If you had told me–back in the days when I was a feisty liberal feminist– that the time would come when I would embrace being the weaker vessel, I would have laughed at you. And probably said something like, “I’m a Christian, but I’m not that kind of Christian–those backward, fundamentalist ones who suppress and demean women.”
I wasn’t a true Christian then. The Lord, by His grace, saved me, and changed my heart so that I abandoned the feminist agenda and began to love and live out God’s good, biblical design for womanhood.
(And all by His power because, let me tell you, if He hadn’t been the one to replace those desires in my heart, I would still be the same feisty liberal feminist I was before!)
But to be honest, even now as a true believer, I’ve still struggled with this verse:
“Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered.” 1 Peter 3:7
My theologically-restrained, self-controlled spirit says calmly, “Yes. That’s right. I agree with what God says here, even if I don’t fully understand it.”
But inside, my flesh wrestles with it: “But… I’m a WEAKER VESSEL????”
Weaker. It’s that word that gets to me.
I don’t feel weaker. I feel strong, independent, intelligent, capable of “holding my own” in theological debates with men, not really needing that much guidance, or protection from deception…
And before even trying to understand what the Word actually means when it says we are weaker vessels, my flesh is already flying off the handle, defending myself with the same prideful thrust I had back in my B.C. (before Christ) days!
When I observe my pride rising up inside of me, when I begin to feel defensive and prickled by a Bible verse–I know something’s wrong. That is not the right way to respond to the Word of God.
Instead of continuing my (thankfully internal) rant, I decided to study this verse more deeply–along with the entire topic of womanhood in Scripture–and prayed that I would learn to, not only accept, but embrace what God calls good and right, and shun what God calls evil and wrong.
But man, it still took a lot of humbling of myself to get there.
CONTEXT, CONTEXT, CONTEXT
Let’s first get a grasp on the context of this verse. (Always necessary for good interpreting!)
In 1 Peter 1, the apostle Peter devotes his time to encouraging the saints with the gospel. He reminds us of the mercy God has given us through Christ’s death and resurrection (vv. 2-3), the eternal inheritance He’s preserving for us (vv. 4-5), and the joy we can have in our suffering (vv. 6-9) because of His refining work and the glory He receives from our endurance.
He also gives us instructions on how to live a godly and holy life (vv. 13-18), when we remember the redemption Christ has accomplished for us through His blood, and the fact that we’ve been born again through the gospel, the living Word of God (vv. 18-25).
But why did I go all the way back to chapter 1?
Because I want to demonstrate that every single one of the amazing truths and benefits of our salvation Peter describes here are for all of God’s people–men and women–equally and irrefutably.
Men are not treated with more mercy than women; they are not given a greater inheritance; they do not receive more love or special treatment from God, nor do they give Him more glory than women do.
The Holy Spirit delivers the wonderful news of chapter 1 to all true Christians. As our main verse tells us, men and women are co-heirs of the grace of life. That is an extremely important truth to hold on to, as we look at 1 Peter 3:7.
In chapter 2, Peter continues to direct us in how to honor the Lord with our lives, as living sacrifices and priests unto Christ (v. 5). He fosters a deep sense of gratitude in us, who were once in darkness, but are now in His marvelous light; who were once not a people, but are now the people of God. He teaches us to live as holy pilgrims in the world, that even the ungodly around us will one day glorify God for His good work in us (vv.9-12).
We are to submit to authorities placed over us as servants of God so that we can silence evil with our goodness (vv. 13-17). And lastly, Peter reminds us of Christ’s sinless, God-glorifying response to the unrighteous persecution He faced, as an example for us when we must suffer having done no wrong. Christ gave up His life so that we would live unto righteousness (vv. 20-25).
So what light does chapter 2 shed on our “troublesome” verse, 3:7?
We see that both men and women in Christ are spiritual “priests” offering service to God. We are equally appointed to obedience and reverential living. The call to humble ourselves in suffering like Jesus did is applicable to every believer, male or female.
Notice the pattern?
It is only until we get to chapter 3 that Peter begins to distinguish between men and women. All of the precious promises, privileges, and responsibilities of salvation in these first two chapters are given equally to each member of Christ’s church.
Keep that in mind. Now that we’ve uncovered a bit of the context, let’s zoom in on 1 Peter 3:7.
