Biblical Manhood Defies Cultural Boundaries

Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

Editor’s Note: The following blog post was first published on Reformed Margins, an online platform for Reformed Christian thinkers from various ethnic minority backgrounds to join in the broader Reformed and Evangelical conversations.

Recently, a personal care brand released a commercial that has taken social media by storm—not because of an increased interest in personal care products but because of the controversy surrounding the commercial’s messaging.

I’m talking about Gillette’s We Believe: The Best Men Can Be video. As of today, the video has accumulated over 24 million views on YouTube, 600 thousand likes, and 1.2 million dislikes.

There are many reasons why people dislike the video—some denounce Gillette for making moral judgments on people, and others accuse Gillette of opportunistically profiting off of social trends. But the loudest voices are attacking the video for its underlying message.

What is its message? Well, there seems to be a lot of disagreement in this arena, and part of that is due to the fluid nature of language.

Words and phrases like “climate change,” “democratic socialism,” “Black Lives Matter,” “feminism,” “social justice,” and “evangelicalism” mean different things to different people, and as a result they also bring out different responses from different people. They have become codes that automatically trigger either positive or negative emotions. And the more people are exposed to those concepts, the more positive or negative those concepts are perceived to be.

One of those words is the word “masculinity.” When some people hear the word, what comes to mind is dignity, strength, and adventure. When other people hear the word, what comes to mind is recklessness, aggression, and misogyny. To make things more complicated, nowadays people have also started using the phrase “toxic masculinity,” a phrase that was almost never used by most people even five years ago. Some people, when using the term “toxic masculinity,” mean to communicate that masculinity in and of itself is toxic. In such cases, the word “toxic” describes masculinity, and it’s implied that men must abandon their masculinity because it is toxic. Others, when using the term “toxic masculinity,” are qualifying the word “masculinity” with the word “toxic,” in order to distinguish the specific expressions of masculinity that are toxic from other expressions of masculinity that are not toxic. The term “toxic waste” is used in a similar way. It’s not intended to say that all waste is toxic—it’s simply intended to describe the types of waste that are toxic. It’s implied that men must replace their toxic masculinity with a truer or better masculinity.

How people reacted to the Gillette commercial was largely determined by people’s already-established word associations. When the commercial began with controversial phrases like “the #MeToo movement” and “toxic masculinity,” people had immediate psychological responses because of the definitions and associations they already had concerning those phrases.

My purpose in this article is not to comment on the positivity or negativity of the messaging of the commercial. As far as I can tell, people’s minds have already been made up. But what I do want to do is to offer what I think people who are arguing about this commercial are really looking for. Regardless of their position, I believe that everybody is looking for a picture of biblical manhood.

Some people on both sides of the debate have fallen into believing harmful cultural narratives about masculinity. They have defined the standard for what it means to be a man—whether desirable or undesirable—in ways that ultimately fall short of God’s design. And because they are coming from different definitions and assumptions, they are talking past each other. But the Bible offers a different way altogether. Its version of manhood is potentially offensive to people on both sides, but it is in fact what people truly want, because it is God’s design.

What does biblical manhood look like? And how does biblical manhood defy modern cultural narratives? I’ll be making three points.

  1. Biblical manhood defies cultural narratives because it assumes distinct gender roles
  2. Biblical manhood defies cultural narratives because it embodies stereotypically feminine qualities
  3. Biblical manhood defies cultural narratives because it is personified in Jesus

Disclaimer: I will show my cards and confess that I am a soft complementarian. By “complementarian,” I mean that I believe that men and women were created to be different—although they have equal dignity and value, they have different roles that complement one another. By “soft,” I am trying to distinguish myself from some complementarians who have a more traditional social understanding of gender roles. I believe, for example, that women can be soldiers in the military, presidents of countries, and primary breadwinners in the family, etc.

Let’s dive in.

1. Biblical manhood defies cultural narratives because it assumes distinct gender roles

Some people in our culture see masculinity as a bad thing, blaming it for its long history of oppression and violence. And though it is true that certain forms of masculinity have been detrimental to society, I believe that those toxic manifestations of masculinity occur only when they are misaligned with God’s design for masculinity. In other words, I don’t believe that masculinity or gender roles are to blame; I believe that the corruption of masculinity and the corruption of gender roles are to blame. Biblical manhood, therefore, relies on the proper restoration of distinct gender roles.

