Can we talk about He-Man for a sec? I don't actually know anything about He-Man, except that he was among the repertoire of cartoons banned from our house growing up. My only context for him was a "club" my older brother and his friends started, "The He-Man Woman Haters," of which I was an honorary member. Blame it on my brother's hand-me-downs, worn flannel shirts and jeans with holes in the knees. You don't grow up in a houseful of boys without your inner tomboy making an early entrance. I could keep up with the best of them, run faster, spit farther, and climb higher. Among the women the He-Men hated, I was not counted. We spit-shook on it.
When people find out I grew up with seven brothers they assume I was the protected, doted-upon, princess of the lot. The story above, though, testifies just a bit of how that was not the case. I did not grow up feeling protected; if anything, I grew up feeling fiercely protective. My parents' deep work ethic was ingrained in us from a young age: we worked hard and were worked hard. Nothing was worth doing half-way and everything was worth doing. "Try, try again" was oft quoted and failure was only one practice session on the way to perfection. There were no traces of feminism in our home, but there was and is a deep sense of independence in each of us.
In the face of secular feminism, there has been a return to gentility among men in the church. They are encouraged to protect and serve their sisters, leading boldly amidst admonishments to "be a man!" It's been a great privilege to learn how to let men lead me, to refrain from mental spitting contests if they serve to do nothing more than assert my position among the guys around me. As a young unmarried woman with multiple degrees, a great job, and seeming success in multiple areas, it can be tempting to shrug off the efforts of my brothers to care for me. The reality is, I don't need them to take care of me (nor do I think the Bible instructs them specifically to do so.).
"Treat younger women as sisters," is the go-to verse for headstrong Timothys busting at the seams to swoop in and fix what they perceive to be broken. Many of them perceive many young women as broken and in need of their protection. Yet the absurdity of a young woman being under the protection of every young man resembles a page from a Where's Waldo book. Women trying to figure out who exactly they're supposed to seek for protection, and men running everywhere to put women everywhere under the proverbial umbrella. It's madness and chaotic—not the sort of thing an orderly God would ordain.
Here are three thoughts that have helped me think through this relationally:
1. Protection is not the same as headship.
There have been several times when young men in my life have stepped up and offered to "take care of a guy" for me—this doesn't, however, give them headship over me. There are other times when I have turned to my brothers and warned them to steer clear of unhealthy situations with girls.
We need leadership, yes, but we should not seek it in every willing body. There are two or three pastors at my church who hold that position for me: they are my protectors and my safe place, they keep watch over my soul.
2. If you are a young woman who feels unprotected, there is nothing wrong with you.
If you are a young woman who does not feel the immediate need of protection, there is also nothing wrong with you. God knit us together in unique and beautiful ways; some women are naturally wired to be capable and strong; some women are naturally wired to be mild and quiet. Both women, however, can learn from their sisters. And both women can learn from their brothers. I will always gravitate toward strong leadership because I am a strong leader. However, I am also fairly gentle and slow to speak up for myself, so I have had to learn that it is sometimes necessary for someone to speak up on my behalf.
If you're a single girl and a brother shows obvious partiality and protection toward you, ask him to make intentions clear. That is true protection, for you and for him. He needs to know it isn't his role to protect you. If he finds himself wanting to lead and guide you, see point three.
3. If you are a young man who finds yourself drawn to lead or be protective toward one young women more than others, consider that might be the nudging of the Holy Spirit.
Don't dismiss those "brotherly" feelings as simply that. If, however, you have checked your heart and are certain she is not the one for you, make it clear you are just looking out for a sister and do not show partiality. We women may be the weaker vessel, but no worries, we can spot a cad a mile away. Don't show partiality toward her unless you are interested in the possibility of showing partiality to her until death do you part. Feeling protective? Ask her out for coffee and tell her; see where it goes.
Reminders, not rules
Protection is not a male to female action, it is a sighted person leading a blind person to safety. It is the one who knows how to swim giving the drowning an arm. It is removing yourself or others from a dangerous situation. And sometimes it is simply looking at the facts and being honest with yourself and others about the implications. It is recognizing a capable person does not mean a perfect person.
This has nothing to do with headship or hierarchal relationships—this is christian brotherhood, loving and caring for the health of the sheep. These actions merely reinforce the reality that God protects His sheep, it's a physical reality of a spiritual truth. It is a reminder and not a rule.