The Bible’s Viewpoint
The “Weaker Vessel”—An Insult to Women?
“WHY ARE WOMEN JUDGED BY THEIR GENDER RATHER THAN BY THEIR EXPERIENCE, ABILITY, AND INTELLIGENCE?”—BETTY A.
“WOMEN ARE CONDITIONED TO THINK THAT THEY ARE LESSER CREATURES.”—LYNN H.
DOES the Bible expression “weaker vessel” degrade women? The Bible verse in question is 1 Peter 3:7, which states: “You husbands, continue dwelling in like manner with them according to knowledge, assigning them honor as to a weaker vessel, the feminine one, since you are also heirs with them of the undeserved favor of life, in order for your prayers not to be hindered.”
When Peter wrote these words to fellow Christians, women had very few rights, not only in the ancient pagan world but also among the apostate Jewish community. Were Peter and the early Christians advocating the then prevalent view of women?
How would first-century readers of Peter’s words construe the term “weaker vessel”? The Greek word for vessel (skeuʹos) was used a number of times in the Greek Scriptures and refers to various containers, implements, utensils, and instruments. In calling women the “weaker vessel,” Peter was not degrading women, for the expression implied that the husband too was a fragile or weak vessel. Other Bible texts use similar imagery in referring to both women and men, such as “earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4:7) and “vessels of mercy” (Romans 9:23). True, Peter portrays women as the “weaker” of the sexes. But Romans 5:6 uses “weak” to apply to all humans—male and female. Therefore, the early Christians would not have considered the term “weaker vessel” to be derogatory to women.
If anything, Peter’s words would have been viewed as elevating the status of women. In Peter’s day respect for women hardly existed. As God had long before foreseen, husbands often dominated and abused their wives physically, sexually, and emotionally. (Genesis 3:16) Thus, Peter’s counsel to Christian husbands implied, in effect: Do not exploit the power worldly society has given men.
Let us take a closer look at the term “weaker.” Peter in this verse was referring, not to emotional, but to physical traits. Men are weak vessels; in a comparative sense, women are weaker vessels. How so? Bone and muscle structure are such that men are usually endowed with more physical strength. However, there is no indication that Peter was making a comparison of moral, spiritual, or mental strength. Really, as far as emotional reactions to events go, women might best be described as different from men, not necessarily weaker or stronger. The Bible describes the strong moral character, the endurance, and the discernment of women who followed God’s way—such as Sarah, Deborah, Ruth, and Esther, to name but a few. Humble men have no difficulty recognizing that women can be more intelligent than they are.
Nonetheless, some believe that a reference to women as “weaker” implies that they are lesser persons. But consider this example. A person has two useful containers. One is sturdy, the other less so. Is the second vessel somehow less valued because it is not as sturdy? Actually, the less sturdy one is usually treated with more care and honor than the sturdier one. Therefore, is a woman of lesser value because she has less physical strength than a man? Certainly not! Peter uses the term “weaker vessel,” not to denigrate women, but to foster respect.
“In Like Manner . . . According to Knowledge”
Peter exhorted husbands to “continue dwelling in like manner with them [their wives] according to knowledge.” “In like manner” to whom? In previous verses Peter was discussing Christ’s loving care for his followers, and he instructed husbands to care for their wives “in like manner.” (1 Peter 2:21-25; 3:7) Christ always placed his disciples’ welfare and interests ahead of his own personal desires and preferences. He was interested in their spiritual and physical welfare, and he took their limitations into consideration. Husbands are to imitate Christ’s loving example, to behave toward their wives “in like manner.”
A smooth-running marriage does not happen by chance. Both husband and wife must know how to contribute to the success of the marriage. Hence, Peter’s advice is for husbands to continue dwelling with their wives “according to knowledge.” Husbands need to study how Jehovah and his Son, Jesus Christ, dealt with women. They need to know how God wants them to treat their wives.
