From a young age, our society tells boys they are less than if they don’t fit the traditional mold for manhood. Boys and men who are dubbed too sensitive, too nurturing, or who aren’t driven to pursue material wealth and status don’t make it into the “boys club.” Sound familiar?
Women recognize an impossible standard when we see one. We’re never thin enough to suit our culture. We’re never pretty enough to satisfy. Not as smart as our brothers. Not as good at math. Better suited to become teachers than engineers.
We don’t have to look deep to see how women are disregarded, belittled, and blatantly abused in our world. A male employee is considered more credible and promotable than a woman employee with more experience. People automatically assume we’re the secretaries instead of the CEOs. We get catcalled as we walk down the street to pay the parking meter. And we haven’t even talked about the sexual and physical abuse many women suffer in churches, workplaces, and in their private lives.
I don’t want to minimize how this broken system impacts women. But I also don’t believe women are the only casualties in a culture where this toxic view of gender exists and thrives. Men are hurting too—in ways we don’t always talk about or analyze.
Men sometimes feel like the enemy in conversations about gender because we often focus on how men abuse power over women. To be clear: nothing I’m about to say removes or lessens male abusers’ responsibility for their actions or men’s need to acknowledge the power they hold. But what if men are hurting too? What if many men don’t even realize how much these negative messages shape them? And what if we found where this process begins and worked to undo it?
When they’re young, boys are told that “boys will be boys.” They’re handed violent toys and encouraged to use them with vigor. They learn to embrace aggression and dominance, and they learn it’s natural to leave destruction behind them.
And if they don’t want to play with those toys or they don’t want to roughhouse, they don’t fit in. They’re not “manly” enough. If boys like pink or purple; if they play with dolls; or if they like stories about princesses, they’re told those things are for girls. When they are four or five years old and like to sing and dance, they’re told they should refocus on sports.
From childhood on, men are conditioned in schools, on the playground, at family events, and even in our churches to feel like they’re never man enough. They often have no choice but to try to conform to this warped vision for masculinity. They learn quickly that a man stands and leads alone; a man never cries; a man never shows weakness; a man doesn’t need help; and a man could never be abused in a relationship.
It makes sense that men with sensitive souls feel like they need to overcompensate with “manly things” to fit the mold. It’s logical that many men don’t feel comfortable admitting that they don’t want to hunt, actually enjoy musicals, or genuinely desire to stay home and nurture their children. And it also makes sense that it’s difficult for men to be vulnerable and ask for help—even if that help is desperately needed. And honestly, the abuse and violence we’re seeing now is a logical consequence of this kind of masculinity.
These expectations are so unrealistic and unattainable that only a few reach the ideal. The rest fall in the macho-failure box. Failure to live up to an impossible, extra-biblical, culture-created masculine ideal. From a very young age, we’re telling our boys a terrible lie—that there is one way to be a man. It’s not only false; it’s painful.
If we want a better model for masculinity, we can look to Jesus.
Jesus did not fit the expectations of a masculine, patriarchal culture. He was gentle, wise, humble, meek, prayerful, empathetic, giving, forgiving, righteous, and faithful. There was nothing aggressive, violent, or macho about him. He was the savior they’d been waiting for, but he wasn’t what they assumed. They expected a powerful king to take control and lead by fear. Instead, they got a humble servant who patiently and persistently challenged cultural expectations.
Why has the church struggled to follow Jesus’ example?
The church should be the biggest champion of both men and women passionately pursuing their callings for the good of the body. Sadly, it’s often the worst inhibitor. We’ve misused Scripture to obstruct women and elevate men, creating a hierarchy that limits and damages everyone. We shouldn’t be telling women who are clearly gifted with leadership skills that they can’t lead. And, we also shouldn’t be telling men who don’t fit our stereotypes of masculinity that God is disappointed with them.
This is why theology that assumes the full equality of men and women is so powerful. Egalitarian theology makes room for men and women to embrace their true, God-created selves and use their gifts freely—and the church is strengthened when that happens.
Egalitarian theology opened my eyes to the truth of the gospel. I now see everything through the filter of God’s original intention for men and women: to co-serve, co-lead, and be co-equal in Christ. I now read the verses that have traditionally been controversial ones and I see them with such context and clarity that I wonder how anyone could see it differently.
And, since being introduced to egalitarian theology, I feel sincere empathy for the men in my life who have been hurt by the way culture defines and enforces masculinity. We have to undo gender bias for the sake of women, yes. But we also need to do this work out of deep love for men and the desire to see them free of these burdens too.
We have to teach our boys something better. We have to start fresh with the children we’re raising. We have to allow our sons and daughters to be who God made them. We have to teach them that God doesn’t make mistakes, and that God, not society, gives identity.
Most importantly, we have to show grace during this renewal process. Change won’t come easy. It will take a long time and a lot of love to undo a lifetime of socialization influenced by thousands of years of masculine culture. But we can start with ourselves—in our homes and in our churches. We can spread the truth that, whether male or female, Jesus lifts unreasonable burdens and offers us the freedom to be who God made us.