From a Christian perspective, what does it mean to be a man? How the church answers that question is formative in the ways we seek to cast a redemptive vision for not only manhood, but womanhood as well.
The problem is that we don’t always answer the question well.
Toxic masculinity is a term that has come into the public consciousness over the last couple of years to describe the kind of culture that serves to suppress and disenfranchise women (as well as many men). Not that all forms of masculinity are necessarily toxic. There’s just a version of it that is.
Some Christians will argue that “toxic masculinity” is really just a slur that refers to “biblical manhood.” But it’s my belief that the two could not be any more different.
Toxic masculinity is defined by an overwrought fixation on being manly. In order to be a real man, you need to be aggressive, strong, competitive, and sexually virile. You need an affinity approaching obsession for red meat, guns, beautiful women, and winning. Toxic masculinity glorifies violence, dominates others, and possesses very little empathy.
A sanitized version of this vision for manhood often slips into our churches in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. And when we fail to address toxic masculinity in the church, it often has devastating results.
Toxic Masculinity in the Evangelical Church
The example of toxic masculinity that’s most fresh in our minds is that of Mark Driscoll. A recent report revealed that he excommunicated a family from his church and even had them surveilled by a private investigator in response to their teenage son kissing his teenage daughter. The excommunicated family is now suing Driscoll’s campus pastor for wrongful imprisonment, after he locked their teen son in his office to berate him about the forbidden kiss.
But Driscoll, and others like them, have long seen hyper-masculinity as a God ordained part of their complementarian theology. In their minds, God created men to be strong, willing to pick fights and exert top-down control over leadership situations. Women are weak and need protecting, even to the detriment of their personal agency.
And while Driscoll’s unhinged behavior is an extreme case of evangelical toxic masculinity gone awry, his abusive actions are not incongruent with the ideology of those within his theological camp. Owen Strachan, an influential theologian and author, recently caused a stir when he tweeted that a women’s vocation was that of homemaking, which includes cooking, cleaning, changing diapers, and “sewing, knitting, etc.”
This vision for breadwinners and submissive homemakers finds its roots more in post World War 2 white American values than it does in biblical theology. But we often baptize our cultural values, reading them back into the text of scripture.
Never is that more clear when we’re unwilling to change our practices along with the broader culture. Not that we should follow every whim of popular culture. But our wholesale inability to reassess our views on gender roles betrays that we’ve been conflating our culture with eternal truth.
But what does biblical manhood actually look like if not hyper-masculine, authoritarian leadership at home and in the marketplace? Here are three thoughts.
1. Gender Stereotypes and Biblical Gender Roles Aren’t the Same Thing.
Regardless of how anyone lands on the issue of women in leadership or complementarian versus egalitarian theology, we absolutely must refuse to allow cultural stereotypes to inform our understanding of the divinely created order for the genders.
And yet, toxic masculinity has a way of finding a safe home in our public discourse about biblical manhood and womanhood.
Another viral tweet making its rounds on the internet drew a parallel between woodworking and pastoral effectiveness, saying, “If your pastor can’t operate a chop saw effectively, don’t expect him to confront sin effectively.”
At first, I thought this was a joke. I mean, it had to be satire. But as I continued reading the thread, I came to the cold realization that this was meant with the utmost sincerity.
To elaborate, power tools require the operator to not flinch when pulling the trigger. Addressing sin requires a man to not flinch in the face of tough situations. This is just one way of saying pastors should be men, & should be men who are able to do manly things.
But who defines what a manly thing is? Where in the bible does it say that a man must be physically strong and able to effectively handle power tools? Yes, Paul does instruct us that we should be willing to work hard (1 Thessalonians 4:11). But never does he specify what professions were or weren’t manly enough in the eyes of God—let alone which hobbies.
These kinds of comments seem to reveal the insecurity of the men who say them more than they reveal about God’s heart for Christian men.
