What is a man? If we were discussing anatomy, the answer would be simple enough. But I don’t think that is what is in view when popular preachers and theologians talk about biblical manhood or the Church’s masculinity deficit. It’s probably for the better, since I was never very good at science. I am a theologian.
So, what is a man? The answer, contrary to popular opinion, is not so simple. The Bible doesn’t necessarily give us specifics on what constitutes masculinity. And most definitions are far more culturally bound than some admit. That’s what makes the gender discussion so frustrating for some of us in the Church. It’s not that I am naïve to the Church’s problems with young men. As a pastor of a church fully comprised of college students, I see them regularly. But I don’t think this problem has anything necessarily to do with gender. I think the Church’s biggest problem right now is a lack of maturity, not a lack of masculinity. And that distinction is important if we’re going to avoid creating bigger problems for the Church.
The Church is full of “boys who can shave,” adultolescents, or rejuveniles. It’s not uncommon for pastors to discuss and dissect this problem. What is strange is how often this discussion immediately shifts to an issue of gender identity. What begins as an issue of maturity shifts to an issue of masculinity. The problem, we are told, is that feminists have influenced our Church culture. Church is a place for women, and the pastors who lead them look and act like women. And don’t get popular preachers started on this mamby-pamby Jesus that “feminized” church worship. Jesus is a Dude, we are told (note the capital D). “Turn the other cheek” might have been one of his teachings, but sometimes you have to give a man the “right hand of fellowship” across the face.
Of course, this only represents a shade of the real position. But it is a position that seems to be missing the real point: Gender is not the problem.
The problem is not that men can’t fight or wear pink neckties. Popular preachers might like to highlight those things because they get a laugh, but such things don’t identify the real source of a young man’s failure. The real problem is a failure to grow up, to take initiative and be leaders. And while some theologians want to root this failure in abandoned gender roles, it seems more likely that it is rooted in a culture that coddles teens and expects them to be selfish. Some will call this an issue of semantics. After all, in calling little boys to grow up, aren’t we saying they need to “act like men”? At one level, I suppose we are. But by making this an issue about gender and not maturity, we are creating some real problems for the Church. I have seen at least three potential and real problems.
First, we become judgmental. Because we struggle to identify masculinity in concrete terms, we end up evaluating young men based on their clothing, hobbies and hands (“Are they calloused from manual labor?” and so on). What many popular preachers end up doing is adopting the cultural norms for masculinity, which may or may not reflect the biblical expectations. Masculinity is very hard to define in concrete terms. I might speak of man’s function as head of his home, provider and protector, but how that plays out in any specific context can’t be nailed down by quoting a few Bible verses. Men come in all shapes and sizes, even in the Bible. David is sometimes a warrior and sometimes a poet. Solomon is never a warrior. Jeremiah the “weeping prophet” and Shamgaur, the “Dude” who killed a bunch a people with an ox goad, are clearly different men. Because of personality, skills and context, being a man may look very different from person to person. The failure of so many critics is that they assume there is a one-size-fits-all “man” and that anyone outside those boundaries is in sin. In asking young men to lead, however, we are not calling into question their gender; rather, we are calling them to grow up.
Second, we ostracize women. If the problem is “over-feminization,” it doesn’t seem like a faulty assumption for some women to feel unwanted in the Church. Women have long been denied a place of importance in the Church, and this trend to promote solely macho men only continues a failure of pastoral leadership. For some leaders, there is a direct relationship between getting godly men and getting godly women. Such a view devalues and degrades women and assumes that you don’t need to spend time working with women. It’s sometimes easy to sympathize with those critics who accuse the church of being patriarchal.
Last, we create a machismo culture that threatens to undo godliness. I have seen many a young man influenced by the “be a man” rhetoric who have become arrogant, unteachable and divisive. They may be behaving “manly,” as the common trope identifies, but they have yet to grow up. This machismo model continues to miss the real problem and only exacerbates the church’s efforts to move forward.
Maybe I am not very “manly.” The desk I am sitting at wasn’t built with my own two hands, and the callouses on my palms aren’t from swinging a screwdriver (you do swing one of those, right?). But I am husband, a father and a pastor. I believe in leading my home and my church. I believe protection and provision are part of my God-given responsibilities. And I want to spend my time teaching our young men about those principles. That means, then, that I need to spend less time making jokes about pick-up trucks and UFC and spend more time doing real discipleship.