Some of the most polarizing words in the New Testament are these instructions from Peter in his first letter to the church: “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands …” (1 Peter 3:1 ESV). But the most overlooked word in this whole passage directed to wives and husbands is the first word: likewise.
“Likewise” means “in the same way.” By using this word, Peter makes it clear that both men and women have a responsibility to use their power in marriage to bless and serve each other.
It’s easy to see the power men bring to their marriage relationships. Generally, they are physically bigger and stronger, which is what most commentators think Peter means in verse 7 when he calls women the “weaker vessel.” He’s not saying women are inferior; he’s reminding people of the physical reality.
It’s worth remembering, too, that in ancient Rome, women were also weaker in their societal power. Marriage law in Rome, for instance, was much more sympathetic to men than to women. Men were expected to have affairs, but women could be killed if they did so. Men could divorce their wives for pretty much any reason, and divorces always favored the man when it came to money and child custody. It was a horribly unjust system.
Some commentators also note that Peter’s reference to women being “weaker” might also be a general reference to the fact that women often display an emotional sensitivity that makes them more nurturing and compassionate (the mothering instinct). Having that sensitivity, of course, doesn’t mean that they are inferior. After all, which is weaker, a crowbar or a thermometer? The thermometer is weaker—use it to pry open a door and it’ll bust—but the thermometer can do a lot of things that the crowbar can’t. In many ways, though physically weaker, the thermometer is more powerful and useful than a crowbar.
What’s important to note, though, is that whatever Peter means by weaker, we know one thing he doesn’t mean: In no way is he hinting that wives are inferior. Consider what Peter says about wives in verse 7, “… heirs with you of the grace of life …” Wives weren’t heirs in Peter’s day. But they are in the kingdom of God. Why? Because they are true equals of their husbands.
Husbands: Whatever power you have in the relationship should be used to honor and serve your wife, not exploit her. Live with her in an understanding way: If she’s emotionally wired differently than you, don’t despise that. Seek to understand her. Learn her love language. Love her on her terms.
It is absolutely wicked when a man uses his physical power to dominate his wife. Even worse is when he uses the Christian idea of submission in marriage to dominate her. That’s not what Christ did with his power. He used his power to serve. He laid down his life. You use the leadership you have to serve your wife. In every decision, you ask, “How can I honor her, lift her up, and bless her?”
A man’s leadership in marriage is not a license to do what he wants to do but empowerment to do what he ought to do.