Sunday, May 16, 2021

Honoring the Weakness?

“Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel ...”

Here is a verse often considered controversial. Obviously it is not truly a matter of controversy; an apostle wrote that the woman is in some sense “weaker” than the man, and the Holy Spirit of God spoke through him when he did. He wasn’t being a misogynist; the very notion is ridiculous. So then, our responsibility as followers of Christ seeking to live for him is to accept what we read whether the notion of inequality of the sexes in any particular area appeals to us or not.

That said, while the verse itself is not controversial, how we choose to apply it may be, which causes modern interpreters to bob and weave a bit when they seek to explain it. And yet, whatever the words “weaker vessel” may mean, there is no question they apply specifically to women, and that they mean something. Whitewashing them away will not do.

The question that arises when we talk about relative weakness is “Weak in what sense?” Obviously conjecture will not help us determine that. We need facts and scripture, mostly the latter.

Physical Weakness

So, a few facts. First, it is undeniable that the adjective “weaker” applies to women in the physical sense. Sure, there are outliers and exceptions to every generalization. I have met the occasional woman who could probably bench press her husband, and I’m sure you have too. Still, on average, as LiveScience puts it:

“The sex difference is stark: Men are physically stronger than women, on average. A study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that men had an average of 26 lbs. (12 kilograms) more skeletal muscle mass than women. Women also exhibited about 40 percent less upper-body strength and 33 percent less lower-body strength, on average, the study found.”

LiveScience is an entirely secular publication, and the writer of the above statement, managing editor Tia Ghose, was not attempting to exposit 1 Peter when she wrote it. But it remains generally true. On average, men are bigger, stronger, faster and less susceptible to stress fractures under identical conditions. We hit harder and can carry more. (We also have less endurance in certain situations and tend to die younger, so there is that.)

So then, Peter could simply be referring to the obvious, couldn’t he? Men traditionally opened doors for women because we are better at moving heavy things. We reach the stuff of the top shelf for our wives because we are generally taller. We take out the garbage and haul the groceries because lifting is generally easier for us than for the average woman. It’s not that women can’t do these things. They often do. It’s simply that we do them more easily.

Other Kinds of Weakness

Physical weakness is generally accepted as a reasonable interpretation of the passage. It is when we explore other possibilities that the controversy arises. GotQuestions is unusually daring in this regard:

“That women are usually physically weaker is undeniable, but the implication of the fall is that by virtue of her being deceived by Satan, women may also sometimes be weaker in other ways.”

The word “may” is italicized in the original, so there is a little bet-hedging going on here, and a fair measure of qualifying immediately follows: “That definitely does not mean she is less valuable (Ephesians 1:6) or that she does not have equal access to grace (Galatians 3:28).”

Bases covered then. But there are a couple of New Testament passages we should probably not ignore if we are considering other possible intended meanings of “weaker vessel”.

The Woman was Deceived

Paul refers Timothy to the Genesis account when explaining why a woman should not teach in church settings or exercise authority over a man. The apostle writes, “Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”

First and foremost this is a historical argument. Some things happened in Genesis 1-3 that account for God’s present rules for the church and the household. But there may be something more than just a historical argument going on here. Paul may be saying that the daughters of Eve today are still more susceptible to deception than men, just as Eve was deceived while Adam was not. That might explain 1 Timothy 2:15, which certainly seems to suggest deception may pose an ongoing problem from which women need to be saved: “Yet she will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” If Paul’s argument was only historical, there would be no pressing need for women to be “saved” in this sense.

So then, Peter may be referring to a potential weakness in spiritual discernment that afflicts one sex more than the other. Obviously that does not mean that every woman is less capable of seeing through the wiles of Satan than her husband, or that Christian women are all condemned to lives of gullibility. It is a general statement of tendency among members of a group, something to watch out for, be aware of and avoid. And there are plenty of examples in scripture of discerning women who did.

Giving Way to Fear

Yet another possibility is that Peter is referring to a general tendency among women toward fearfulness. To my mind, context makes this the strongest candidate for Peter’s intended meaning as it is right there in the context, whereas physical strength is not even mentioned. Speaking to women, he says, “And you are [godly Sarah’s] children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.” The implication may be that fearfulness of one sort or another is a peculiarly female tendency. Again, that does not mean that all women are fearful and all men are fearless; it speaks to a general trend, not about particular individuals.

The Greek word for fear here is phobeĊ, which can indeed suggest fearfulness. But in Ephesians, the same word is translated “respect”. So Peter may not necessarily be counseling women to buck up and pull themselves together when they find themselves obsessing about all the bad things that may happen to them or to those they love, though that is one possibility. Another is that he is referring to a greater tendency among women to grant credibility to the pronouncements of purported authorities, especially pseudo-religious authorities, who are undeserving of their respect. Paul warns Timothy of men with the “appearance of godliness” who will “creep into households and capture weak women”. These women give undeserved respect and credibility to false teachers.

Is this what Peter means by weakness? Your mileage may vary. My own observation is that people are all different. The fact that we may observe a general tendency among a certain segment of the population does not mean your daughter will struggle with the same things mine will. A predisposition among women generally does not mean your wife will necessarily be undiscerning or fearful. Male or female, we all have our unique combinations of strengths and weaknesses, maturity and immaturity, faith and fear. But even if we regard ourselves as immune from such temptations, we should not be offended at the suggestion we might be particularly susceptible to one satanic trick or another. “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”

He, or she.

Showing Honor to the Woman

Finally, I have heard the occasional commentator on this passage make reference to “honoring the weakness”. Regardless of what we may believe the specific “weakness” in view to be, that’s not what Peter is teaching. The apostle does not say, “Honor the weakness.” He says, “... showing honor to the woman.” That’s different. The honor is directed to the person, not to the particular conditions she may be coping with.

Fear, lack of discernment or even physical flimsiness are conditions that afflict us in a fallen world. They are not in themselves admirable. But a woman who persists in honoring God and obeying him despite fear, frailty, and/or discomfort in going head-to-head with the forces of evil is admirable indeed.

A husband or father may be understanding and sensitive toward a particular set of difficulties with which his wife or daughter struggles without coddling, excusing or drawing attention to the features of her character that he knows put her at risk. Thank the Lord they will be gone someday! But he shows honor and appreciation to her as a fellow heir of the grace of life, and does so by making it his job to ensure she is as protected as possible from unnecessary temptation, testing and threat, especially the sort of temptation that arises from the lack of godly leadership. Instead of punting the ball in times of crisis, he puts her needs before his own.

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