Is there any future for masculinity?

What is the future for evangelical manhood?

In the last month, I’ve read Kristin Kobes Du Mez’ Jesus and John Wayne and have been listening avidly to Christianity Today’s The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.

Neither of them is a comfortable experience.

In both of these, the issue of the evangelical approach to masculinity has been cast as deeply problematic. In Jesus and John Wayne, Du Mez sees the proliferation of men’s ministries, books, and conferences that spread from the 1990s on as an anxious reaction to a climate of cultural and political uncertainty, especially in the US. She notes how the kind of masculinity that these ministries called for used lots of military and sporting metaphors. One such book was Steve Farrar’s Point Man, which was highly recommended from conference platforms in Australia as well.

In Point Man, each Christian husband and father was depicted as a soldier leading a patrol in the jungles of Vietnam – only the patrol was not facing the Viet Cong, but all the cultural forces threatening the integrity and stability of the family. Christian men were called upon to stand firm and to fight, as the noble protectors of their families.

The claim from evangelical leaders was that here was a vision for good men – a masculinity transformed and harnessed for Jesus. And, with the decline of traditional family values, the call for men to be strong in defending the family hit a chord. However, for Du Mez, the election of Donald Trump on a wave of evangelical Christian support gives the lie. His immorality was excused on account of his apparent strength and because of his determination to oppose the liberal political and media elites.

He is not a good man in any Christian sense – but he was a strong man (or claimed to be). Because this thrice-married man appeared as the unlikely defender of family values (as described by some), he was apparently given a leave pass.

Another way of putting it is to say that the narrative of masculinity that evangelicals (along with the culture more generally) evoked was that of the male hero. How do we think of heroes? Like a soldier, a hero may have to do difficult, dangerous, and even violent things to protect something good or to achieve something worthwhile. He must be prepared for this and willing to sacrifice himself to get the job done.

Now, there’s something right about this. After all, the apostle Paul uses military and athletic metaphors in his New Testament letters (though they are applied to all Christians, not just for males). Jesus Christ exemplifies sacrifice. But the hero story becomes complicated when the bad behaviour of the hero is justified because of the supposed good he defends or achieves.

In church and in politics we continually appoint leaders who will do ‘whatever it takes’ – and will exhibit the heroic and manly virtues of strength, courage, and self-assurance. But that means we overlook and excuse deeper issues of character. And especially, we do this with powerful men.

I didn’t like everything about Du Mez’s book, but I found the podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill compelling. In The Rise and Fall, the story of Mark Driscoll’s spectacular ministry success in the 2000s – and subsequent failure in the 2010s – is told with a little more sympathy than we get from Du Mez.

Driscoll preached a vision of masculinity that was a response to the ‘slacker’ culture still gripping contemporary young men. He called them to the exciting adventure of living for Jesus as a man – to marry, have children, work hard, and be a committed disciple of Christ.

Driscoll’s own story of looking for a church as a new Christian was telling. As a young man, he found nothing appealing in any church that he visited – nothing in the aesthetics of the buildings, in the music, or in the style of the preaching. So, he planted Mars Hill Church in Seattle – the US’s most secular city – with a different vision. He figured that if a generation of men could be captivated by Christ, the result would be culture-changing.

Driscoll was less interested in electoral politics than other evangelicals, but he was standing against what he saw as the cultural dominance of feminism – which was (on his account) both a response to men’s apathy and inertia and also emasculated them. This left untouched the social problems of men’s irresponsibility. So he set a high bar for Christian men, not a low one.

In contrast to the seeker-friendly Christianity of the ’80s and ’90s, and to the caffeinated and Celtic stylings of the emergent church, Driscoll preached a faith that meant “manning up” – taking responsibility and leadership in your home, in particular. This went with a radical presentation of complementarian theology, applied to the home and to the ministry. Men were to man up in the home – to take the lead.

So how should we think of men and masculinity as Christians? Should we just give up? Have we nothing to say? Personally, I think to say nothing would be a failure of nerve and a lost opportunity.

