breakable, or delicate. So, perhaps a modern rendition would be something like “fine china.”
Now, this would certainly address the physical differences between men and women and would directly confront any man who would use his physical strength in any way to manipulate or control his wife. There is absolutely no place for that in marriage; let alone in a Christian marriage. Physical control, manipulation, abuse is the farthest thing from the example of Christ.
And let me say directly that if there are any readers of this post who use (or have used, in the past) your physical superiority over your wife in any way; if you push her around, threaten her, abuse her, or manipulate her through physical force; you need to straight up repent. You’re in sin.
And by repent, I don’t just mean tell your wife that you’re “sorry.” I mean, you need to expose yourself. You need to make it known. Do not simply confess it to your wife (though you definitely need to do that), but confess it to men in your church; confess it to your pastors; and bring that sin out into the light. You need help. You need counseling. You need to be held accountable. You need to seriously repent. And truly, your soul is in eternal danger if you don’t. If you’re going to persist in this, you’ll have Jesus to answer to, and he won’t play around on judgment day.
At the same time, Peter’s words also extend beyond the physical realm and physical aspects of the marriage relationship. Although it’s true that a proper application of this verse would be to avoid abusing your wife; that’s just the beginning. Not abusing your wife is like the first step of year old baby; it’s the absolute least you could do.
Instead, Peter is calling us to much more than that here. Treat your wives with great care all around, as you would with a delicate object. Be careful about how you treat her. Protect her. Be kind to her. Be considerate of her. Remember, Jesus could have destroyed you, but didn’t and won’t if you are one of his. Instead, he loves you faithfully, and bears with you in all your weaknesses. So, a husband who is taking the lead in his marriage will do the same with his wife.
Fourth, a husband’s leadership in his marriage is about honoring his wife as his equal before God. (“showing honor to the woman…since they are heirs with you of the grace of life…”)
“Honor” is a very strong word. To “show honor” to your wife, is to treat her as one who is precious, both to God and to you. You make it clear to her and to others that she is valuable. You show appreciation for her. You tell her you love her. You “show” her that she is treasured.
Peter says that the Christian husband should honor his wife as a fellow heir of eternal life! As if she is a true equal and as if the ground upon which the two of them stand before God is level ground, because it is! A husband who is taking the lead in his marriage takes great care to demonstrate to his wife that he regards her as his equal in the most fundamental level. He, like her, is a creature made in the image of God. He, like her, is a sinner in need of grace.
You are to honor your wife as your spiritual equal, husband. Though you have different roles; though you are called to different responsibilities in the marriage; though you are called to lead and she (by and large) to submit to your leadership; she is your equal before God. And you’re called to treat her as such.
What that means is that our love for our wives must not be rooted in their loveliness or in the things that make us compatible, but in the reality of the Gospel – that just as God gave up his own Son for us, so did he give up his own Son for my bride. She is a “fellow heir of the grace of life.” How then could I treat her as something less than one who is dearly loved by God?
If you’re taking the lead in your marriage as a husband, you’re going to take the lead at showing honor to your wife as your equal before God.
Fifth, a husband’s leadership in marriage is about loving his wife through prayer. (“so that your prayers may not be hindered.”)
A husband’s labor in prayer for his wife is the assumption of this verse. It is assumed that Christian husbands will be praying for their wives – praying for God’s gracious blessing upon them in all things. Do you pray for your wife, Christian husband?
But here the scenario envisioned is that of a man who refuses to love his wife; who is not living with his wife in an understanding way (not just failing here and there, but utterly so); who is not treating her with great care; who is not honoring her as his equal; but who then goes to God in prayer expected blessing to come upon him and his family. And what Peter says to these sorts of men is sobering.
Peter says that God will not hear the prayers of the man who is not seeking to love his wife in these ways. God will purposefully ignore the prayers of a man who is not loving his wife.
The background is probably 1 Peter 3:12 and the background to that verse is Psalm 34. Peter lumps men who do not love their wives in the way commanded here into the same group classified in Psalm 34 as “those who do evil” (Psa 34:16) and “the wicked” (Psa 34:21). As God treats them, so he deals with men who refuse to follow the example that Jesus set for them in the way they treat their wives. To put it simply: The Lord will not hear the prayers of the man who believes that prayer is a more godly exercise than loving and caring for his wife.
Why is that? It is because the prayers of a man who refuses to love his wife are not prayers of genuine faith. They’re the fruit of hypocrisy and lifeless religion. And God refuses to bend his ear to hypocrites. He won’t play those games.
Rather, his ears are open to the righteous (1 Pet 3:12; Psalm 34:15); to those who live according to his commands; to those who seek to honor him; to those who serve him; to those who seek to live a genuinely godly life on the basis of his Word.
And my married brothers, there is no pursuit more godly or God-honoring than the pursuit to be a good, faithful, loving, gracious husband to your wife. There is no better way to display the greatness of the Gospel, the grace of God, and the love of Christ for his people, than to grow in loving your wife in these ways.
Call it complementarianism or whatever else you like to call it, but this what true biblical male leadership in a marriage is largely supposed to be about. Whereas many equate male leadership in a marriage to making executive decisions and exercising control over women, Peter describes that leadership as a man taking the initiative in service and personal ministry to his wife.
And hopefully any Christian could admit that this is a good thing, and not a bad thing. When men take the lead in marriage in these ways, their wives and their families benefit richly.