Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last fifty years, chances are you’ve likely heard of the feminist movement. The ways in which Christianity have influenced the movement usually move feminists toward a secular mindset because of the fundamental interpretation of the New Testament. Many believe that fundamental Christianity is misogynistic, and there are certainly many verses that could lead a woman to believe this to be so. Not the least of these is 1 Peter 3:7.
Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.
1 Peter 3:7.
Weaker vessels, huh? This is exactly the kind of rhetoric that the feminist movement might use to prove the bible to be a chauvinistic document, and the verse could certainly be fairly interpreted as such. Fundamental interpretations conclude that 1 Peter 3:7 is yet another example of man being the designed head of household as well as the mentally and physically superior being. Obviously women are physically weaker than men, statistically speaking, but some Christians conclude that women are more susceptible to fall into temptation- some of their evidence being Adam and Eve’s creation story. Because of Eve’s fall into temptation, many Christians believe that women are physically and mentally weaker than men. As 17th century theologian Matthew Poole put it, weaker vessel meant “Weaker than the husbands, and that both in body and mind, as women usually are. Weak vessels must be gently handled… it is a part of that prudence according to which men should dwell with their wives, to have more regard to them because of their infirmities, bearing with them and hiding them.”
Obviously this world view is prone to draw criticism from progressive and feminist groups. Many female activists believe that verses like 1 Peter 3:7 contribute to a learned helplessness among women. They believe that the bible supports the idea that women need men to live a fulfilling life, and that without a man to guide them, their life would be without direction. The cited website above even calls the validity of the bible as a whole into question because of the questioned validity of these supposedly discriminatory verses- are women weaker vessels? If one doesn’t believe so, then why would he or she believe the rest of the bible? Some contextual and cultural insight may provide sufficient evidence that Christians may have been the liberators of their time- even the author of 1 Peter.
To understand the ways in which 1 Peter chapter 3 may have sought to liberate women, one must first understand the lifestyle that women were bound to in first century Rome. 1 Peter chapter 1 verse 8, chapter 2 verse 10, and chapter 4 verse 3 all imply that the intended recipients of 1 Peter were mostly converted Gentiles. It is a circular letter written to those living in the northwest section of Asia Minor, so it is reasonable to believe that the audience was pagan before their conversion. Pagan, Roman women, as well as pagans in other societies at the time, were often viewed as commodities rather than valuable contributors to society in the first century. While Roman women usually had more luxuries and rights than their counterparts in Greece, they certainly were not leaders of their communities, and they often were limited to jobs such as sewing. They received little education and were victims of a strict patriarchal society. They were certainly not viewed as men’s equals. Caesar Austus famously exiled his own daughter, Julia because she wouldn’t conform to the traditional roles that women were supposed to assume.
Some interpretations of 1 Peter 3:7 conclude that women weren’t referred to as physically or mentally
“weaker vessels” in this particular passage, but rather that “weaker vessel” is referring to their common place in society within the pagan world that surrounded the Christians of the Roman Empire. The word “weaker” is translated from a form of the Greek word asthenei, which means powerless or without strength. Peter may be referring to a cultural weakness in which a wife does not have basic human rights extended to women such as we are familiar with in the West of the 21st century. Peter’s instruction to husbands in the latter part of the verse flies in the face of what most of the former pagans would’ve been familiar with in the culture that they existed in. Peter instructed husbands to revere and honor their wives, whereas these women would’ve been treated as children or property in pagan homes. Christianity may have shared the view that men were superior to women in terms of societal limitations, physiology, and even, perhaps, mentality, but it stood in stark contrast to the pagan world because of the respect that Christian men were to show their wives, or as they would’ve said, their sisters in Christ.
On the surface, 1 Peter may seem oppressive to contemporary women of today, but further research gives way the potential for misinterpretation by those that the book offends. “Weaker vessel” does not necessarily mean lesser being. Consider the difference in ideas between Christians and pagans in terms of how men should treat their wives. Christians were quite progressive for the time period. The objective reader cannot read this passage in a vacuum; one must understand how society as a whole effected theology. Regardless of if one believes in the fundamental interpretation of the text or ones like I have cited here, it is undeniable that the Christian perspective- that wives were to be respected and that they were children of God as opposed to a commodity or property- is one that broke boundaries for the time period.