And, as The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill shows, to some degree this worked. For some people, this ministry was utterly transformative. I know people – mostly, but not only, men – who became gripped for the gospel through the ministry of Mark Driscoll. It gave them a vision for a way in which they could be a Christian and still be authentically a man – something they hadn’t found in Christianity up until then, which seemed to them tepid and dreary. And it came with a challenge to respect and not use and abuse women – to be a man of commitment, responsibility, and integrity.

For a new generation of men entering the ministry in the late 2000s even here in Australia, Driscoll offered an exciting and strong model, a captivating vision of discipleship.

But there was the shadow side, too. Driscoll once said: “In Revelation, Jesus is a pride fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is a guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.”

He was making a polemical point, granted, about Jesus as our judge. But the language is telling. The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill details the increasingly abusive and angry way in which Driscoll led his church and acknowledges that his teaching and personal conversations veered over into sheer misogyny. His language was studded with violent images. Mars Hill, a church of at one time 15,000 members, spectacularly imploded under the weight of the accusations of bullying and plagiarism against its pastor in 2014. Was this then what being a Christian man meant?

It’s beyond the scope of this article, nor my place, to ask what went wrong at Mars Hill. Rather, I want to ask: given the lessons learned from Mars Hill, what place is there for ministry to men? What can Christians say about maleness and masculinity? What Mars Hill shows is that there is a potential dark side here. There is a cultural anxiety about gender roles that definitely affects men. We’ve seen too often that there’s a masculinity that can take a toxic form in our culture. But in an attempt to win men to the adventure of Christian discipleship – to speak of Christ in the language of men – it is possible to baptise the very form of masculinity you are calling men away from. You can easily import the toxicity.

So how should we think of men and masculinity as Christians? Should we just give up? Have we nothing to say? Personally, I think to say nothing would be a failure of nerve and a lost opportunity. I know the men at my church have greatly valued gathering together and thinking through the Christian life and praying with one another. And gathering together has presented us with opportunities to share the gospel as well.

‘Masculinity’ then is a cultural convention about what men wear, do, say, see as their purpose, and more. It is a cultural shorthand.

The first thing to ask is: what is masculinity? To generalise and simplify: ‘masculinity’ is the cultural expression of the experience of being a biological male. As a biological reality, the male body and brain are shaped by the production of testosterone. And then testosterone has, on the normal statistical curve, implications about weight, height, muscle mass, strength, and so on as compared to women; as well as possibly other behavioural outcomes. You don’t have to have a male body to exhibit masculine traits, but masculinity as such references biological maleness.

‘Masculinity’ then is a cultural convention about what men wear, do, say, see as their purpose, and more. It is a cultural shorthand. Rightly or wrongly, we expect that men behave in certain ways. But we also notice how this varies over times and places. Wearing skirts is a case in point. There is no essential connection between wearing trousers and having an XY chromosome (see the example of Fiji and Scotland)! But as a matter of cultural convention, we generally recognise when someone presents as a male, even though there is a very wide diversity of expression within this category. We could be wrong on closer examination, but mostly we aren’t.

‘Masculinity’, then, is a place where many men live. But like all cultural phenomena – like being Australian, or being Gen Xer – it is affected by sin. The effects of the fall wind themselves around human life in every aspect, and masculinity is no exception. That does not mean that everything about the idea of masculinity is evil, but rather that with the good comes the bad – and it is very hard to distinguish the two just by looking at them. And at this point arises a real danger for Christian ministries – to appeal for men to conform to or to aspire to some ideal of masculinity risks just taking our cultural understanding of what a good man is and giving it a Christian veneer.

Masculinity is best seen as a cultural space that many men inhabit – some happily, some less so.

