The Myth of the Weaker Vessel

The Myth of the Weaker Vessel February 7, 2012

by Eric Pazdziora

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.”

R. A. Torrey’s remarks, which I’ve mentioned often, are more than usually relevant here:

A very large part of man’s difficulties with the Bible comes from not noting exactly what it says. Time and time again men have come to me and said, “I cannot believe this which the Bible says,” and then have quoted something which they supposed the Bible said. But I have replied, “The Bible does not say that,” and when we have looked it up, lo, it is some minute modification of what the Bible really says that has given rise to the difficulty. The Bible is always so absolutely exact, that I have found the best solution for very many apparent difficulties in the Bible to be to take the difficult verses precisely as they read. (The Voice of God in the Present Hour, pp. 11–12)

Just because someone begins a sentence with “The Bible makes it clear that…” does not mean that what follows is necessarily biblical, or even that it’s in the Bible at all. Torrey warns us to look out for “some minute modification of what the Bible really says.” In this case, though, there isn’t some minute modification. There are some major modifications.

Look at the actual words of the verse in question:

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. (1 Peter 3:7, ESV)

Compare it to the way it was quoted at the beginning — which, I should mention, was taken verbatim from an (admittedly dubious) online source — and you’ll see three very striking differences that might make us reconsider what it means to be a “weaker vessel.”

First, it says wives, not women. The misquoted verse is used to make a point about how we should view all women. But it’s not about that at all. The very first words give it away: “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives…” Can it get any more obvious? File it under Reading Comprehension 101. The verse is about how one particular man (a husband) should treat one particular woman (his wife).

The recommended way to treat your wife is not, “Tell her to submit to your authority.” Rather, a husband should treat her “in an understanding way” – be considerate and empathetic, don’t set unrealistic expectations, be kind and compassionate and caring. Not just that, “showing honor” – treat her as valuable, special, priceless, precious; be respectful and deferential and courteous; treat her as more important than yourself.

Honor is what you give people you look up to.

Honor is what you give people you admire for qualities you aspire to.

Honor is what you give people who are superior to you.

So why does it say “weaker”? That leads to the second major modification:

It says as, not is. The misquoted version leaves out the terribly important word as (Gk. hōs.) The Bible doesn’t say, “The women is a weaker vessel.” It says, “Show her honor as a weaker vessel.” Those little letters make a big difference. It’s not an equivalency but a comparison. Consider another Scriptural example:

Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves. (Matthew 10:16)

If someone said that the Bible makes it clear that we need to have wool, slither around, and lay eggs, you’d say they were nuts. You’d be right. The word “as” shows that Jesus is using a simile, a figure of speech. We’re not doves; rather, we’re like doves in one particular point for the purposes of an illustration. (Namely, we should be gentle and innocent in our dealings with others.)

In what way is a wife like a weaker vessel? She’s certainly not weaker mentally, spiritually, emotionally, giftedly, or any other way that really matters. Speaking as a not-at-all wimpy human male, I know women who are more athletic than I am, better educated than I am, more successful than I am, and have emotional and spiritual strength I can only dream of aspiring to. (In fact, I’m married to someone who’s pretty much all of the above, plus much better looking to boot.)

That’s not some feminist dogma; it’s a simple observable fact. Lindsey Vonn has won an Olympic gold medal; I haven’t. Jane Yolen has published over 300 books and won most major literary awards; I haven’t. My boss, the VP of a large publishing house, is a single mom with a doctorate in theology, which I don’t have. And I wish you could have known my friend Evangeline, who earned a master’s degree in her 60s and was editing the next volume of a Bible commentary the day she died after a 20-year fight with cancer. Weaker? I think not.

Thus a lot of commentators take the view that it’s merely about physical strength, considering that Peter was likely writing to an audience where husbands were manual laborers while wives ran the household. That’s somewhat sensible, at least if you’re thinking about heavy lifting, but most women can take just as much physical strain as men in other ways. I don’t know any men who want to take on the pain of childbirth, for instance. Even running a household is no job for a weakling; the Proverbs 31 woman has enough skills to rival any business executive. And domestic work is downright intimidating to lots of manly men I could name.

So I wonder if there’s more to it than that. Remember, the structure of the phrase is, “Show her honor as a weaker vessel.” The central word is honor, a term of value, worth, and respect. The illustrative word, vessel, is a term for pottery, often used as a metaphor for people since God is compared to a potter (see Romans 9:20-23).

What’s the connection between honor and pottery? We tend to think of weakness in terms of inferiority. But in pottery, the finer a vessel is, the more valuable it is. Anyone can make a bulky old piece of stoneware for everyday use, but a piece of fine china — a Grecian urn — a Ming vase — a Tiffany lamp — Waterford crystal — that’s the work of a master. You handle that with respect and care. You put it in a special place where people can admire it. You make sure nobody does anything to break it. In a word, you honor it.

Its weakness doesn’t mean it’s more dependent. It means it’s more valuable.

The point of the verse is not, “Remember that your wife is weak, like a piece of china.” It’s, “Treat your wife with honor, just as you would treat the fine work of a master craftsman.”

