(Un)Biblical Masculinity

I was recently on the fringes of a talk given to Christian husbands about caring for their wives. It was an okay talk as far as it goes. I generally agreed with the advice that was given. Yet I spent the entire discussion feeling uncomfortable because of its framing. It's been a while since I was around the world of "biblical masculinity," a topic within evangelical Christianity that is familiar from my youth. What struck me again, as it did then, was how wrongheaded the whole foundation felt. What was seen as a calling to excellence seemed, to me, a baseline of what we should be doing, while what was treated as normal and masculine sounded an awful lot like sin.

Masculinity, like gender in general, is a fraught topic, caught up both in the culture war and internecine Christian disputes. Perhaps that is why I'm reluctant to discuss it very often; every time masculinity and Christianity comes up, I feel like I'm juggling lit dynamite. Even if you do it properly, everything is probably going to explode. That said, I continue to watch people engage it in frustrating ways, both in terms of the evangelical world I still sit (sometimes uncomfortably) within and in terms of those reacting against it. So let's talk about what the Bible actually says about "manliness" and the ways it often goes wrong.

Masculinity is Humanity
There is a debate among (some) evangelicals about how gendered pronouns should be rendered in Bible translations. In Hebrew and Greek, like in English up until a few decades ago, it was normal to render the neutral pronoun as masculine - to say "he" or "his" or to use "men" in settings that include both men and women. As our norms have shifted in English, in order to emphasize inclusiveness, it has become common to use language like "they" or "men and women" to emphasize this inclusion.

I have no interest in engaging that translation debate here, but I mention it to highlight something I notice. Many of the same people who insist we should maintain this gendered language in translation then make the very mistake their opponents worry about, using verses that are about humanity as a whole and then applying them as if only men were in view. I have heard texts like "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13, KJV) or "He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8) applied to masculinity when they have nothing to do with gender but rather humanity in general.

Perhaps most egregiously, this sometimes creeps into the language of men being "made in God's image." I performed a wedding a while back with a special unity ceremony for the bride and groom. In the script they gave me for this ceremony was the following line: "In Genesis chapter 1, we read that God created man in His own image. That means that He created man bold, strong, to be a leader, to be a protector of his wife and family." When it came to the woman, this imaging of God was not mentioned at all, but rather just that Eve came out of Adam.

The problem is that Genesis 1 is clearly about all of humanity. "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." (Genesis 1:27, emphasis mine) Image-bearing is not about masculinity but humanity. To imply that it is somehow about men more than women is destructive and unbiblical.  While it was easy enough in that wedding for me to simply change the script to reflect this fact, it betrays a core problem with our theology of gender.

Being a man, like being a woman, is first and foremost to be a human being. To be a biblical man or woman is to be a human in the ways God commands. We are Venn diagrams with the circles mostly overlapping. Or perhaps more accurately, we are different riffs on a fundamentally shared tune, different flavors of the same dish. One of the dangers in discussions of gender is that we focus on what is different when the most important things are shared. When it comes to imaging God in the world, when it comes to spirituality or dignity or value or purpose, the core of who we are rests in what we share.

Masculinity is not therefore defined in contrast to femininity. Men and women are not opposites but variations on a theme. This does not mean there are no differences, but it does mean we need to be very careful about defining what they are. Many cultures have divided the whole world into separate spheres of the manly and womanly. Those divisions rarely reflect the Bible. Just taking America from a little over half a century ago - often the glory days to those who love biblical manhood - it was common to view things like involvement in the church or resopnsibility for childrearing as somehow feminine and thus things men should avoid. This led to a distorted and unchristian view of masculinity, as such oppositional schemes always do.

Masculinity is Maturity
When Scripture places masculinity in opposition to something, it is not womanhood but rather boyishness. "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways." (1 Corinthians 13:11) Paul calls readers elsewhere to "mature manhood." (Ephesians 4:13) There are two things to notice about these texts. One is that, while they are gendered in language, they aren't in a context only about men. We need to safeguard against the translation issue mentioned above. Women are equally called to maturity, and the language in these verses is meant to be applied to both genders. However, inasmuch as they do apply to men as a subset of humanity, they stress that what we are to avoid being is not women but rather being boys.

