Editor's Note: This is a Top 15 CBE Writing Contest winner. Enjoy!
My family moved to a new place last year, so we are relatively new to our current church. I am still in that awkward phase of introducing myself to others only for them to say that we’ve already met and vice versa. Recently, a man whom I’ve met several times introduced himself to me. His wife leaned over to him and said, “Honey, you know him. He’s the one who is always wearing a baby.”
It is rare, indeed, for me not to have one of my children strapped to me on Sunday mornings, or any time that I am out of the house with my brood. Wearing my baby gives me two hands free to try to keep the older one safe and out of trouble, or help my wife carry all our children’s accoutrements. I have received nothing but warmth and support from my new church while I carry my children, but that was not the case in my previous church. The assistant pastor frequently told me that I was doing “women’s work” when I was caring for my children, and not living up to the “holy masculinity” that God called men to, because I was “too busying carrying my children to be a leader.”
I must admit, I was flummoxed. As so often happens, I did not have the words to respond how I wanted in the moment. Reflecting on that instance in the years since, I have wondered about what assumptions my former pastor made about what exactly is “holy masculinity.” Both that particular congregation and our wider society are in the grips of a harmful patriarchy, which seeks to limit both men and women in their activities. There can be nothing “holy” about a set of behaviors that does not offer a godly alternative to the status quo.
The Hebrew word which we translate as “holy” (qadosh) means something that is “set apart, different, or other.” Masculinity that echoes and reflects patriarchal cultural expectations cannot be holy because it is not separate or set apart. The pastor wanted me not to parent my children with my wife so that I could focus on leading other men. But men ruling over women and refusing to participate alongside them in traditionally gender-differentiated tasks is a cursed outcome of the fall (Gen. 3:16). Holy masculinity, which offers a Christlike critique to patriarchal role limitations, looks like mutually building each other up and “calling each other to one’s side” (parakaleite) (1 Thess. 5:11). Frequently parakaleite is translated as something like “encourage,” but I think it is important to recall that it is a compound word with two parts: para (beside, near) and kaleo (to call). The image of Christ-followers calling each other near and working together as partners is certainly the pattern we see extolled in the early church. This kind of partnership is indicative of healthy congregations today.
I think a real holy masculinity is following the example of Jesus, who undermined cultural expectations about men and women inhabiting separate public spheres and roles (for example, see Jesus talking alone with the Samaritan woman in John 4 and the response of his disciples in verse 27, NIV: “Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, ‘What do you want?’ or ‘Why are you talking with her?’”). If I shepherd adults that I am not biologically related to, but do not care for my own children because that’s “women’s work,” can I really be a humble servant-leader like Jesus? It does not seem possible to me.
After I returned home the Sunday that my former pastor critiqued my leadership ability because I was “too involved in parenting,” I was hurt and confused. So, I turned to Scripture and looked for examples of who held babies and how. Simply searching “carry” in my Bible app returned several verses. A close reading of these verses revealed that, far from avoiding God’s calling by carrying my children, I am actually emulating our heavenly Parent. In the wilderness narrative, Moses reminded the Israelites of who and how God had been to them as they prepared to enter the Holy Land, and Moses showed them that God is the kind of father who carries his children:
The Lord your God, who is going before you, will fight for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes, and in the wilderness. There you saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place. (Deut. 1:30–31, emphasis added)
Moses was not introducing a new concept but reminding the people of Israel that they had already seen God carry them “as a father carries his son.” We can see the people of God being reminded of this image repeatedly throughout Scripture.
Whenever God’s people prayed for deliverance, they would recall the times that God had carried them in the past. They sang, “Save your people and bless your inheritance; be their shepherd and carry them forever” (Psalm 28:9, emphasis added). God reassured the children of Israel that even after they faced exile and judgment, God would carry them as in times of old. Everyone, the elderly and the young alike, will know what it feels like to be carried by our heavenly Father:
Listen to me, you descendants of Jacob,
all the remnant of the people of Israel,
you whom I have upheld since your birth,
and have carried since you were born.
Even to your old age and gray hairs
I am he, I am he who will sustain you.
I have made you and I will carry you;
I will sustain you and I will rescue you. (Isa. 46:3–4, emphasis added)
These passages demonstrate that a crucial aspect of God’s self-revelation is as a parent who carries his children. Accordingly, when I carry my sons, I am not shirking my duty as a man, but I am fulfilling Jesus’s command to emulate God’s expansive love (Matt. 5:48).
I wish I had had these passages in my mind when my former pastor criticized me as I demonstrated my love for my sons by carrying them. I felt deeply conflicted. I had been preaching and leading in that church for years before my children came along. I know that I have a responsibility to steward my gifts for the benefit of the congregation where God has placed me. But, what sort of faithful steward would I be if I did not use my strong back to hold and carry my sons as God has held and carried us all? Occasionally, when I preached at my old church, I held my older son for a bit when he toddled up to me. Months and years later, no one remembers anything I actually said in my sermons. But I have had quite a few people, mostly older women and men who are past their child-rearing years, tell me that I reminded them of Jesus when I encouraged my children to come to me, rather than sending them away (Matt. 19:14). Anytime I remind people of Jesus, I know that is the exact kind of behavior I want to do more.
The opportunity to wear or carry my sons in church is not the dereliction of some masculine duty but is the fulfillment of what God has called me to as a Christian, as a husband and father, and as a leader in the church. Now I make no apology for carrying my children, but I simply point to how our heavenly Parent has carried all of us.