The idea that “weaker” should be understood as “inferior” is demolished once and for all when we see the last major modification:

It says heirs, not inferiors. The misquoted version above leaves out the entire second half of the verse. That’s suspicious. Once we see what the omitted part says, the game is up. The reason husbands should treat their wives with understanding and honor, according to the verse itself, is this:

“…since they are heirs with you of the grace of life…”

They are heirs with you. They’re not your inferiors or subordinates or dependents. They don’t need your protection or covering or authority to stand before God. They stand shoulder to shoulder with you as equal recipients of God’s grace. They get the same divine adoption as you. They get the same spiritual life as you. They get the same inheritance as you. According to the very same verse that’s been manhandled to say that women are inferior to men, women are equal to men.

The irony is spectacular. Like Proverbs 31, this verse is written to tell husbands to be uplifting and affirming to their wives, to treat them well, even to look up to them. (Yes, that Proverbs 31; see In Search of the Ideal Proverbs 31 Single Man.) Yet for inscrutable reasons, it’s used to put women down, used as a bludgeon of learned helplessness. Misusing and twisting the verse that badly is like interpreting “Give me liberty or give me death” as an affirmation of slavery.

Far from being a trivial point, this is tied to a husband’s spiritual well-being: Do this, says Peter, “so that your prayers may not be hindered.” To belittle your wife — to fail to be understanding, to see her as less than equal, to dishonor her, to teach her helplessness — puts a serious cramp in your spiritual life. “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart,” says the psalmist, “the Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18). God takes a very dim view of it when we treat people inequitably.

Listen up, men: To treat your wife, or any woman, as though she is inferior to you in any way is to commit a grave and terrible sin. It maligns the very image of God. To put such sentiments in the mouth of God is to blaspheme. If you’ve ever thought or acted otherwise, now would be a very good time to repent. Repent for believing and propagating the unfair treatment of God’s image. Accept God’s view of His creation as valuable, honorable, precious. Treat your wife right — with understanding, honor, respect, and dignity.

Repentance brings us back to the Gospel. Beyond this verse, the context of the chapter is the Gospel itself: “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Read the verse without seeing the context of the Gospel, and you might get legalism or chauvinism or misogyny. Focus on the Gospel, and suddenly you find the unbroken threads of love, grace, and mercy.

The Gospel is directly and deeply related to the way husbands treat their wives. God has chosen His people to be the bride of Christ (Revelation 19:7). “This is a great mystery,” writes Paul regarding marriage, “but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32). “I will betroth you to me forever,” God says through the prophets (Hosea 2:19). “For your Maker is your husband,” says Isaiah (54:5). “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:5). “‘Return, faithless people,’ declares the LORD, ‘for I am your husband’” (Jeremiah 3:14).

That means we all are “weaker vessels.”

And that means the way that verse says husbands should treat their wives is the way our Bridegroom treats us– with understanding and honor and self-sacrifice.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. (Romans 5:6)

…but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong… (1 Corinthians 1:27)

Christ, our Bridegroom, takes weaker vessels and puts them in places of honor. God transforms vessels of wrath into vessels of mercy. God fills earthen vessels of weakness with His Holy Spirit. It doesn’t matter if you’re weak or strong, Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free. We all stand side by side as joint heirs of the grace of life.

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. …

Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

(2 Corinthians 4:7-10, 16-18 NASB)


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Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Eric Pazdziora’s blog and is a fitting response to NLQ commenter, “Matt” whose views on women as “weaker vessels” are highlighted here.

Discuss this post on the NLQ forum! Comments are also open below.

NLQ Recommended Reading …

Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich

Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce

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  • Insightful!

    May I add that being “as a weaker vessel” is not a design flaw or put down by God.

    God knows that wives are vulnerable to our husbands in ways which apply to no other human being on earth….

    When he treats me as you have written (May your tribe increase!), it nourishes my spirit rather than sucking the life out of me (like the patriarchal paradigm we used to follow…)

  • Amy Ruth Blue

    nice spin on the Scripture. the Bible is definitely written by men, of old. so of course it is in no way a feminist text.
    but current men of today who are uncomfortable with that, can go to great pains to explain this away and somehow make it palatable.
    I say, just face it for what it is. rather than twist it to try and fit your beliefs.
    and anyway, if you are an American Christian, YOU are the one who is supposed to twist YOURSELF to fit the Bible, not the other way around.
    so maybe your real problem is with the Bible, and you should question it. rather than try and make it fit.

  • Hector Quiles

    Well done Eric…. I TOTALLY agree with this article. This is an article that every Christian men should read.

  • Amy, you have an excellent point about reading things in the context of the intentions of the original author and understanding the time period. While I thought this article was excellent, I wanted to add a little bit of history.

    At that time there were two types of “vessels,” literally, not figuratively. One was a clay vessel and it was used by the Jewish women in purifying the home for the Sabbath and the Feasts and Festivals. The other was a bronze vessel and it was used by the priests in the Temple. Obviously, the clay vessel is “the weaker vessel.”

