Feb 062012

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 your wives, not all 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. In Greek, context determines whether the word γυναικεῖος refers to women in general or wives in particular, and in the context of 1 Peter 3, there’s no question at all– the whole chapter to this point is about marriage. Every major English translation goes ahead and translates it that way: “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives…” Even in the misquoted version it’s 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 woman 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.

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 a hatfull of major literary awards; I haven’t. My old 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 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 dependant. 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 dependants. 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)


Image sources: [1], [2], [3]

I’m honored that this post has been picked up by some popular websites, including No Longer Quivering and Rachel Held Evans. If you’ve found your way here through one of them, welcome! I hope you stick around. This might be a good time to mention that I’m a musician and you should check out my CD New Creation.
* Edited 2/9. My thanks to a Greek scholar who kindly gave me a constructive suggestion for fixing a wording mistake in this paragraph.