Ask one hundred people “What does it mean to be masculine?” and you will likely get a hundred different answers, along with a fair amount of blank stares and blinking eyes. When I posed the question, rather unscientifically, to a few people hanging around our campus’s social science building, I got a variety of answers with no two being the same.
I’m often reminded by my sociologist colleagues that being masculine refers to one’s gender and is not to be equated with being male, which is one’s sex. Being masculine, they say, is defined by one’s culture and is learned.
It’s true—being male and being masculine aren’t the same thing. Yet we often assume that males should be masculine and are rather unkind to men who are not. This is particularly unfortunate since, with such a diversity of opinions on what it is, I think I would be confused as to what was expected of me if I were a male trying to be masculine.
Maybe it was easier in years past to define the term. At one time being masculine was equated with qualities such as leadership, strength, and decisiveness, along with some less than desirable qualities like aggressiveness, domination, and emotional detachment.
Yet women frequently remind us that leadership, strength, and decisiveness are not exclusively masculine. And men remind us that defining masculinity by those less desirable traits is, at best, insulting. The assumption that men are emotionally-challenged is offensive to expressive men. And speaking of offensive, to equate masculinity with domination raises the question of who, exactly, will be the recipient of this domination. The answer, presumably, is women. And of course, less “masculine” men.
Now, that’s disturbing, to women and men.
So far the implication is that for a man to be masculine, others must lack his positive qualities (otherwise they wouldn’t be distinctively his) and be victims to his less desirable ones. It would seem, then, that masculinity (or femininity) is controlled largely by what others do or don’t do. Again, disturbing.
But wait. Aren’t there definite abilities men possess that women do not? Isn’t that how we should define masculinity?
Well, sure. Men father children rather than give birth to them. Men find it easier to grow a beard and harder to sing mezzo soprano. But when we get past the obvious biological differences, social science research weighs in with very little evidence for innate behavioral differences that truly separate the male from the female of our species.
This, however, seems to raise even more questions: namely, are we now denying any differences between the sexes? If so, why were we created male and female?
The questions are numerous and I don’t pretend to have the answers. But let’s not be so overwhelmed with the questions that we despair of trying to understand what we can. In this article, I will explore what we know from research and Scripture, and pose questions regarding those things we don’t yet know, in order to prompt an informed discussion among egalitarians toward an accurate, biblical definition of masculinity.
What do we know from social science research?
An examination of social science research indicates gender differences much less striking than those touted by stereotypes. Certainly there are general rules of thumb, such as men making up a greater proportion of corporate leadership and a smaller percentage of stay-at-home parents. Yet abilities we once believed were “naturally” stronger in males (math, spatial skills) and those in which males were believed to lag behind (verbal skills and emotional expression) have been challenged by research that takes into account the influence of others’ expectations and the fact that we learn much from modeling others of the same sex. In other words, even where differences do exist between the “average” male and “average” female, science has not proven them to be innate. (On the other hand, science cannot disprove the possibility, either. For a more comprehensive review of gender differences and similarities, see my article, “Gender Differences: Facts and Myths” in Priscilla Papers, Spring 2010.)
There is also such a high degree of diversity in abilities among people of the same sex that we cannot make sweeping generalizations about a person’s aptitude for a task simply by knowing whether the individual is male or female.
The bottom line? We have yet to identify a truly “masculine” (or “feminine”) quality—one overwhelmingly or exclusively present in one sex but not the other—that neatly places males and females in decidedly different groups.
What do we know from Scripture?
Does Scripture provide a definition of masculinity? While thoughtful Christians often disagree on the subject, the egalitarian community has a plentiful supply of material demonstrating Scripture’s claim for an equal standing between the genders in regard to the salvation experience, spiritual gifts, and call to service.
Of particular relevance is the distinction between God’s original intent for humanity (both Adam and Eve are given the responsibility of ruling and subduing the earth in Gen. 2:28) and the result of the fall, when God tells Adam you will eat “by the sweat of your brow” (Gen. 3:19) and Eve “your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). This view suggests that rather than embracing them as God’s design, divisions based on gender are the result of sin and with Christ’s redemption we can, and should, overcome them (see Janet George’s Still Side by Side).
Furthermore, the crux of the question for egalitarians is less about behavioral differences and more about whether men and women are different ontologically (in the very essence of their beings, rather than simply physically or socially). Theological arguments for ontological distinctions between male and female rest on Paul’s appeal to creation in 1 Timothy 2:11–15. When viewed through the lens of perceived inborn behavioral differences between male and female, this passage seems to confirm the apparent ontological distinctions between male and female.
But egalitarians tend to argue that Paul’s statement here was intended to address false teaching in a very specific situation, not to make a universal statement on male and female ontology. This is more consistent with Paul’s other teachings (Gal. 3:28, for instance) and with social science research. Also consistent with this understanding is the fact that Jesus routinely challenged societal stereotypes of masculinity by calling his followers (male and female) to practice humility, meekness, gentleness, kindness, patience, and self-control (Matt. 5:3–12; Gal. 5:21–24)—all contrary to many common views of masculinity.
Where does that leave us?
So where does that leave us? Are there innate differences between men and women? If so, what are they and why do they matter? If not, what was the purpose of God creating us male and female, other than for procreation? I readily admit I don’t know the answers. Yet the questions intrigue me and I believe are worth asking so that we can come to a more complete understanding of who we are as God’s children and who we are as “siblings” to each other.
Admittedly, we don’t have the full story on gender. But not having the full story shouldn’t be an excuse to dismiss what we do know from solid scientific research and biblical scholarship.
We certainly do know enough to dismiss inaccurate stereotypes about “natural” male or female abilities. We know enough to quit putting expectations on men that are simply not biblical and hinder them from being all Christ calls them to be. We know enough to start an intelligent conversation.