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Published Date: April 30, 1997

Published Date: April 30, 1997

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Masculinity in Crisis: Remaining Biblical in a Changing World

Andy looks up at the billboard as he drives along the Interstate—and there the guy is. In his white Stetson, cowhide vest blowing in the breeze, he gallops along a ridge in the clear, crisp Western springtime. His powerful horse strains at the chase, his lasso whirls as he goes after a calf for the roundup. The deep blue sky creates a brilliant backdrop for the intense browns and greens of the countryside.1

The sign above the highway reads:

“Come to where the flavor is. Come to Marlboro Country.”

“Y’know,” Andy thinks, “I don’t smoke, but there’s something really appealing about that guy—the Marlboro Man. There he is, off with his buddies; enjoying the great outdoors. He’s out doing his job, working with his hands, and nobody’s really around telling him what to do. He’s quite a guy—a rugged, strong individual—no doubt as much in control of his life as he is of his horse. Wouldn’t it be great to be in his shoes—even if only for a few minutes?”

This image of masculinity strongly appeals to many men—even Christian men. The notion of being your own person, of having friends but no burdensome commitments, of running your life autonomously, with vigor and gusto, appeals strongly to many males. What is the problem with such a seemingly wholesome image of manhood?

John, a successful and respected neurosurgeon, asks to have lunch with a Christian counselor and friend. After some preliminary conversation, the surgeon takes a deep breath—“like a man about to plunge into the swimming pool,” thinks the counselor—then begins:

I guess I’m here because I’m messing up my relationships. All these years I’ve fought to get to the top of my profession, thinking that when I got there people would respect me and like me. But it just hasn’t worked. Oh, I suppose I command some respect in the hospital, but I’m not close to anybody, really. I have no one to lean on. I’m not sure you can help me either. 2

Ronald Blake was a thirty-nine-year-old radio talk show host, known throughout the South as the “Tennessee Iron Man” because of the all-night call-in shows he did with listeners as his only guests. Blake was in the hospital for a corneal transplant; his young, attractive wife was at his side throughout his stay.

“You know, honey,” he said, chain-smoking in his room, “I’m going to go crazy just lying here. I’ll try to talk them into letting me broadcast live from my bed.”

The radio station manager liked the idea because Blake was one of the station’s most popular announcers. The publicity value of the “Iron Man” broadcasting from his bedside would be enormous. The medical staff thought it would be a good public relations move for the hospital. Besides, they thought, it would boost morale for other patients, some of whom tended to be fearful of resuming normal activities after an operation. Blake’s doctor agreed to it as long as Blake would remain under the staff’s constant supervision.

“Are you really up to it?” the station announcer asked Blake after his surgery.                                                                       

“Of course,” Blake replied. “I feel fine. No problem here!” Blake was really sold on this idea. He would be a model for all the sick people who wallow in self-pity, and that was an exciting thought. He was sure his audience would love him for his courage, and by doing the shows from his bed, he could attract even more listeners. It would reinforce his “Iron Man” image and assure his young wife that she didn’t have an invalid on her hands.

Warned that a cold or infection could impede or even be disastrous for his recovery, he continued to take vitamin C pills, considering himself a sort of expert on vitamin therapy. Whenever he felt feverish or headachy, he just increased his dosage of the vitamin and usually didn’t bother telling his doctor.

A week or so after his operation, he was discharged from the hospital, having turned his recovery into a party and proven to everyone that he was indeed the “Iron Man,” who had no use for complaints, self-pity, or special attention.

