In what sense are women the ‘weaker vessels’?
The question refers to the following verse in 1 Peter 3:7: “Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honour 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.”
There are different opinions on what exactly the term “weaker vessel” means in reference to a wife. Before addressing this specifically, it is important to note that the main point of the passage is not primarily about the “weaker vessel.” Rather, it is about the attitude a husband should exhibit towards his wife. Whatever may be the meaning of “the weaker vessel,” husbands are clearly instructed to dwell with their wives with understanding and to give them honour. To understand and obey the main instruction does not require that we definitively know the meaning of the phrase, “the weaker vessel”.
To obey the instruction does not require that we definitively know the meaning of the phrase, “the weaker vessel”
In fact, this verse is set in a broader context starting in 1 Peter 2:11 which addresses how believers are to act when faced with friction in different relationships. This section starts off with a strong plea (“I urge you”) in 2:11-12 to abstain from fleshly lusts and exhibit honourable conduct among non-believers when they mistreat us so that they, by our unnatural response to their evil deeds, may be drawn to God. Peter then proceeds to give several examples in the context of our day to day relationships that show the nature of the unnatural response expected from a believer in Christ. The first example is related to submitting to government, rulers, and laws (2:13-17). The next example is about submitting to masters, (which in our modern-day context can be applied to the employer-employee relationship), even if they are harsh and cause wrongful suffering. Peter then cites the supreme example of the attitude of Christ in the face of His suffering. Though reviled, he did not revile in return, did not threaten, but rather committed Himself to the ultimate righteous judgment of God the Father. He says that we as believers are called to deal with difficult situations in our human relationships in the way Christ did. We are called to be Christlike in our response to such situations.
Peter then returns to more relationships as examples in chapter 3, first addressing wives (3:1-6) and then husbands (3:7) in their relationship with each other. Wives, who are called to be submissive to their husbands, may find themselves in a situation where the husband may not be obeying the Word. They are instructed to still be submissive to win them over by their conduct and a gentle and quiet spirit (note: this should not be applied to teach that wives are required to accept and submit to physical and mental abuse by the husband). The point here is that even if the husband is not exactly what a wife may want him to be and falls short of the Biblical standard, which is often the case when dealing with fallen human beings, the wife is to live up to what she is called to do in the relationship.
With this context, we come to verse 7. Here Peter is addressing husbands and saying that just as he has instructed the wives, the husband, when faced with situations with his wife that cause friction in the relationship, should deal with her “with understanding, giving honour”. This means he is to deal with his wife with empathy and sensitivity to her needs—seeking to understand what she may be going through—and to give her importance. He also cites as a reason for such an attitude the fact that both husband and wife are “heirs together of the grace of life”, meaning that, as believers, they are equal before God. Peter ends the verse with a warning to husbands who are not sensitive to the wife, stating that the husband’s prayers may be hindered if he does not act in the instructed way towards his wife.
As I stated above, there are different views on why women are referred to as “the weaker vessel” by Peter. The one that most resonates with me is that it is a reference to the generally weaker condition of the female body compared to the male body. We find other instances where the word “vessel” is used to refer to the physical body. 1 Thessalonians 4:4 while instructing to abstain from sexual immorality says “… each of you should know how to possess his own vessel …” in a clear reference to the physical body. 2 Corinthians 4:7 in a clear reference to the human body uses the term “earthen vessels.”
The husband and wife are “heirs together of the grace of life”, meaning that, as believers, they are equal before God
While there certainly are individual women who are physically stronger than any number of individual men, any rational person would agree that the female body is generally weaker relative to the male body. In fact, this is how God designed the male and female bodies. We also know that the female body has certain cyclical events that cause physical weakness, pain and can also impact emotions as well as the ability to carry out certain functions. When a woman is pregnant she goes through many hormonal changes that impact the body both physically and emotionally. Going back to the context of the passage, the “weaker vessel” aspect of the woman is something that, if not handled with understanding and the giving of honour, can cause friction in the husband-wife relationship.
Does this view of “the weaker vessel” being a reference to the physical body adequately fit into the context? I think it does. If there are specific points of friction in a marriage due to the relative physical weakness of a wife and her having to deal with physical pain which also impacts her emotional and mental well being, then the husband is called to be understanding and deal with her appropriately — giving her honour. We often see husbands who don’t seem to understand the physical stress the wife is going through, perhaps during pregnancy or a physical ailment. They neglect to provide them with the extra support and facilitate the rest they need and this leads to issues in the marriage.
Another view states that the term “weaker vessel” refers to the fact that the woman sinned first (see 1 Timothy 2:14). Some extend this to say it refers to the fact that women are more gullible and should be protected from this by the husband. Besides the fact that this is not something obvious from reality, (i.e., there is no basis from experience to suggest women are more gullible than men), this line of thinking does not adequately fit the context. If we accept these views then the instruction to respond by giving the wife honour does not seem to fit.
Let me end by reiterating that in trying to understand why women are referred to as “the weaker vessel”, we should not lose sight of the primary intent of the passage. Many tend to ignore the main point, sometimes to promote an agenda, and often just to be argumentative. This is unnecessary and counter-productive. In this and similar cases, we ought to focus on the real intent of a Scripture passage, which here has to do with how all believer husbands should treat their wives.
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