The Weaker Vessel

You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman
1 Peter 3:7

A thought occurred to me as I read this verse. No doubt one will occur to you as well, “why would he write about such a divisive topic?” But that wasn’t my thought. Certainly though, if you mentioned this statement among a group of women today imagine the civil discourse that would ensue! You would probably only be able to imagine, as perhaps all civility may be abandoned.

When this verse of Scripture was written the place of the sexes was not much questioned in society, at least vocally or publicly. The woman being the weaker sex was probably understood since the men worked outside the home hunting/gathering/ warring and women worked inside, childbearing, caring for the family. But reading this verse today can’t be understood in those terms because society changes, times change and God’s Word has to be applicable forever.

So what really did Peter mean by the use of the phrase? Or is this one of those impenetrable sayings that Peter attributes to Paul “in which are some things hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16) though he has a number of his own? (Like verses nineteen and twenty in this chapter or verse six in chapter four!)

In the Twenty-first century there is little doubt that men and women are about as equal as they can be across the spectrum of society in many ways. And that the Scriptures call each gender to be held equally in honor and respect and love is undeniable. And that some societies need to raise the bar concerning the treatment of women with equity, like equal pay for equal work, is also undeniable. There are also the obvious differences between men and women, child bearing, emotional and psychological differences. Do any of these have a bearing on the debate surrounding the “weaker vessel” issue of this text? Or is this one of those issues best left to the end of the age when the Lord returns and we stop seeing through “a mirror dimly” (1 Cor 13:12). Personally I’m going to love the “Sunday School” class Old Testament Explained, taught by our Lord Jesus, which was begun on the road to Emmaus when the two disciples met and didn’t recognize Him, and “beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:27) What a fantastic course that will be!

But back to the thought I had when I read this verse from Peter. A “weaker vessel” as many translations have it, or “someone weaker,” or “most delicate partner,” or “the weaker partners.” My mind went back to the Garden of Eden when it was just Adam and Eve. God had told Adam, before Eve was around, not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, or in the day he ate its fruit he would die. We don’t know how much time elapsed between the time Eve was created until the time the Serpent tempted her at the Tree. But why did he tempt Eve and not Adam? He had to have had a rationale for selecting Eve instead of Adam to discuss how it would be beneficial to consider this particular Tree, pulling a fruit from a branch and taking a bite. Why not Adam? What did he see in Adam that made him think he would not make a successful temptation? What did he see in Eve that made her a better choice?

Maybe it was that Adam was the direct recipient of the command and Eve was not around. Eve was dependent upon Adam telling her the information second hand. We are lacking a lot of information about their relationship. This is frustrating. We wish they had left their diary behind for us to read so we would have more insight. But the details are sketchy for a reason I think. We need to walk by faith, not by sight. We need to trust in God, not be spoonfed all the answers. It’s frustrating, yes, but that’s how babies grow up to be adults. Maybe the information Adam gave Eve was not as accurate as it could have been. Or maybe he gave her the command God gave him verbatim, but she remembered it wrong. Or maybe she was confused by the argument presented by the serpent. Perhaps the dialog in Genesis is not the entire sequence of events. Maybe it is just the salient points, the Readers Digest version. In any event, we know that Eve told the serpent incorrect information about the commandment from God (He didn’t say they couldn’t touch the tree) and I think this is what the Serpent was looking for, the wedge he could use in his negotiation to sin. Did he somehow know she was “the weaker vessel” and he took advantage of this in his manipulation of the facts??

On a side note of this temptation scene I should mention, if you wonder how could anyone possible make such a monumentally simple yet horribly tragic mistake like this I suggest you read a C.S. Lewis book, Perilandra, It is book 2 from his science fiction trilogy. There is a scene in chapter 9 which portrays a temptation that makes the Fall completely understandable and you’d see that you too would probably fail the test.

Perhaps the “weaker vessel” is the result of this temptation, Eve eating the fruit, and leading Adam in the deed that results in women being saddled with this label. Maybe it is just a part of the whole Curse problem.

Or maybe the real explanation is that there is no weaker gender, no stronger gender, as may be implied in the text. After all what exactly does the text say? “live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker . . . .” You have to notice that it doesn’t say that anyone is actually weaker. It just says that the husband is to live in such a way as if the wife was weaker. The precedent for this reasoning is a similar passage from Paul concerning husbands and wives, in Ephesians 5:22-33. Verse 25 says “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her . . . .” How does the “weaker” concept come into play? Well, definitely humans, inside the church or out, are weaker than Christ. Existing in the form of God, Christ left His glory and became man and gave Himself up to death to pay the penalty for our sins. That was living with a weaker people in love, and He left us this example for husbands to behave towards their wives. Quite a high bar to set, right? But it is behavior to be expected of husbands according to Paul and Peter. Probably rarely seen, but expected none the less. If you think I’m joking read the rest of Ephesians chapter 5 that ends with “Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself. . . .” And verse 28, “So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies.” If that sounds impossible its probably because we have become pretty selfish in our society. And that sin is still too prevalent in our lives doesn’t help either.

The reality is that both husband and wife are complete equals in God’s sight. There are roles assigned to each, God has assigned to the husband the “head,” but we see that has no bearing on how the wife is to be treated or with what attitude the husband is to have toward her except to mimic the love Christ has for the church, and we see what He did for her. What could be the result of such a thing as this but complete marital bliss? That and the normal tensions children, money and careers bring to every marriage.

But we really can’t escape the next phrase in the New American Standard. This version translates the text, which I’ll underline here as “live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman;” Other translations do not translate the Greek συνοικοῦντες (gynaikeio) in the manner of “since she is a woman.” You can see here how the Greek and English get translated in this interlinear view. I wonder why they omit this reference since it does seem to be implied in some way in the text? Is there some fear of raising charges of sexism? In the context of the statement there seems no issue of sexism nor degradation. The Greek word σκεύει translated as “vessel” is generally meant as the body, and it is recognized that women are generally weaker physically than men. A simple explanation of this argument is explained here.

And let us not forget the entire gist of this paragraph. Which is that honor is to be showered by the husband on the wife, and this attitude of the spouses toward each other is loudly and frequently preached in the New Testament, I’ve only briefly touched upon it above.

So regardless of what Peter may have meant by his mysterious “weaker vessel” statement, if we can’t know for certain in this life, what we can know with certainty is that we need to love one another. That commandment is never in any doubt. And the rest will be explained in the New Creation, and I will bet that the class The Old Testament Explained will be standing room only, just like its companion course, The New Testament Letters Explained.

[Last edited 11/1/2014]

[Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible © 1995]

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