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
I was recently asked my thoughts on this verse. It’s been quite the mental exercise for me, with emotions, opinions, and convictions clashing in my mind and heart as I read it. I am a weaker vessel. What does that mean for me, and women around the world? What does that mean for men? What does that mean about God’s character?
I imagine if you’re a woman similar feelings rise up within you: confusion, defensiveness, anger. I hope you’ll read this until the end, and maybe by sharing my own wrestling match with it you can find the same peace I have.
If you’re a man, I hope you will take the time to read this and that it will raise compassion and conviction within you, encouraging you to scrutinize how you understand and treat women.
-There is some debate regarding this verse as to whether Peter is speaking of more than just physical strength when he talks about weakness, but I’m going to just go again and shave it with Ockham’s Razor and assume physical strength is his angle.-
It’s fascinating to me that I feel such an internal war when I read this passage. Despite my conviction that All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16) my initial response is to say outright, “I am not weak!”, while running through a mental ledger of my own physical achievements: how much I can lift, how fast I can run, that I birthed two babies without intervention, and how many men I’ve outdone on a climbing wall. This seems to me like a natural reaction in our post-Nietzschean world that equates strength with value. Whether we have thought about it or not this ethos has sung through us, convincing us that weakness means worthlessness. We so often hear the message that women are not fully realizing their potential unless they are independent, strong, and powerful, and I think it sings to us like a Siren song, feeding a part of our hearts that aches to be recognized as valuable. So, to be told that our very created selves are “weaker” than our male counterparts immediately raises our blood pressure, it puts us in a fighting stance.
I think the reason we feel such outrage at being called weaker is because in the center of our hearts we know that we are weaker than most men. It is because of this reality that we choose not to walk alone at night, or why we carry mace when we go for a casual jog; it’s the reason self-defense classes are 90% women, and why our senses are heightened when we walk to our car in a parking garage. As women we know we are weaker, and we don’t like it. We don’t like that it makes us vulnerable to men who choose to abuse their strength over us. For those of us who have been victims of such abuse, the notion of being weak is terrifying. If we are, by nature, weak, there is little we can do if a man chooses to exploit it. And men do exploit it.
But…then there is God.
Throughout scripture God offers us an alternative understanding of the world, commanding the powerful and strong to serve, love, and protect the weak. God’s economy stands in polarity to our power-loving world as he breaks into our exploitative humanity and offers a different understanding of weakness. In the world’s economy we earn what we get, we protect ourselves, and the strong stand above—and often atop—the weak, but in this passage, and elsewhere in Scripture, God makes it clear that we don’t earn our place with him, and it is humility God favors, not power. Our weakness as women doesn’t exclude us from being covered in grace, just as men’s strength doesn’t earn them their covering. Peter here isn’t stating some kind of chauvinistic opinion, he’s stating reality to make the point—to men in particular—that while women are weaker, it makes them no less valuable, and in fact, it means that men are charged with the responsibility to protect them.
This is particularly beautiful for women. We live in a world that says that being weak means you are less valuable than someone stronger, but God says our value is inherent in being his. He freely gives us a place of honor, not because of our strength, but because of his goodness. What’s even more astounding is his combining this good news with a secondary commandment to men to protect us in a world that seeks to exploit our weakness.
Men, this ought to be sobering to you. Your greater strength puts you in a natural position of power over women but in God’s kingdom this means you have a high responsibility to protect and serve. This means you must love women by recognizing our vulnerability and protecting and honoring us rather than using or demeaning us.
Women, this ought to be something we rejoice in. We know our vulnerability and it’s frightening, but God knows our weakness and it has not a single bearing on his grace for us. Weak or strong, we are his.
So, when we read “women are weaker vessels,” we can unclench our fisted hands and rest in the knowledge that no matter our limitations, or our lack of standing in the world, we were created by a God who has given us value that cannot be diminished, bought with his life as it drained from his hands and side.