In addition, husbands need to know their wives well—their feelings, strengths, limitations, likes, and dislikes. They need to know how to respect their wives’ intelligence, experience, and dignity. The Bible says: “Husbands, continue loving your wives, just as the Christ also loved the congregation and delivered up himself for it. In this way husbands ought to be loving their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself, for no man ever hated his own flesh; but he feeds and cherishes it.”—Ephesians 5:25, 28, 29.
Assign Them Honor
When Peter referred to women as the “weaker vessel,” he also stated that husbands should be “assigning them honor.” In Greek, the noun ti·meʹ conveys the sense of honor, esteem, value, preciousness. In other words, the assigning of honor is not simply an act of favor but the recognition of what is due them. Paul instructed all Christians, both men and women, as follows: “In brotherly love have tender affection for one another. In showing honor to one another take the lead.”—Romans 12:10.
Jehovah God certainly does not consider women as mere showpieces. In Israel, God’s laws applied with equal force to both men and women who were guilty of adultery, incest, bestiality, and other crimes. (Leviticus 18:6-17, 23, 29; 20:10-12) Women could experience the benefits of the Sabbaths, the laws governing Nazirites, the festivals, and many other provisions of the Law. (Exodus 20:10; Numbers 6:2; Deuteronomy 12:18; 16:11, 14) The mother, as well as the father, was to be honored and obeyed.—Leviticus 19:3; 20:9; Deuteronomy 5:16; 27:16; Proverbs 1:8.
Verses 10 to 31 of Proverbs chapter 31 honor “a capable wife” because of her faithfulness, industriousness, and wisdom in caring for her many responsibilities. She was duly recognized for her share in handling family business, as well as other financial matters. How different from the attitude of some men who think of women as mere ornaments! Later, in the early Christian congregation, women were empowered with holy spirit as witnesses of Christ. (Acts 1:14, 15; 2:3, 4; compare Joel 2:28, 29.) Thus, some women are destined to become heavenly judges of men, women, and even angels. (1 Corinthians 6:2, 3) True, women were not to teach in congregational assembly; nevertheless, there were situations when Christian women could pray or prophesy. They were assigned to be teachers of younger women, children, and to those outside the congregation.—Matthew 24:14; 1 Corinthians 11:3-6; Titus 2:3-5; compare Psalm 68:11.
Another good indicator of what Peter had in mind when he said to assign them honor is found at 2 Peter 1:17. There we read that Jehovah honored Jesus by expressing his approval of him in the presence of others by stating: “This is my son, my beloved.” Similarly, a husband should show by his deeds, both in public and in private, that he assigns his wife honor.
Heirs of Life
Throughout history, men have often viewed women as worthy of little honor or respect—as a slave, or as a mere instrument for gratifying men. The Christian concept of assigning honor to women certainly elevates them to a higher level of respect. Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament observes that Peter’s admonition “contains a very important truth in regard to the female sex. Under every other system of religion but the Christian system, woman has been regarded as in every way inferior to man. Christianity teaches that . . . she is entitled to all the hopes and promises which religion imparts. . . . This single truth would raise the female sex everywhere from degradation, and check at once half the social evils of the race.”
Since Christ has ownership of both men and women, there is serious reason for husbands to cherish their wives as Christ’s property. Immediately after referring to women as the “weaker vessel,” Peter’s words continue: “Since you are also heirs with them of the undeserved favor of life, in order for your prayers not to be hindered.” (1 Peter 3:7b) Peter indicated that a husband’s mistreating his wife would injure his relationship with God, blocking his prayers.
In no way is the term “weaker vessel” meant to insult women. While Jehovah set husbands as the head of the household, he does not subscribe to men mistreating women. Instead, he directs that the man, with knowledge of the woman, should extend care and honor to her.
The Bible directs both married and single men to assign honor to women, not treating them as lesser persons. Men and women who earnestly worship God and who dignify one another will receive rich blessings from the hand of God.—Compare 1 Corinthians 7:16.
[Picture Credit Line on page 19]
Miss G. E. K. / Artist: Alice D. Kellogg 1862-1900
Courtesy of Joanne W. Bowie