Counseling domineering husbands
In my practice as a biblical counselor, I counsel a lot of men who have hurt their wives—emotionally, verbally, or even physically. Every counselor who has worked with a couple in an abusive marriage knows how often Christian men will misuse the teaching of 1 Peter 3:1–6 to manipulate, control, and dominate their wives. Sadly, many Christian men haven’t thought much, if at all, on the instructions in verse 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).
I spend time in this text with men who are belittling and controlling toward their wives because there is so much here for Christian husbands to consider. First Peter 3:7 teaches that there is a particular view that Christian husbands should have of their wives that will help them love their wives well. I tell my Christian husbands who have hurt their wives that God wants them to become “3:7” husbands, and I even use this text as a template for men who are ready to reconcile with their wives.
But before I go any further, here is my important counseling caveat: there are narcissistic, self-exalting, power-hungry men who will never “get” this until Christ humbles their hearts. No amount of teaching of this verse will help them have this biblical perspective of their wives, because they don’t want it. Those men are the ones who will continue to encounter the active opposition of God (James 4:6b) and whose communion with the Lord will be hindered due to their arrogant, disobedient hearts.1 However, when working with a humble, repentant man who truly does not understand the role of a husband rightly, yet who desires marital health, 1 Peter 3:7 is a good start.
Seven truths about Christ and the gospel
The most important word in 1 Peter 3:7 is likewise, which calls us back to the description of Christ and the gospel at the end of the previous chapter (1 Pet. 2:22–25), where Peter draws heavily from Isaiah 53 to demonstrate that Jesus’ exemplary life gave us an example to follow in the way that He responded to difficult circumstances:
- He didn’t sin (v. 22a).
- He was not deceitful (v. 22b).
- When He was abused, He didn’t abuse back (v. 23a).
- Not only did Jesus not harm His abusers, He didn’t even threaten them with intimidating words (v. 23b).
- Instead, Jesus kept “handing over” (sometimes translated “entrusted”) every aspect of His life—His mission, His cause, and those who hurt Him—to God the Father. Jesus trusted that the Father “judges justly,” that God would both vindicate Him and punish His enemies if they didn’t repent. And this verse reminds us that this “handing over” to the Father has to be a continual act (v. 23c).
- And, just in case we start to think, “But that was Jesus. He was the Son of God, God in the flesh. I lack the power or the strength to respond as He did,” Peter also reminds us of the gospel itself, which gives us the power to live righteously (v. 24).
- Peter further reminds us of Christ’s lordship of our lives, as we have “now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer” of our souls (v. 25).
Peter points to the gospel and Christ’s active shepherding and oversight as all the resources that we need to follow His example. These seven truths are the motivation and fuel that enable men to be 3:7 husbands.
Now, let’s look at three applications of these seven truths and how they might help those we counsel to grow in Christ’s likeness.
Three applications of the seven truths
First Peter 3:7 begins with “likewise”—that is, in view of Christ’s example, His gracious response to our waywardness and abuse, His righteousness exchanged for our unrighteousness, His substitutionary atonement, the healing that He purchased for us, and His lordship over our lives—husbands should (literally) “live with your wives according to knowledge” (WEB). This is a command, and the first application of the seven truths named in 1 Peter 2:22–25.
While I think it is true that “according to knowledge” refers to “understanding” or “being considerate of” one’s wife, I would also agree with Tom Schreiner (The New American Commentary, Vol. 37, pp. 159–160) that this text primarily refers to the husband’s relationship with God. This phrase, together with the last phrase of the verse (“that your prayers may not be hindered”), makes clear that the way a husband treats his wife is to represent the way God has treated him, and this representation has implications for his ongoing relationship to God.
How reminiscent this is of James 4:1–4, where James speaks of our prayers going unanswered because they are asked for selfish ends, “to spend it on your passions” (ESV). When a husband is focused on his own desires and passions, making their fulfillment ultimate in marriage, his prayers (typically for his wife to change) will be hindered. Only when the idols of comfort, approval, power, control, etc., are identified, confessed, mourned over, and repented of can a husband enjoy the amazing grace offered by Christ and begin to truly understand the value of another—his wife.
