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Published Date: September 5, 2007


Published Date: September 5, 2007


Featured Articles

Featured Articles

Learning to Be a Better Man

I’m starting this article with the end. There is really only one thing I hope each of you — man or woman — gets out of this. Manhood is about the agonies and ecstasies of being human, and the hunger and hope of loving and being loved. But that is only part of it. Most of all, manhood is about the strangely active surrender of heart, body, and desires to Christ, a lifelong conforming of one’s own will to his will. Does that sound like a good definition of womanhood as well as manhood? Ah, you’re on to me.

But now that I gave away my punch line, we still have to get there. 

We men get mixed signals about what being a man is all about. Consider theologian Emil Brunner’s words in his book, Man in Revolt:

The man is the one who produces, he is the leader; the woman is receptive, and she preserves life; it is the man’s duty to shape the new… The man must be objective and universalize, the woman must be subjective and individualize; the man must build, the woman adorns, the man must conquer, the woman must tend… It is the duty of man to plan and to master, of the woman to understand and to unite.

Wow. So, did you get that, guys? According to Brunner, then, men must lead, shape the new, think objectively and universalize, build, conquer, plan, and master. Needless to say, almost all the roles of women he lists are submissive roles. And where does Brunner get his gender role theory from? That’s entirely unclear.

Phyllis Schlafly, long-time spokesperson for the patriarchalists, expresses similar convictions in her book, The Power of the Positive Woman:

[W]omen are different from men in dealing with the fundamentals of life itself. Men are philosophers, women are practical, and ’twas ever thus. Men may philosophize about how life began and where we are heading; women are concerned about feeding the kids today… Women don’t take naturally to a search for the intangible and the abstract.

I picked these quotes because they are, or at least were, both considered authorities. But by today’s standards, and what we all know about women’s capacities to achieve, they sound fairly ridiculous. We all know women are mentally, philosophically, and in every other way capable of leading, teaching, writing, inventing, imagining, and so on. Anyone who doesn’t know it hasn’t paid attention to human history.

Just as women have proven these pundits wrong on women’s roles, they’re proven wrong on men’s roles too. How, as a man, am I robbed by these old definitions of masculinity? Allow me a few personal notes: It so happens that my mother was deeply philosophical and helped introduce me to critical thinking, the great poets, classical music, and on and on. In fact, one of my more vivid childhood memories is of pondering with my mother a vase she had in our china cabinet. I was only five or six and the vase was adorned with a hunter with drawn bow pursuing a deer. I pointed out to her that though his bow was drawn, he would never let the arrow fly. 

My mother smiled and told me how my thoughts echoed a very famous poet’s thoughts. She then quoted from memory the John Keats poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” where the poet ponders the urn’s frozen in time depiction of a male lover pursuing his beloved. My mother and I entered a place of shared wonder I could not have entered by myself. She was my philosopher, and I her disciple. And as I grew up, the wisdom she instilled in me helped me become a man.

Another story. As a young Christian, when I joined Jesus People USA in Chicago, I worked with Dawn, an older woman who edited our Cornerstone magazine. Today I can only say that Dawn discipled and mentored me, and in many ways she continues to do so. I often listen to her words or look to her actions for guidance as I stumble my way along Christ’s road. But through her teaching and life example I developed specifically Christian ways of thinking and living versus the old paradigms. She was the one, working with no agenda in mind except that of doing her best for God, who often confronted me with my own subtle — and sometimes not so subtle — anti-woman bias. Through Dawn I was stripped of so much male baggage in order to become more fully myself. I learned to be a better man.

One more story. As a father of two daughters, I can assure you I cared as much as any mother about feeding, bathing, properly dressing the kids today, tomorrow, and always. When my girls were very young, only three and four years old, my wife of eight years left me and the children behind to pursue a life of her own. Becoming a single parent brought out feelings in me which are usually ascribed to mothers. For example, I was shocked to discover a fear of airplanes when I left for a trip to Mexico as a journalist guest of Compassion International. I usually loved flying. But in this case I realized I was afraid not for myself but for my children. If I was to die, who would be there for Tamzen and Tabitha? Who would love them, nurture and cherish them? So it is wrong to say such feelings are strictly maternal. They are a father’s feelings as well. Through my daughters I learned things about nurturing love, the kind that gives more than it gets, the kind that our Heavenly Father gives to us. I learned to be a better man.

God, as various egalitarian spokespersons have noted, does not give women different Spiritual gifting. In fact, when gender is mentioned at all in the biblical passages about spiritual gifts, there seems to be a special attempt by the biblical writers to make sure this equality to serve is evident. And where does the Holy Spirit dwell? Our bodies, male and female, are its temple. So God gifts each individual in an individual way, rooted not in one biological fact, her or his gender, but rather in a very complex set of realities which only God Himself can perceive with His Kingdom in mind.

There is no biblical basis for the kinds of claims Brunner and Schlafly made about manhood. Let’s take a closer look at some of the assumptions men deal with in our day and age. How about the idea that men — especially single men, though these days married men as well — are out for sex whenever they can safely have it without being caught. Is that really true? Yes, for some men. But also for some women. C’mon… many of us have personal knowledge of adultery’s destructive power to our marriages, our kids, our fellowships. Sometimes the adulterer is an unbeliever, other times a believer, other times even the pastor. But unfaithfulness is not limited by gender.

