“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).
What does Peter mean by, “the weaker vessel”? Some assume that Peter means to compare men and women, and women have been found weaker. It’s generally true that men are physically stronger than women, but it’s unlikely that Peter has muscle mass in mind. Some say this verse means that men are emotionally stronger than women, but this interpretation is little more than speculation, as nothing in the text points us in that direction. Besides, what we men call “emotional strength” is often a lot closer to emotional absence. And to say that “the weaker vessel” means that women are spiritually weaker seems to be ruled out completely by 3:1, where many wives outstripped their husbands in faith and righteousness.
“The weaker vessel” cannot mean whatever we want it to mean. It means what the Holy Spirit meant when he inspired Peter to write these words. The first clue is context. Who is the verse addressed to? Husbands. What does Peter mean to communicate to husbands? That they are superior to their wives? Actually, Peter emphasizes their equality in the very next phrase when he says that wives “are heirs with you of the grace of life.” Husbands are to keep in mind that their wives are as much heirs of God’s grace as they are. Besides, if we did decide to go down the road of comparison, could we not argue that wives are ultimately greater in God’s upside-down kingdom where “the last will be first, and the first last” (Mt 20:16)?
If “the weaker vessel” is not meant to imply a comparison between men and women, then what does it mean? Peter brings to mind a familiar household object in the ancient world: the ceramic vessels used for virtually every domestic task. Most of these were inexpensive and disposable (“common vessels”). But homes would also have “weaker vessels,” which were used for more delicate and special tasks. The modern equivalent is Fine China that we cherish, value, and care for. Peter says to husbands, “treat your wife like Fine China, not a plastic Big Gulp cup. She is not your lackey, but a fellow heir of God’s grace.” “The weaker vessel” is not about a woman’s weakness, but a statement about her value and an illustration of how her husband ought to treat her.
Husbands are not called to be ogres who rule the home with an iron first, but to work hard at understanding their wives. Husbands are to show honor to their wives as if she were a weaker vessel, not take her for granted like an old piece of Tupperware. Husbands are to remember that their wives are equal heirs with them of God’s grace. And husbands must remember that how they treat their wives has a drastic effect on their own spiritual life: “that your prayers may not be hindered.”