This is, of course, a question that would be answered differently by different Christians. (By "Christians," we are not referring to Protestants, Baptists, or any other group: we are referring to women and men who have received Jesus Christ, individually, by an act of the will, according to John 1:12, and have been born again, as Jesus prescribed in John 3:3-7. We're not simply referring to "church people," although Christians go to church. But as someone has aptly said, going to church doesn't make you a Christian, any more than going to McDonald's makes you a hamburger.) So I'm speaking for myself, and not for the body of Christ as a whole; and since my own understanding is limited at best, I'm going to the Bible for answers.
We've already touched on this subject in "The Difference Between Men and Women ", which has consistently been one of the most popular (or, at least, frequently read) posts on the blog; I suggest that, if you haven't read it, you do so before proceeding with this one. In a later post, we'll discuss the Biblical view of the male sex: but, since God chose to mention the woman before the man in such passages as Ephesians 5:21-28, Colossians 3:18, 19, and 1 Peter 3:1-7, we'll follow His example here.
The Christian church has often been accused of being "hostile to women," or "anti-feminine," or "seeing women as less important than men." That is definitely true of the hierarchy and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, and I have neither the inclination nor the patience to defend that institution. (I emphasize "hierarchy and teachings" to distinguish the Roman Catholic leadership from the "pew-sitters," the decent, intelligent individual members of the church.) If someone wants to accuse the Vatican of such things, they'll get no argument from me. But here I'm talking about the Biblical view of women, not the oppressive or simply goofy excesses of any one group or denomination, be it the Catholics, the ancient Pharisees, or the Puritans, who followed John Calvin instead of Jesus Christ as they burned the witches.
One of the basic principles that we need to keep in mind is very simple (although provocative), and was alluded to in the post previously cited. It's the fact that women are, by nature, more "spiritual," or inclined toward spiritual things, than men. Man was created from dirt: from "the dust of the earth" (Genesis 2:7). He's "earthy;" he's concerned with things of this world, and his own experiences - - - whether he's a ditch-digger or a philosopher. The woman, however, was created from human flesh (Genesis 2:21-22). Whether she's a child on the playground, or a waitress in a restaurant, or the Prime Minister of her nation, she is more spiritually-minded than her male counterparts. This fact is as certain as the difference between an X and Y chromosome; probably more certain. That doesn't mean she's necessarily "religious," or a believer in God; but whether she's a Christian, a Wiccan, or an atheist, she's inherently aware of spiritual realities, or at least curious about them. Even a female materialist will ascribe spiritual importance to something: the late Ayn Rand, a militant atheist, found it in philosophy and the Romantic school of literature.
So, taking it from there: yes, the Bible uses the phrase "the weaker vessel." And as the feminists yell, "We are not!", let's look at the context. God has just given wives some instructions on how to deal with their husbands (1 Peter 3:1-6). Then, after that hated passage about "subjection," He turns to the men: Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered (1 Peter 3:7).
"According to knowledge" means that a husband should be aware of, and sensitive to, the various aspects of his wife's character, nature, and temperament (and biology): he shouldn't deal with her on the basis of his own presuppositions. He is to honour her, not use her as a doormat or a servant or a sexual convenience, but as a fellow-heir of God's grace, "inferior" in no way. (The entire verse is instructing poor, earthy, stupid men, like me, on how to treat their wives properly; it's hardly an "anti-female" passage.) But please notice: at no place does the King James Bible say that the woman is "the weaker vessel." It's a simile: "deal with her as you would deal with a weaker vessel." (I'm not correcting or re-writing the Bible; I'm pointing out a simile.) And, like so very many things in scripture, this phrase has several meanings.
Some commentators say that "weaker" really means "more precious, more valuable." A fine crystal goblet is weaker, and should be handled more carefully, than an aluminum beer can. In this use of the word, the woman is seen as more complicated, more multi-faceted, and perhaps more beautiful than a man. The sculptor Robert Mickelson has captured this concept in one of his amazing glassworks:
In some ways, of course, women are physically weaker than men. But we're not talking in this post about whether women should be soldiers or firefighters. (A feminist once said that women would be good soldiers because they have "greater lower body strength." To which a well-known columnist replied, "Making them what? More attractive in retreat?") Men are capable of physical tasks that women aren't, and vice-versa. (Having just made a joke at the feminists' expense, we'll give them equal time: a feminist bumper sticker says "If men had babies, abortion would be a sacrament!") Assuming that the above application is correct, and that "weaker" does mean "more fragile, more valuable," what else does the phrase mean?
