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Peter about the Man in Marriage

Peter’s instruction to the husbands amongst his readers is caught in fewer words than his instruction to the wives.  That, however, does not make his instruction to husbands less profound or less life-altering than his instruction to wives had been.

The men Peter addresses were part and parcel of a culture that saw men as dominant over women, so that men could get away with “debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing” (1 Peter 4:3), and the women simply had to put up with their selfishness.  Was the man who’d been renewed by the Holy Spirit to continue to view his wife as his property, his toy, and treat her with the same selfishness as he used to?  The apostle forbids that attitude categorically.  He writes: 

“Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers” – 1 Peter 3:7.

In the Same Way

Peter introduces his instruction to the husbands with the words “in the same way”.  We recall: that phrase is a reference to the theme of this central section of Peter’s letter, 2:11-3:7.  That theme was that Peter’s readers are “to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul” and instead “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (2:11f).  Others watch how the Christian husband treats his wife, and what they see either draws them to the Lord or turns them off from the gospel.  As the attitude and conduct of subjects to authorities and of slaves to masters and of wives to husbands is to showcase the gospel, “in the same way” the attitude and conduct of husbands to their wives is to illustrate to the (unbelieving) community what the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about – and the community be prompted to glorify God.

According to Knowledge

What, then, is the neighbour to see in the conduct of a godly husband?  Our translation renders Peter’s instruction as: “be considerate as you live with your wives.”  The Greek, however, tells the husband to live with his wife “according to knowledge”.  The term ‘according to knowledge’ strikes us as odd, but we can get a handle on what Peter means when we turn to Genesis 4:1.  The NIV translation of that verse renders the Hebrew as “Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant…,” but the Hebrew has, “Adam knew his wife Eve, and she became pregnant” – as also other major translations render the passage.  The point of the Hebrew is not that Adam had sex with his wife, but that he knew her well, understood her, respected her inner feelings and struggles.  The result of that intimate knowledge was that Eve felt safe enough with her man to give herself to him, and she in turn conceived.  This intimate knowledge, we need to understand, catches something of the unity Adam sang about on the day he received his wife from God’s hand; “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” he exalted (Genesis 2:23).  Precisely because she was bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh was there to be no distance between the two, no alienation of heart, but there was to be a complete oneness of heart, of thought, of being.  That oneness of being makes self-giving possible, so that sexual intimacy becomes the confirmation of the unity-of-being there is between this man and his wife.  Sexual relations without that unity of being, without that intimacy of heart, is a far cry from how the Lord has ordained it.

Well now, the command of the apostle is that the Christian husband, born anew as he is, is to ‘know’ his wife.  That’s to say: he is to read her heart, know her needs, nurture and care for her according to her needs, not his needs.  So yes, it does mean that he is to “be considerate” as he lives with his wife (as our translation has it) – as long as we understand that there’s far more to being considerate than simply being polite or kind.  Had Abraham, we understand, been considerate of Sarah’s deepest needs, he would not have taken her to Egypt to escape the famine of Canaan, simply because food was not what she ultimately needed.  She needed his protection, his understanding, his respect, and therein he failed her (as, sadly, every husband will, sooner or later).  His failure to consider her needs stands as an enduring indictment against him.  For men whose past was marked by “debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing” (1 Peter 4:3), Peter’s instruction implied an obvious and radical change of behaviour.  No longer could these regenerated men demand their wives at will, or overpower them in a moment of (drunken) passion.  Instead, in denial of self they were to reach for the heart, and under God’s blessing they would receive the pleasure of intimacy.

