Some Quick Thoughts on ‘Biblical Masculinity’ and the ‘Feminized Church’

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.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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11 Responses to Some Quick Thoughts on ‘Biblical Masculinity’ and the ‘Feminized Church’

  1. Arthur Sido says:

    Very good thoughts on this topic. It is very unfortunate that Mark Driscoll has somehow been appointed as the spokesman for complementarianism or Biblical masculinity (which apparenly seems to involve mixed martial arts). He is not only not the most eloquent spokesman compared to many other serious, thoughtful writers (Piper, Grudem, Keller, Moore) but he is also a lightning rod and an easy punching bag for those who are on the other side of the issue. The argument basically is “If Mark Driscoll is for it, I should be against it” and this conversation is far too important to be reduced to a popularity contest centering around a controversial speaker.

  2. Paul D Baxter says:

    I’m not quite convinced that a Venn diagram of feminine and masculine virtues would look like a single circle. I have, though. come to the position that most of what the Bible has to say about masculine and feminine roles is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Within any particular time and place there are certain ways those roles are understood. The story of Deborah is interesting from that perspective, as it points to the fact that it was shameful at that time for a group of men to credit a woman with leading them to victory in battle. That’s probably a pretty widespread attitude across a variety of cultures, but it certainly was never meant as saying that women are inherently shameful.

    To me the interesting issue here is that there has been so much fluctuation within our culture over the past decades about gender roles that people today are genuinely confused about what those roles are or should be. It’s just difficult in general to know what one should do when the rules seem to be changing. One of the disadvantages of an egalitarian approach is that it leaves so many issues up in the air. Perhaps the most salient of these issues is childcare. If a couple has children, someone has to raise them. One cannot both work outside the home and care for an infant simultaneously. The egalitarian answer, at least in practice, is that every couple has to make up their own minds about this question. But that’s not really much of a guiding principle.

    • Thanks for the comment, Paul.

      Regarding masculine and feminine virtues, I relate virtues to practices and relationships (I suspect that you know where I am coming from in this approach…). Masculine and feminine virtues are not founded primarily upon our biology, psychology, or natural traits, but are defined and formed in relation to the roles that we are called to play as fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters. A ‘masculine’ virtue is not some trait that men are born with and women are not, but something that is formed through the faithful practice of a God-given gendered calling, which enables you to perform that calling well.

      I believe that male and female callings differ in various ways. Mothers and fathers are not interchangeable or replaceable, for instance. Consequently, the manner in which virtues are honed through the practice of motherhood will differ from the way in which they are honed through the practice of fatherhood. However, it is my conviction that the root virtues that distinguish faithful men and women are shared in common, even though they may be inflected in a differentiated manner, and the roles and practices in which they operate may differ. Certain of these gendered inflections may well be unique to one of the sexes.

      I believe that there are practices for which one of the sexes is generally more apt than the other, or within which one sex tends to excel the other. Nevertheless, even in the case of such practices, there will generally be considerable overlap in ability levels between a larger group of men and a larger group of women.

      Part of the point that I wanted to make in the post above is that there is considerable room for improvisation in the faithful living out of our gendered identities. There is not one single form of masculinity or femininity to which we should be aspiring. Common notions on these matters tend to be far too restrictive and unimaginative.

      I see no reason, for instance, why a house-husband isn’t one way in which a masculine identity could be lived out. The idea that men should be going out and working, and the women staying home and raising the children is a very strong one with our culture. However, it is shaped by a number of fairly modern realities, most particularly the Industrial Revolution, when the family and the household ceased to be a site of production. In pre-modern times, fathers and mothers would both be around the house far more. Women would be economically active, and men would be very actively involved in child-rearing. When one takes into account the number of single fathers in an age where many women died in childbirth, and you have societies where men raising children was very common.