We've said that women are, by nature, more spiritually-minded than men. We've said what that means, and what it doesn't mean. This begs a logical question: If women are more spiritually-minded, then why does the Bible (never mind your church tradition) forbid women to become preachers? Why are women excluded from the "clergy?"
Before answering, I'd like to point out that this is the only occupation from which women are excluded in the Bible. The Bible doesn't say that women can't be doctors, lawyers, or politicians. It says that married women are to be "keepers at home" (Titus 2:5), and are responsible for overseeing home and family matters. (This is where we get the term "housekeeper." The Bible sets our vocabulary, and the dictionaries try to keep up with it!) But, despite what some of my beloved brethren think, this does not mean that a woman is forbidden to have a job or career, as long as it doesn't interfere with her family duties. God's ideal woman is described in Proverbs 31:10-38. The woman in that passage takes care of her home, even sewing the clothing for herself and her family; but she also conducts business, buying and selling real estate, and selling some of her needlework; she also finds time for charitable work outside the home. Anyone who says that a woman's place is "barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen" doesn't know the Bible, even if he's a Baptist evangelist or a Catholic priest. God isn't weird, and He isn't unreasonable. Anyway, what about the women that never marry, or never have children? But the preachers don't talk about them. It's inconvenient.
Throughout my adult life, every primary care physician I've had has been a woman, and they've all been excellent. I have had dealings with female attorneys and female judges in several different settings, and I've found them as skillful and competent (and sometimes more skillful and competent) than their male counterparts. I thank God that He's allowed these smart, capable professionals to play a part in my life. As for female politicians, they're a reality, and we all have our favorites; but, if you're part of the "barefoot and pregnant" brigade, find me two men who could have answered history's call more competently than Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher.
And yet, the Bible is very specific and clear in reserving the ministry of the Gospel, the pastorate, as an exclusively male province. Someone says, "If women can be Presidents and doctors, why not preachers?" Because this is their most significant area of weakness: this is where women are indeed "the weaker vessel."
We've already said that women are more spiritually-minded than men. But every strength has a corresponding flaw, and the flaw in a woman's spiritual-mindedness is discernment. Women, from the time that Eve was hoodwinked by the serpent, have lacked the same spiritual discernment that most men have - - - whether Christian or agnostic. Women are more easily fooled or deceived in spiritual matters. I repeat, in spiritual matters. I'm not impugning their acuity in other areas.
Here's one of the passages most despised by feminists: Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence (1Timothy 2:11-12). That's the part that they quote. But, just for novelty's sake, why don't we look at the reason, given in the very next verses? After all, "a text without a context is a pretext." Here's the complete thought: Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression (1Timothy 2:11-14). Does that mean that Adam didn't sin? Of course not. But he didn't sin because he had been deceived; he chose to sin deliberately. To be blunt, he chose to obey his wife's suggestion, rather than God's commandment.
It stands to reason, then, that if women are prone to deception in the spiritual area, God wouldn't put them in the position of preaching and teaching His word, at least to adults. I know this is offensive to some people, but your opinion or my opinion are less than worthless, when God has expressed His opinion.
Another voice is raised: "But the Bible says a woman is to keep silent in church!" Does it? Does it really? No, this is, again, a matter of context. It doesn't say that a woman can't sing or stand up and give a testimony of her salvation, or stand up and request prayer. It's much more specific than that.
The early church, during Apostolic times, practiced "speaking in tongues." This was a supernatural gift given as a means of praise and revelation before the completion of the Biblical canon; the gift is not given today. The church at Corinth was plagued by all sorts of problems, including incest, drunkenness, and general spiritual immaturity. This was also manifested by certain women who got "carried away" with the gift of tongues, and were disrupting church meetings. So, in his first letter to that church, Paul addressed the problem, in 1 Corinthians 14 - - - the entire chapter dealing with the proper and improper use of this gift. In that context, he said, For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints. Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church (1 Corinthians 14:33-35). He was saying that a woman shouldn't disrupt the service with an improper use of the gift on tongues. That's the context, but not one "feminist" in a hundred knows it.