Firstly, it’s worth establishing that the Scriptures are clear that men and women have equal value and dignity (e.g., Gen 1:26-27; Gal 3:28), and any agenda to exalt one sex above the other is a violation of God’s created order. Additionally, the Bible teaches that men and women share many spiritual gifts and personality traits. During Pentecost, Peter quotes the prophecy of Joel that specifically states that both men and women are given the gift of prophecy (Acts 2:17-18). Additionally, when Paul lists available spiritual gifts (Eph 4:11-12; 1 Cor 12:4-11; Rom 12:1-8), he does not distinguish between male gifts and female gifts, and a plain reading implies that these gifts are available to both sexes.

Nonetheless, I believe that the Scriptures teach that God created men and women to be different in some ways. Most notably, this is established by the creation account in the Old Testament and the institution of Christian marriage in the New Testament.

In the creation account, God’s intentional usage of the plural to describe himself in Genesis 1:26-27 teaches that the plurality of the Trinity is embedded in the plurality of humankind. And just as the Persons of the Trinity fulfill different roles, men and women are to fulfill different roles.

Interestingly, research studies have even shown that men and women are born with statistically significant cognitive differences. Of course it is possible for men to be born with some traits that are commonly associated with women, and vice versa, but by and large, men and women have differences.

I recognize the hesitation some people have to even state such a thing, and rightly so, for gender differences have been exploited in harming the livelihoods of billions of women throughout history. But once again, I believe that the blame has been misplaced. After all, the differences in sex are according to God’s design.

This is made more clear in Genesis 2. God creates the man first, and he gives the man commands before the woman was ever created. Later, God creates a “helper” for the man—a woman. The word “helper” may not be the best English translation, but regardless of the title, it is clear that the woman’s role is to complement the man’s role. The natural reading is that the man bears the ultimate responsibility for following God’s commands.

This is made even clearer in Genesis 3. Even though the woman ate the fruit of the forbidden tree first, and even though both the man and the woman are hiding, God specifically calls Adam out first (Gen 3:8-13). God sees Adam as the one to blame. Similarly, Paul also puts the blame squarely on Adam’s shoulders when he writes that “sin came into the world through one man” (Rom 5:12). Both God and Paul see Adam as the primary person to blame, showing that Adam was to bear the primary moral responsibility.

What other distinctions can be made between men and women? Sometimes people ask, “What can men do that women cannot do, and vice versa?” Well I believe that God is intentionally silent on this matter in regard to most of society. The Bible never says anything about women in the workforce, women in the military, or women in political office, for example. However, one arena in which I believe that God is not silent is Christian marriage.

In regard to marriage, both Paul and Peter paint a picture of marriage where husbands and wives have different goals (Eph 5:22-33; Col 3:18-25; 1 Pet 3:1-7). In all of these sections, the call to husbands is to love their wives, and the call to wives is to submit to their husbands. Elsewhere, Paul states that “the head of a wife is her husband” (1 Cor 11:3). There can be much debate over the meaning of these roles, and the specific applications may vary from marriage to marriage and from culture to culture, but I believe that, regardless of the specifics, husbands are called to be the primary leaders of Christian marriage, and they are to lead by demonstrating a self-sacrificial love toward their wives. This unique role of the husband naturally stems from the unique role of men in general—that they are to bear the responsibility for their families.

Side Note: I want to add that nowhere does Scripture call all women to submit to all men. I believe that such a stance is a violation of God’s will. Unfortunately, many Christians throughout history have believed exactly that, which has resulted in the oppression of women’s rights, the pornography industry, and rape culture. I believe that Paul and Peter were talking specifically to a husband and wife in a Christian marriage.

The concept of biblical manhood relies on the distinction of gender roles, and this runs against components of modern gender studies today. There is biblical warrant that men are to bear more responsibility, and that men are to be leaders in their marriages.