      For instance, I think that the relationship between children and their fathers can be especially important – indeed more important than their relationship with their mothers – at certain stages in their growth. At such periods of children’s lives, a father who worked from home, while his wife worked outside of the home, might be of considerable benefit to children. I certainly found it a very valuable thing to be able to work alongside my father and watch him work as a young teenager.

      A situation in which roles are not prescribed by the culture and in which we must use our imagination and improvise can be disorienting. However, I don’t believe that the Scriptures are anywhere near as prescriptive on such questions as some might want them to be.

      Yes, I did read Douglas’ book several years ago.

  3. Paul D Baxter says:

    One other note. I believe the phrase “feminization of the church” originated in this book, which you might want to look up sometime: http://www.amazon.com/Feminization-American-Culture-Ann-Douglas/dp/0374525587/

  4. Thursday says:

    I’ve been meaning to read this book:
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Church-Impotent-Leon-Podles/dp/1890626198
    Podles is a conservative Catholic, but one known for his hard hitting investigations of child sexual abuse. His other book is here:
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sacrilege-Sexual-Abuse-Catholic-Church/dp/0979027993/

  5. One key to restoring God’s order for men and women in His church is to realise that men bear the primary responsibility for praying for our cities, nations, and churches – see 1 Timothy 2 v 8 – ‘I desire, therefore, that the men (ανδρας – men specifically) pray in every place, lifting up holy hands without wrath or doubting or disputing’. All the named intercessors in the bible, from Abraham to Paul and the Lord Jesus Himself, are men. (The closest I have found to an exception is an almost certainly spurious intercessory prayer by Esther in the LXX).

    • Thanks for the comment, Andrew. While I obviously believe that it is very important that men pray, I don’t believe that this is sufficient basis upon which to make such a distinction between the prayers of men and the prayers of women. I believe that both men and women can and are intercessors. The nature of a person’s intercession may vary depending on their relationship to those they are praying for. The intercessory prayer of the king, the priest, the prophet, or the parent may be conditioned by their role, for example. The intercessory prayers of certain persons may have a more representative character and have particular significance in that regard. For instance, the prayer of the priest can ‘collect’ the prayers of the congregation. However, in Christ we can all intercede for others and petition God’s throne.

    • Matthew N. Petersen says:

      Andrew: Do you see a particular liturgical role that women are supposed to have the primary role in fulfilling? Perhaps, following the example of the Magnificat, women should have the chief role in praising?

      Also, John 2 gives an example of a woman interceding.

  6. Matthew, yes there are examples of women making intercession to Jesus while he was on the earth – the Syrophoenician woman of Mark 7:25-30 is another example (and Esther made intercession to the king) – I meant intercession to refer to intercessory prayer, which was the subject I was addressing.

    Alastair, I don’t think I said that women can’t be intercessors. On the contrary, I think their role is crucial in this regard. But the primary responsibility of carrying out the type of prayer outlined in 1 Timothy 2:1-2 seems to me to be assigned to men – when Paul says ‘therefore’ in verse 8, he must be referring back to something, and surely it is the prayer of verses 1 to 2, and the following verses, which seem to me to show a relationship between intercessory prayer and the salvation of all men (ανθρωπους – including women), not to mention the calling of men to proclaim the gospel.

    Matthew, regarding the ministry of women, I would start with the corresponding instruction to women in 1 Timothy 2, which is that they devote themselves to good works. One description of what is meant by that is found in 1 Timothy 5:10, and see also Dorcas in Acts 9:36,39.

    Certainly, another good work for women is to intercede before God for their husband and family. I wouldn’t restrict it to that, since there is no such restriction in the bible, and indeed in recent years in the Western churches, women have done most of the praying for our nations – thank God for Lydia Prayer Fellowship and the rest. But this is not God’s order, in my opinion. The men have failed in our duty, and women have filled the gap, for which I give thanks.

    There is a bit more at http://www.mensprayer.net/

    Andrew

  7. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2011-2012 | Alastair's Adversaria

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