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Volume 7, Issue 6: Husbandry

The Weaker Vessel

Douglas Wilson

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 setting.
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.

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