Three months after his discharge he collapsed after his nightly show and was put in the hospital with double pneumonia. Two years later he died suddenly of a heart attack.3

Macho Masculinity

The Marlboro Man, neurosurgeon, and radio announcer all illustrate the traditional image of masculinity in our country. This image has four characteristics:

  1. “no sissy stuff” (that is, avoid everything feminine);
  2. the “big wheel” (achieve status at all costs);
  3. the “sturdy oak” (cultivate independence and toughness); and
  4. “give ’em hell” (be as aggressive as necessary).4

All too many Christians too easily espouse macho masculinity, believing toughness is a necessary and biblical attribute for the husband who “heads” his household well. Recent writings by conservative Christians (for example, Tim LaHaye’s earlier book Understanding the Male Temperament: What Every Man Would Like To Tell His Wife About Himself … But Won’t5 and Edwin L. Cole’s more recent book On Becoming A Real Man6 ), challenge men to be strong, powerful and aggressive, and to avoid being “feminized.” Even Gary Smalley and John Trent, in their otherwise helpful book The Hidden Value of a Man: The Incredible Impact of a Man on His Family7, ground their recommendations for “biblical manhood” in an exaggerated emphasis on power.

Masculinity in Crisis

However, definitions of masculinity are now in transition. In present society, men see a, variety of roles being offered, ranging from “macho” to “sensitive” to “wimp.” These alternatives, particularly for Christian men, can appear limited, confusing, and problematic. Macho (a term which usually refers to the traditional male image taken to an extreme) is hazardous and passé, “wimp” is “sissy” and therefore bad, and “sensitive” is possibly suspect as overly emotional. A truly biblical definition of masculinity appears more elusive than ever.

Unfortunately, many Christians still believe the “macho” image is biblical, consistent with traditional teachings about husbands as heads of the household and leaders of the church. Deluged by Rambo-like images in the media, struggling to understand Christian leadership, many Christian men emulate this masculinity model. Yet being macho, although it may appear biblical, has significant limitations and negative consequences and should be carefully questioned by serious Christians.

Males in our society are not as indestructible as the macho image—and its four characteristics—suggest. Indeed, the macho approach to masculinity is widely seen to shorten men’s lifespan. Reports from medical doctors and psychologists show that American men are less able than women to acknowledge their emotions and express them effectively, less willing to ask for help when they need it, and less willing to show or accept friendly affection with both females and other males. 8 Further, men’s attempts to escape their psychological stress—by violence, alcoholism, or smoking—noticeably shorten their lives .. The death rate for American men is higher than for American women at birth and in every year of life; women in our society and almost every modern society outlive men. 9

Macho masculinity has contributed to the high levels of violence in American society. As Myriam Miedziam documents in her recent book Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link Between Masculinity and Violence,10 the messages of media, current societal attitudes, and even toys designed for boys, encourage a mentality of irresponsibility and violence. Kaye, one author of this article, is the mother of a young son, Caleb. Given contemporary culture, will he be forced to choose between violent masculinity and no masculinity at all?

Christian men should also find macho masculinity problematic. In a recent survey of male crisis, David Smith11 concluded that many males are essentially friendless. While they are usually encouraged to have friends, their friendships are generally action-oriented rather than intimacy-oriented. “Sure, I share a lot with my friends,” a popular college senior and Christian man laughs sadly, revealing a strong sense of connectedness and yet an underlying sense of regret. “We shoot baskets, play soccer, and talk about women. That was fine until my father died unexpectedly. I never felt so alone in my life!” In contrast to women, many males seem to value activities and career over friendships in which they can share themselves.

Indeed, macho masculinity is unbiblical. The essence of the Christian life is community. From men and women, a mature, responsible Christianity requires caring and commitment—as well as competence (the macho image of masculinity emphasizes the last characteristic, while the Christian image of masculinity emphasizes the first two). Thus, Gordon Dalbey, in his recent book Healing the Masculine Soul: An Affirming Message for Men and The Women Who Love Them,12 identifies the problem of masculinity as brokenness and separateness and challenges men to commitment and wholeness, to being like Christ. Whether one believes in male headship and authority in the home, or mutuality in the marriage relationship, Christian men are called to leadership and service, to competence and caring.