One of my great frustrations with discussions of biblical masculinity is that they often encourage immaturity and boyishness. They equate manliness with the way my six-year-old son views the world, all sports and firearms and foraging in the wild. None of those things are bad in their proper place, and inasmuch as people enjoy them as hobbies they can be good, but an obsession with them often reflects immaturity. If they cause us to neglect the callings we will discuss below, they are not manly but rather childish diversions from the stuff of men.

On that note, we should probably stress how non-biblical most of these stereotypes are. Even people who should know better often implicitly equate being masculine with MMA fighting, eating lots of red meat and driving a pickup truck. Again, all of these things are fine - I happen to enjoy some of them - but they are dangerous for what they exclude. In Scripture we see men who are poets (David and the Sons of Korah), scholars (Solomon and many of the prophets), artists (Bezalel, who built the tabernacle), politicians (Nehemiah, the kings) and priests (Ezra) as aspirational characters. Indeed, given the stereotypes that abound in many churches, it is striking how few Biblical characters are warriors. Far more hay is made of David and his "mighty men" than the text warrants.

There are two dangers in confusing masculinity with such stereotypes. One is how it discourages men designed by God to function outside the beer-and-brats convention. Many young men struggle with their identity because their passions fall beyond these allowable interests. In truth, they should be encouraged in them as part of who God created them to be. At the same time, the stereotypes also hurt men that comfortably fit them because they confuse such individuals about what actually makes them masculine. It can trap them in boyishness. Instead of such shallow ideas, we need to dig deeper to get a sense of what Scripture envisions.

Masculinity is Relational 
Are there things the Bible speaks to specifically in terms of masculinity? The answer is "sort of, but not what you think." There are texts that speak to men specifically, but almost all of them seem aimed at correcting ways masculinity can go wrong.

Perhaps the easiest place to consider this is to think about some of the passages where Scripture specifically addresses men. Husbands are commanded to love their wives, to give up their own interests seeking their spouse's good, to not treat them harshly, to show them understanding and to honor them. (Ephesians 5:25, Colossians 3:19, 1 Peter 3:7) Similarly, fathers are warned against provoking or discouraging their children. (Colossians 3:21) While speaking specifically to Timothy, Paul seems to intend younger men in general to embrace his general warning to treat older men as fathers, younger men as brothers, younger women as sisters and older women as mothers. (1 Timothy 5:1-2)

Two things stand out about these commands. One is their fundamentally relational character. Masculinity is not being considered in terms of interests or personality but rather in terms of interpersonal activity. Men are not being called to mannishness in some abstract but rather to a certain sort of maleness as it relates to other men and women.

More importantly, those commands all seem designed to cut against how culture naturally teaches men to behave. Of course, wives should also love and seek the good of their husbands. Of course, mothers shouldn't treat their children harshly. Inasmuch as these commands are addressed to men, it is because the world would encourage them to act otherwise. Most of our cultural stereotypes about men are being challenged in these verses. Men should be gentle and kind to their families. They should give up their selfish tendencies to separate and build their own lives by seeking their good in their spouse. There is a clear attack on abusive masculinity behind many of these descriptions. There is also a warning against a general way of being in society, in which other men are treated as rivals and women as sexual objects. All of these commands are corrections to wrongheaded masculinity, not ways of encouraging it.

Masculinity is Responsibility
Is there more than relational correction in how Scripture discusses men? Yes, to some extent, although we cannot lose the relational character of even these texts. Writing to Titus, the apostle Paul highlights the need for self-control, integrity and dignity. (Titus 2:2, 6-7) The call to "provide for [one's] relatives, especially members of [one's] household" might have a specific focus on men, although the context isn't entirely clear. (1 Timothy 5:8) There is also a call for men to take a sort of leadership in their families, although this is a loaded term. The problem is that Scripture is clear that worldly images of leadership, putting oneself first and being tyrannical or selfish, are antithetical to the way of Christ. (Matthew 20:25-28) While there is a sort of leadership men are called to exercise in their families, it is a leadership of Christ, a giving up of oneself to seek the good of something greater.