WHAT “WEAKER VESSEL” DOES NOT MEAN
In chapter 3, Peter addresses wives and husbands specifically. It is based on the foundation of everything else he has already said–our commonalities as believers– that he gives these two groups distinct instructions.
In the first few verses, Peter tells wives to submit to their husbands and to focus on adorning themselves, not merely with physical beauty, but with spiritual, inner beauty. Then, he charges husbands with the commands of verse 7:
Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered.
From this verse, we learn that being a “weaker vessel” does not mean…
1. Being a doormat. We should thank God that husbands are instructed to live with us in an understanding way. That means there’s no room for rude, callous, antagonistic behavior–and there’s certainly no room for abuse. He is to honor his wife! She being weaker is actually the reason why he is to treat her with extra care and compassion. His “power” as the leader and the physically stronger one does not give him permission to walk all over her. On the contrary–it obligates him to treat her with Christ-centered respect and love. If he doesn’t, the Word even teaches us that his prayers could be hindered!
2. Being intellectually inferior. There is no sense in this verse that women being “weaker” means that we are weaker than men in every single area. Here is where we need to look throughout the whole counsel of God in Scripture to understand why we are called “weaker.”
First of all, women cannot be weaker than men in the sense of being, by design, less intelligent. Both the light of nature and the Word show us that women are fully capable of displaying the image of God through their intellect. All of us are commanded to love God with our minds, which surely entails growing in our understanding of His Word (theology is not just for men!). Likewise, we are all called be wise, and both godly men and women are praised for their wisdom in the Scriptures.
Never does the Bible give the impression that women are “dumb” and men are “smart.” In fact, there are times in biblical history when women act more wisely than men–consider Abigail’s godly wisdom compared with the foolishness of her brutish husband.
Now, the ways we exercise our minds and the roles in which we use them certainly differ between men and women. Only men can be pastors, for instance, so they use their minds for that calling, while women use them in their other occupations, including (but not exclusively) motherhood. The degree to which we can exercise our minds is equal. The knowledge of God in His Word is available to all believers.
3. Being less spiritual, or more immoral.
In Proverbs 31:10, it states
Who can find a virtuous wife?
For her worth is far above rubies.
The word virtuous in the Hebrew actually means strong, vigorous, or excelling in all areas. In the context, we know that the “Proverbs 31 woman” is a wife and mother who serves her household extremely well, honoring God in all of her duties. So when the Word talks about a virtuous wife (or woman), it’s referring to a strong woman of God, who fears the Lord and is worthy to be praised (31:30).
Is this a contradiction of her being a “weaker vessel”? Not at all!
That’s the point–we know by this that the weakness of the woman must not mean that she is somehow less capable of being godly or displaying strength in character than men.
Throughout the Word, the Lord gives example after example of God-fearing women who, just as much as men, bear fruit for His glory. Think of the stories of Ruth, Esther, Mary, and many others, who were faithful and obedient to God.
In fact, Peter brings up Sarah as a godly woman in 1 Peter 3, in the same context as our verse!
Society often depicts women as mere temptresses created to cause men to stumble, or as greedy gold-diggers. But that’s not the picture God gives of His design for womanhood. We are called to be pure, humble, reverent Christian women who love Him–that’s what it truly means to be a woman.
4. Being an emotional wreck.
There is a stereotype–with no origin in Scripture–that women are “too emotional” or “hysterical” compared with men. Is it true that women are more emotional than men? I’d argue not so–just that women display emotions differently from men, and that it often depends on the individual!
But regardless, the Word does not teach that women being weaker means we are always on the brink of an emotional collapse, or that we can’t handle struggles and difficulties. Our womanhood does not require others to walk on eggshells around us, for fear we’ll “explode.” Again, we see multiple examples in the Bible of godly women under extremely distressing situations, not throwing fits, but enduring and persevering for His glory–something all of us are called to, as we saw in the context of 1 Peter.
Am I saying there aren’t any women who struggle with their emotions? Of course not. We all do. But so do men. Both men and women must love the Lord with all their hearts, and keep their passions in check. But women can glorify God by the specific, intricate ways God has designed us to express our feelings.
WHAT “WEAKER VESSEL” DOES MEAN
In order to understand what this phrase really means, we need to (again) consider the entire Bible to help inform us.
First, let’s look at this passage from 1 Timothy 2:
Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. (1 Tim. 2:11-14)
The apostle Paul is giving instructions for the church assembly and how we ought to function when gathered together. He calls women to be a silent learner in that environment, and he gives two reasons why.
