Volume 7, Issue 6: Husbandry
The Weaker Vessel
Peter's teaching that men should live considerately with their wives as with
a "weaker vessel" (1 Pet. 3:7) has contributed to more than one lively discussion
between men and women. What, exactly, did he mean by that ?
We should begin by noting that whatever Peter intended is received by Christians
as the Word of God, and with no back chat. However, this is not the same thing
as having to submit to interpretive distortions or misunderstandings of the passage.
And there are such misunderstandings.
The most obvious distortion to reject is that of feminist egalitarianism within
the church, which wants to escape the plain force of the words. But Peter's words
really leave no room for maneuvering. Husbands are told to honor their wives,
and to live considerately with them, treating them as a weaker vessel. Fortunately,
most believers understand that feminism and Christianity are incompatible, and
have little difficulty resisting any distortion of Peter's teaching in this direction.
But a second distortion is quite another matter, and presents a forceful temptation
to conservative believers. This is the distortion that we can call masculinist
egalitarianism. This view holds that men are in one category and women are in
another, and that any given member of one category bears the same relationship
to any given member of the other. In other words, it assumes that men are the
leaders of women, and that women are weaker than men. The resultant view of society
is that "men are in charge." This is true enough, but in charge of what? Men as
men are in charge of nothing, and women as women are in submission to nothing.
In this view, the assumption of the authority of men over women can clearly
be seen. But the egalitarian emphasis should also be clear. Because, as the thinking
goes, any man can lead any woman; consequently any given marriage, any family,
is on the same fundamental level as any other family.
But human society as created by God is hierarchical. "Blessed are you, O land,
when your king is the son of nobles . . ." (Ecc. 10:17). Despite an unremitting
stream of agitated egalitarian rhetoric since the time of the French Revolution,
all societies still contain both men and women who are distributively educated
and uneducated, intelligent and unintelligent, refined and unrefined, upper and
lower class, etc. The constant din of propaganda means that we are hesitant
to affirm that this is so, but . . . facts is facts and facts will out. This
means that an accurate picture of society will show both men and women in the
educated classes, and both men and women in the uneducated classes. Both sexes
show up converted and unconverted, polished and unpolished, intelligent and unintelligent,
etc . A biblical view of culture consequently requires a nobility.
But the masculinist egalitarian tends to assume that the broader relationship
between men and women is foremost. Because of this assumption of the primacy
of men generally over women generally, he assumes that every male should be prepared
to lead any home, and that every female should be prepared to step into any marriage
ready to follow. He also necessarily assumes that the resultant families are
roughly equal in ability, status, etc .
In the hierarchical and biblical view, the relationship of women to men is first
familial , and then as a consequence, a larger (and very complex) cultural and
societal relationship between the sexes emerges. This means that wives are to
submit to, and provide help to, their own husbands (and no one else). As a
result of this submission in countless families, a larger patriarchal society
will emerge. However, this patriarchal society will necessarily contain a number
of women who are far more intelligent, educated, and "stronger" than numerous men.
No society is truly patriarchal unless it contains a significant number of noble
women, "stronger" in many ways than a number of the men.
But for the masculinist egalitarian, a highly educated noble woman is considered
a threat to "men," and as someone who is being uppityresisting Peter's teaching
about her being a weaker vessel. But whose weaker vessel is she? The biblical
answer is, her husband's. She is not society's weaker vessel, and she is not
Joe-on-the-street's weaker vessel.
A simplistic, conservative "family values" position says that men are leaders
and women are followers. It would be more accurate to say that husbands are heads
and their wives are their helpers. Because some of the men are leaders and others
are followers, their respective wives will be helping them to lead, or helping
them to follow, or helping them at every conceivable stage in between. Such an
understanding preserves both the biblical understanding of headship and submission
in the home, and the biblical understanding of a culture.
This complex relationship is illustrated in the divine requirements for the
government of the church. Paul flatly excludes any woman, no matter how gifted,
from holding "authority over a man" in the church of Christ (1 Tim. 2:12). Women
may not be elders or ministers of the word. At the same time, Paul assumes that
an elder will be married, and this means that his wife will have considerable
influence in the church. The same pattern is seen in every trans-family cultural
Through submission to their husbands, some women can have far more influence
in a culture or subculture than some of the men do. This is very good; this is
the strength of the weaker vessel.