In the apostle Peter’s first epistle he writes some words that can trip up the twenty-first-century reader. Both his instruction to wives and to husbands can make us say, “Whoa! What?” After telling wives to have gentle, quiet spirits, Peter adds an example: “Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear (1 Pet. 3:1–6). He goes on to tell the husbands to live with their wives “according to knowledge” because—and here’s the kicker—she is the “weaker vessel” (v. 7).
Are today’s wives to call their husbands “master”? Are women “less” than men? Is that what the Bible teaches?
First, by describing the godly woman as having a “gentle, quiet spirit,” Peter was not saying extroverted women trump introverted women. Nor was he saying that women with gifts of teaching and exhortation go against their feminine nature in exercising these gifts. A “spirit” here is not a personality type; it’s an attitude. So having a gentle, quiet spirit is an equal-opportunity option. Every woman has the opportunity to demonstrate a rock solid trust in God.
As for “calling him lord,” notice that in writing of Sarah and Abraham, Peter does not issue a command for wives to call their husbands, “lord” or “master” like Barbara Eden’s character in the old sit-com “I Dream of Jeannie.” If anything, doing so today would repel people from the faith. Even men. A study of 50,000 married couples has revealed that both husband and wife are more happy when both of them feel the freedom to speak up. In situations where only the husband isdominant, both husband and wife express less satisfaction.
The whole point of Peter’s instruction was to win them (3:1). So he is not saying women should shut up and be slaves to their husbands, or say “yes, master” to them—which in this day would repel rather than draw. Rather, he’s using Sarah’s wise behavior to illustrate his point about being respectful. In extracanonical Jewish writings roughly contemporary with Peter’s letter, Sarah frequently addressed Abraham as “lord.” And such speech revealed an honoring heart.
As for what it means to be a “weaker vessel,” Paul uses the word "vessel" elsewhere to refer to the physical body. Nevertheless, one commentator, who explains verse 7 erroneously, expresses what many fear this verse means: The implication of the fall is that by virtue of her being deceived by Satan, a woman is more easily deceived.
When I read such statements, I think of an experiment that researchers Dr. Russell Clark and Dr. Elaine Hatfield conducted at Florida State University in 1978 and 1982. Psychology students helped these experts conduct research in which a person of average attractiveness would approach someone of the opposite sex on campus and proposition him or her. The results: seventy-five percent of guys said yes, and if they said no, they usually offered a reason such as, “I’m married.” But not one single woman accepted the offer of a male. In fact, most told the guy in no uncertain terms to get lost. A multitude of theories have been put forth to explain these men’s and women’s choices, but it certainly seems to contradict the theory that women are more easily deceived than men—especially because the word “deceived,” as we are using it here, has connotations of being more vulnerable to sin.
Paul makes plain in his second letter to the Corinthians that all humans, not just women, are subject to deception as Eve was. Addressing the entire church, he wrote, “But I am afraid that just as the serpentdeceived Eve by his treachery, your minds may be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3). Both general and special revelation indicate that deception where temptation is concerned is not limited to women.
So what does it mean? Probably “weaker” simply means…weaker! Females on average have always had less muscle mass than men. This is less apparent to those of us living in a society in which we never hoist bags of grain, yank on mules’ bits, or cultivate our own gardens. But everyone in Peter’s audience would have been much more conscious of this differential than we are. Add to this the fact that childbirth was the number one cause of death for wives. Peter’s audience would have been quite aware of females’ physical strength relative to men’s.
In addition to physical weakness, and the risk of exploitation that accompanies it, women also had less social power. Note that Peter reminded husbands that their wives were their spiritual equals. Those who read in Peter’s “weaker vessel” description a reference to women as “lesser” see the opposite of his meaning here. Peter is elevating women. In his less-often-quoted but essential conclusion, he tells husbands to “show them (wives) honor as fellow heirs of the grace of life. In this way nothing will hinder your prayers.” The instruction to the husbands is to view their beloveds not as deficient creatures, but as a co-heirs.
That “heir” language, focused as it is on inheritance, would have sounded radical to those in a world that limited women’s ability to inherit and own property. In Christ, not only is the wife granted an equal inheritance with her husband, but his treatment of her influences how their impartial judge hears his prayers.
Peter’s picture, when lived out, then, is of a family structure in which the man and woman grant each other honor and respect. She respects him, he honors her: two sides of the same coin. And their interaction foreshadows a future they will share as joint-heirs, equals, when Christ reigns on earth.
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done….”