    Paul is calling the men to HONOR their wives as this weaker vessel, who has been purifying their home, who understands so much spiritually, even though she did not go to study the Scriptures like they did. He is reminding them that their wives are equal heirs with them.

  • Amy: I agree. The thing is, though, when I questioned the Bible and looked at what it actually says (as per the Torrey quote), I discovered that the Patriarchalists were the ones putting an American spin on it and twisting it to make it say things it doesn’t. Contrast “Matt’s” comments linked above–“Yes, I am in control!”– with the actual words of the verse he claims to be quoting, “…live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman…”

    So it seems my problem is not with the Bible but with a demonstrably dubious misinterpretation of it. There’s no reason for me to twist myself to fit someone else’s twisting. I wish “Matt” would face the Bible for what it is, because then he might start showing honor to women!

    I appreciate your thoughts; thanks for commenting.

  • Daisy

    You all have been so scared you can’t believe the genuine work this young conservative man has done to explain this passage. He didn’t just see the word weak and flipped out. He saw each word of the text and used it to come up with a true wholesome interpretation. The Bible neverrrr commanded woman to have children non stop. That is legalism. Psalm 127 says that children are a blessing. Upsets me to know that some heartless religious husbands put you all through this unbiblical unloving inconsiderate treatment. Love Daisy

  • David

    Amy, I definitely agree. I don’t see how anyone can take the words of a few tribalist men that are long dead as final authority. I sure can’t (anymore).

  • Great post, Eric. I just published a somewhat similar bit on the hierarchy-based idea that women should not be like men, to the point that women are required to be nothing like God created them… and this seems ironic, to say the least. I was considering adding a link to your blog post in it.

  • That would be fine with me. Thanks for your kind words.

  • Thank you for this thoughtful article. I am so heartened to see men refuting the “masculine feel” blather that is definitely not Biblical. Kind of makes me want to dust off my WWJD bracelet: What Would Jael Do? I’m glad you’re helping me find a more peaceful alternative. :o)

  • madame

    Excellent post, Eric!

  • KH

    Excellent! Would be nice if Matt would be willing to read it, and it’s too bad that he probably won’t.

  • madame

    Good to see you around… 🙂
    I agree that wives are vulnerable to our husbands like we are to nobody else, and so are they to us. I wish there were more teaching on how to respect each other, without all that condescending “loving leadership” and “respectful submission” bunk. Just respect and love for the person you are closest to in life. Friendship.
    Mark Driscoll “tries”, but his teaching is soooooo deeply mired by his complementarian view, that he fails to realize how condescending and paternalistic his role for men is, and how childish and needy he makes women appear.
    I am strong in ways my husband isn’t. He is strong in ways I am not. We should learn to support each other using our God-given strenghts, which won’t be the exact same strengths any other married couple have..

    Anyway… rant over.

  • Lauren Q

    This is excellent. Purely excellent. I wish it could be published and included in every Logos Bible Software that’s sold!!!! Thank you for really breaking this down.

  • denelian

    the “…as the weaker vessel” reads, to me, that MEN should be doing this because *they* are the weaker vessel.

    i’m not criticizing men, or trying to fling mud, or anything like that. considering the time period and the miracle of pregnancy, it’s possible that this was the meaning.


  • Anon

    It’s very sweet of you to stand up for women. I find it hard to understand why a god would want to make either sex the ‘weaker vessel’. Why, when he could make them both have equal strength and lessen the possibility of one group being descriminated against or forced to become ‘dependent’ on the other . . . ? Lol 😉

  • Sarah

    Thank you for this wonderful article, Eric! I appreciate the thought and study that went into this article and how clear and well-written your message is.

  • Anielka

    I can see your point in much of this. and i like that you bring attention to the little words. However you still have the problem of learned helplessness. A fine peice of china Is more valuable but i cannot act as if it were not. You still get women who are treated carefuly and put away on shelves away from the world. But i think overall your interpretation is far superior and i wish more people thought of it that way.

  • Melanie

    I’ve been a single mom for most of my adult life and quite honestly I would love it for a man to honor me as the weaker vessel. Maybe then they would be nicer, more compassionate, more responsible. I would love it if some men saw themselves stronger than what they do. Maybe then they would be able to contribute to society and their families instead of leech off of them. What’s wrong with a man being stronger if he uses that strength to serve? I don’t feel inferior to someone who is stronger than me. I’m just a valueable as they are, we just have didn’t purposes. My eye’s are more vulnerable than my bones but I need them both.

  • Melanie

    Sorry about the typos in my post. Valuable not valueable….different not didn’t.

  • madame

    I can see your point, Melanie, it may sound nice to be honored as someone weaker, but as Eric pointed out, we women truly are not weaker and don’t need anyone trying to take our strength and power away.
    I agree that many men could use a lesson in responsibility, starting with being responsible for their children and going on to take on the responsibility of caring for a family along with their partners. I agree that there are many young men leaving the young women they impregnated alone to face what to do with a pregnancy they (the men) didn’t make any effort to avoid.
    I don’t feel inferior to someone who is stronger than I am, but if that person uses his strength to take away my strength and power, I have a serious problem. And that is what the whole “weaker vessel” doctrine does.