Weaker partner

Peter adds that the Christian husband is to respect his wife “as the weaker partner.”  There is something in the phrase ‘weaker partner’ that comes across to us as condescending.  Yet Peter’s intent with the phrase is not to highlight the woman (let alone highlight a negative in the woman); his intent with the phrase is to draw attention to the responsibility of the man.  That responsibility is that he care for his woman.  Recall that in Genesis 2 God did not entrust the first man to the woman’s care, but he entrusted the woman to the man’s care.  Furthermore, the culture of Peter’s day distinctly saw the woman as the husband’s property (so that she was the method of his entertainment), and she was invariably easily hurt as a result.  The term “vessel” translates a Greek word meaning a clay pot, an object that we all know can easily be broken.  Had Sarah become Pharaoh’s trophy, she most certainly would have been broken in a very profound way.  Here, now, is the role God gave to the husband: he is to show his wife such respect that through his care she can remain intact in her deepest being.  Keeping her intact involves far more than protecting her from lustful men as Pharaoh, but includes also that the husband himself gives no place to the selfishness that underlies “debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing” (1 Peter 4:3).  The fact that a man is married to a particular woman does not mean that he can do with her whatever he pleases!  Respecting his wife as the weaker partner compels the husband to know his wife so well in her innermost being that he ensure that she not break but flourish under his care.  If the godly woman, then, like Sarah, is to deny herself as she submits to her husband, the godly husband is to deny himself every bit as much so as to convince his wife that she is completely safe with him.

Heirs

As catalyst to encourage converted men to “be considerate” with their wives, Peter also mentions that the women are “heirs with you of the gracious gift of life.”  When the Lord God created the human race he did not create innumerable individuals, but created people-in-families.  He formed Adam from the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7), and was mighty to created Eve in the same manner.  Yet He didn’t; He instead fashioned her out of the rib of the man (Genesis 2:22).  In so doing the Lord made clear that she was Adam’s responsibility, that Adam was her head.  In all subsequent marriages husband and wife are not (in God’s eyes) two separate individuals who happen to be committed to each other, but they are one family unit under the leadership of the husband.  When God, then, determined to save Noah from the devastation of the flood, He instructed not just the individual Noah to enter the ark but his wife also (Genesis 6:18); she was heir with him of the gracious gift of life.  When God called Abraham out of Ur to come to the Promised Land, Sarai came along not simply because she just happened to be his wife; rather, precisely because of her marriage to Abraham she heir with him of the gracious gift of life.  In the same way, when the men among Peter’s readers came to faith in Jesus Christ, not just the individual became an heir to life eternal but his wife did too.  (Of course, whether she eventually received the crown of glory is a different matter; for that she would need to embrace the promise in faith.)  As a result, the husband needs to treat her with the respect that belongs to an heir of the King of kings.  That means in practice that he may not through his own conduct stand in the way of her growth in the Lord and her service to the King.  Selfishness, including pious selfishness, can get in the way of growth (to say nothing of even coming to the faith).  Instead, the godly husband will live his life in such a way that his wife sees his good deeds and glorifies God on the day He visits (cf 1 Peter 2:12).

Prayer

Peter concludes his instruction to the husbands with reference to prayer.  Husbands, he writes, who did not make it their business to know their wives well will experience that their prayers are hindered.  Prayer, of course, is the lifeline of the Christian, and points up that your relation with God is a living relation.  Yet no person can speak to God if his heart is estranged from his neighbour.  And the wife is obviously the closest neighbour!  The Lord Jesus Christ put is like this: “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23,24). 

Every Christian couple experiences moments when husband and wife are distant from each other.  Irrespective of the reason (and the fault), Jesus’ instruction is that every effort be made to achieve reconciliation before prayer (which is not to say, of course, that you may not pray for grace that God bless your efforts to be reconciled).  In the circumstances of Peter’s readers, the wife may well have been an unbeliever and so persisting in the debauchery of her past.  Yet the husband was not to harbour hatred in his heart toward her on account of her selfishness, but was to forgive (Matthew 6:14f), and so do all in his power to understand her, guide her, and enfold her in love.  Where he refuses to do that, where he permits his conduct to be driven by feelings of anger and bitterness, his own stubbornness stands in the way of his prayers (see also James 4:2,3).

Conclusion 

Could this changed manner of living actually be hidden from the eye of the public, let alone the spouse??  We realise: it could not remain hidden, and certainly not in a culture where debauchery, lust, and drunkenness were the norm.  The Christian man was obviously and distinctly different.  That difference would invariably prompt the community to ask questions – and that was exactly the point: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12).

Where that leaves International Women’s Day?  Surely it’s clear: men who conduct themselves in relation to their wives as Peter describes undercut all grounds for the feminist movement.  That is why the blame for today’s feminist movement lies in the final analysis not with feminists but with callous males who refuse to be the men God wants them to be.

C Bouwman
May 6, 2011