Editor's Note: This is a Top 15 CBE 2019 Writing Contest winner. Enjoy!
The masculinity movement is now an entire industry with books, seminars, and speakers. The movement has grown up around notions of “biblical manhood,” but in reality, it reinforces worldly ideas of masculinity and femininity. A whole generation of boys and men today are looking for guidance on how to live as men, and the Christian masculinity industry feeds on their feelings of longing and insecurity. Sadly, the solutions it offers cause further damage. Additionally, a lot of the energy behind complementarianism and the search for “clear gender roles” comes from a crisis of masculinity. Instead of digging deeper into Scripture for guidance about how women and men can live as disciples who conform to Christ, the masculinity movement offers cheap and superficial answers, which end up ruining men and their relationships.
The Christian masculinity movement isn’t helping men or women. It’s damaging young men, and their relationships with others, and it’s distracting us from what should be our true focus—discipleship and imitating Christ. Good discipleship based in a right understanding of the gospel calls us to challenge gender roles in dating, marriage, church, and society.
Young men are looking for guidance on how to live well and how to relate to each other and to women. But a hyper-focus on “masculinity” or “femininity” as the pinnacle of discipleship does not help. We need to guide men and women toward honoring, respecting, and relating to each other as equal partners and coheirs with Christ, and the church can do this well by helping both men and women become disciples who imitate Christ Jesus. For men (and women) this means helping them discover how they can become fully conformed to Christ, pursuing lives characterized by virtue and the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23). Shifting our focus away from masculinity or femininity to focus on conformity to the image of Christ would go a long way toward helping us all break free of harmful gender theology.
When our churches make this shift, some will ask, “Are you saying you don’t think that the differences between women and men are biblical?” This is a challenging question. On the one hand, the Bible does not deny that there are differences between women and men, but discerning the nature of these differences isn’t easy or clear (and gender roles vary from culture to culture and generation to generation). On the other hand, the Bible isn’t focused on “masculinity” or “femininity.” So, when we make the nature of gender our focus, we quickly fall into the trap of mirroring worldly ideas of manhood and womanhood. When we focus on “biblical manhood” or “biblical womanhood,” our eyes are on the wrong thing. Healthy personal identity grows when we focus on discipleship and conformity to Christ. And when we focus on this kind of discipleship, we also foster healthy relationships between the sexes.
So, if we aren’t talking to boys and men about “Christian masculinity” or “biblical manhood” anymore, then what guidance are we giving them? How are we helping them form personal identities and flourish as men? Thankfully, we already have some guides available.
Recently, a major men’s conference was held in my city. The keynote speaker offered three talks on what a man of faith should look like. The speaker asserted that a man should be (1) fearless, standing in awe of God and allowing who he is to lead us into living fearlessly; (2) tender, reflecting the justice, kindness, and humility of God; and (3) thankful, recognizing all God has done for us in Christ. This sounds like a beautiful description of discipleship. But it also sounds like a perfect description of a woman of faith. When we see that discipleship is about conformity to Christ regardless of gender, then we will see how virtues like these apply to everyone.
We should notice, also, that when the biblical authors give guidance to men and women about how to relate to each other, their advice isn’t a focus on “masculinity” or “femininity.” Their guidance could be summarized like this:
Practice mutual submission and honor one another. Understand that you are equal partners and co-laborers with your brothers and sisters. Together, you are coheirs with your brother, Jesus Christ. Live together in a way that witnesses to Christ and his gospel and that maintains the credibility of your witness in an age of unbelief, persecution, immorality, enslavement, and patriarchy. Be attentive to the expectations and norms of your culture—you can’t give constant offense and maintain credible witness. But never sacrifice conformity to Christ, your gospel witness, or mutual submission. In your relationships with each other, imitate Christ’s love, grace, compassion, gentleness, kindness, humility, self-sacrifice, and so on. Live as a new creation, as a new people in Christ Jesus. In every aspect of your relationships together as women and men seek to glorify Christ and be conformed to his image until he returns.
Healthy personal identity and interpersonal wellbeing develop as we help boys and men live as disciples who conform to the image of Jesus Christ. Disciples like this practice gender equality, mutual submission, and self-sacrificial nurture and honor of others. Only this leads to healthy disciples, churches, marriages, and ministries.
God became a vulnerable and humble human in the incarnation. Jesus Christ understands our humanity in a unique way, and he sacrificed himself for us. That’s the scandal of the cross. Jesus is the suffering and crucified servant. He invites us into a life of humility and vulnerability and sacrifice. We follow a vulnerable Messiah, and we must imitate his weakness and his humility. Our aim should be to help men and women understand that a cruciform faith embraces suffering, self-emptying, and vulnerability. In doing so, the humble disciple discovers the power of the cross and resurrection and lives in a manner pleasing to God.
The greatest threats to Christianity today aren’t immigration, same-sex marriage, or increasing secularism in Western countries. The greatest threats to Christianity today are greed, pride, idolatry, selfishness, and abuse of power, along with a combative posture in the world, which fears and excludes others. The answer to these problems is to move from fear and exclusion to discipleship and conformity to Jesus Christ. This is everything. From this posture flows the integrity, morality, values, compassion, humility, love, and witness the world needs. The Christian masculinity movement can’t do that—only discipleship can.
God predestined his people to be conformed to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:29). Our major difficulty isn’t gender roles or lack of “biblical manhood.” Our great challenge is our lack of conformity to the image of Christ. Discipleship and conformity go hand in glove. They’re inseparable. We don’t need more masculine or feminine Christians; we need more disciples. Today, perhaps more than ever, our focus should be on discipleship and conformity to the image of Christ.
It’s time to challenge unhealthy gender roles and stereotypes. Let’s stop talking about “masculinity” and “femininity”—let’s talk about discipleship.