Biblical Masculinity: What is a Real Man?
by Gordon Macdonald
"You ought to go into the army; it would make a man out of you!" This was a line in a letter I received in my early twenties. The writer had been offended by something I'd said, and he was taking his best shot in an effort to get back at me.
Why do I remember the letter? Because, like every other man I know, there are few subjects that affect me more deeply than the nature and authenticity of my manhood.
Now, it's not that I doubt my manhood at this late stage in life. I am a husband, a father, and a grandfather. I've made a living for my family; I've been a moderately successful athlete; I get along well with most men. Isn't that enough? Do I need military duty, too? Or do I have to speak with a snarl in my voice . . . try to control every situation . . . always make the decisions?
In our culture the topic of manhood and masculinity gets hotter every year. People are asking tough questions about what it means to be a man and what sets men apart from women. Answers do not come easily, and all the "manly" categories I have just listed do not seem to be enough to satisfy the issue.
What is manhood? What is the nature of masculinity? If you've organized your life around the Bible, the question gets even more interesting: What is the nature of biblical masculinity?
First, let's talk about traditional roles of masculinity and why there is confusion about them today. Then we'll move on to the biblical model.
How We Got from There to Here
As role definitions between men and women have become confused in our society, we need to take a look at traditional role definitions to see which part of them are cultural (and therefore changeable) and which—for those who call themselves Christ-followers—are biblical (and therefore not open to negotiation).
Until recent history the role and identity of men seemed obvious. Men were the warriors (protectors), the leaders (heads of families, businesses, governments), and the decision makers. Anyone over fifty remembers the last vestiges of those days. Men were touted to be the "stronger sex," women the "weaker." Men did not cry; women could. Men were income-producers; women were child-raisers. Men were leaders; women were followers. Men were initiators; women were responders.
In Christian circles of the evangelical tradition few people disputed that men were in authority, responsible for spiritual leadership, and the most apt to teach and preach. Women were taught to submit, support, and teach children.
However, some new thinking erupted along the way. Women began to hear new signals. The signals came partially through wartime work in the factories, more educational opportunities, the entertainment sector, and new economic realities. Women began to hear a relentless cultural message: The value of a person is determined mainly by what he or she does and produces.
Production was no longer measured in terms of keeping a home, raising mature children, or making meals, but in terms of money, career, and success. (I am not defending this mentality; I am reporting it.) Society opened the door for these changes, and the so-called women's movement reinforced them.
The result? Lots of women have entered a world traditionally reserved for men, and it has caused quite an uproar. In large part, how women now perceive womanhood—rightly or wrongly, for good or bad, biblically or unbiblically—has forced men to rethink the nature of manhood and masculinity and what claims, if any, it has to uniqueness.
These are the sort of issues—terribly simplified in these paragraphs—that have forced upon us all a new day. Who are men apart from their obvious biological identity? What makes a man "a man" in the spiritual, emotional, and mental spheres?
I worry a bit when I listen to some of the sermons and talks at Christian men's conferences. In an attempt to challenge men to be men, there is often a shrillness in the air: enthusiastic calls that men ought to be great spiritual leaders, great husbands, great fathers, great leaders, great . . . well, everything. In effect, evangelical supermen. I wonder how many men leave these conferences feeling emotionally pumped by the passion but inwardly deflated, feeling a deeper guilt because they quietly know that the expectations are probably too high and they will never live up to the hype. A simple menu for godly masculinity would be a relief for many men.
"Real Men" in the Bible
Unfortunately, the Bible does not easily yield a "job description" of masculinity. This is partially because the Bible reflects a time when the cultural assumption was that men were in charge, owned everything, and made important things happen. I am not inferring that God approved of this arrangement, but we have to read the Scriptures with the awareness that they were written in a time when the male role was dominant and unchallenged.
We assume that Jesus presents the perfect masculine model. But as a key to masculinity, this model is limited. He wasn't a husband, father, or athlete. And while he worked for a living, we know precious little about his business life.
However, we do know this: The Lord shows bravery in the midst of conflict; anger against unrighteousness; unflappability in a life-threatening situation such as a storm; tenderness with children; unusual respect for women; and courage in death. While these are traits that all followers of the Lord should emulate, they would have to be included in any recipe for biblical masculinity.
Although Scripture does not give us a definitive list of masculine qualities, it unfolds the stories of scores of men who shared common convictions and challenges. Through these stories we have the advantage of studying complete lifetimes. We can see where men succeeded or failed, what God thought of them, whether they rebounded to strength from their more foolish moments or started at the top and rolled to the bottom.
The men of the Bible conjure up all sorts of images of manhood—warriors, kings, businessmen, scoundrels, murderers, zealots, farmers. The list reads like a Yellow Pages of roles and capacities—men on the move, making decisions, winning battles, amassing or losing great wealth, communicating with God, launching movements. Occasionally these men look good, but not always. The best of them can be a disappointment at times, and some would probably be banned from Christian leadership today. But, given enough time, the worst of the biblical men sometimes turned out to be giants of faith and spiritual quality.