New Definitions of Masculinity

In the last two decades, changing gender roles, a result of changing social, economic and political pressures, have given rise to the men’s movement, both sacred and secular. Secular writers such as Robert Bly (in his book Iron John13) and Sam Keen (in his book Fire in the Belly: On Being A Man14) propose that men need to return to their historical and individual roots and identify their distinctives as men. According to Keen, in the frontispiece of his book, “A man must go on a quest and discover the sacred fire in the sanctuary of his own belly. … “ This quest, he suggests, leads men in certain transitions, for example (as he labels in the subheadings of his book), “from cocksureness to potent doubt,” “from guilt and shame to responsible morality” and “from compulsive action to fallowness and waiting.” This new definition of maleness, however, retains bias against women. Bly and Keen both argue that men are trapped in a female-dominated world and challenge men to first separate themselves from women, particularly the mother image (or WOMAN, as Keen describes this mythical connection). Although inherently flawed by limited spiritual understanding, their definitions of maleness accurately reflect disillusionment with macho masculinity, changing societal norms, and an awareness that men need spiritual depth and meaning in their lives.

Christian writers also recognize that men experience more confusion than ever before but, although they may acknowledge the need for men to be sensitive, many encourage men to remain powerful. They often do not recognize the problems with macho masculinity. Nor do they recognize that gender roles are changing in our culture and that an appropriate biblical response recognizes and adapts in biblical ways to these changes.15

Some Christian writers ground th¢ir prescriptions in secondary phenomena accompanying’ changing gender roles in our society. Larry Crabb, for example, focuses in his book Men and Women: Enjoying the Difference16 on self-centeredness as the basic problem in male-female relationships. All of us are, of course, victims of narcissism and self-preoccupation; however, the self-centeredness of our present culture is not only a result ·of sin, but also a by-product of changing roles in our society. Trying to correct self-centeredness without an awareness of these changing roles and their implications is not especially effective.

Furthermore, Crabb also believes that much about masculinity and femininity is immutable. Arguing that the order God “stamped into creation extends into His creation of man and woman,” Crabb asserts that our sexuality as male or female “defines” our souls in significant ways. Since he accepts many traditional views of masculinity as normative (i.e., men are the natural leaders in home and society, destined to seek fulfillment in achievement, while women seek fulfillment in relationships), he is not inclined to ask questions about shifts in gender roles and about how Christians can deal with those shifts.

Eisenman too, in his book Temptations Men Face: Straightforward Talk on Power, Money, Affairs, Perfectionism and Insensitivity,17 locates male confusion in the complications of a society in transition, suggesting that men are unable to resist temptation and are therefore vulnerable. Temptations do bedevil every life and sinfulness is the human condition, and Eisenman can be credited with recognizing that temptation is especially rife in times of transition. However, Eisenman’s advice would be more cogent if he focused on basic orientations of masculinity that lead to receptiveness to temptation, rather than addressing individual temptations themselves. Eisenman calls us to repentance, a prescription that we all need to apply liberally and repeatedly, yet both Eisenman and Crabb write prescriptions for change that address the symptoms and not the root problems.

Biblical Masculinity

Despite the assumptions of many of us and the extensive teaching in many of our churches, the Scriptures provide few guidelines specifically for men. For example, the Bible speaks of men as being strong and courageous ( 1 Kings 2:2, 1 Sam 4:9) and women as modest and gentle (1 Pet 3:2-4), but strength, courage, modesty, and gentleness are certainly qualities both genders should have, as the Bible itself says (Gal 5:22-23, Eph 6:10-17, Col 3:12-14).

We learn much more about masculinity from Scriptures written to both men and women, without specifying gender. Thus, all men and women, whether young or old, black or white, rich or poor, are equal to one another a..1d responsible to God (Gal 3:28, Eph 3:12, Acts 10:34-35). Men and women are equally called into relationship with God ( 1 Pet 3: 7). We are joint and mutual heirs to God’s grace in Christ Jesus (Rom 8: 17), saints of the Kingdom (Eph 1:1 ), children of God (John 1: 12 ), sharers of Christ’s destiny, and couriers of the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20). Both men and women are called to exercise their spiritual gifts in support of the Body of Christ (Eph 4:12, 1 Cor 12).