And men are as lonely for companionship as women. We’ve been trained to get that loneliness met through the doorway of sex, and that holds true of Christian husbands who desire to be held by their wives. We often don’t know that is what we want, because we were taught that the desire to be held is the desire to have sex. Often, sex and touch do go together, after all, and in marriage loving sex is a great thing. But once in a while, it is nice to discover that what a man really wants is simply to be held. Sure, that is supposed to be a feminine attribute more than a masculine one. But here’s to making it a merely human one rather than gender-specific.

Okay, let’s talk about guns instead of sex. My pals John Herrin and Glenn Kaiser are pretty good hunters. I don’t hunt, because I read Bambi and Wind in the Willows and Watership Down as a kid, and because my father, whom I love very much, went as far as to post our Montana farm with “No Hunting” signs. I just would find no pleasure in spending hours sneaking up on a deer to plug it. Does that make me less a man? I don’t think so. It does make me a hypocrite, though, because I sure love the venison my two pals share with me… and they don’t even tease me for being a Bambi-lover.

I tell that tale because I worry some men, especially those who might be traditionally male in their tastes and interests, might think I am down on them for being — well, kind of cliché males. That is similar to the nonsense that stay-at-home moms are not really free women but are all under male bondage. No, no. Creating equality in the church and home for women means that women who want to raise kids and who are gifted in nurture and hospitality, are simply able to choose that role rather than never consider any alternatives. After all, it is a real calling worthy of the deepest, most grateful, respect. Likewise, let me assure the guys that if you are the type who likes screaming for (or sometimes at) da Chicago Bears, secretly likes the smell of your own sweat, getting greasy tearing a car engine apart, or while in a state of arousal chasing your laughing wife around the kitchen, no one is suggesting you are less of a man of God than someone with differing tastes and interests.

Where I would worry about your ideas of manliness would be if you thought a woman who loves NFL football, maybe doesn’t like cooking, chases her husband around the table instead of the other way around, dreams of being (or maybe is already) a preacher, teacher, theologian / philosopher, or athletic coach, is somehow less womanly for being so. Am I coming through? Likewise, John, one of my hunter friends, is a fabulous nurturer of children, to the point I don’t think most moms could compete. He’s a he-man and a deeply nurturing human being at the same time. While most of us aren’t going to end up that balanced, we can at least be aware it is a possibility!

More than what we like or don’t like as men within godly boundaries, there’s the issue of whether or not we can include or even want to include women fully. How many of us guys would really mind if our wives screamed at our favorite NFL teams along with us? I mean, how much better can it get than sitting next to one’s best friend when the Bears score? One kiss per point! 

In my own case, my wife looks at my screaming pals and me on football Sunday afternoons with a bewildered sort of pity. Then she goes off to work on crafts. I’ve tried to make her an NFL convert, but the more I tell her about the game the more her eyes glaze over. Because other women she knows are football fanatics, she sometimes gets insecure about not being one herself. But why should she be? She’s herself in Christ, and it turns out being her doesn’t include a great love of football. That’s okay, even if I do miss out on those kisses.

Where the issue of inclusion versus exclusion gets dicey isn’t just on Sunday afternoons or bowling night. I’m worried about a memory from my own childhood which remains a reality even to this day. When the Trott family gathered together for one of those big meals such as Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, the women invariably went to the kitchen afterward and the men all ended up in the living room chatting, laughing, and philosophizing. Unspoken was the idea that women dealt with after-meal messes, and the men did not. Further, the wrong ideas we read earlier from Phyllis Schlafly and Emil Brunner seemed embodied in these family scenarios of gender exclusion. It is a situation where all concerned are in collusion to maintain something less than healthy, yet in accordance with traditional social values. We don’t even know we do it.

We must expect resistance when we try to change these things, not only from the men involved but also from the women. For instance, the last few times I went home I’ve insisted upon trying to break into the all-female kitchen cleanup crew. My mother usually lets me help for about five minutes, and then begins the eviction process. I finally told her why, which didn’t impress her at all. She just wanted me out. And at that point, I had to respect her wishes over my own hopes and leave. But I probably will keep trying.

Those of us allied with CBE are not interested in the project of liberating women from men. Human sinfulness, unfortunately, is the domain of both genders, not just one. Rather, pointing to Genesis, we see the model for the first human community being made of one woman and one man under God, in whose Image both male and female are created. Yet it is not good for man (or woman) to be alone. Each needs the other. And in this radically interdependent model of Genesis, we see the first model of God’s community later shown through Israel, and then the Church. Paul himself makes this clear in Ephesians 5, actually paralleling the union of wife and husband with the Church and Christ. 

An understanding of manhood resonating with that law of love agrees neither with secular feminism nor with the old patriarchal interpretations. Instead, I believe that understanding manhood requires understanding what God has to say about it. I believe that, as Christian philosopher Arthur Holmes has said, “All truth is God’s truth.” That is, we cannot ignore anything that is true without also ignoring — in a real sense — God’s Truth.

So from here on out, let’s assume we’re all having to pick our way through misconceptions, even lies, about what it means to be a man, a woman, or a human being. My words, too, should be viewed as suspect, compared to the Word and even your own individual journey as a believer, or barring that, as a human being. 

But also let us remember that there is great joy and freedom in celebrating our gendered humanity. Neither gender is sinless, and neither is without hope. Neither gender is boss, and neither gender is independent of the other gender. We share our differences even as we share our sameness, our commonality in humanness which biblically is defined this way: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). And just as in marriage, the two become one flesh, so (and Paul says this is a mystery) the many become one in Christ’s Body, the Church. We men need women to be our co-laborers, and they need us to be their co-laborers, in doing God’s will and establishing his kingdom.