Perhaps a way to summarize these commands is responsibility. The Bible calls men to step into a role of being responsible for every part of their worlds. Even this can be distorted; responsibility is not the same thing as bread-winning or being the boss. Rather, it is seeking to be involved in every part of life for its good and God's glory. Biblical masculinity is taking responsibility for the well-being of one's wife. It is being involved in parenting, taking the overall burden of raising and caring for children. More generally, it is a call to engage with society in a way that builds it up. It means that we will answer to God not simply for our own lives but also for the lives of all those He has placed us in relationship to.

Importantly, none of these callings exclude women. Rather, their specific character calls attention to ways that masculinity goes wrong. Thanks to factors of power and even realities of biology and how childbirth works, men are often able to bail on their duties to family in a way that women aren't. Scripture is warning against exactly these tendencies. It is seeking to challenge worldly distortions of what it means to be a man, not prop them up with some divine mandate.

Masculinity is Seeking God
One last area of note - the Bible does at points specifically call men to engage spiritually. King David, about to die, gives his son a speech where he calls him to "be strong, and show yourself a man." In that case, what he means is laid out in the following verse: "[K]eep the charge of the Lord your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his rules, and his testimonies." (1 Kings 2:2-3) Being a strong man, for David, is the same thing as walking faithfully with God. Maturity and responsibility, as men are called to them, have their heart in spiritual maturity and responsibility.

This idea actually draws us back to the first point. Again, the exact same thing could be said to women. However, by framing it in terms of gender, Scripture reminds us that the goal of our lives, regardless of our sex, is to walk humbly and obediently with God. When I imagine masculinity, I am called primarily to seek not simply to be a man but rather to be a Christian. It is in seeking this that the destructive tendencies of my masculinity are corrected.

Turning the House on Its Head
The remarkable thing to me in the conversation about masculinity is that Scripture really doesn't say much more than the above. There are some texts addressed specifically to women which we might draw some thoughts from, although this approach is dangerous because it tends towards viewing our genders as opposites. In our privilege, men have at times rewritten those passages to make their problems into women's issues. The biblical call to modesty, for instance, is clearly aimed at ostentatious displays of wealth and vanity, not at somehow shouldering the blame for men's lust. (1 Timothy 2:9-10, 1 Peter 3:3-4) Likewise, while Scripture does call women to engage respectfully with their husbands' attempts to take responsibility, that does not mean men's bailing on those duties is somehow the fault of women. However, while a full treatment might require a few more points of discussion, the thrust of Scripture is very much that being a Christian man is much more about correcting our stereotypes than encouraging them.

What does this mean for how we discuss masculinity? Let me suggest the difference by going back to that talk I heard. Here is a representative statement from it: "Look, I get it. As a man, you've been at work all day and you just want to watch TV and relax. Even though it's hard, though, your wife would really appreciate your help with the kids she's been watching all day." Putting aside some obvious assumptions about career choice, here is my problem with that framing: it fails to recognize how much the first half of the description is sin. A biblical calling would instead say, "Look, you've been working all day. So has your wife, whether at home or elsewhere. If you check out when you get home, you are failing to be a man. You are being a boy. Your children are your responsibility, just as much as hers. So live like it."

Admittedly, I might phrase that call more gently, but the underlying point remains. What we often view as masculinity in our culture is really just a thin veneer for sin. What Scripture wants to do isn't tack a few extra duties onto this approach. It wants to highlight that our disengagement and immaturity are actually antithetical to what it means to be a man.

A while back, I wrote a letter to my sons explaining the difference between boys and men. My goal in that letter was to shift how they pictured the world. Jesus doesn't simply amend worldly ideas; He seeks to turn them upside down. I can't help but feel like it is this upside-down-ness that is often lacking from how we view gender. Biblical masculinity cannot exist with a wink and a nod to cultural ideas about what a man is; it must turn the whole house on its head. Inasmuch as we fail to do this, we are still what Paul would call "children in our thinking." We are still behaving like boys.


  1. Mate - I love this! Thank you for putting this out there.


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