After lengthy instructions to slaves and wives, Peter simply tells husbands to “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.”
Unlike the slaves and the wives, the husband is told to live with their wives in an “understanding way.” The way this is stated makes is sound as though the husband is to have a kind and tender heart toward his wife, and that is certainly part of the point. But Peter is saying that the husband must live with his wife fully aware of who she is and with full awareness of his responsibility toward her.
If the context throughout this passage has been living in a way that attracts an unbelieving spouse or master to Christ, then perhaps that is the case here as well. If a Christian husband is married to a wife who is not a believer, the culture would dictate that she ought to convert as well. But this might not be a willing submission to her husband’s new religion, the Christian husband has to be aware that his wife might not be fully in agreement with his religious choice!
The instructions are given to believing husbands, and it is at least possible “women” refers to all the women living within a household. If a man converted to Christianity, the whole household would be effected. Women typically “converted” with their husbands and slaves would now be working in a Christian household. But it is unlikely all members of a household were actually now Christians. A Christian husband must live his new life in a way which draws his wife and all others in his household to Christ.
Calling women the “weaker vessel” is troublesome to many modern readers, and sometimes Peter is dismissed as a pre-modern he-man woman hater. But Peter’s words here are in keeping with the Greco-Roman belief that woman are weaker than men, both physically and sometimes emotionally. Tacitus called women “a sex naturally weak” and if left to themselves will be “at the mercy of its own voluptuousness and the passions of others” and a marriage is preserved only by a “husband’s personal vigilance” (Annals, 3.34).
Peter’s words cannot be taken as an endorsement of misogyny, however. In fact, Peter tells the husbands to honor (τιμή) their wives, the same word he used for “honor the emperor” (τιμάω) in 2:17. Imagine that a husband gave his wife the same honor demanded of the Roman emperors!
As Karen Jobes concludes on this section, Peter’s purpose in the whole household code is evangelistic and apologetic (1 Peter, 210). Peter recognizes the common problem of one member of a household becoming a Christian. If they are slaves or wives, then submission to a non-Christian master or husband is required in order to draw them to Christ. But if the head of the household has become a Christian, then he must live even more carefully in order to bring those who were part of a Christian household unwillingly to Christ.
Jobes also points out this is a different strategy than Paul, who rooted his similar teaching in the order of creation (see Eph 5:21-33, and my comments on 1 Timothy 2:11-15 here). Peter is thinking of the practical ramifications of the conversion of members of a household, Paul’s teaching is rooted Jewish wisdom thinking that bases behavior in the orderliness of creation. This is why Paul is far more difficult than for modern readers than Peter!
The problem is how this teaching is applied in a modern context. Modern Christians look to these kinds of passages for guidance for modern marriages between spiritual equals in the Body of Christ. Our marriages are made because of love not arranged for social or economic reasons. Peter is not thinking of a couples retreat in a modern mega-church! Imagine how a Muslin woman who converted to Christianity might read 1 Peter, or a Buddhist husband, or a child in a Hindu family?
1 Peter is far more applicable in those situations, but how can 1 Peter 2:18-3:7 be used in a Western Christian context?