Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Protecting the Weaker Sex

Protecting the weaker sex

A couple of weeks ago a reader named Rich left a comment on one of my posts.[1] 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 pretty much the same freedoms and powers, and the same 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 are usually what is most needed, and these qualities are not tied to sex and gender. Plenty of Bible women were courageous and enterprising.[2] 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 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 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 will 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

Many women are concerned about the safety and protection of 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.[3] It is ludicrous to think that these women are fragile vessels.

Many women cope very well with the difficulties and stresses of leadership. There are numerous examples of women who are skilled and competent leaders.  My personal observations of women leaders are that they handle confrontations, conflicts, and criticisms better than many men.

Men and Women Leading Together

Since ministry does not usually include heavy lifting or hand to hand combat, I cannot see that masculine physical strength is important, or an advantage, for church leaders. Moreover, there are many different ways of being a leader. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul described his leadership 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.  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.

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 protection.  (It doesn’t take any courage to “protect” those who are already safe and well.)

For the men who want to protect women:

Some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world are in fact women and girls who live in patriarchal societies and 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 this ministry to the women who actually need it, and stop treating capable women in a condescending way.


[1] Rich’s comments, and my replies, can be found here and here.

[2] 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)[3]; 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, esp 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” or “defender”.

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 (LXX) could be called the “courageous” (Greek: andreia) woman (cf. Proverbs 12:4).

[3] 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.

Related Articles

The Women who Protected Moses
A Suitable Helper
Bible Women with Spiritual Authority
A “Weaker Vessel” and Gender Justice (1 Peter 3:7)
Paul’s Masculine and Feminine Leadership
Leading Together in the Home

Posted February 16th, 2012 . Categories/Tags: Equality and Gender Issues, Equality in Ministry, , , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

26 comments on “Protecting the Weaker Sex

  1. Rich says:

    Just a slight correction to my comments – I never said a woman could not be a leader in the church. I merely stated that the role of pastor is gender specific to men.
    I also did not say women were weaker, and my apology if it was taken that way.
    1 Peter 3.7 does tell us that the Lord defines women as the Greek: asthenes = weaker or fragile vessel.

  2. Marg says:

    Hi Rich,

    Thanks for your response.

    In most churches, leaders are given titles. In many Christian denominations, church leaders are given the title of “pastor”. If you do not think women can be pastors, do you think they can be “reverends” or “priests” or “apostles” or “elders” or church leaders that have titles other than “pastor”? (I personally think that most churches overdo the importance of titles for senior leaders.)

    As stated in previous comments there is simply no New Testament verse that says that only men can be pastors, or, to use your words, “that the role of pastor is gender specific to men”. 1 Peter 5:1-4 does not exclude women in the Greek; it does not say that only men can be elders and function as pastors.

    Other than in Ephesian 4:11, the Greek noun or title for “pastor” or “”shepherd” (poimēn) is only used for Jesus Christ as Shepherd. No one – male or female – is called a pastor in the NT; no one except for Jesus Christ.

    I’m afraid that I don’t understand your apology. Are you trying to say that you don’t think women are weaker than men? If so, why do you follow this apology with the comment that the Lord defines women as weaker or fragile.

    I don’t think that Peter’s metaphor can qualify as the Lord’s definition. I do not recall Jesus ever implying that women are weak and in need of the protection of men. Even though, in that society, at that time, men could have generally, more easily afforded protection (e.g. John 19:26-27). As I mentioned in my article, women were weaker when Peter wrote his letter. Many women were greatly disadvantaged and powerless compared with men. In modern society this is often no longer the case.

    I hope that your desire to protect people will be used to help those who are genuinely disadvantaged. I also hope that you will encourage both men and women to function in ministry to their true God-given potential.

  3. Joyful says:

    I believe that studying the word used in the 1 Peter 3:7 passage has brought much clarity to my mind on this topic. In fact, it has caused me to stand in awe of God’s great power to work out His majestic purposes in the context of a very broken world.

    1 Peter 3:7 Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the [asthenes], and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.

    In 1Co 1:25-27 we are told that “… the [asthenes] of God is stronger than men.” and “God hath chosen the [asthenes] of the world to confound the things which are mighty;” And in 1Co 12:22 we learn that “… those members of the body, which seem to be more [asthenes], are necessary …

    In Matthew 25:43, Jesus tells us that He was the [asthenes] that some ministered to and others overlooked. When Paul lists his “credentials” in 1Co 4:10, he includes this term: “… we are [asthenes], but ye are strong …

    Would it be fair to say that using the passage in 1 Peter to sideline women because of the attribute of being weak (asthenes)–rejecting their leadership capacity–would only be consistent if God, Jesus, and Paul were including in the same ban?