Now, in addition to this, the discussion over gender is the focus of strong cultural anxiety, one that has been present since the 1970s but which has taken on a sharper form since 2010 or so. There’s a vigorous argument about what is the dominant voice in the culture. Some (including many conservative Christian leaders) see feminism as having triumphed ‘in the culture’ and having become the dominant cultural voice, especially in the media, in family law, in education, and in bureaucracy. To some, it even seems that the scales have tipped such that it is more difficult to be a man than a woman in some ways – men vastly outnumber women in prison, or as the victims of violent crime.

On the other hand, many argue that the culture remains deeply biased toward men and the ‘masculine’, pointing to the paucity of female CEOs, the numbers of women in parliament, and the prevalence of intimate partner violence against women, along with many other cultural factors. To be clear, I am not making a judgement on either side here, but rather naming how it feels to different people. The truth we perhaps need to recognise is that cultures can very easily contain opposites and can be in a state of rapid flux.

Masculinity is best seen as a cultural space that many men inhabit – some happily, some less so. At its best, it names a form of the good life for men. A good man (in 21st century Australia) aspires to be resilient, loyal, tough, and skilful. He works very hard and plays hard. He sees himself as a family man. But as we’ve seen, there’s the dark side to this vision, too. It encourages him to take on burdens he possibly can’t carry. The prevalence of pornography shows that men are not at peace with their sexual selves. It both rewards him and punishes him for being sexually aggressive. And enjoying masculinity may lead to contempt for women – it often does. In addition, as anyone who is in ministry knows first-hand, isolation and loneliness amongst men from middle-age and up is extremely widespread. Is the gospel for such human beings? Yes. And, just as we speak the gospel into other cultures and experiences of being human, so we ought to speak the gospel using the cultural experience of being a man.

But we need to do so with a number of qualifications. Firstly, we should remember we are not baptising current conventions of masculinity but calling on them to be transformed. Key to this is Paul’s insight in Galatians 3:28, that in Christ there is no longer ‘male and female’. What he means is that in Christ we now have a deeper identity even than our gender. Certainly, we are not neutered ‘in Christ’; but our gender is at best second to our ‘in Christ’ identity – and identity that we share, with profound mutuality and equality, with our sisters in Christ.

Secondly, even as we might speak to men in a way that perhaps appeals to most men – having a night together watching sport, or tasting craft beer, or watching a butcher carve up a side of beef – we must be careful not to make this red-blooded vision of masculinity what being a Christian man means. You can be a ‘manly’ man, and a disciple of Christ. But you can also love musical theatre and interior design!

Being a Christian is not about conforming to some ideal type of masculinity. In fact, the Bible has remarkably little to say about masculinity as such. It addresses men as men in their experiences – as fathers and husbands and sons, as farmers and soldiers, slaves and slave owners. But it does not prescribe a set of qualities and behaviours as ideally ‘masculine’.

And that’s the third thing: being a Christian man is primarily about conforming to this new identity we have in Christ. Christ is the template. But of course, he’s the template for women as well as men, for young as well as old, for Australians, Indians, and Swedes, mechanics and academics. The journey to Christ-likeness will look different depending on who you are to start with. For one thing, this is because Christ challenges all of us according to our particular sins and temptations. For example, men are far more prone to violence and use pornography at significantly higher rates than women. It’s worth doing ministry to men because they share these impulses in common. But the endpoint is the same: as a man, to look like Christ.

An authentically Christian male may have to risk being seen as unmasculine in our masculine culture.

And that means that a Christian man will be a transformed man. Christlikeness will in some ways look different in men. There’ll be aspects of his masculinity that he will need to reshape.

The question that Christ poses for many men is: what will you, as a man with a changed heart, do with the strength and cultural advantage that you have been given as a man? There may be virtues that his culture thinks are unmanly that he needs to now pursue. There’ll also be traditionally male virtues that he’ll be called upon to excel in (just as Christian women will be) – self-discipline, endurance, courage (see 1 Corinthians 16:13).

