Friday, June 1, 2012

weaker vessels

Recently my husband and I attended an outdoor concert for a band we both like. At the beginning of the first set a fight broke out behind us between a woman and a man. Both appeared to have lost track of their beverage count, and the woman was hitting and pushing the man, yelling that he was a child and an idiot. The man gently tried to calm her down, but after smacking him on the chest a few more times she stumbled toward the exit with him trailing behind. There was awkward laughter in the surrounding seats, and then everyone started listening to the music again.

Except me. I started thinking about weaker vessels.

In the study of First Peter I taught this spring, we covered those tricky passages on submission in Chapters 2 and 3, finally arriving at Peter’s words to husbands in 3:7:

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.

Peter’s comments to husbands are a subset of a discussion about how to live among unbelievers in a God-honoring way, urging submission to others as an expression of submission to God.  Having just addressed how a believing wife ought to live with an unbelieving husband, Peter addresses believing husbands about how to live with an unbelieving wife, describing her as the “weaker vessel”.  In the study homework I asked the women what Peter meant by “weaker vessel” – was he saying that women were morally weaker? Intellectually weaker? Emotionally weaker? Physically weaker? Their responses were telling: almost everyone correctly checked “physically weaker”, but about half of the group checked “emotionally weaker” as well.

I was bothered by this. It is probably fair to say that, generally speaking, women have easier access to their emotions than men do. But what message, implied or stated, had these women absorbed that led them to view this as weakness? Emotions are not a sign of weakness – emotions unchecked are. And anyone who has seen men hurl remote controls at sports coverage can verify that unchecked emotions are a problem for both genders. Both men and women can sin by letting emotions run wild, or by locking emotions away.  “Weaker vessel” must mean something else.

help from history

This is where historical context becomes our friend.  At the time Peter writes, Roman law had begun to soften towards women. During the first century A.D., laws began to be passed giving women rights of property ownership and protection from domestic abuse, but for hundreds of years before this, the concept of the pater familas had reigned in the lawbooks and in the home.

The pater familias, or “family father” held sway in the home on all decisions regarding property and family. All property remained legally his until his death – should he live to be eighty, none of his adult sons could hold property. Moreover, he held the power of life and death (vitae necisque potesta) over every member of his family. Infants deemed too expensive to be raised could be left on the temple steps at his order, either to die from exposure or to be taken and raised as slaves.  Adult children could be executed by fathers who believed them to be rebellious or deceitful. And most relevant to our discussion, wives whose husbands held the legal power to put them to death could hope for little protection from domestic violence.

So, the Rome to which Peter writes, much like the American South in the eighty years following Abolition, is a Rome in which new laws are on the books but practices remain much the same. Peter instructs wives on how to live carefully with an unbelieving husband who could cause them (or their children) physical harm for having converted to a new religion, and then he admonishes husbands of unbelieving wives not to deal harshly with them, even though the culture would allow it.

fragile or useful?

So the intent of “show honor to the woman as the weaker vessel” would not seem to be "tiptoe around your wife's emotions" as my study members had speculated. Nor would it seem to be “treat your wife like fine china”, as is often taught. Though it is well-intentioned, I wish we would stop teaching that. Fine china is fragile, rarely used, rarely useful, and largely decorative. I don’t believe that is the picture Scripture paints of godly women, here or elsewhere.  Even Peter’s use of the word “vessel” should point out that usefulness to God is inherent in defining not just womanhood but personhood. Peter uses the term “weaker vessel” to point to the general truth that women are comparatively physically weaker than men. Take, for example, the fight I witnessed at the concert: Because she was hitting him we had an awkward moment. If he had been hitting her we would have called security. Peter is reminding husbands of this relationship. He is warning them not to use physical strength to intimidate or harm their wives.

Peter in no way diminishes the worth or capability of wives by comparing their physical strength to that of their husbands with a simple word picture. He is, in fact, guarding them from being treated contemptibly. Wives, your emotions are not a sign of weakness – they are a gift from the Lord and can be a great strength. You and your husband share equal potential for strength or weakness in all things moral, intellectual and emotional - question any teaching that states or implies otherwise. Husbands and wives, may we treat each other at all times as honored vessels of different kinds, as vessels of mercy, as co-heirs of grace ordained for high and holy service to our Lord.


  1. Interesting to hear it explained in those terms instead of fine china...I like the logic you followed to find that.

  2. Thank you for continuing to write. I always love reading your blog! Hope y'all are having a great summer!

  3. Thank you for this. You are saying what I have often said and correcting what I have often wanted to hear corrected, as pastors sometimes and women others, have passed on the misinformation they have received.

  4. "You and your husband share equal potential for strength or weakness in all things moral, intellectual and emotional" When applied to what happened in the Garden Eden, how does it stand up.

  5. This is rather late to the table but you like many so called Christian feminists are inverting God's plan for marriage. It's a grave sin to teach false doctrine and you should really stop it.

  6. The word weaker vessel was used by peter not classifying the woman as weak but was admonishing the men of his time to treat there wives with respect and value just as you treat the fragile items in your home.

    But God called the woman helpmate because the task Adam was to handle when he was alone, God saw it was too much for adam alone to handle so God decided to creat someone with same likeness as Adam that would be of help in achieving the task.

  7. If “weaker vessel” means that all women after what Eve did in the Garden lack good judgement, are gullible, that they can’t discern their left hand from their right, then does that mean we have to remain in that condition?

    I don’t agree with the route that the author of this article took, however, I think I understand the reason behind this post. If some members of society believe that some others are intellectually and emotionally inferior, then those same people will more than likely treat “those others” with disdain – and then justify it through the word of God.

    As a woman and a follower of Christ, I don’t want anyone’s interaction with me to be based on the assumption that I am all of those negative things I mentioned above. If you do have those assumptions, I would suggest that they be made on a case-by-case basis -- you cannot know if they are true until you actually have knowledge of someone.

    I would also like to add that in some factions of the body of Christ, if you are a woman who does not fit the mold of “weaker vessel” as I defined above, the goal then is to herd you back to that assumption. And, if you push back against it, you must have been influenced by the feminist movement.

  8. Hi Jen! I love this article and have gone back to it several times. I would really love to study the "weaker vessel" portion more in-depth. Do you have any recommended resources for doing this? Unfortunately, you are the only teacher I have ever heard say that Peter is referring to physical weakness. I've always heard this taught as referring to emotions (or even intelligence or morality ugh!). I would love to study it more for myself. Thanks!

    1. Hi Carrie, I've found it even in the writings of some of the more conservative preachers out there, though it is more often applied to supporting some idea of chivalry rather than preventing abuse. Karen Jobes has an excellent commentary on 1 Peter, and she writes on this. She also makes a connection to abuse.