When we think of masculinity and what it means to be a man, it’s hard to ignore the cultural biases we’ve inherited. Our ideas are shaped by what we see and hear on a daily basis. The standard for men is defined not by the ordinary man, but by the extraordinary man: Daniel Boone, James Bond, Jack Bauer, Tom Brady, and Don Draper.
We grow up pretending to be astronauts, firemen, and policemen while being bombarded by Hollywood, sports, literature, and even politics that inform our beliefs about what qualities make for the quintessential man.
These biases, which are ingrained in us from a young age, also shape our reading of the Bible.
If we can leave our biases at the door and approach the Bible with more objective eyes, we begin to see that culture’s message about masculinity is very different from what Jesus teaches us . In fact, the masculinity embodied by Jesus is often at odds with our culture’s ideas about manhood, which leads to a number of misconceptions, even in the church, about masculinity, including:
Myth #1: Men are always breadwinners.
The idea that men are breadwinners is one of the most pervasive understandings of what it means to be a man — yet it is a relatively new idea. The term “breadwinner” didn’t make an appearance in American vernacular until the early 1800s. Still, you will hear this idea preached in many churches. We believe it is the man’s God-given responsibility to provide for his family.
However, if this is true, then we must acknowledge that Jesus failed as a man, according to God’s intent for manhood. Jesus wasn’t earning a living. He even admits, “Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). And Luke’s gospel tells us that Jesus ministry was financially supported by three women (Luke 8:1-3).
Often, 1 Timothy 5:8, “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” is used to justify the idea of the man as a breadwinner. But a quick reading of the surrounding verses suggests that Paul is writing not to get men to provide for their families, but rather to get families to take care of their widowed relatives. To imply anything else is to read something into the text that is not there.
Men can provide for their families in ways that extend beyond “breadwinning.” Jesus provided for his mother by asking John to care for Mary as his own mother. In this spirit, men can provide for their family via care, presence, nurture, and love. We must be careful not to overlook the various ways men can provide for their families.
Myth #2: Men cannot be weak.
At some point in their lives, most men are told they cannot be weak. They must “man up,” “soldier on,” and “be strong.” To a degree, those can be appropriate exhortations. But the truth of the matter is that life, with all its challenges, will bring about moments where a man is weak. Illness, fatigue, loss of a job, the breakdown of a relationship, death of a loved one — all of these are moments when weakness can overtake us.
Looking at the life of Jesus, we see that He embraced the full scope of humanity, including weakness. On the cross, Jesus was judged by others as being weak. Passersby yelled up at Jesus, “Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” Jesus’ willingness to stay on the cross looked like weakness to others.
How many times do we hear it said that men should stand up for themselves? That a man doesn’t start a fight, but he finishes it? If a man lets himself get beat up and doesn’t fight back, he is seen as weak.
And yet, Jesus intentionally doesn’t. He even instructs us, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” That’s the biblical image we men are called to. We are to love our enemies just as Jesus loved us, even though it might make us look weak.
Myth #3: Men are warriors.
In American culture warriors are celebrated. Whether they are in our armed forces, star athletes, or business moguls, the warrior — the one who conquers — is celebrated. In the church, men are exhorted to be warriors for Jesus by fighting the Lord’s battles against the world and defending truth. Some of that may be necessary; truth should be defended. The question is, “Does God call us to be warriors?”
Both Genesis and Revelation give us a picture of God’s intended design. Genesis 1 and 2 give us the picture of God’s creation before the fall; Revelation 22 gives us the picture after the restoration of all things.
Both pictures are of a garden. Both gardens symbolize peace, harmony, the shalom of God as it should be — all-encompassing. In these two places, warriors are unnecessary. There is no evil. No injustice. There is nothing to fight for. Warriors are not needed, but gardeners are.
Gardeners, otherwise known as stewards.
Men and women were created to be stewards of the earth. To carry out the cultural mandate to work creation, take care of it, and be creators themselves. Yes, there are times when a steward needs to protect creation, but the steward who protects what is entrusted to him carries a very different posture than a warrior.
Myth #4: Men must prove themselves.
Men live in fear of being seen as not-men. We fear being seen as weak. Limp wristed. We fear being perceived as someone who doesn’t respond like a man. The only way to prove you are a man is, when the situation requires it, to respond in a way that others see as manly.
No man is exempt from having to prove he is a man. Our culture teaches that men are not born; men are made.
I remember the first time I felt that I failed to prove myself. I was sitting on the gym floor as a seventh grader, my back against the wall, knees tucked against my chest with my arms wrapped around them. My head was buried in my knees to hide the fact that I was crying. Typically, crying doesn’t do you well in seventh grade, especially when you’re a boy.
Less than an hour before that moment, I had gotten into a verbal exchange with a kid on my bus, someone from church I didn’t get along with. He had a quick temper, and that morning, I was the agitator. I was quick with words, so he was an easy target. As we stood to get off the bus, I made one more comment and he responded — with his fist.
I didn’t hit back because I knew that a physical fight was something I would likely lose. I had never been in a fight (and still haven’t been), and he had been in many. Instead, I made a remark, pretended his blow was insignificant, and got off the bus.
But the punch did hurt. More than hurting my eye, it hurt my pride. I had gotten punched and I didn’t fight back. At the time, I thought that made me a wimp. My friends kept asking me, “Why didn’t you fight back?” How do you say, “Because I was afraid to,” without looking weak?
I didn’t know exactly what I was feeling then, but I know now. I felt emasculated. I felt like less than a man — or less than what I thought a man should be. Culture taught me, even at a young age, that men fight back. Men don’t back down. Men finish a fight. This felt like a test of my manhood, and I failed.
But the gospel of Jesus says that we don’t need to prove ourselves. Long before we are worthy of the title, God adopts us as sons. Demanding that men prove themselves is antithetical to the gospel. As Christians, we find our identity not by proving ourselves against some standard, but by resting in what Jesus did for us. In Christ, being a man is simply being secure in our standing as an adopted son of God and nothing else.
Read more about biblical examples of masculinity in Nate Pyle’s latest book, Man Enough: How Jesus Redefines Manhood.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.