We all know about schoolyard bullies—kids who rely on physical strength to dominate others and rule the playground. The strict gender dichotomy some Christians argue for similarly elevates physical strength, furthering the myth that men's physical strength uniquely qualifies them for the role of protector.
In this flawed gender dichotomy, men are the protectors of and providers for women. This role is supposedly paramount to their manhood. Women are thus in need of men’s protection and provision, and they passively receive it. Women are not, then, co-agents who help to create a safer and more secure world.
Yet, God clearly commands the man and woman in Genesis to rule over and care for the earth together. While there are many examples of men protecting women in the Bible, God doesn’t make protection and provision the sole responsibility of men. Rahab, Esther, Michal, Phoebe, and many other Bible women protected and provided for men. These women illustrate that God equips men and women to protect and provide together.
God wants men and women to jointly protect the world and each other. But how should we understand this calling practically in a modern world?
1. We don’t keep peace in our world today primarily with our fists.
The vast majority of dangers in today’s world cannot be stopped by a man’s strength alone. A huge portion of modern crimes involve a weapon of some sort, making men’s overall greater physical strength (biologically speaking, men are generally stronger than women) a less decisive advantage. Muscles can’t overcome bullets, blades, bombs, or chemical toxins.
Also, many criminals work in groups. Victims are often outnumbered, and their physical strength can’t usually balance that power differential. In these situations, an individual man’s strength does not give him much of an edge over a woman who may be physically weaker.
Certainly, some perpetrators of violence do use physical strength to overpower. And unfortunately, women are already more likely to be victims of gender-based violence and physical and sexual abuse. But it’s worth noting that we as a society don’t often train women and girls to mentally and physically respond to these threats, leaving them either more vulnerable to abuse/attack or reliant on male protection. Arguably, we make it more likely that they will be victimized.
Additionally, most men don’t deal with criminal threats via a physical altercation. They utilize societal safety nets like calling the police, carrying a defense device, using a security system, or leaving a situation at the first sign of danger.
Women are every bit as capable as men of taking action to respond to or prevent a threat. And many women are trained in self-defense or are capable of fighting off an attacker—which is not to say they wouldn’t welcome the assistance or expertise of someone (man or woman) better trained/equipped to do so. Even if this isn’t the norm, there is no reason why it shouldn’t be.
Strong husbands, fathers, and brothers are not the answer to gender-based violence. Rather, we need strong women working in conjunction with strong men to build a safer society. Even in societies where physical strength plays a greater role, women should be empowered in every way possible to join with men in their homes and communities to create a safer world.
2. The formula for gender roles is far too narrow, excluding many men and women.
The gender dichotomy that designates man as protectors and woman as protected is not feasible for single women, women who travel alone for work, women with no surviving or present male family members, women who have been abused by the men in their lives, men who are not as strong as other men, or men who have physical disabilities. Neither does it make sense for women with black belts or superior physical training to restrict gifts that could help keep others safe.
3. Men should not be “objectified” as protectors and providers only.
I applaud the many men—physically strong or not—who are willing to put their lives and bodies on the line to protect the women they love from harm. This isn’t a critique of men who make sacrifices for the people they love. That’s beautiful and honorable, and we should praise and admire selfless love when we see it in action.
But we shouldn't expect men to carry this burden alone. We shouldn’t assume that women can’t share the role of protector and provider, or that women always need men to fill that role.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen physically smaller men rejected by potential female partners because of their size, and I can only imagine how much that exclusion must hurt. It’s as unfair to expect all of God’s sons to have the same physical gifts and appearance as it is to expect all women to be thin and gorgeous.
Further, when we prize physical strength in men and ignore the strength, ingenuity, and strategic awareness of women, we don’t acknowledge God’s diverse gifts.
And what about men who want to be valued for more than their ability or inability to disarm an opponent in a crisis? Men have so many gifts—some are natural nurturers; some are artists and writers; some are good with numbers; and some are quick thinking and strategic. And we need them all in the body of Christ.
4. Women deserve recognition for their contributions to others’ safety.
Women are certainly capable of protecting and providing for themselves and others. Many men find themselves grateful for the wisdom and expertise of women in crises.
Women may protect and provide in different ways at times, but that says less about women’s ability and more about our narrow understanding of provision and protection. Protecting and providing for our spouses, our children, our communities, and our world goes far beyond physically getting in the way of violence. And women do that too!
Women are just as responsible as men are for protecting themselves and for protecting the vulnerable in our society. And novel though it may seem, women are also responsible for protecting men because Christians—men and women—are called to lay down our lives for others.
Women are strong and capable. Women are not always victims, and men are not always rescuers. Life is far muddier than that.
We should not grant the title of protector solely to men. Though some Christians would have women sit on their hands and pass that responsibility entirely to men, I believe God calls men and women to jointly protect and provide for the world, the vulnerable, and those they love.