Are Women Weaker than Men?

A friend recently asked me this Bible knowledge question:

What does it mean to treat your wife “as the weaker vessel,” as 1 Peter 3:7?

Here is some helpful, related Bible study information in reply:

The Context of the Statement – Submission

We need to notice the context of this statement. If you read what Peter wrote before this phrase, you will discover that he is encouraging all Christians to practice submission, not resistance, to people with God-given roles. This means that we should learn to acknowledge God-ordained leadership roles, whether or not we wholeheartedly appreciate the people who occupy these roles.

  • Christians should submit to government (2:12-17).
  • Christian employees should submit to employers (2:18-25).
  • Christian wives should submit to their husbands (3:1-6).

As a sidenote, the word translated wife in 1 Pet. 3:7 is actually the word for women, not just women who are married. So Peter is referring to something that is generally true of all women when he uses the phrase “weaker vessels,” though he relates this observation to women who are married.

The Meaning of As To

Peter instructs a Christian husband to honor his wife as to the weaker vessel. So what does this mean?

  • Does as to indicate that we should treat them as weaker vessels somehow, even though they are not actually weaker (at least in some cases)?
  • Or do these words teach us that women actually are somehow weaker than men?

To understand the meaning of as to, you should also look at the way Peter uses this exact same word a second time in the same verse. He says, “as heirs together of the grace of life.” In this phrase, he is saying that husbands and wives are in fact heirs together of the grace of life. They share equal significance and value in the sight of God. The connecting word as (hōs, in Greek) states a simple fact: that God values and blesses the role of a husband and the role of a wife. He treats both as equal recipients of His grace, because they are equal recipients of His grace.

So when Peter instructs a husband to give honor to his wife as the weaker partner, he is stating that the wife (and women in general) are weaker than men.

The Meaning of Vessels and Weaker

So what does “weaker vessels” mean? I can offer three options for you to consider.

  1. The word vessels is used multiple times throughout the New Testament, and usually refers to physical, handcrafted objects like clay pots, bowls and vases. We can easily agree that Peter is not saying that wives (or women in general) are handcrafted clay pots.
  2. Sometimes it refers to people in general, describing a person as a vessel in a figurative sense (Acts 9:15, cf. Rom. 9:21-23). If this is how Peter uses the word here, then he is portraying women as being more weak in a comprehensive way, meaning that women are weaker than men in all sorts of ways.
  3. Other times, vessel refers to a person’s physical body (2 Cor. 4:7, 1 Thess. 4:4). If this is how Peter uses the word here, then he is portraying women as weaker than men in a physical, physiological way, but nothing more.

So which meaning is Peter using?

  1. A wife is not a clay pot.
  2. But is a woman a weaker person in general?
  3. Or are women generally physically weaker than men?

Now, what does the word weaker mean?

  • It does not mean less important.
  • Instead, it means to be limited in some way or another. The comparative grammar Peter uses indicates that women are more limited than men, in some way or another.

So what does weaker vessels mean? How is Peter using these words to describe the female gender? I believe Peter teaches us that women are generally weaker than men in a physical, physiological way.

Regarding the other option, that women are weaker than men in all sorts of ways, not just physical, you should consider what Thomas Schreiner has to say:

Nothing else in the New Testament suggests that women are intellectually inferior, nor is it clear that women are weaker emotionally, for in many ways the vulnerability of women in sharing their emotions and feelings demonstrates that they are more courageous and stronger than men emotionally. Nor did Peter suggest that women are weaker morally or spiritually than men. Such a view would suggest that men are actually better Christians than women, which is not taught elsewhere in the Scriptures, nor is it evident in history. [1]

Women are Physically Weaker than Men

Since we have no biblical evidence, or even scientific evidence, revealing that women are weaker than men intellectually, emotionally, morally or spiritually, then that leaves us with one noteworthy option. Women are physically weaker than men.

You might say, “Well pastor, I know some wives who are stronger than their husbands!” Yes, that may be true. Not every man is as strong as another, and not every woman is as weak as another. In fact, in the worldwide mix of  civilization, we can all recognize that there are women who are stronger than many men.

But Peter is making a general observation. He is making an observation that is generally true, not always true in every case. He is not saying the every woman is always weaker than her husband. He is saying that the female gender tends to be more limited physically than the male gender. And even though modern culture increasingly frowns on recognizing any God-designed distinctions between genders, in favor of a one-gender, gender-neutral view of humankind, even our culture and the world at large recognizes the general fact, as Peter makes it.

