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A “Weaker Vessel” and Gender Justice (1 Peter 3:7)

The Weaker Vessel and Gender Justice (1 Peter 3:7)

I have previously written an article about 1 Peter 3:7, the Bible verse that includes the phrase “a weaker vessel” [here]. Since writing this article, however, I’ve come across a few references in Greek papyri where women are called “weak”. In these papyri, women use the adjective for themselves hoping to elicit pity, or hoping to ingratiate themselves, while seeking justice from men. A.L. Connolly comments on several of these legal petitions and notes that appealing to a woman’s frailty (asthenēs) “had become commonplace in the rhetoric of petitions.”[1]

Peter calls wives “weaker vessels” because he wants husbands, not necessarily to pity them, but to be more understanding with their wives who were, with few exceptions, disadvantaged economically, legally, and politically in the first century. However, cognates of the Greek word that Peter uses in 1 Peter 3:7 (e.g. asthenēs) are used elsewhere in the New Testament to mean sick and infirm, so physical weakness may have been what Peter had in mind.

Interestingly, Paul (who readily admitted to his own weaknesses) used cognates of asthenēs several times in his letters. He used them eleven times in First Corinthians, including 1 Corinthians 1:27b where he wrote, “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” Paul used the comparative adjective of asthenēs in 1 Corinthians 12:22 where he wrote, “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” Physical weakness is not a disadvantage in the body of Christ, and it need not be a disadvantage in marriage.

Peter used the comparative adjective of asthenēs in 1 Peter 3:7. Both Peter and Paul do not use the word “weaker” to insult or diminish anyone. In fact, they do the opposite. Like the women seeking justice, Peter uses the word “weaker” for its rhetorical effect, and he juxtaposes the phrase “weaker vessel” with the phrase “bestowing honour”.

It was not unusual to hear women being called “weak” or “weaker” in the first century. On the other hand, many would have been astonished to hear Peter tell husbands to honour their wives.[2] Moreover, Peter gives the reason why husbands should honour their wives: because a Christian couple are co-heirs of “God’s gift of new life” (1 Peter 3:7 NLT). Being co-heirs is a strong basis for mutuality and equality in marriage.

I’m not bothered that Peter called wives “weaker”, considering it was part of the rhetoric of petitions. Rather, I’m delighted that he appealed to husbands to treat their wives with honour and understanding, and acknowledge them as co-heirs. It seems Peter was advocating for gender justice in marriage.


Endnote

[1] “30. ‘The Weaker Sex'”, G.H.R. Horsley with A.L. Connolly, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity: A Review of the Greek Inscriptions and Papyri in 1979, Volume 4 (The Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, Macquarie University, 1987) pp.131-133, 132.

[2] Apart from wives, Peter also writes that the Christians in Asia Minor should honour the emperor ( 1 Peter 2:17).


Related Articles

Submission and Respect from Wives in 1 Peter 3:1-6
Submission and Respect from Husbands in 1 Peter 3:7-8
Fear or Respect in Christian Marriage?
Equality and Unity in Ministry in 1 Corinthians 12
Protecting the Weaker Sex

Posted August 12th, 2015 . Categories/Tags: 1 Peter, Equality and Gender Issues, Equality in Marriage, The "Difficult" Passages, , ,

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14 comments on “A “Weaker Vessel” and Gender Justice (1 Peter 3:7)

  1. jeriwho says:

    A good argument can be made that Peter’s reference to honoring the wives is financial in nature, ordering Christian men to share the household finances and give the wife rule over “the Housekeeping,” which was a custom that extended form the early church through the 20th century. His reminder that she is the weaker vessel is actually a way of calling her “hobbled,” that is, in that society, though she is a co-heir, she has been made helpless financially (something not true across the board in the ancient world). In rural formerly Greek cultures, wives were servants who ate in the kitchen with the children while the man of the house dined in the front room with any guests. The man ran the cupboard and often procured the best for himself. Peter may very well have been ending that practice, admonishing Christian men to take up the Aristotelian and Jewish practice of entrusting the Housekeeping funds to the wife and running the home as a joint venture (co-heirs in Jesus Christ).

    Peter’s references are financial in nature, including the concept of “honoring,” which at that time was often used in the sense of “compensation” for a role a person held or a meritorious service they had provided. But also, the reference to beign co-heirs is financial in nature, and even the word for “weaker vessel,” that she has been “hobbled” could be used in a commercial sense: ie, she is unable to provide for herself, unable to earn a living.

    Peter had no concept of “Gender justice” and the idea of a man “submitting” to his wife would have struck him as unlikely, even in situations where a man did what his wife wanted him to do. Peter’s view of leadership in the household doesn’t even equate to ours. He would have viewed the masculine role as being bound up in the happiness of the wife and her happy condition. But he would have viewed that as a necessity of good patriarchy, not as gender equality. You can’t just shoehorn a 21st century concept onto the ancient world.

    Our concept of patriarchy is NOT the concept of patriarchy in the ancient world, where the man of the house was expected to know the needs of every member of the household and weave the household together into a harmonious and happy unity. The macho, authoritarian masculinity currently embraced by right wing Christianity today would be just as foreign and repulsive to Peter as it is to normal people today, but he still wouldn’t comprehend “Gender Justice” or “Gender Equality.”

