Question: "What does it mean that women are the 'weaker vessel' (1 Peter 3:7)?"
Answer: The context of 1 Peter 3:7 is the Apostle Peter’s instructions concerning living as godly believers toward one another beginning in the home (1 Peter 3:1-12). The wife is addressed first and then the husband. This is the same order the Apostle Paul uses in Ephesians 5:22-33. The husband is to “dwell with his wife according to knowledge, giving her honor as the weaker vessel” (KJV). The word “dwell” is in the imperative and has the idea of standing beside, dwelling with in a presiding position. In other words, the husband is to take his place as the head, according to God’s order.
The word “knowledge” in 1 Peter 3:7 could be translated as “understanding.” Both men and women have difficulty understanding their spouses. It takes commitment and surrender to God’s order on the part of both partners to come to a place of true understanding. Understanding is the basis for seeing one’s wife as a vessel to honor, respect and care for because she is weaker. This is not a popular idea among many women or even many men. However, the Scripture tells us that the woman was deceived (1 Timothy 2:14), she is subject to her husband (1 Peter 3:1) and that she is a “weaker” vessel. That women are usually physically weaker is undeniable, but the implication of the fall is that by virtue of her being deceived by Satan, women may also sometimes be weaker in other ways. That definitely does not mean she is less valuable (Ephesians 1:6) or that she does not have equal access to grace (Galatians 3:28). Rather, it is a basis for a husband to treat his wife with understanding, tenderness, and patience.
The Apostle Paul adds a lot of weight to this idea because he writes that the husband is the head of the family as Christ is the head of the church (Ephesians 5:23) and because of that the husband is to love his wife “as” (sets up the comparison) or in the same way that Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it (Ephesians 5:25). That means the husband has a great deal more responsibility in the marriage than the wife does. He is the leader, and he is to set the tone for the relationship, and a man who honors his wife and puts her first before all but God will have a wife that responds. The way a husband gives himself for his wife is that he understands she is to be honored for the fact that she is his wife. Of course, this is the ideal and it is not something that happens overnight. A man and a woman begin their relationship when they are married, but whether or not that relationship works is in direct correlation to both the husband and the wife taking their place in God’s order and their submission to obey God. The principles here are given to believers; however, these principles work whether or not the couple are believers or even if only one is.
As Christians, we understand the dynamics at work which are totally at odds with human viewpoints and worldly “wisdom.” This word “weakness” can cause great offense when there should be none at all. Women are weaker and need to be treated with understanding and respect. A husband shows his love for his wife by putting her first. A woman who resists this loving care by her husband is robbing herself of the joy of being the “weaker” vessel.