Several months ago, my wife and I attended an event where a panel of experts spoke about sex trafficking prevention. When asked what we, as regular people, can do to prevent sex trafficking, a Minneapolis police officer who works with both victims and perpetrators on a daily basis had only one response: “We need to reinvent what it means to be a man in our society.”
In subtle and explicit ways, American society teaches men that they are naturally sex-obsessed, and because it’s just the way men are, they can hardly be blamed for the consequences.
We can say that women and men are equal in value and dignity, but as long as our philosophy about men is “boys will be boys,” it won’t matter. What matters is our response to the manifestations of patriarchy in daily life—from sexual violence and degrading jokes to television ads and sitcoms. And how do we respond?
In 2010, an Iowa dentist fired his assistant of ten years, because he suddenly found himself sexually attracted to her, which adversely affected his marriage.1 I heard plenty of people celebrate his commitment to his marriage; fewer seemed to ask why his marriage vows or his sexual urges were her responsibility. When an adolescent boy gawks at a woman in church, we chastise her for immodesty. When girls and women are raped, we ask, “Why did she put herself in a compromising position?” When our philosophy is “boys will be boys,” he is simply and innocently a man, but she is a temptress.
And sex is just the beginning. When boys are raised to believe that they are better equipped for leadership and decision-making than women, we end up with leaders who ignore the voices and plight of women. When we stereotype male and female behavior, we alienate those who don’t fit; when we stereotype their skill sets, we rob industries, governments, and the church of the diversity they need to flourish. When we force men and women into roles based on their sex, we put marriages at risk before they start. When we insist on patriarchy in church leadership, we disfigure the body of Christ.
Unfortunately, the Christian response to these problems has often been to reinforce patriarchy. We are told that what we need is not to undo patriarchy, but to do patriarchy better—we need patriarchs who are more like Jesus. Because patriarchy is divinely sanctioned, it must also be the divinely appointed source of every man’s identity. This is beautiful, we are told. What is more, it’s biblical.
But is it? Several hallmarks of “biblical manhood” look suspiciously like modern, Western, middle-to-upper class rites of passage: employment outside the home, financial independence, marriage, and fatherhood, for instance.2 Jesus, on the other hand, never married or had children. He abandoned his family business in favor of ministry, becoming financially dependent on others—even women. He could be tough, but he also wept in public. Day after day, he soiled his reputation as a man of God by hanging around the wrong people. In short, Jesus himself fails to live up to the ideals of “biblical manhood.” This, to me, suggests that we might be off track.
So, what does biblical masculinity look like? It would be nice if there were a simple answer—if we could trade one checklist for another. But God doesn’t call us to settle for the easy way.
It is easy to declare God’s simple design for men, so long as we are disengaged from others’ lives. But we are to imitate the God who became one of us, entering into our broken and complicated world. We are to wade into the muck of life, engage people, and wrestle with the challenges that arise when ideas collide with real life. When faith is put into action, easy answers tend to evaporate.
In this issue, we make no effort to land on a single definition of biblical masculinity, and I suspect there is a wide range of opinion, even among our authors. Rather, our goal is to reframe the discussion of biblical masculinity around Jesus, the Bible, and real life, and to do so without the lens of patriarchy. We’ll tackle topics ranging from Jesus’ behavior to social science; from sex, marriage, and family to youth and gender identity; and from abuse to masculine imagery for God.
I invite you to trade quick definitions for discernment, and simple solutions for the complexity of real life. Let’s leave behind the “boys will be boys” mentality of patriarchy and the bullet lists of “biblical manhood.” Instead, let’s embrace an idea (or ideas) of masculinity patterned after Jesus, characterized by kingdom values, and deeply engaged with the real world. When we do, our families, churches, and world will better know and experience the fullness and glory of God.
1. cnn.com/2013/07/12/us/iowa-irresistible-worker. Accessed 3/10/2014.
2. See also my review of Real Marriage in Mutuality 19.1 (Spring 2012).