A 3:7 husband lives with his wife according to his knowledge of how God has designed her, and more importantly, according to his knowledge of God. Therefore, here are questions you can ask husbands to ask themselves (and their wives):
- Do I seek to understand God’s unique design of my wife and try to live with her accordingly?
- Am I considerate of my wife?
- Do I understand God’s call on my life to love my wife as Christ loves His bride, the church?
- What examples can I give of living with my wife according to this knowledge?
- What examples might she give to the contrary?
Second, husbands are called to “show honor” to their wives, and all women, “as the weaker vessel” (ESV). (Peter uses the word for “female” or “woman” here, instead of the word for “wife.”) The term “weaker vessel” is commonly misunderstood and misapplied to imply some kind of inferiority, but Peter isn’t implying that at all. A “vessel” in Peter’s day would have been universally understood as some type of container. In 2 Timothy 2:20–21, Paul speaks of types of household vessels made of gold and silver and vessels made of wood and clay—vessels of honor and vessels of dishonor.
Think of the difference between the honor shown for the everyday dishes in a home versus the respect shown for the fine china. In my home, we have the everyday dishes that we eat off of most of the time. We’ve been through several sets of those dishes in our marriage, as various plates, cups, and bowls have gotten chipped, cracked, and broken from everyday use. But we also have the really fancy plates, bowls, and cups that we were given when we got married. We bring those out only on special occasions, and we treat them very carefully, because we wouldn’t be able to replace them if something happened to them and because they are special to us since they were wedding gifts. In view of this consideration of women as “weaker vessels,” husbands should not be harsh with them (Col. 3:19), but instead be gentle with them.
A 3:7 husband treats his wife (and all women) with honor, as precious fine china—irreplaceable, priceless, and worthy of special care. Therefore, here are questions you can ask husbands to ask themselves (and their wives):
- Does my wife feel irreplaceable and highly valued to me?
- Does she feel more like the everyday dishes or the fine china?
- In what ways do I honor her?
- In what ways do I take her for granted?
- What examples would she give?
- Would she feel safe mentioning that she does not feel honored?
- How do I respond when she shares concerns with me?
Finally, husbands are to treat their wives with respect—as equals in value, worth, and dignity, “since they are heirs with you of the grace of life” (ESV). This teaching would have been very countercultural when Peter wrote it, during a time when gender inequality was considered the norm. But Jesus and the New Testament writers taught a radically different view of gender roles than was commonly held, recognizing the intrinsic worth of women as individuals and granting them a respect and dignity that they were not accorded in the society at large. There is no place in the Christian home for one spouse to look down on the other in any way. Such a view would be completely antithetical to the Christian view of marriage as a one-flesh relationship.
A 3:7 husband recognizes his wife as equal to him in value, worth, and dignity, and he treats her with the respect that she deserves as a co-heir with him of the grace of life. Therefore, here are questions you can ask husbands to ask themselves (and their wives):
- Does my wife feel respected as an equal partner in this marriage?
- Is responsibility shared in our marriage?
- Do I invite and honestly value my wife’s feedback on how I am doing as a husband?
- Can my wife disagree with me without punishment or retribution?
- Do I apologize to and ask forgiveness of my wife when I am wrong? Does she believe that her opinions matter?
The 3:7 husband knows, honors, and respects his wife—regardless
The 3:7 husband will grow steadily in these three areas: knowing God and God’s unique design for his wife, honoring his wife as a precious and irreplaceable gift from God, and respecting his wife as a co-heir with him in the grace of life. His growth in these areas will often be of the two-steps-forward-one-step-back variety, but steady growth will ensue if he continually reminds himself of the seven truths of Christ and the gospel given in 1 Peter 2:22–25, and if he is willing to humble himself, submit himself to God, and repent when he fails. The 3:7 husband may not get a happy marriage or a reconciled marriage if his marriage is already broken. But he will know Christ more deeply and image Him more truly.