This matter of women's capacity for deception goes much further than just a hackneyed gripe against Christianity. Look at the world's "great religions" and their founders. Judaism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Islam, Hinduism ... which of these had a female founder? On the other hand, look at the "religions" that women have started. Madame Blavatsky's Theosophy. Mary Baker Patterson Glover Eddy's "Christian Science." Aimee Semple McPherson's "Church of the Foursquare Gospel." I say this quite objectively: it seems that every time a woman tries to start a religion, it turns out to be a cult.
(Men start cults too, God knows: far more cults than women have ever founded. From Brigham Young to Jim Jones, men have cursed the earth with many cults. But that's not all that men do. They also create "religions" regarded as respectable, if not believable; and, most importantly, they preach and publish God's true and authoritative word, the Holy Bible.)
Where are the great female theologians? (I don't have much use for "theologians" of any sex, but I'm attempting to make a point.) This world has seen great female authors, artists, scientists, and political figures; but where is the female counterpart of Martin Luther, or Abraham Heschel, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Yusuf Ali, or even the Zen Buddhist Alan Watts?
So, in this day and age, how are women deceived in the spiritual area? Well, not all of them are! (This can't be emphasized enough. Women who have received Christ, and have His word, are not invariably going to be deceived; it's not inevitable! In fact, with the indwelling Holy Spirit and the word of God in their hand, they have all the advantages for finding and knowing the truth.) But they have an innate tendency to be deceived, just as earthy, sweaty, scheming men have a tendency to scoff and disbelieve and be cynical. (Neither sex is perfect!) When a Christian woman is deceived, it's usually through a misunderstanding or misapplication of scripture. This makes all the sense in the world, because it's Satan's favorite method of fooling someone. He even tried it with Jesus Himself: in all three of his challenges to Jesus in the wilderness, he quoted scripture: the accounts are found in Matthew 4, Mark 1, and Luke 4. In each case, Jesus defeated him with His superior command of the scripture.
But, in the context of this post, it should be noted that Satan did exactly the same thing with Eve. There was no scripture to quote at the time, of course, but he began by questioning what God had said. He didn't say "Hey Eve, let's run away and have an affair!" He didn't say, "Come on, Eve, let's have a few drinks and see what happens!" He was wiser than that; he knew that Eve wasn't that gullible. But he also knew that she believed God; so he approached her that way: Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? (Genesis 3:1). He started with Eve's belief in God's words, and twisted them, and ultimately contradicted them ... and she was deceived.
And that's how Christian women are deceived today, at least if they're sincerely attempting to follow the Lord. They read their Bible, and study their Bible, and the Holy Spirit gives them light to understand it. But there are some passages, and some subjects, in the Bible that are difficult for anyone to understand: and it's very easy for Christian women to misinterpret a passage, or believe the interpretation of some spiritual liar or huckster. (The followers of Benny Hinn and Joyce Meyer and Joel Osteen are primarily women; anyone familiar with the religious scene in America knows this.) Or a woman might seize a particular verse, and take it out of context, and build her whole life around it, or make a crucial decision on the basis of a misunderstanding. Notwithstanding Verdi's "La donna è mobile," I have never believed that women are particularly fickle; in my meagre experience of six decades, I have found them to be remarkably constant and loyal. But this strength can become a weakness when they have a misunderstanding of scripture in their heads. "I don't care what you say, preacher: Jesus said 'I am the door,' so I just know that He had to have a doorknob!" Once a woman gets a scriptural misconception in her mind, it's very difficult to dislodge.
And that's the area in which women are "weaker" than men. However, just as each strength has a corresponding weakness, many weaknesses have a corresponding strength. If women are more susceptible to being deceived, they're also quicker and more willing to believe the truth than men. That's why the Western world is full of homes in which a Christian wife serves her Lord as faithfully as possible for thirty or fifty years, while her husband scoffs and refuses to bend the knee to Christ.
One day, of course, these difficulties and distinctions will be moot, when Christians are gathered around the Throne of God in perfect unity and equality. In fact, on a spiritual level, they're moot already, although they can present the difficulties we've mentioned. Because, as Paul wrote to the Galatian Christians: For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:26-28).
In a future post, we'll discuss the nature of the male sex, and it won't be a particularly pretty picture! Both sexes have their strengths and weaknesses. But individuals of either sex are of equal value to God, Who sent His only Son to be tortured to death, so that we might live. In light of that sacrifice, and that victory, such matters as our various shortcomings become very insignificant indeed!