A couple of weeks ago a reader named Rich left a comment on one of my posts. Rich believes that only men can be church leaders. He seems to think that women, as the weaker sex, need to be protected from the difficulties and challenges that can arise in leadership. In this context he wrote: “This is not to place women lower in the standing in the church, but rather, raise them up as a ‘fragile vessel’ worthy of protection.” Rich followed this with a topical sentiment: “God wants men to ‘man up’ and become the leaders and protectors of women and young people they need to be.” Rich is not alone in his views.
Do women need the protection of the men in the church? Do women need the protection of the men in broader society?
Protected or Patronised?
Women were typically less powerful than men when Peter described them using the metaphor of a “weaker vessel” (1 Pet. 3:7). Women were disadvantaged because they were usually less educated and had less social freedoms and legal rights than men. In contemporary egalitarian societies, however, men and women have similar freedoms and powers, and similar opportunities for education. As a group, women in contemporary societies are not intellectually or rationally weaker than men. Nor are they morally or spiritually inferior.
Most women, however, are physically weaker than most men, but physical strength is not necessarily required when protecting and caring for people. In difficult and dangerous situations, courage, enterprise, and intelligence can be what is most needed, and these qualities are not tied to sex and gender. Plenty of Bible women were courageous and enterprising. These women make inspiring role models for men and women.
Most women are not as helpless and fragile as Rich seems to think. They do not need to be protected from challenges and difficulties in the church or in general life. Moreover, treating women as fragile vessels does not ‘raise’ them; it diminishes and suppresses them. It is insulting to treat a capable person as though they are weak and fragile. Most women in the church, and women who live in reasonably safe egalitarian societies, do not need or want to be “protected”, that is, patronised, by men.
Safe or Stifled?
Men and women should be concerned with the safety and protection of other human beings, including the safety and protection of vulnerable people, young people, and children. But we need to be careful that we do not become over-protective. If we are over-protective of our children, for example, they will fail to develop into resourceful, confident, and independent humans beings.
If churches treat their women as weak, the women will tend to see themselves as weak and behave as though they are weak. Their personal growth may be stunted, and the expression of their unique gifts and qualities stifled. Also, if a church truly believes women are weaker than men, they are less likely to give women the same opportunities as men in ministry. Instead of “protecting” and patronising women, the church should be encouraging and empowering her women.
Women who Protect and Lead
Most women have a desire to protect others. Some women have even made it their occupation. In the Australian state of Victoria, the highest ranking police officer during the years 2001-2008 was a woman, Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon. And currently, Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn holds the second highest rank in the New South Wales police force. It is ludicrous to think that these women are fragile and need the protection of men.
Furthermore, many women cope well with the difficulties and stresses of leadership. There are numerous examples of women who are skilled and competent leaders. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany since 2005, is one outstanding example. My personal observations of women leaders are that they handle and resolve interpersonal confrontations, conflicts, and criticisms better than many men.
Since Christian ministry does not usually include heavy lifting or hand to hand combat, I cannot see that masculine physical strength, or masculinity in general, is important or an advantage for church leaders. Moreover, there are different ways of being a leader. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul described his leadership style using both maternal and paternal imagery (1 Thess. 2:7-8; 11-12). The church could do with more leaders who have a maternal disposition.
I think Rich is deluding himself if he thinks that cosseting women as fragile vessels and denying them the opportunity to be church leaders “raises” or elevates them. Or that women are somehow especially “worthy of protection”. I suspect that men who claim to be protecting “fragile” women are in reality protecting their own self-interests by suppressing women and keeping them in a dependent, subordinate state. Ideally, men and women should enjoy mutually interdependent, supportive, and caring relationships, and protect those who need protecting.
Protecting Those who Need Protection
Both men and women should be concerned with protecting the disadvantaged and vulnerable, regardless of whether these genuinely weak and disadvantaged people are male or female. I hope men and women will use their courage, strengths, and abilities to help these people who really need it. (It doesn’t take any courage to “protect” those who are already safe and well.)
One area of concern, though, is the high incidence of sexual harassment and sexual assault among women, with men being the usual perpetrators of these crimes. Rather than putting most of the focus on keeping women safe, it would be helpful if men make no allowance of sexist language and behaviour from other men, and promote mutual respect between the sexes.
Nevertheless, some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world are in fact women and girls who live in patriarchal societies where they are dependent on men. What are Christian men like Rich doing to help these poor women and girls who really are in need of protection? Men who feel it is their calling to protect women should direct their ministry to the women who actually need it, and stop treating capable women in a condescending and diminishing way.
 The Bible contains many examples of women who were willing to risk their lives to help others. Brave Bible women include: Jael (Judges 4:21; 5:24-27); the woman who killed Abimelech (Judges 9:53); Rahab (Joshua 2:1-6); Abigail (1 Samuel ch 25); the servant girl who was given a dangerous task (2 Samuel 17:17-18); the woman of Bashurin (2 Samuel 17:19-20); Esther (Esther 4:11 & 16); and Priscilla, who risked her life for Paul’s sake, as did her husband Aquila (Romans 16:3-4). The Hebrew word for “helper” (ezer)—used in Genesis 2 to describe the first woman—can mean “rescuer”.
Other Bible women, also, have shown commendable initiative, shrewdness and courage, women such as Tamar (Genesis 38, esp v26), Naaman’s wife’s servant (2 Kings 5:3), Ruth (Ruth 1:15-18; 2:2), the Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah (2 Samuel 20:15-22), etc. The “virtuous” or “noble” woman in Proverbs 31:10 might be called the “courageous” woman. (The Greek word used in the LXX translation is andreia (cf. Proverbs 12:4).
 At the time of writing, Catherine Burn is one of three deputy commissioners of NSW. One of the three deputy commissioners of the Victorian police force is also a woman, Deputy Commissioner Lucinda Nolan.