    • Marg says:

      Thanks for leaving this comment, Jeri.

      The first century Greco-Roman world is so foreign to modern westerners. I completely agree that “You can’t just shoehorn a 21st century concept onto the ancient world.”

      “Gender Justice” is a phrase I rarely use; this post might be the first occasion where I use it. It is a pun based on the use of “weak” by women seeking justice. Nevertheless, I believe Paul and Peter wanted to see more equality among all people in the churches.

  2. NCCM says:

    When I attended seminary I took five semesters of Koine Greek. In my opinion, the verse has been deliberately translated incorrectly to continue to foster that which God never intended. Most people do not get to see the inside workings of a verse in regards to the Greek grammar. You might want to check out my video: Exegetical Study of 1 Peter 3.7. It is very controversial, but this is what the Lord showed me back in 2000 and I finally decided to videotape what the Lord showed me. Here is the link. I hope you watch the whole of it even if it is a bit long.

  3. Laura Droege says:

    I imagine that the Christian husbands would’ve been astounded at being instructed to honor their wives. But imagine the even greater astonishment of those unbelievers in the surrounding culture when they witnessed a Christian man honoring his wife, treating her with respect and not as property. That would have been a tremendous witness to the world. (Though, of course, many might’ve despised the man for such behavior.)

    • Marg says:

      Excellent point. It would have been astonishing for onlookers. Even disturbing. The social code of honour-shame was entrenched in their culture, so the more egalitarian behaviours of the very early Christians, which included bestowing honour on women, were seen as a threat with the potential of destabilising society.

      The household codes were written in the later letters to temper some of the egalitarian behaviours but not to extinguish egalitarianism as the ideal and goal.

      I like what Philip Towner has to say on this:

      “On the one hand, the already-not yet nature of salvation dictates the ideal of equality within the various social relationships is indeed the goal towards which the community must press. . . .Realization of Salvation’s promises [of a ‘new man’ where gender is largely irrelevant] involves a process that is sometimes agonizingly slow. On the other hand, progress towards this realization must, because of the priority of mission, be tempered by the ability of society to accept the changes in the social equilibrium that the equality tradition implies. Thus on this understanding the house code encourages respectability and requires the church to touch base constantly with the world about it.
      The Goal of Our Instruction: The Structure of Theology and Ethics in the Pastoral Epistles (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989) 211.

  4. […] In 1 Peter 3:7, Peter also makes the point that women are weaker than men. Women were greatly disadvantaged in Greco-Roman society. They had considerably less privileges and rights than men. Women are also, usually, physically weaker than men. Peter wanted husbands to acknowledge the more vulnerable situation of their wives – their “vessels” – so that they would take care not to exploit them (cf 1 Thess. 4:3-6).[5] Many times, people in positions of privilege are not fully aware of the disadvantages of those in weaker positions. Instead of exploitation, Peter wanted husbands to treat their wives with respect and even honour. [More about Peter’s phrase “weaker vessel” here.] […]

  5. As I mentioned before having researched the Greek translation of the words weaker vessel, I always concluded it refrered to either the physical weakness of women or treating more delicately, more gently or a combination of both. The main point was the husbands were to be considerate of their wives an areas where they are more vulnerable. I too never thought this term is demeaning in anyway as hit tells husband to show honour to their wives and remember they are co-heirs in God’s kingdom encouring mutual respect and equal regard. God Bless.

  6. Kate E says:

    In 1 Peter 3:7 many translations say “You husbands in the same way, live with [your wives] in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman”, but in the NASB Greek text the word translated as weaker is the Greek word poieo which is defined as “to make, or make out of something”. http://biblehub.com/lexicon/1_peter/3-7.htm . It appears that Peter is saying women were created from the man not that she is weaker and this changes the meaning of the verse entirely.

    This improved translation brings this verse in line with other scriptures that show equality among all of the body of Christ. In 1 Cor 12: 12 to 26 Paul describes how born again believers are all members/parts of one body v12 and no member is any less a part of the body v 15 & 16. He goes on to describe how different members are necessary and desired by God v18. When he talks about weaker members he isn’t confirming that there are weaker members but only that they “seem to be weaker” v22 but says they are necessary and are to be bestowed more honor v23. No member is better than or more valuable than any other member because being one body “if one member suffers all the members suffer with it” and “if one member is honored all the members rejoice with it” v26. Paul says that men and women are equal in Gal 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

    • Marg says:

      The Greek word for “weaker” in 1 Peter 3:7 is asthenesterō in every Greek text I have seen (including the texts used by the NASB translators.) You can check here.

      The information at Bible Hub is a mistake. The Strong’s number should be 772, not 4160. (Asthenesterō and poieō are completely unrelated.)

  7. […] Women were typically less powerful than men when Peter described them using the metaphor of a “weaker vessel” (1 Peter 3:7). Women were disadvantaged because they were usually less educated and had less social freedoms and legal rights than men. In contemporary egalitarian societies, however, men and women have pretty much the same freedoms and powers, and the same opportunities for education. […]

  8. […] Treat your wife with understanding as you live together. She may be weaker than you are, but she is your equal partner in God’s gift of new life. […]

  9. Tim says:

    Gender justice in marriage must be a welcome aspect of the gospel of freedom and grace for wives who have been oppressed and marginalized by husbands.

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