1 Peter 3:7 Husbands, in the same way, treat your wives with consideration as the weaker partners and show them honor as fellow heirs of the grace of life. In this way nothing will hinder your prayers.
This expression tends to raise eyebrows nowadays. According to Hillyer, this does not refer to ‘physical strength, not to intellectual powers, moral courage, or spiritual standards.’
So what does it refer to?
Several older commentators (including, Calvin, Leighton, JFB) do not discuss it: presumably, they thought that its meaning was self-evident and indisputable.
Joel Green appears to assume that Peter is acknowledging the accepted status of women in the Roman society of his day:
‘Following conventional wisdom in Rome, an assessment of women as weak and light-minded would relegate women to the margins in relation to men…In the topsy-turvy world projected by Peter’s christology, however, what is dishonored is to be honored (see above on 1 Pet 2:4–10).’
Most modern commentators that it refers to physical strength (so, according to LRC, Achtemeier, McKnight, Mounce, Jobes, Keely, and Beare). Schreiner agrees that this is ‘the most obvious meaning’.
Bott, noting the apparent allusions to Sarah’s barrenness in this chapter, thinks that the reference is to ‘reproduction; specifically, the inherent limits of female fertility due to the loss of fertility with age.’
But it may be right to add a social aspect to this ‘weakness’. Keating (cited by LRC) speaks for many when he writes:
‘While it was common in Greco-Roman culture to treat women as inferior to men in terms of physical strength, intellectual ability, and moral firmness, there is no hint here that Peter considers women to be inferior in either intellectual or moral qualities. Given the overall context of the letter, by “weaker” he probably means weaker in physical strength, and therefore subject to intimidation and abuse by husbands, and also weaker in social standing and influence in society, and so in need of being established and honored by husbands. In these ways wives were vulnerable, and so Peter counsels husbands to show special honor to them.’
Further, we might note a certain emotional vulnerability that is more characteristic in women than in men. Grudem comments that ‘wives are often more likely to be hurt deeply by conflict within a marriage, or by inconsiderate behavior.’ We should not ascribe this entirely a process of socialisation (which may or may not pertain in different ages and cultures): the effects on the emotions of sex hormones such as oestrogen and oxytocin are now well known.
In the marriage relationship the wife are more likely to be abused or exploited than her husband. Accordingly, some, including Wayne Grudem and Susan Foh, see part of the meaning in the wife’s acceptance of her position in marriage as ‘vulnerable, open to exploitation.’
This is not moral, spiritual, or intellectual inferiority. Generally, men are stronger than women in the physical sense. But Peter may also have in his mind the lower social status that women had at that time. He may be thinking specifically of sexual relationships: the husband must be considerate towards his wife, and not forcefully impose his needs upon her. He must also remember that she is particularly vulnerable during pregnancy and childbirth, and when her children are young.
Grudem suggests that several kinds of ‘weakness’ may be implied: physical weakness, the vulnerability that derives from authority in marriage, and emotional sensitivity (which, although it is often a great asset, also renders women more open to being hurt).
What is clear (as Green and others observes) is that it is the woman, as the ‘weaker vessel’ who is to receive the ‘greater honour’. This thought is reminiscent of Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor 1.
Stott (Issues facing Christians today, 4th ed., p344f) notes that ‘power’ has become over-admired in modern thinking, perhaps via the power philosophy of Nietzsche. Accordingly, weakness is despised. But, in biblical thinking, weakness is to be honoured:
‘Although women have many different personality traits, the characteristics of femininity have always focused on words such as “gentle”, “sensitive”, “tender” and “patient”. In a world obsessed with power, such virtues deserve respect and promotion, for they can easily be disregarded or abused.’
This giving of honour to the weaker person, or to the one who is less honoured in society, is a frequent them in the NT: Mt 5:3–12; 1 Cor 1:26–30; 12:22–25; Jas 2:5; 4:6; 1 Pet 5:5.
Abigail Dodds notes that physical weakness is not a defect. We do not value a sturdy wooden chandelier more highly than a fragile glass one.
Women, writes Dodds, are indeed weaker than men
‘Not less intelligent. Not less human. Not incapable of reason or achievement. Not emotionally broken. Not more sinful. And not even without great strength, as the Scriptures testify. But, as relates to our physical bodies, comparatively weaker.’
Of course, Dodds adds, women are weaker than men only in certain respects. They can be fearless (see v6), and it may be that their relative weakness leads to rely on their all-powerful heavenly Father.
Dodds concludes: a woman who is pregnant, who is in childbirth, who is raising young children, needs great strength, even though it is in each case a vulnerable kind of strength. Let her husband give her respect and protection, and she will thrive and fulfil her God-given role in life.