What Makes Women the ‘Weaker Vessel’?

Audio Transcript

Several times in this podcast we have looked at 1 Peter 3:7, but only briefly and never at length. Now’s our chance. Today’s question comes to us from a listener named Patricia. “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for the podcast! What does Peter mean in 1 Peter 3:7 when he writes that husbands should live with their wives in an understanding way, ‘as the weaker vessel’? Specifically, what is the weaker vessel? Is she physically weaker, emotionally weaker, spiritually weaker, or something altogether different? Thank you for your help.”

Let’s begin with a literal translation of the verse she’s asking about, 1 Peter 3:7. Here’s the way I would translate it:

Likewise, husbands, live together according to knowledge with your wives [with your wives is not there in the original but it’s implied by live with], as with a weaker vessel, the feminine one, showing honor as also living together with fellow heirs of the grace of life [which I take to mean eternal life because of the use of the words grace and life back in 1 Peter 1:3 and 1 Peter 1:13], in order that your prayers may not be hindered.

So, Peter is saying to husbands, “As you live with your wives, consider two central realities that you should know”— in other words, live “according to knowledge.” Here’s what you should know: One is that you, husband, are the stronger and she is the weaker vessel. And the other fact that you should live in the light of is that she shares with you in glory of being an heir of God. So, two things govern a Christian husband’s demeanor toward his wife in this verse: (1) the fact that she does not share his superior masculine strength, and (2) the fact that she does share the glory of being an heir of God. That’s very significant. I don’t think Peter made any mistake there or was writing carelessly.

Her being weaker draws out of him one kind of honoring, and her being a fellow heir of glory draws out of him another kind of honoring. And those two ways of being drawn out to this woman interweave to create the unique Christian beauty of what Paul calls headship and submission.

So, Patricia’s question relates specifically to the term “the weaker feminine vessel” or “the weaker vessel, the feminine one.” Three words need explanation, right? Vessel (what’s that?), feminine, and weaker.

Vessels for Treasure

Let’s start with vessel. The first thing to notice is that she’s called the weaker vessel, meaning the husband is also a vessel. You’ve got two vessels: a weaker and a stronger vessel. She’s not just a vessel; he’s a vessel too because she’s the weaker and he’s the stronger vessel.

“Differences in men and women are rooted in God-designed nature, not sin.”

Probably the root idea behind that is that the male sexual organ is a vessel and the female sexual organ is a kind of vessel. The male vessel is a giving, dispensing vessel, and the female organ is a receiving, accepting vessel. So, in the very act of sexual relations, where the difference between male and female is anatomically clearest, both men and women are seen as different kinds of vessels. And you can see that meaning in 1 Thessalonians 4:4.

But the reason I say that’s the root idea is because I don’t think that’s the present prominent idea in Peter’s mind. It doesn’t really make much sense to describe a woman’s sexual organ as weaker than a man’s. What would that even mean, and what point would it have for their relationship? Rather, what we need to see is what the term vessel became. I think rooted down there in that anatomical complementarity, there grows out of it a generalized use of the word vessel for the human body. The woman’s body is a vessel, and the man’s body is a vessel, in general.

And the reason I say that is because of 2 Corinthians 4:7, where Paul, after referring to the preciousness of the glory of the gospel, says, “We have this treasure in jars [literally vessels] of clay.” So, all Christians have this treasure of the gospel in vessels of clay, “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” That doesn’t mean that we have the gospel in our sexual organs. That’s not the meaning. It means we have the gospel in ourselves, in our bodies. Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, making the gospel powerful in our lives, and our bodies are fragile and prone to decay.

So, I take the term vessel in 1 Peter 3:7 to refer mainly to the woman’s body. “Likewise, husbands, live together according to knowledge with your wives, as the weaker feminine vessel” means this: live with one who has a weaker body. That’s the primary focus I think.

Strong and Weak

Next comes the word feminine, and the phrase is literally “as with a weaker vessel, the feminine.” The point of that word is to draw attention to the fact that Peter really is making a general statement about maleness and femaleness, or men and women, not just about the particular wife that you happen to be married to.

In other words, in Peter’s mind, this is the real, God-created world of male and female. God designed men to have stronger bodies, and God designed women to have weaker bodies. That’s the plan. That’s God’s purpose. That’s part of what feminine is in reality.

To be a woman means, with a few exceptions, to be weaker than men. It’s not a fluke of nature. It’s not a random effect of natural selection or evolution. It’s the way God designed it to be. And when you pause and think about that, it should carry enormous implications, I think, especially for Christian men, which is why Peter draws explicit attention to it here and says, “Now husbands, look: You know this. You should live according to this knowledge. This is part of God’s design for womanhood and for manhood. She is the one with the weaker body. Take that into account as a Christian when you contemplate honoring your wife.”

God-Designed Nature

And then here’s the last word to zero in on. It’s the one that Patricia was especially asking about — namely, the word weaker. And what we’ve seen is that the most immediate meaning of weaker would be bodily weaker or physically weaker.

“At your side is a fellow heir of God, a breathtakingly glorious human being who will shine like the sun.”

Now, we live in a culture that desperately wants for this not to be true, and to find every way that it possibly can to obscure this truth, and to avoid its implications for male and female relationships. So, movie after movie and video after video attempts to show women being as violent, as crude, as able to neutralize male strength as any man can. Any thought that a woman might properly and joyfully look to a man for superior strength is sidelined or minimized or denied or mocked.

So, we live in a culture that is doing all it can to put its head in the sand and ignore what is palpably true, historically and universally — namely, men are, in general, stronger physically than women.

We are living a cultural contradiction. Because all of that cultural effort to deny the obvious is countered by the fact that

  • in the Olympics, no sport involves women competing with men;
  • in professional basketball, there’s a league for men and a league for women;
  • in professional golf, there’s an association for men and one for women;
  • in professional tennis, there’s one for men and one for women;
  • 98 percent of the construction workers in America are men;
  • 88 percent of police officers in America are men;
  • 86 percent of military personnel are men.

And whatever sinful chauvinism may infect all of that, none of those statistics is going to significantly change if all such sins could be taken away. These differences are rooted in God-designed nature, not in sin.

Now, my guess is that Patricia is a very thoughtful woman, and when I say that weaker refers to bodily weakness primarily, she will realize — given the nature of the modern world — that we know today that the body includes the brain and the hormonal system. And the differences in these physical organs and systems produce differences in men and women not only in raw muscular capacities but in other ways as well. All one has to do is type into Google (you should try this): What is the difference between male and female brains? Just type that into Google, and you will find dozens of scientific studies producing amazing discoveries in the last twenty years. But we have to stop somewhere in dealing with this massive subject, so let me draw it to a close.

Heiress of God

Let’s focus on what Peter seems to regard as most central. Peter is focusing on the way Christian husbands live with and honor their wives, and he says,

Husbands, take into account, keep this knowledge in your focus: you carry as a Christian husband the responsibility and the burden of having the superior strength for the sake of protecting and providing for and leading your wife through the threats and challenges of life, all the while realizing that at your side is a fellow heir of God, a breathtakingly glorious human being who “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of [her] Father” (Matthew 13:43), and who will not be married to you in the age to come because there’s no marriage in the age to come (Matthew 22:30), but will stand before the King of kings as his bright and glorious subject.

So, mingle your caring, protecting, leading strength with a sense of wonder and awe that you get to live temporarily with an heiress of God.

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