1. Adam was created before Eve.
The first point shows us where the biblical headship of men in the church comes from–the creation order. Adam was formed first, and thus was made to be Eve’s leader and representative. Likewise, men as a whole are designed to lead, protect, and guide women in the church, particularly through their roles as pastors and husbands. Women are to submit to the men who occupy those roles, as godly church members and wives, and be helpers suitable for them.
This also teaches us one way in which women are “weaker vessels”–we are weaker because we were created differently.
By God’s design, we are weaker physically. Men are generally of a larger frame than women, and their hormones and body structure make them naturally more muscular and stronger. This aids them in being able to protect and provide for women. Also, women must deal with the infirmities of childbearing (and everything that prepares us for it), as part of the curse, which men do not have to bear themselves.
We are also weaker in our position. As the ones who require the leadership and guidance of men, we are more vulnerable. Eve was unprotected by Adam, who was meant to teach her to obey God’s voice and keep her away from temptation. This is not to say that Eve, or any woman is utterly helpless without a man. But because of our position, we depend on man for nourishment, spiritually and often physically.
2. Eve fell into deception, rather than Adam.
The second point demonstrates that Eve was the target of Satan’s deception, and that she fell into it, rather than Adam. That is not at all to say that Adam did not sin!–God held both of them accountable for their contributions to the Fall. But it was Eve who was deceived and ate the fruit first. This appears to be the reasoning for why women are not to teach or exercise authority over men in the church gathering.
So, the last way we are weaker is that we are more susceptible to deception. Before you object, remember what I said earlier: women are not naturally less moral or spiritually strong than men! But we are more vulnerable to deception, in part because Satan targets us in our weakness, and also in part because we take after our spiritual parent, Eve. That is why we are primarily learners in the church, rather than teachers over men, and why men have been set over the church to protect and guard us.
But being a learner is not a bad thing! Recall that even Christ became a learner–“though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered” (Heb. 5:8).
Of course, we can still teach, outside of the church. We’re called to teach children and younger women, for instance, and there are certainly times when we can help a man understand something. But we are still limited in our roles, just like men are, by the Word of God.
FROM UNDERSTANDING TO EMBRACING
The more I studied this text, the more I began to grasp why being the “weaker vessel” is not something to be ashamed or afraid of.
The Word of God helped me separate the worldly view of weakness from the biblical view. The world believes being called weak is always something bad, insulting, and demeaning. To the world, being weak means being a loser. According to them, weakness detracts from the value of the person and makes them somehow “less” than the strong person.
But in the Bible, weakness is not seen this way, especially not in our passage. Being called the weaker vessel is not an insult, but a statement of grace. It’s an acknowledgment that God our Maker knows our frame, and He knows what is best for us as women, because He designed us this way for His glory.
Have you ever thought about the weakness Jesus experienced in His incarnation as the God-Man?
Surely He was, in some ways, weaker than He had been in glory–by taking on flesh and dwelling on earth. He submitted Himself to the infirmities of man. He felt physical weaknesses, like hunger, thirst, and fatigue. He was tempted by Satan. He even suffered and died on the cross. Consider this verse, in which the apostle Paul describes his ministry to the Corinthians by reflecting on Christ:
For though He was crucified in weakness, yet He lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in Him, but we shall live with Him by the power of God toward you. -2 Corinthians 13:4
The point is: Jesus took on weakness in the flesh…. But it did not, in any way, diminish from His glory!
He was still, even in His weaker state, “the brightness of His glory and the express image of [God’s] person” (Hebrews 1:3). The sufferings and weaknesses Christ faced did not detract at all from the way He revealed the invisible God to the world. He was not somehow “less God” because of them. In fact, quite the contrary! In all His works, He showed the glory of God perfectly and wondrously.
So when we think of ourselves as the “weaker vessel,” we don’t need to cringe. We can meditate on how Jesus relates to us, as our great High Priest–how He knows what it’s like, by experience, to be submissive, to be a learner, to be weak. How He demonstrated that no matter what the world thinks, these are not bad things, but glorious callings, in the economy of His kingdom.
Through my journey studying this text, I learned more about Christ. I saw more of His goodness and beauty. I realized that by being a godly and holy weaker vessel, I was being like Christ. It is one way that God is transforming me into His image. And so I embrace it–with joy.