Those Christian books which purport to define biblical manhood from a traditional perspective quote few verses in support of male distinctives, and these usually concern husbands. However, sincere Christians do differ in their interpretation of these Scriptures. Traditionalists would say that Ephesians 5:22-34 places the husband as “head” of the wife (and, by extension, of the household). Egalitarians would place this passage within the larger context of the mutual submission taught in Ephesians 5:17-6:9. Many egalitarians argue on the basis of Luke 11:27-28, Galatians 3:26-28, and 1 Corinthians 12:4-11 that both genders can exercise leadership roles.18

However, whether one argues that these Scriptures support male authority in the family and church, or whether one supports an egalitarian model of male-female relationships, these Scriptures provide few guidelines for the day-to-day behaviors of men and for a model of masculinity. One may lead with gentleness and love, or from a position of status and power, or with a combination of these qualities. Indeed, although power is often equated with macho masculinity, a biblical understanding of power is much more complex. Consider, for example, 1 Thessalonians 2: 11- 12, where Paul models parental power. One may be powerful and choose to use one’s power for others’ benefit, not to abuse others. One may be powerful and cultivate interdependence and gentleness, rather than dependence and aggressiveness, qualities that macho masculinity encourages.

Thus, mature masculinity is not marked by an emphasis on status, power, or independence, although any or all of these three qualities may characterize exemplary male Christians. Rather, men (and women) are called to follow two commandments: Love God, and Love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:34-40). In loving and serving God and loving one another, other qualities will mature (again, for both men and women): compassion, kindness, and humility, for example (see also Gal 5:22-23, 2 Pet 1:7-8).

The popular “Promise Keepers” movement reflects this concern for serving God better through forging closer ties with one’s community. Among the “Seven Promises” its male members must affirm are pledges to develop strong relationships with other men, with wives and families, and with one’s pastor, plus striving for unity across racial, social, and denominational lines.19 These promises and the emphases they place on strong Christian relationships within family, church and society, are clearly applicable to women as well as men.

Where does this evaluation of Scripture and psychology lead us in terms of guidelines for the contemporary Christian male? To be the best man he can in this day and time, we assert that the Christian male should:

  1. love God, and in serving Him seek to love one’s fellow human beings; take special care to be consistent and committed in the lives of family and friends;
  2. be aware of and avoid the pitfalls of traditional masculinity: “no sissy stuff,” the “big wheel,”· the “sturdy oak,” and “give ’em hell”;
  3. cultivate all the virtues to which the Bible calls us (e.g., strength and courage, but also modesty and gentleness); demonstrate character: grow in wisdom and “in favor with God and man,” as Jesus did (Lk 2:2);
  4. recognize that holistic, effective Christians can adapt in their relationships to changes in their culture without compromising either their Christian values or their manhood; and
  5. be ready to lead in setting a good example of Christian living, and when leading cultivate interdependence, gentleness, and complementarity whenever possible, not dependence, aggressiveness, and “one-upmanship.”

The well-known Christian author Henri Nouwen demonstrated in his personhood and writings the characteristics of mature masculinity. In his quest for an understanding of Christian leadership, for example, he chose to work at a Christian ministry for handicapped persons.20 In his book In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership,21 he describes the qualities of a man in relationship to God:

Too often I looked at being relevant, popular, and powerful as ingredients of an effective ministry. The truth, however, is that these are not vocations but temptations. Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” Jesus sends us out to be shepherds, and Jesus promises a life in which we increasingly have to stretch out our hands and be led to places where we would rather not go. He asks us to move from a concern for relevance to a life of prayer, from worries about popularity to communal and mutual ministry, and from leadership built on power to a leadership in which we critically discern where God is leading us and our people.

