The subject of ‘biblical masculinity’ has been receiving some discussion in various contexts recently, especially following Mark Driscoll’s recent remarks on the subject. I generally find him an extremely unhelpful voice on the subject of gender, even though I do not see eye to eye with most of his critics either. His recent comments merely reveal his continued obsession with (‘biblical’) masculinity, something that by turns bemuses and frustrates me. I have little interest in engaging directly with Driscoll here, but since the topic is a live one, I thought that I would weigh in with a few rough thoughts on ‘biblical masculinity’ and the so-called ‘feminization of the Church’.
The Nature of Biblical Masculinity
As I read the Bible, I really don’t see the notion of ‘biblical masculinity’, as a set of exclusively or peculiarly male traits that all Christian men are expected to exhibit. What I see is that men are called to reflect God’s character and to perform his will in certain relational contexts and ways (as sons, husbands, fathers, brothers, etc.). They are called to do this with love, self-control, humility, courage, and faithfulness. If we are to speak of such a thing, this is ‘biblical masculinity’. Women are called to reflect God’s character and to perform his will in different relational contexts and ways, and to do so with love, self-control, humility, courage, and faithfulness. Again, if we are to speak of such a thing, this is ‘biblical femininity’. Women can’t exercise biblical masculinity, not because they lack certain virtues or traits of character, but simply because they are not men and do not have the same callings (although we share our fundamental calling in common).
While there are general differences in areas of strength between the genders, there isn’t a particular set of traits that either men or women have a monopoly upon. The vocations of men may tend to focus on certain strengths over others, and may be vocations for which males are, as a general rule, more apt on account of their natural capabilities. The same thing can be said about the vocations of women relative to peculiarly female strengths. However, the fundamental virtues at work are shared, though these virtues may be inflected in different ways depending on the context and role in which one finds oneself.
Biblical Masculinity versus Machismo
As such, the measure of a man’s masculinity is not his machismo, but his faithfulness in living out his vocation in the contexts in which God has placed him. There are innumerable different forms that ‘biblical masculinity’ can take, conditioned by our natural traits of character, our contexts, and the peculiar vocations that we have (for instance, we should recognize that the fact that a man may lack the traits suiting him for a particular role does not necessarily make him less of a man). God doesn’t call us all to be alpha male warrior types, nor does he call all of us to be refined and cultured scholars and musicians. Both are valid ways, among many others, of living out ‘biblical masculinity’. We should stop getting so hung up about ‘biblical masculinity’ and appreciate the incredible variation within both of the sexes, and the rich potential that this gives for different forms of complementarity in the context of marriage, for instance.
This is why the bizarre tendency among many young evangelicals today to confuse biblical masculinity with acting ‘tough’ is so unhealthy. It also fails to notice how far removed from the macho model of biblical masculinity many central biblical characters fall. Take Jacob, for instance: a soft-skinned mummy’s boy, who cooked an awesome lentil stew, but didn’t leave home or marry until his seventies. Jacob became an incredible man, yet this process was less about becoming a manly badass as it was learning tenacious perseverance, self-control, and faithfulness through suffering and weakness in the positions where God had placed him. The great men of the Bible are renowned for their patient suffering, perseverance, humility, self-sacrifice, faith, and self-control, all in service of others, traits far removed from the sort of triumphalist and self-glorifying machismo that our society would have us look up to. The important thing to observe is just how many forms such virtues could take, and in how many contrasting ways they could be exemplified.
The tough men of the Bible are broken by God and made to fight the hardest battle of all, struggling to gain mastery over themselves. The resulting masculinity is a chastened and humble one, quite unlike the self-glorifying masculinity to which many would have us aspire (self-glorifying masculinity – the form of masculinity with which our culture is so often preoccupied – is one form of masculinity for which God has little time). In stark contrast to machismo, this is a masculinity most fully exemplified in sober and seasoned elder men rather than in young and cocky braggadocios. Refracted through their own roles and contexts, these are precisely the same virtues that mark out the great women of God.
All of this should lead to a less demonstrative approach to masculinity. Of course, masculinity will always need to be ‘proved’ to some extent, and people can fall short of biblical masculinity. However, what is being demonstrated is not a set of stereotyped traits through exaggerated posturing, but our capacity faithfully and humbly to exercise the callings that we have as men, however well-equipped or not we may feel for them.
The fact that many churches have bought into pathetic gender stereotypes, rather than seeking to form self-controlled men and women who persevere in and faithfully discharge their various callings can often be seen in the form of our men’s and women’s ministries, which frequently serve to bring out the peculiarly gendered vices that tend to emerge when the sexes cease to be challenged by each other. Far too many men’s ministries, for instance, cater for the very irresponsible man-children that they ought to be rendering extinct.
The ‘Feminized Church’?
One frequently hears claims that the Church has been ‘feminized’. I believe that there is something to these claims, but it is important that we make clear what exactly should and shouldn’t be meant by them. Most crucially, the ‘feminization’ of the Church shouldn’t be spoken of in a way that denigrates or belittles women. I don’t think that this is how it is intended to function in most contexts. In conclusion, I will briefly sketch what I think should be referred to by this expression.
- In many quarters, the basic demographics of the Church are ones in which women increasingly predominate. The Church is ‘feminized’ as it becomes an institution that appeals primarily or almost solely to women. Obviously, it is a good thing that the Church appeals to women, but it should hold no less of an appeal to men.
- The Church is ‘feminized’ as a particular sentimental form of piety and set of religious sensibilities, arising from the belief that women possess a greater natural affinity for the things of God, is treated as the norm and imposed upon all (I speak of a sentimental form of piety, as this is the shape that this phenomenon has historically tended to take). Quite apart from the degree to which it departs from scriptural patterns of worship, the sentimentalization of worship and theology alienates many men who rightly feel that a particular mode of spirituality that caters more to women than to men is being privileged at the expense of those forms of biblical spirituality which connect so strongly with them. The Church is ‘feminized’ as women are treated as the exemplars of spirituality to which men must conform. There is a common narrative of the woman ‘reforming’ the man who is spiritually wayward. However, the reformation of the man involves his ‘feminization’ – the transformation of the man involves him coming to see things just like the woman, and trying to become like her in spiritual matters. This narrative has its secular versions in romance literature in which the expectations of women provide the norm to which men must conform themselves. In reality, God calls each of the sexes to a painful adjustment to the other and doesn’t finally privilege the perspective of either.
- The Church is ‘feminized’ as men are rendered spiritually passive, the reluctant congregants who sit uncomfortably at the back of churches, their wives glaring at them when they start fidgeting. Where this narrative prevails, men will feel emasculated and infantilized, and will find church an unappealing prospect. The Church is ‘feminized’ as churches cease to call men powerfully to live out their God-given vocations and produce men who are little more than useless deadweight.
From this, it should be clear that ‘feminization’ does not involve a stigmatization or denigration of women, but a resistance to the Church becoming a sort of ‘girls’ club’, in which women dominate in numbers, activity, or in the modes of spirituality. The solution to this is most definitely not that of adopting the ‘masculinized’ Church of Driscoll and others, but to produce a Church in which we all learn to reorient our gendered identities humbly to create space for the other sex to flourish.