I Peter 3:6-7 has been used throughout history to teach male authority and female subservience in marriage and society. After all, did not Peter refer to the wife as the “weaker vessel?” And did he not admonish wives to follow the example of Sarah who obeyed her husband and called him lord?”
Although modern evangelicals tend to be soften their comments on this passage, many still agree in essence with the 17th century exegete, Matthew Poole, who explained the “weaker vessel” phrase as meaning, “Weaker than the husbands, and that both in body and mind, as women usually are. Weak vessels must be gently handled . . . it is a part of that prudence according to which men should dwell with their wives, to have the more regard to them because of their infirmities, bearing with them and hiding them.” Based on this same notion that the woman is handicapped by a weaker emotional and mental constitution, I have heard modern charismatic preachers tells women that God placed them under the authority of men for their good and safety.
A Weaker Status in the Culture
However, a more careful examination of this passage will reveal that Peter is not referring to a weaker frame or constitution of the woman, but to a weaker status in the culture of the day. A closer look will also reveal that Peter is not affirming a male hierarchy in marriage but is calling for mutual respect and partnership.
“Weaker vessel” in this passage is not referring to an intellectual or emotional weakness as has been often argued, but to the woman’s weakened position in first century Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures. This is borne out by the fact that the word “weaker” in this passage is translated from a cognate form of the Greek word asthenei, which means to be powerless and without strength. It is not limited to someone who is of a weaker essence or frame, but can refer someone, such as a prisoner, whom society has deprived of freedom and opportunity. This larger meaning is borne out by Thayer’s Greek English Lexicon, which includes the meaning of the word as “one who abstains from the use of his strength” and “one who has no occasion to prove his strength.”
Peter is thus referring to a cultural weakness wherein the wife/woman is marginalized and not given the opportunities to fully express her gifts and abilities. In fact, in first century Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures, women were often treated like slaves and children and considered the possession of their husbands. That this is the meaning Peter has in mind is confirmed by the instruction he gives to husbands in the latter part of the verse.
Husbands are to Revere & Honor their Wives
Since the wife is, culturally speaking, the “weaker vessel,” Peter instructs the husband to give special “honor” to her. The word “honor” that Peter tells husbands to give their wives uses is a translation of the Greek word timē that Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon defines as “to honor, revere, venerate,” and as “the honor of one who outranks others.” Peter is here telling the husbands to treat their wives the very opposite of how the pagan culture treats their wives. Whereas the wives are treated as property and children in pagan homes, Peter tells the Christian husbands to treat their wives with the honor and respect they would show a boss or supervisor at work. They are to minister the opposite spirit.
What did Sarah Really Call Abraham?
At this point someone will surely ask, “But what about the fact that Peter tells the wives to follow the example of Sarah who obeyed Abraham and called him “lord?” First of all, the New Testament translators have tried to alert us of the diminished authoritarian content of this word by translating it in all lower case letters, i.e., “lord.”
In the Old Testament there are three different ways in which the translators utilize this word; (1) LORD (all caps), (2) Lord (1st letter cap) and (3) lord (all lower case). “LORD” is the translation of the personal and covenant name of God—YAHWEH–and is never used of anyone but God. It is the name that Third Commandment says is not to be taken in vain, i.e., is not to be used in a light, empty or frivolous manner.
“Lord” is the translation of the Hebrew word adonai when it is used in ascribing respect and honor toward God. When adonai is used as an expression of respect or honor between human beings it is translated as “lord,” and carries a meaning such as “sir” or “ma’am.”
Indeed, the word that was used by Sarah in Genesis 18:12 was the Hebrew adonai, which is why it is translated with all lower case letter as “lord.” The use of adonai was a common way of expressing honor and respect to another person in Biblical times, without implications of subordination. For example, Aaron called Moses adonai (Numbers 12:11); Jacob called Esauadonai (Genesis 32:40); David called Saul adonai (I Samuel 24:8); and Hazael, who became king of Syria, called Elisha adonai (II Kings 8:12). In all these cases it is translated in all lower case letters—”lord”—because in such cases it does not indicate nor imply the superiority on the part of the one being addressed nor the inferiority on the one who is speaking.
The Faith of Sarah
In the latter part of 3:6 where Peter is addressing the wives, he says to them that they are Sarah’s daughters (spiritual offspring), if you do good and are not afraid of any terror. When we look at the life of Sarah one thing we see is that she was a woman of courage who never showed any signs of fear. In contrast, Abraham showed fear on more than one occasion and at least twice put Sarah in jeopardy of being abused by a pagan ruler because he was afraid he would be killed if they knew that Sarah was his wife.
Nothing is said about Sarah being afraid, which is probably why she accommodated Abraham in his fear and cooperated with him in his little scheme by saying that she was his sister (she was his half-sister). Because Sarah trusted God and did not fear, God protected her and rebuked the king, threatening him with death, who had taken her into his harem (Genesis 20:1-7). We know that Sarah was a woman of faith for in the Hall of Faith of Hebrews 11, Sarah is included along with Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Gideon and others, and the caption about her begins with the words, By faith Sarah . . .. She was not afraid and became a Mother of Nations.