Paul regards his fellow-workers as soldier-like in their endurance of suffering (2 Timothy 2:3-4; Philippians 2:25) and sees himself as maternal in his tender care and love of the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8). The New Testament asks men to be humble (1 Peter 5:5-7) and to refrain from angry disputation and be at prayerful peace (1 Tim 2:8).

In their pursuit of Christ-likeness, then, men are to embrace a kind of character that in some ways would have been seen as unmasculine in the ancient world. An authentically Christian male may have to risk being seen as unmasculine in our masculine culture.

The call of Christ to Christians who are men is not thus to be more male (however we interpret that), but to be more like Christ as the man you are. This does not necessarily involve being more manly. But it does involve being more adult. In 1 Corinthians 14:20, Paul literally says to the Corinthians ‘in understanding be men!’ – and he means by this, simply ‘grow up!’

There is something here that I think resonates with many men, which Driscoll was rightly observing in the 2000s and which Jordan Peterson observes in the 2020s. We men can be remarkably immature: selfish, emotionally disengaged, needy, and slow to commit. Young men are slower to mature than young women in many ways. In church and in the home, it is not uncommon to observe women doing all the heavy lifting – taking responsibility for their own spiritual growth and working hard in helping others. In this way, men need to be told to ‘man up’ – not becoming more hairy-chested, but to become more adult.

Like all human beings, men need to be transformed by grace.

Now as a convinced complementarian (and I know that others disagree with me here), I do think that the New Testament gives a particular vocation to men in the church and the home (noting, by the way, that responsibility is given to men in particular roles and not just to ‘men’ as a class). But this call is not a call to exclusive or total responsibility. Relationships between the genders in the church express a profound mutuality and interdependence (1 Corinthians 11). Neither is there in the New Testament much of the language associated with leadership in the sense we usually mean it. Decision-making is not discussed. Rather, husbands are called upon to sacrifice themselves for their wives as Christ gave himself for the church ‘in order to present them pure and blameless’ (Ephesians 5:25-28). But this doesn’t mean, on any reading, that wives are not also responsible for their own spiritual maturity.

If men are empowered by this call, this does not mean that women are to be disempowered. The analogy to Christ does not make a husband an alternative Christ.

That means that calling men who are husbands to step up in the home and to pursue sexual faithfulness within marriage is not a call to become a domineering and demanding presence. This is just a different kind of immaturity. I don’t think it is a stretch to assume (if I may boldly speak on behalf of married women) that most wives want neither a boy nor a boss for a husband. They want an adult male. And this means that your sexual faithfulness to your wife does not make her your plaything. Refraining from adultery and pornography does not win a husband special privileges for good behaviour. The model husband engages with his wife in love, for her good, seeking her flourishing.

Like all human beings, men need to be transformed by grace. The trouble with making Christian discipleship a call to hyper-masculinity is that it is often more about subduing the masculine beast by willpower than it is about seeking true transformation. It is, to use theological language, deeply Pelagian – that is, it’s a call to salvation by good works. The call is: be more masculine, but with the rage, the violence, and the sexual promiscuity tamed. Just do it. That’s the saving good work. Assert yourself, but for good. Chain up the wild beast. But as we’ve seen, the beast of the old man will not simply be subdued. He always seems to get out.

What men need is not simply that vision. If the driver of change is mere willpower – or even shame, or progressive cultural forces – then it’s unachievable and ultimately deeply damaging. Instead, what men need is to see before them the crucified messiah who died for them – not from superman-style heroism, but out of obedient love. The good news for men is that the gospel of God’s free grace will make you a better man – not by calling you to a more masculine form of manhood but by humbling you to accept God’s mercy and pursue his righteousness with all your strength.

In Christ, your unruly heart has been turned to a deeper desire. And so, now: subdue the beast of destructive masculinity. Put the strengths and qualities of your maleness to good use rather than evil, offering your (male) body as a living sacrifice.

Michael Jensen is the rector at St Mark’s Anglican Church, Darling Point and is the author of several books.

Michael jointly hosts the With All Due Respect podcast with Megan Powell du Toit

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