It makes me weep when I think of the staggering crisis of manhood in the culture. There is hardly a negative sociological data point that doesn’t have its root in the failure of men to lives as faithful husbands and responsible fathers. Leaders across the political and ideological spectrum have decried the problem.
To combat the staggering crisis, a manhood movement has arisen in the church. I’m deeply grateful for the work of their leaders and for the curricula and conferences that have called men to follow Christ. I’ve been personally challenged by organizations like Focus on the Family, Family Life Today, Men’s Fraternity and others. I’m thankful for the good fruit of these ministries in families around the world.
But there is a strain of the manhood movement that troubles me. It’s a version of masculinity that makes Jesus look more like William Wallace than the King of Kings. As my wise colleague Joe Carter says, we don’t need a “Jesus who strolls like the Duke, squints like Clint Eastwood, and snarls like Dick Cheney. We don’t need Jesus the cagefighter; we just need Jesus the Savior.”[i] Pastors, as they call their men to faithfulness, need to understand the difference.
The answer to a confused manhood culture is not more chest-beating and MMA, but a very real picture of what a man of God looks like. Young men need to understand that courage is not defined by the size of their gun collections or by the ruggedness of their hobbies. Courage is defined by the willingness to humbly and boldly follow the risen Christ.
Some point to Jesus’s courageous overthrow of the temple marketplace as an example of the sort of fiery, aggressive, impulsive instincts every man should nurture. But before we get our own temple rage on, we need to be reminded that this incident wasn’t a spontaneous burst of masculinity, but a purposeful fulfilling of Jesus’s mission. Jesus was claiming his right to be worshiped as King, cleansing the temple for His Father. This was the next event in salvation history, a necessary move as Jesus made His way to the cross. It was in the temple where Jesus demonstrated His lordship. His rage at the religious profiteers was a demonstration of kingdom justice. Their greed preyed on the poor and prostituted the sacredness of God’s house. Even as He brandished the whips, Jesus was in full control of His emotions. He knew exactly what He was doing.
From this we may ascertain a secondary lesson that sometimes indignation and force are justified. But that’s not the primary message of the text. What’s more, Jesus is no sinful son of Adam. While anger may be a legitimate emotion, raw displays of power are rarely justified. They are almost always carnal. Put simply, I am not Jesus and you are not Jesus. Our anger is always, even on our best days, clouded by our fallen condition. To create out of the temple incident a template for manhood is exegetical folly.
With few exceptions, my displays of rage have always emanated from carnal motives. I’m not angry because God’s glory isn’t being displayed; I’m angry because I’ve been slighted, insulted, or inconvenienced. In fact, using Jesus as an excuse for our lack of self-control commits the same offense that motivated Jesus to flip the tables in the temple—using spirituality to advance our own agenda. A tightly wound, easily angered disposition is not a Christ-shaped masculinity; it’s an abuse of power, a violation of the kind of servant-hearted leadership Jesus urges of His disciples (Matt. 10:25).
True masculinity models Jesus in His roles as both warrior/king and gentle shepherd/suffering servant. Like Jesus, real men find no shame in weeping over loss (John 11:35) or expressing maternal love for those in our care (Luke 13:34).
I sympathize with Michael Horton’s plea to the church: “Enough of the bravado that actually misunderstands—sometimes rather deeply—what real sanctification looks like in the lives of men as well as women.”[ii]
What’s more, this hypermasculine template robs men of some of the sanctifying work of the Spirit. Many of the traits of the fruit of the Spirit might at first glance appear “feminine,” because a machismo model so often eschews God-like traits such as gentleness and meekness. Horton offers,
Furthermore, are these the characteristics that the New Testament highlights as “the fruit of the Spirit”—which, apparently, is not gender-specific? “Gentleness, meekness, self-control,” “growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ,” “submitting to your leaders,” and the like? Officers are to be “apt to teach,” “preaching the truth in love,” not quenching a bruised reed or putting out a smoldering candle, and the like. There is nothing about beating people up or belonging to a biker club.[iii]
Our Lord commended these traits, reminding us that it will be the “meek” that will inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5). Paul was unafraid to compare his discipleship to that of a nurturing mother (1 Thess. 2:6–9). It is no coincidence that in every single list of qualifications for leaders in the church—positions that complementarians like I feel apply only to men—Paul prioritizes qualities you won’t find embodied by hypermasculinity. Male Christian leaders must be “not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome” (1 Tim. 3:3), “not arrogant or quick tempered” (Titus 1:7), and “dignified” (1 Tim. 3:8). These are character traits every man should aspire to, since they are virtues that should characterize every Christian.
At best, when we imply that to “be a real Christian man you will ____” and fill that in with anything but the fruit of the Spirit, you frustrate the unique calling, temperament, and spiritual growth of Christian men. At worst, when you then apply that template retroactively to Jesus Christ, you create a reductionist version of the Son of God, a false Jesus who looks nothing like the Christ we are called to follow in humble obedience.
What makes men more like Christ is the Spirit working through God’s Word preached faithfully every week and lived out in the unique callings given to each specific man. “Looking like Christ” looks different from man to man. Timothy followed Paul as Paul followed Christ, but he had a different temperament and style than the apostle. And so it is with me and my father, and with men from all different backgrounds and endowed with unique challenges and gifts.
For men to step up doesn’t mean they need to acquire a pickup truck or buy a shotgun. It means they need to simply, humbly, sacrificially follow their Lord.
This was adapted from The Original Jesus.
[i] Carter, “Jesus Is Not a Cagefighter | Web Exclusives | Daily Writings From Our Top Writers.”
[ii] Michael Horton, “Modern Reformation Magazine,” Muscular Christianity, n.d., http://www.modernreformation.org/default.php?page=articledisplay&var1=ArtRead&var2=1355&var3=issuedisplay&var4=IssRead&var5=124.