And, look. I get it. I enjoy steak and bourbon. I lift weights. I love my gasoline-powered backpack leaf blower. But these things don’t define my manhood. Certainly not from a biblical standpoint.Our definition of biblical manhood must not arise from an insecurity about whether our men are manly enough. Click To Tweet
2. God Constantly Warns Men Against Their Anger and Desire to Dominate.
Throughout the New Testament, we see men being commanded to curtail their more domineering inclinations. A man’s propensity for anger and his desire to dominate are completely incongruent with who God has called him to be.
Men are commanded to love their wives sacrificially rather than ruling over them (Ephesians 5:25-33). They’re told not to browbeat their children but to instruct them with kindness (Ephesians 6:4). They are urged never to seek revenge (1 Peter 3:9), to never act out of anger (Colossians 3:8), and to absorb an offense when someone wrongs them (1 Corinthians 6:7-8).
Jesus told us that it’s the meek who are blessed (Matthew 5:5). And Paul even compared himself to a nursing mother when he describes his relationship with the church in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 2:7).
All of these attributes speak directly against toxic masculinity. They speak against the desire to be granted deference simply by virtue of being a man. They instruct us to surrender the last word in an argument, to love others rather than seek to control them, and to never wield authority like a battering ram—regardless of whether you’re a complementarian or not.
God consistently speaks against the very attitudes and structures we often defend whenever a new instance of abuse comes to light. There’s simply no other way to describe such a mindset than toxic. And biblical manhood calls us to repent of it.God consistently speaks against the very attitudes and structures we often defend whenever a new instance of abuse comes to light. Click To Tweet
3. A Dynamic of Control and Power Between the Genders Is Part of the Fallenness of Humanity, Not What God Intended.
Whenever we talk about the divide that exists between manhood and womanhood, the key passage we go to is Genesis 3, where God pronounces the judgment for sin on humanity. Enmity between man and woman is intrinsic to our fallenness, which resulted from original sin.
To the woman he said,
“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be contrary to your husband,
but he shall rule over you.”
When I’ve heard this particular verse referenced, theologians and preachers often emphasize the woman’s desire to be contrary to her husband, to undermine and subvert him. More broadly speaking, they interpret it to mean that women generally will always seek to control men. This is part of their curse—Eve Syndrome.
However, in this same verse, when it says that man will rule over woman, that’s taken as normative. If not explicitly, then tacitly.
But men ruling over women is just as much a part of the curse as is women seeking to undermine men. In other words, men and women were never meant to have a relationship of competition or constant vying for control. That’s all part of the fall.
We are often quick in church to teach women to be submissive as a part of God’s redemptive work in their life. But we don’t equally teach men that they must surrender their desire to rule over others as part of their redemption. And the reason for that is it doesn’t exactly jive with our cultural understanding of what it means to be a man. That’s where toxic masculinity and biblical manhood are put at odds.We are often quick in church to teach women to be submissive as part of God's redemptive work in their life. But we don't equally teach mean that they must surrender their desire to rule over others as part of their redemption. Click To Tweet
Men, We Need You. Toxic Masculinity Is Not the Way.
None of this is meant to denigrate our need for the unique gifts that men possess. Quite the opposite. Research shows that homes without the presence of a strong male figure are more likely to experience poverty, and their children are more likely to experience run-ins with the law and substance abuse issues. They even have higher suicide rates.
This indicates that if we don’t get manhood right, we will suffer in myriad ways. And my fear is that in our crusade to stop the “attacks on manhood,” we’re missing what biblical manhood is actually all about.
We need strong men. But we don’t need abusive men. We don’t need domineering men. We don’t need men who are constantly trying to prove their masculinity.
We need men who are gentle, kind, and present. Men who are ready to serve. Men who love deeply and give sacrificially.
So instead of propping up antiquated cultural values about masculinity that often lead to problematic power dynamics and abuse, may we encourage genuine Christian manhood that transforms our homes and communities for the better.
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