In response to a popular pastor’s perplexing pronouncement that “God has given Christianity a masculine feel,” Rachel Held Evans asked Christian men to write a blog post “that celebrates the importance of women in the Church.” Here’s mine.
Lately, both from online creepers and respectable preachers, I’ve seen several comments that come back to one idea: Of course we give lip service to the idea that women are equal to men, but actually they’re inferior, because the Bible says that a woman is a “weaker vessel.” Here’s a composite portrait, based very closely on wording I’ve seen in various places:
There is a difference between men and women, regardless of what you would like to believe. The Bible makes this clear: 1 Peter 3:7– “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the weaker vessel.” Either this passage is true and women are “weaker vessels,” or it’s not. If it’s not, why believe any of the Bible? God says that because women are weaker, they are more vulnerable to deception and temptation. There are lots of things they don’t know or can’t deal with. That’s why God has raised up men to be the godly authorities they need to guard their hearts and spirits…..
I find that rather unsettling. Continually dwelling on how someone is weak and vulnerable and in need of help is disturbingly similar to what’s called “learned helplessness” (or sometimes “gaslighting” after the Ingrid Bergman film). In its worst forms, it’s a technique of psychological abuse. It works with a chilling simplicity: the more a feeling of helplessness is reinforced on you, the more likely you are to believe it. If every time you go to pick up a bag I say, “Let me get that for you; you’re too weak,” eventually you’ll start to say, “You’ll have to get that for me; I’m too weak.” Even if you’re not.
So it’s no surprise that this Bible verse about the “weaker vessel” is a favorite weapon in the arsenal of religious people who want to dominate and control women (see The Bondage of Betrothal.) Even when people don’t intend to put women down, though, it can have much the same effect. If you say “Women are inferior” with the very best of intentions and disclaimers, you’re still saying it. Learned helplessness works in either case. Some of the most belittling statements in the example above were taken straight from a blog post written by a young woman. It’s bad enough when misogynists belittle women; it’s distressing when women do it for them.
Belittling someone is not a good way to celebrate them. The way it’s presented there, though, it looks like we have to embrace some form of sexism or else throw out the entire Bible. As a Christian, I don’t especially like either option. So here’s the question: Does the Bible really say that all women are “weaker vessels”?
Well… it does use the phrase “weaker vessels.” But to quote the philosopher Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”