Sarah Sumner’s chp 11 in Men and Women in Ministry discusses what 1 Peter 3:7 means when it says that women are the “weaker vessel.” Sarah begins with a lesson in how to do word studies, but first our questions.
My questions today: How might we “empower” women in order that they may not be seen as the “weaker” vessel in a redemptive sense? How can we do this “in church,” in society, at home, etc.? (If the primary senses of “weaker vessel” are either “physically weaker” or “sexually vulnerable”, then how might we empower women to minimize that weakness or empower it or protect it?)
Sumner looks up “weak” in a Webster’s Dictionary, sees that it means “inferiority of physical, mental, or moral strength.” Then she concludes that, if we use English dictionaries, we could conclude that being the “weaker” vessel means “inferior” to men. But, she immediately observes that we don’t do word studies by examining what English words mean, but have to examine the language and word of the original — so that means examining what asthenes means.
She observes that 1 Cor 1:25 (“the weakness of God is stronger than men”) shows that God is “weak” (relatively speaking); 2 Cor 13:4 uses the same term of Christ (“crucified because of weakness”) — therefore, she concludes (my terms), women are in good company. Overall, she concludes that “weaker” cannot mean “inferior.”
She argues that the word is best translated “more vulnerable.” In fact, she makes a big point at this point: men are not said to be “strong” vs. women being “weak” but the text implies that men are “weak” and women “weaker.”
In the next chp Sumner argues that “vulnerable” is particularly sexual in orientation — women are more vulnerable physically than men. It is about the design of the body.
Here’s a correction she insists on:
Lie: Women are vulnerable; men are invulnerable.
Truth: Men are vulnerable; women are physically more vulnerable than men (p. 135).
Here are some important other NT references to “weaker”: physical weakness (Mar 6:56; 2 Cor 12:7-10); humans are by nature weak (Heb 5:2); some parts of the body are weaker than others (1 Cor 12:22); spiritual weakness and neediness (Rom 5:6); weakness of the flesh (Rom 8:26); economic weakness (1 Cor 1:27).
It was conventional to speak of women as the weaker gender in the ancient world (see JH Elliott’s new commentary on 1 Peter, 576-577, if you have it, for references).
The vulnerability of women in the ancient world, and still in many ways in our world, required on the part of Christian men to be mindful and sensitive of their wives (or of women in general). That is Peter’s point. If they aren’t, Peter says, they will be spiritually stunted — their prayers will not catch the ear of God.