Pursuing Partnership Part 16B: Why the Confusion? The Interpretive Difficulties in 1 Peter 3

By Heather Althoff, ThM (Dallas Seminary), LifeWay Church – Missions Pastor

This article is part of the series Pursuing Partnership: Men and Women in Ministry.

Part 16B: Why the Confusion? The Interpretive Difficulties in 1 Peter 3

The Disputed Passages: Taking a Second Look at 1 Peter 3:1-9

Part B – The Weaker Vessel and Submission

Last week we jumped into 1 Peter3:1-9 by exploring the cultural context of the passage and investigating how this context might affect the nature of Peter’s instructions to husbands and wives as either a blueprint for healthy marriage in every situation or, perhaps instead, as a protective instruction for those in less-than-ideal to threatening situations.

Weaker…how?

This cultural background also goes a long way toward understanding Peter’s comments to husbands in 3:7, “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner (in some versions, weaker vessel)…”

Weakness is generally not a positive term, and many women today wonder if Peter is being offensive in his assessment. That difficulty only grows deeper when theologians of the past (and sadly, some in the present) have accused women of being spiritually weaker and more prone to deceit and sin than their male counterparts. The question is simply, what kind of weakness is Peter referring to here? The Greek verb, asthenes, is used elsewhere in the New Testament to refer to social weakness and physical weakness, so there are clearly several possibilities.

Understanding the power differentials inherent in the Roman culture, it becomes quite obvious that it would not have been offensive to state that a woman was weaker socially—it would have been acknowledging the cultural reality. Similarly, in a time when physical labor was more common and childbirth was the number one killer of women, the idea that women as a whole were physically weaker would have been more obvious than it might today. Whether Peter was indicating one of these realities or generally referring to both of them, the obvious point was that wives were at risk of abuse because of their size and their lack of social power. Sandra Glahn, professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, argues that, “those who read in Peter’s ‘weaker vessel’ description a reference to women as ‘lesser’ see the opposite 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 co-heirs.”[1]

Having seen the context of this passage, there are certainly alternatives to the traditional view of Peter’s intention as he encourages wives to submit to their unbelieving husbands and encourages husbands to show honor to his less-powerful wife.

Submitting

Just as in Ephesians 5, wives are specifically told to submit in this passage. From a complementarian perspective, it is significant that this directive is given to the wife, and not to the husband. The husband’s implicit authority and leadership are affirmed by the simple fact that wives are told to submit. This seemingly becomes even more clear when the corresponding call to wifely submission is coupled with the husband’s designation as her head in Ephesians 5 (for more information about the meaning of head, see Pursuing Partnership, 15a).

Egalitarian scholars stress several problems with this understanding. First, they argue, the difference in context prevents using Ephesians 5 to understand the intent of Peter’s instruction in 1 Peter 3. In Ephesians 5, the context is mutual submission among believers, while 1 Peter 3 addresses wives in a precarious situation with an unbelieving spouse. Secondly, as with Ephesians 5, scholars continue to debate precise meaning of hupotasso, and whether its usage in 1 Peter 3 would fall under the military/subordinate meaning or the non-military/non-hierarchical meaning (for more on these options, see Pursuing Partnership, 15b).

Finally, many scholars stress the significance of the other relationships in which Peter instructs submission. The readers as a whole are to submit to all human authorities (2:13), slaves are to submit to their masters (2:18), wives to their husbands (3:1), and those who are younger are to submit to their elders (5:5). In each case, Peter is instructing those with little power to humbly submit for the Lord’s sake (and presumably for their own safety). Peter connects their submission not only to evangelistic humility, but also to suffering injustice. He speaks of suffering for doing what is right (3:14), participating in the sufferings of Christ (4:13), and humbling themselves under God’s mighty hand so that He might lift them up in due time (5:6). The instructions to slaves in chapter 2 specifically connect the slaves’ conduct to the unjust suffering that Jesus endured.

Peter, then, directly follows this explanation with the instruction that wives should “in the same way” submit themselves to their husbands. The Greek word is homoios, meaning “in the same way” or “likewise,” leading many to understand that he is specifically talking to women who are, or could potentially be, enduring unjust suffering for which there is no legal or cultural solution. This, they argue, would mean that Peter’s words should not be understood as a blanket command for all wives to submit to all husbands in every situation.

Next week we will address the examples of Sarah and other holy women of the past.

For Discussion:  What understanding of the ‘weaker vessel’ seems most biblically consistent to you at this point and why? What does this discussion add to your thoughts about God’s heart in helping us understand  authority and  submission as His redeemed people?


[1] Glahn, Sandra. Is Peter Insulting Women? (Part 2), Blog Post, December 10, 2013

https://blogs.bible.org/is-peter-insulting-women-part-2/


This article is submitted by Wendy Wilson of Missio Nexus and of Women’s Development Track.  Women’s Development Track is a Missio Nexus member.  Member organizations can provide content to the Missio Nexus website. See how by clicking here.

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