  • The Olympics doesn’t match men against women. (And least, not yet any way; this appears to be changing with a new acceptance of transgender athletes.)
  • There is an NBA and a WNBA, acknowledging that men are generally larger and stronger at the professional level. The same is true in golf, baseball and tennis. And I am unaware of a female version of the NFL.

An Alternative Option

I will mention an auxiliary option that some Bible teachers have suggested for this description of “weaker vessel.” They suggest that Peter is not referring to the created design of a woman at all. Instead, they propose that he is recognizing a cultural problem that existed in the 1st century Roman Empire. One representative of this view explains the perspective this way:

A more careful examination of this passage will reveal that Peter is not referring to a weaker frame or constitution of the woman, but to a weaker status in the culture of the day…

… the word “weaker” in this passage is translated from a cognate form of the Greek word asthenei, which means to be powerless and without strength. It is not limited to someone who is of a weaker essence or frame, but can refer someone, such as a prisoner, whom society has deprived of freedom and opportunity. This larger meaning is borne out by Thayer’s Greek English Lexicon, which includes the meaning of the word as “one who abstains from the use of his strength” and “one who has no occasion to prove his strength.”

Peter is thus referring to a cultural weakness wherein the wife/woman is marginalized and not given the opportunities to fully express her gifts and abilities. In fact, in first century Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures, women were often treated like slaves and children and considered the possession of their husbands. That this is the meaning Peter has in mind is confirmed by the instruction he gives to husbands in the latter part of the verse. [2]

So this view assumes that Peter is teaching nothing about the created design of women in general, but that he is referring to a marginalized role in some societies that places women in a weaker position.

I disagree with this interpretation. Why? Because it narrows the study to the word weaker and does not give equal attention the vessel word that Peter uses. Furthermore, I am unaware of any precedent in the New Testament in which the word vessel refers to a position in society, a state of existence or a personal experience.

So the Point Is?

So what is Peter teaching us? He is telling husbands that the physical, biological design of women is generally more limited in what they are able to bear and withstand in a daily routine. What is the significance of this detail? Though more insights exist, I will share two that seem important from my vantage point:

  1. Modern culture misunderstands weakness and limitation. We feel that describing the female gender as physically weaker than the male gender is the same thing as calling the female gender less significant and somehow unequal to the male gender. Is this true? No. Unequivocally no. Is a person who is limited in any way inherently less significant than a person who is not limited in that way? For instance, is a disabled person who cannot walk, whether due to a birth condition or a tragic setback later in life, unequal and less significant than a person who can walk? No. In fact, we should give equal respect to any person who is limited in any way, because they are a human being with the same significance as me in the sight of God. And Peter wastes no time in pointing this out. In the same breath that he says “women are weaker vessels,” he also says, “husbands and wives are equal recipients of the blessing of God.”
  2. Even more to the point, I believe that Peter is confronting Christian husbands with a very serious warning. As Christian wives allow their husbands to lead and guide the home, they place themselves in a vulnerable position. Husbands should recognize this and resolve to never use physical threats, physical force or physical abuse towards your wife. She should never fear that her husband will exert physical strength against her. She should rest easy, knowing that though her husband is not perfect and will not always make the best decisions, he will never hurt her or exploit any physical weaknesses. A Christian husband should never invoke physical strength as a means to threaten, manipulate or control his wife.

In conclusion, I encourage you to read further about this important perspective on husbands and wives from an article written by Jason Meyer, called A Complementarian Manifesto Against Domestic Abuse. In this article, he helpfully affirms that:

  • “The Bible views women and men as spiritual equals in God’s sight. There are no gender differences whatsoever in terms of dignity or value.”
  • “Men are called to use their God-given authority to serve women in a Christlike, servant-hearted, lay-down-your-life way so that women in the home and the church will flourish.”
  • “Christlike headship doesn’t cause abuse; on the contrary, it’s a powerful catalyst against abuse. It should go without saying that [we] ought not be guilty of abuse personally. Spousal abuse runs against the grain of everything we hold dear. It is, to put it bluntly, the most un-Christlike thing a husband could do.”

I agree.

____

[1] Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 160.

[2] Cited from http://www.charismanews.com/opinion/49258-why-the-woman-as-the-weaker-vessel-teaching-is-wrong on July 9, 2016 at 5:30 p.m.

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