Editor's note: This article appeared originally at The Beginning of Wisdom. Used with permission.

Recently my husband and I attended an outdoor concert for a band we both like. At the beginning of the first set a fight broke out behind us between a woman and a man. Both appeared to have lost track of their beverage count, and the woman was hitting and pushing the man, yelling that he was a child and an idiot. The man gently tried to calm her down, but after smacking him on the chest a few more times she stumbled toward the exit with him trailing behind. There was awkward laughter in the surrounding seats, and then everyone started listening to the music again.

Except me. I started thinking about weaker vessels.

In the study of First Peter I taught this spring, we covered those tricky passages on submission in Chapters 2 and 3, finally arriving at Peter’s words to husbands in 1 Peter 3:7:

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.

Peter’s comments to husbands are a subset of a discussion about how to live among unbelievers in a God-honoring way, urging submission to others as an expression of submission to God.  Having just addressed how a believing wife ought to live with an unbelieving husband, Peter addresses believing husbands about how to live with an unbelieving wife, describing her as the “weaker vessel”.  In the study homework I asked the women what Peter meant by “weaker vessel” – was he saying that women were morally weaker? Intellectually weaker? Emotionally weaker? Physically weaker? Their responses were telling: almost everyone correctly checked “physically weaker”, but about half of the group checked “emotionally weaker” as well.

I was bothered by this. It is probably fair to say that, generally speaking, women have easier access to their emotions than men do. But what message, implied or stated, had these women absorbed that led them to view this as weakness? Emotions are not a sign of weakness – emotions unchecked are. And anyone who has seen men hurl remote controls at sports coverage can verify that unchecked emotions are a problem for both genders. Both men and women can sin by letting emotions run wild, or by locking emotions away.  “Weaker vessel” must mean something else.

Help from History

This is where historical context becomes our friend.  At the time Peter writes, Roman law had begun to soften towards women. During the first century A.D., laws began to be passed giving women rights of property ownership and protection from domestic abuse, but for hundreds of years before this, the concept of the pater familas had reigned in the lawbooks and in the home.

The pater familias, or “family father” held sway in the home on all decisions regarding property and family. All property remained legally his until his death – should he live to be eighty, none of his adult sons could hold property. Moreover, he held the power of life and death (vitae necisque potesta) over every member of his family. Infants deemed too expensive to be raised could be left on the temple steps at his order, either to die from exposure or to be taken and raised as slaves.  Adult children could be executed by fathers who believed them to be rebellious or deceitful. And most relevant to our discussion, wives whose husbands held the legal power to put them to death could hope for little protection from domestic violence.

So, the Rome to which Peter writes, much like the American South in the eighty years following Abolition, is a Rome in which new laws are on the books but practices remain much the same. Peter instructs wives on how to live carefully with an unbelieving husband who could cause them (or their children) physical harm for having converted to a new religion, and then he admonishes husbands of unbelieving wives not to deal harshly with them, even though the culture would allow it.

Fragile or Useful?

So the intent of “show honor to the woman as the weaker vessel” would not seem to be "tiptoe around your wife's emotions" as my study members had speculated. Nor would it seem to be “treat your wife like fine china”, as is often taught. Though it is well-intentioned, I wish we would stop teaching that. Fine china is fragile, rarely used, rarely useful, and largely decorative. I don’t believe that is the picture Scripture paints of godly women, here or Proverbs 31:17-25.  Even Peter’s use of the word “vessel” should point out that 2 Timothy 2:20-21 is inherent in defining not just womanhood but personhood. Peter uses the term “weaker vessel” to point to the general truth that women are comparatively physically weaker than men. Take, for example, the fight I witnessed at the concert: Because she was hitting him we had an awkward moment. If he had been hitting her we would have called security. Peter is reminding husbands of this relationship. He is warning them not to use physical strength to intimidate or harm their wives.

Peter in no way diminishes the worth or capability of wives by comparing their physical strength to that of their husbands with a simple word picture. He is, in fact, guarding them from being treated contemptibly. Wives, your emotions are not a sign of weakness – they are a gift from the Lord and can be a great strength. You and your husband share equal potential for strength or weakness in all things moral, intellectual and emotional - question any teaching that states or implies otherwise. Husbands and wives, may we treat each other at all times as 2 Timothy 2:20-21, as Romans 9:22-24, as co-heirs of grace ordained for high and holy service to our Lord.

Jen Wilkin is a wife, a mom to 4 great kids, and an advocate for women to love God with their minds through the faithful study of His Word. She writes, speaks, and teaches women the Bible. She lives in Flower Mound, Texas and her family calls The Village Church home. You can find her at JenWilkin.blogspot.com

Publication date: September 24, 2012