2. Biblical manhood defies cultural narratives because it embodies stereotypically feminine qualities

Some people exalt masculinity, but they define it in ways that are more influenced by their culture than by Scripture. Masculinity may be associated with social dominance, sexual assertiveness, or muscular physique. Masculine activities may include eating meat, woodworking, brewing beer, and bodybuilding. Sometimes there is even an outright downplaying of emotions (e.g., “real men don’t cry”) or intimacy (e.g., “I work alone”), since these qualities have feminine connotations.

But biblical manhood is very different from this cultural masculinity.

While the Scriptures exhort us to “act like men” (1 Cor 16:13), it also lifts up stereotypically feminine attributes as well. Paul tells the Galatians that he was “in the anguish of childbirth” (Gal 4:19). Elsewhere he says that he has given milk to babies to drink (1 Cor 3:1-2), and still elsewhere he is more explicit in describing himself as “a nursing mother caring for her own children” (1 Thess 2:6-7). All of these descriptions have obviously feminine connotations, but he intentionally identifies with those intimate feminine roles. The obvious implication is that it can be good for men to embody stereotypically female attributes like compassion and nurture.

Even when Paul commands husbands to love their wives in Ephesians 5:25-33, the verbs that he chooses that reflect Christ’s relationship with the church—cleanse, wash, nourish, cherish—are all verbs often associated with domestic tasks typically done by a woman in Paul’s day. Paul was exhorting husbands to adopt qualities that fell outside of culturally defined gender norm boundaries.

Unfortunately, many men today have fallen into the unbiblical belief that being a man is to reject everything that is considered feminine. But this mentality has simply resulted in men who are emotionally unaware and physically aggressive, and the collateral damage done against women is not small by any means.

We need a generation of Christian men who don’t just understand their unique roles as men, but who understand their unique roles rightly. Biblical manhood is not adhering to cultural standards of being an alpha male. Biblical manhood often rejects cultural standards of masculinity in lieu of qualities like grace and humility. And ultimately, biblical manhood takes its cue from Jesus. And that brings us to the last point.

3. Biblical manhood defies cultural narratives because it is personified in Jesus

On multiple occasions, Paul compares and contrasts Adam with Jesus. He writes in 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, for example, “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”

The message of the Bible is that nobody could fulfill the standards of manhood. But from the dawn of human history, the world has never stopped looking for that man. So God became man and showed us how to be a man.

Jesus was that man, the man that Adam could never be.

What kind of man was Jesus?

At times, Jesus was brave and confrontational. He overturns tables of the money-changers in the temple (Mark 11:15-19), stands his intellectual ground against the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt 22:15-46), and refuses to appease King Herod (Luke 23:8-9).

At times, Jesus was gentle and emotional. He graciously restores a bleeding woman (Mark 5:25-34), weeps when Lazarus dies (John 11:35), and compares himself to a female hen gathering her chicks under her wings (Luke 13:34).

By living out the full spectrum of God-ordained qualities, Jesus embodied biblical manhood.

And there’s one more reason why Jesus is so amazing. Jesus, unlike Adam, took responsibility. Adam, who had sinned, refused to take the blame. Instead, he blamed Eve. But Jesus, who had no sin, volunteered to take the blame. He volunteered to be betrayed, arrested, beaten, judged, and crucified.

History is filled with men like Adam. Today, in the age of countless women coming forward with reports of sexual assault, men continue to shift the blame. They defend and justify the careless actions of other men, they belittle the pain and shame that assaulted women feel, and they attack women for tarnishing the reputations of the offenders. And more than ever, the world has been looking for men to take responsibility. But man after man after man have let them down.

But Jesus is the man that everybody is looking for. Although he had no sin, he took the blame and bore the wrath, allowing himself to be nailed to the cross.

We need more people to take their cues from Jesus. We need more people who are strong yet tender, courageous yet humble, ambitious yet gracious. And we need people who are willing to take the blame.

So let us represent Jesus in a world looking for him. Let’s take collective responsibility for the rape culture in America. Let’s listen to women, seek to understand women, pray for women, advocate for women, protect women, and serve women. Let’s give the world a little glimpse of Jesus—the best men can be.

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