  4. Marg says:

    Joyful, Thankyou for sharing this! This is so good!

    God does indeed use the weak and the foolish. Perhaps even Jesus and Paul qualify as being weak and foolish when judged according to the world’s standards. Sadly, I think that most of the church continues to ‘judge’ people – including potential leaders – by the world’s standards instead of recognising God’s counter-cultural values.

    I like what Paul said on the subject of weakness, “When I am weak [asthenēs], then I am strong.” 2 Cor 12:10.

    But the Lord said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions,in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Cor 12:9-10

  5. Joyful says:

    Marg, Thank you for bringing up the topic!

    A really deep study of the use of this term, asthenes, in the NT has really rocked me. It all began when I was listening to Jim Wilder (of Shepherd’s House and Thriving) cover this very subject.

    He was explaining how the weak and the strong are both essential to a vibrant community. His observations included thoughts about how we are all cycling in and out of the roles of “the weaker” and “the stronger” all the time. And that being “the weaker” is actually the more blessed position because it is then that God is near and shows Himself to be our helper. (Hebrews 13:5-6)

    It would seem our communities of faith are in greatest danger when they allow value and honor to be given only to those they perceive to be strong in some way.

  6. Marg says:

    I agree. Also, if strength is always esteemed, and weakness eschewed, Christians will tend to hide their frailties from their brothers and sisters, and community life will be the poorer for it.

  7. Judy says:

    Great article, thanks Marg! I’m so encouraged with many of your posts!

  8. Donna says:

    The info given on equality of men are women is right on. However, I believe that, and I speak as a woman, the protection that women need is more on an emotional level: reassurance that we will always be cherished. Woman do have a need for security although that doesn’t necessarily mean in practical issues. Women have talents in finance, leadership, whatever. Woman by design are nurturers and are made to be more in tune with emotions. Our deepest need — it may look different for each of us as individuals — is to be satisfied emotionally. And yes women/girls need also to be protected in patriarchal societies as in biblical times.

  9. Marg says:

    Hi Donna, I appreciate your thoughts. I agree that our individual needs are all different, but that women, generally speaking, do have deeper emotional needs. However, some husbands aren’t very good at meeting emotional needs. The modern concept of expecting our spouse to meet all our needs puts a great strain on marriages.

    • Madonna Walsh says:

      I agree. Good never told us to meet each other’s needs. That’s because only he can do that. The only need we are to meet are the sexual need. To say that a man or woman can meet your need is to say that God isn’t necessary. Most people don’t even know what it is they need. I think the enemy have very skillfully crafted a lie that puts our eyes and hopes on each other, thereby putting unimaginable pressure on the roles of the husband and the wives which in the end less to stride and divorce. I mean the bible clearly states the arms of flesh will fail you and cursed is the man who puts his trust in man. Bottom line is if we look to God and not our spouse to meet our needs then married people will stay married and divorce will be an impossibility

      • Marg says:

        Madonna, I hear what you’re saying. Yet I believe that God does want people to meet the needs of others. We are all to serve and help one another.

        Wives (Genesis 2:20) and husbands (Ephesians 5:28-29) have a special obligation to help each other; we have a duty to meet the needs of our spouse to the best of our ability. We are to please our spouse and make them happy (cf 1 Corinthians 7:33-34; Deuteronomy 24:5).

        That is not to say that we will fail at times, especially as some husbands and wives are selfish and hard to please. Nevertheless we are to help them and meet their real needs (and not their whims or harsh and harmful desires.)

        What we shouldn’t do is rely on our spouse to meet our needs. Some men and women are simply incapable of providing for the needs of others, and some are incapable of bringing happiness. As we all know, some husbands and wives bring sorrow and pain, rather than joy.

        Ultimately, we all look to the Lord as the giver of good things . . . perfect things! (James 1:17).

  10. Don Johnson says:

    I think it is deliberate that the term shepherd was gender neutral when used in its natural sense, as there were both male and female shepherds in the Bible and in that 1st century culture. So when it is used in its spiritual sense, it would be expected to have the same gender neutral connotation, UNLESS there was some specific teaching otherwise, for example with the Levitical priests in the Mosaic covenant.

    • Marg says:

      Poimēn (shepherd/pastor) is grammatically masculine in the Greek. (Not sure whether it’s masculine or feminine in Hebrew.) But of course, the grammatical gender doesn’t necessarily match that actual gender of the person, especially as masculine is the default gender when speaking about people.

      • Donald Johnson says:

        I was not referring to the grammatical gender. I was referring to the example of a shepherd having both male and female examples in real life and also in the Bible. In other words, to call someone a shepherd does not imply anything about their gender without more information.

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