Men such as Henri Nouwen who wish to remain grounded in Christ while flexing with the times illustrate an identity-flexible rather than identity-fixed model of gender roles (described more fully in our book Man and Woman, Alone and Together). The identity-flexible position is less interested in asking “What is the appropriate behavior for a man or a woman?” as it is in asking “How can both genders most creatively fulfill their potentials in the effort to glorify God?” This position is less interested in proclaiming the “rights” of men (or women either, for that matter) than in propounding the freedoms and responsibilities inherent in the fact that both men and women are “co-inheritors” of the kingdom. In other words, the identity-fixed position seeks a clear-cut role for the individual based on gender; the identity-flexible position seeks ways to become wholly masculine that are based upon a recognition of the interdependence between men and women and their mutual worth in God. This biblical model of masculinity empowers men (and women) to serve and love God and one another.

The identity-flexible model of masculinity centers on the exercise of four virtues that are based on scriptural principles and derive from our experience as Christians in community and from the field of psychology: respect1 responsibility1 tolerance and flexibility. With a more wholesome definition of manhood, we can begin to respect one another as children of God. Moving to positive conceptions of masculinity (caring, logical, nurturant, powerful) instead of the “l-am-not- a-female” mode of thought would be a particularly healthy development. We can replace “the big wheel” with “Pm doing the best I can;” “the sturdy oak,” with “Let’s work this out together;” “no sissy stuff,” with “I care about you;” and “give ’em hell,” with “telling the truth in love.”

For men to move from an identity-fixed to an identity-flexible gender-role model, from macho to mature, from a career-centered to holistic self-definition, from “safe” to sharing friendships, from “give ’em hell” to nurturance and caring, is not easy. The realization that God calls us into relationship with one another, however, should challenge Christian men to try.

The appropriate model of masculinity therefore consists less in a set of attributes than in an attitude exemplified by Christ. As Nouwen concludes in his essay on Christian leadership:

I leave you with the image of the leader with outstretched hands …. It is the image of the praying leader, the vulnerable leader, and the trusting leader. May that image fill your hearts with hope, courage, and confidence as you anticipate the next century.22


  1. This example and many of the ideas in this article appear in the book Man and Woman, Alone and Together (Victor Books, 1992), which Drs. Frost and Cook wrote with Dr. Lance Lee.
  2. Adapted from Alan Loy McGinnis, The Friendship Factor (Minneapolis MN: Augsburg Publishers, 1979).
  3. This story is recounted in Herb Goldberg’s The New Male: From Macho To Sensitive But Still All Male (New York: Signet, 1980), 29-30.
  4. David, D.S., & R. Brannon. 1976. The Forty-nine Percent Majority, Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.
  5. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1977.
  6. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992.
  7. Colorado Springs CO: Focus on the Family Publishing, 1992.
  8. See Harold Robbins, “Must Men Be Friendless?” Leadership 5 (Fall 1984): 24-29.
  9. Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1992, 112th ed., Washington: Bureau of the Census, 1992, p.77.
  10. New York: Doubleday, 1991.
  11. The Friendless American Male (Regal Books: Ventura CA, 1983).
  12. Dallas TX: Word Publishing, 1988.
  13. New York: Vintage, 1990.
  14. New York: Bantam, 1991.
  15. For a thoughtful, informed discussion of changing male roles from a Christian perspective, see Jack Balswick’s Men at the Crossroads: Beyond Traditional Roles & Modem Options. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1992).
  16. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991.
  17. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990.
  18. Egalitarians assert that a proper understanding of 1 Timothy 2:8-14 is consonant with this position.
  19. See AI Janssen, ed., The Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper (Colorado Springs: Focus on the Family, 1994). (These promises and the emphases they place on strong. Christian relationships within family, church, and society, are clearly applicable to women as well as men.)
  20. He describes his experience in his book The Road to Daybreak.
  21. New York: Crossroad, 1989, p. 71.
  22. Henri Nowen, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroad, 1989, p. 73.