Strangers And Aliens (14): Recognizing Differences (1 Peter 3:7)

1 Peter 3:7

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. (ESV). 7Οἱ ἄνδρες ὁμοίως, συνοικοῦντες κατὰ γνῶσιν ὡς ἀσθενεστέρῳ σκεύει τῷ γυναικείῳ, ἀπονέμοντες τιμὴν ὡς καὶ συγκληρονόμοις χάριτος ζωῆς εἰς τὸ μὴ ἐγκόπτεσθαι τὰς προσευχὰς ὑμῶν.

v.7: Christian Husbands and Wives
Throughout this epistle question before Peter and before the congregations in (what we know as) Turkey is how they ought to live in light of their redemption, in view of eternity, in a predominantly pagan setting as they worship and serve their redeemer and wait patiently for his return. To this point in chapter 3 Peter has been instructing Christian women how to relate to their husbands, particularly to unbelieving husbands. Verse 7, however, assumes a believing husband and, most likely, a believing wife.

In our post-feminist, late-modern context this language might seem somewhat patronizing or even demeaning but Peter was not writing to our context—he was writing to a very different culture. As noted earlier in this chapter, in first-century Greco-Roman culture the ideal was that a 25–30 year old man would marry a young girl, whom he might not even know, about 14 years old. Thus, there was often a significant age discrepancy between husbands and wives. Further, marriages were not contracted in the way that has become familiar to us. Thus, we cannot assume our cultural practices and norms and then, on that basis judge Peter’s language. On the assumption that these congregations were composed, at least in part, of former pagans then it would have been important for Peter to explain the difference between the way pagan men considered their wives and the way Christian men are to regard their wives. As my friend and colleague Steve Baugh reminded me yesterday, in pagan literature, men often discussed their wives as though they were complete strangers.

There is a reciprocal relationship between husbands and wives. Peter says “likewise” (ὁμοίως). Just as wives live quietly with their husbands, those husbands must “live together” (συνοικοῦντες) with their wives. We should not pass over this. If there is anything that I needed to learn as a young husband it was that what my wife wanted and needed from me more than anything else was time and attention. In my experience, in this culture, men place a high value on doing, accomplishing, and building. Of course those things are necessary but men tend to find their identity in them. Ask any middle-aged men who has been “downsized” what happens to his identity and sense of self-worth. A fellow gives years of his life to build a career, to provide for his family, and suddenly it is all gone. Who is he now? In some households anyway, the husband or dad may be so busy with work and career that he does not even know how things work at home. It is not unusual for him to hear, “Oh Dad, this is how we do it!”

Consider the shopping trip with one’s wife. The husband, typically, in our culture wants to go accomplish something. He goes out to buy whatever is needed, to bring it home, and to get on with things. His wife may look at the trip very differently. She looks at things, imagines what it would be like to own them, and then puts them back. This process can go on for (what seems to the husband) a long time. The husband’s main job is to be with his wife. Being “with” is probably more important than “doing” or accomplishing.

Peter says that husbands are to commune, to be with, their wives “according to knowledge” (κατὰ γνῶσιν), i.e., according to understanding. We are to know who and what they are. Particularly, Peter highlights the reality, which our late-modern, egalitarian culture is loath to admit, that our wives are, in certain respects “the weaker vessel” (ὡς ἀσθενεστέρῳ σκεύει). Peter is not making sexist or even male chauvinist remarks. He is, however, recognizing that there are real differences between the two sexes (not genders). Of course there are ways in which women are stronger than men. Women give birth and men faint in the same room, at the same time but it is also true that females have less muscle mass and are typically physically smaller than men and thus some physical tasks are relatively easier for men than for women. I take it that Peter is drawing an analogy, that he is not commenting on obvious biological differences but on even more profound differences. It seems odd to have to say this but, in our age, I suppose we must. Males and females are constructed differently emotionally and psychologically. Men tend to be a bit thick and insensitive emotionally. Again, these are broad generalizations, which, as the culture continues to evolve (I am looking at you millennial men), the differences may not be as acute as they may have been once upon a time. Contrast the emotional and psychological worlds, if you will, that my grandfathers  inhabited with that inhabited by millennial men today. It is remarkably different. Nevertheless, men are still men and will do what men do. Women are still women and they will relate to people and things differently. Peter says, in effect, “do not be a numb skull. Pay attention.” A male friend, even a close male friend, probably is not offended if a guy does not talk to him for a couple of weeks. They probably assume that each one is busy. The same, however, is not true with one’s wife. She will not make a different assumption and the relationship will deteriorate quickly.

In contrast, rather than ignoring and demeaning one’s wife, the Christian husband must be “showing honor” (ἀπονέμοντες τιμὴν) to them. The participle here “to show” (ἀπονέμω) was used in the period and into the 2nd century to describe relationships between government officials. Lower officials are to show honor to the higher. So, Peter’s use of this language, in this context is quite the opposite of the way, read superficially, it might strike us in our culture. Further, this language was positively counter-cultural. The Greco-Roman world was not know for its high regard for females. The New Testament, however, consistently shows us that the Apostles, writing under the inspiration of the Spirit, taught a very different way of thinking about men and women. This becomes even clearer here when Peter adds, that husbands are to commune with, and honor their wives as “co-heirs of divine favor of life” (συγκληρονόμοις χάριτος ζωῆς). In other words, both husbands and wives have been redeemed by God’s free (to us) favor alone, through faith alone. Before God there is no superiority. God is no respecter of persons.

There is an important spiritual reason for husbands to commune, to live together, graciously with their wives: their prayers. Contrary to what some new Christians might have assumed, that in order for one to be pious one must withdraw from one’s wife, Peter says that what “cuts off” (ἐγκόπτω) one’s prayers is a break in communion with one’s wife. This was no idle speculation. One of the major developments in the earlier church was the misguided theory that holiness comes through isolation and artificial vows of celibacy. Ordinarily we live our Christian lives in community, not with monks, but in natural, heterosexual, family units, which begin with husbands and wives. As a matter of practical spiritual experience, a broken relationship with one’s wife is a source of frustration and even anguish which interrupts the ordinary communion with God in public and private prayer.

That Peter turns to prayer here, perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, signals again how important is his semi-realized eschatology. On this see the earlier passages.

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