We need to take a wide-angled view of these men and ask: What is it that set some in front of the others as models of godly manhood? Is it resolute commitment to faithfully serve God, like David, who "served his generation according to the purposes of God"? Is it that quality of intimacy reflected in the mysterious comment about Enoch—he "walked with God"? Could it be the submission to authority seen in Joseph (husband of Mary), who accepted the role of providing for and protecting the infant Jesus? Biblical models of men with single-mindedness, integrity, and resourcefulness abound.
The Nature of a Biblical Man
As I considered Jesus' life and the lives of other godly men in the Bible, I made a list of all the positive masculine traits I saw. Although this is not an exhaustive list, here are the highlights of what I found.
Biblical masculinity takes its first cue from the nature of God, who is "full of compassion, slow to anger, and abounding in love." Hardly a description of the kind of man Clint Eastwood usually portrays in the movies!
As a masculine being, God was and is powerfully creative, capable of righteous anger, in control of circumstances, tender as a father who oversees children. He is trustworthy and honest, properly angry when disobeyed or disdained, and unquestionably kind and restorative when sought out in a spirit of repentance.
These traits ought to be the bedrock of the masculine soul. No man who takes a look at the Bible could fail to see these qualities and the underlying assumption that a man who has a heart for God will pursue them in his character and personhood.
For further enlightenment, we can study the character of the men who seemed to enjoy God's favor: the obedience of Abel, the resolute nature of Noah, the trusting Abraham, the competent Joseph, the persevering teacher, Moses, and the leadership of Joshua. Then there is Daniel, unswerving in stressful circumstances, and long-suffering Hosea, who set aside normal masculine prerogatives, such as shedding an unfaithful wife, to respond to God's prophetic call for him.
There are the New Testament's men: Peter and the Twelve, roughened countrymen of Galilee who are eminently teachable; Timothy, the sensitive pastoral type; and Luke, the "professional," the consummate number-two man and faithful chronicler of Paul's life and work. Then there is Paul, the mission-driven, indefatigable organizer of churches whose mind could man-handle great truths with relative ease.
Each of these men was different. But each had a sense of purpose. They knew where they were going, what their limits were, and what was possible when they let their faith lead them.
We can see these men start out, fail, grow, and then do one or two significant things that make them stand out in biblical history. However, most of their lives were lived in routines too trivial for mention in the biblical record. Most of them raised families and cultivated relationships; they knew sickness, conflict, and failure; they nursed dreams, fantasies, and expectations. Most of them probably cried a few times, lost their tempers, and loved a good joke. But we hear little of these sorts of speculative things. We have to read between the lines. And because we don't do that often enough, we end up with biblical men who are unreal—religious figures with whom we can hardly identify. That's a partial reason why Christian men often end up taking their cues for masculinity from culture and not from the Bible.
However, not only does Scripture tell us about the issues with which biblical men struggled, it gives instructions that are as applicable today as when they were given. Through these instructions we can learn what it means to "act" like a man.
The Actions of a Biblical Man
We can begin to see what masculine friendship, mentoring, and caring is all about from some of the scriptural instructions that seem to be unique to men. "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church." This is more than a suggestion that early Christian males did not know how to love. Hence, they needed a model.
We get another clue about biblical masculinity from the command, "Fathers, don't provoke your children." This tells us that not many men were aware of how fatherhood worked, and they needed to change their view of children as something more than an economic asset to the family. From this command we can infer that anger, power, violence, and provocative language do not help our families grow to Christlike maturity.
"Heed your father's instruction." "Prudently give thought to your steps." "Seek a pure heart." "Eat the ‘honey' of wisdom." "Stay clear of the seductive woman." The Bible seems to be consistent in its view of the dark side of a man—his tendency to violence, sexual distraction, the pursuit of wealth, and pride. That's why the Bible consistently calls him to the responsibility of self-control, justice, and generosity.
Perhaps the greatest crisis in understanding masculinity lies in man's view of leadership as power instead of leadership as servanthood. Cultural masculinity paints a picture of man with an Uzi, a football trophy, or a cellular phone at his ear. Everything is under his control!
Biblical masculinity paints a picture of man that begins with an ear turned to Heaven. It further describes a man whose energies are directed at protecting, inspiring, motivating, and freeing others. This man is a giver, not a taker; he lives by design, not by default. He knows how to run toward the action, how to stand in the heat, and how to kneel in a moment of quietness.
I enjoy being around men who pursue these traits. One rarely meets them. But, thanks be to the God of grace who patiently waits for men to pursue these traits and lends a hand of "second chance and restoration" to those who have failed but keep on trying.
I don't know that the Army will be much help with the matter of true masculinity, but I'm quite content with the model Scripture offers.