A Note on Jesus and “Masculinity”

Looking through some old files on my computer today, I stumbled across an essay by Michael Horton, professor of Westminster Seminary in California, taking on the “New Calvinists”’ recent fixation on a certain version of “masculinity”. My early spiritual and theological formation happened in the evangelical Reformed wing of Christianity, and I continue to follow many of the discussions happening in Reformed circles. So this was doubly fascinating to me:

In the drive to make churches more guy-friendly, we risk confusing cultural (especially American) customs with biblical discipleship. One noted pastor has said that God gave Christianity a “masculine feel.” Another contrasted “latte-sipping Cabriolet drivers” with “real men.” Jesus and his buddies were “dudes: heterosexual, win-a-fight, punch-you-in-the-nose dudes.” Real Christian men like Jesus and Paul “are aggressive, assertive, and nonverbal.” Seriously?

The back story on all of this is the rise of the “masculine Christianity movement” in Victorian England, especially with Charles Kingsley’s fictional stories in Two Years Ago (1857). D. L. Moody popularized the movement in the United States and baseball-player-turned-evangelist Billy Sunday preached it as he pretended to hit a home run against the devil. For those of us raised on testimonies from recently converted football players in youth group, Tim Tebow is hardly a new phenomenon. Reacting against the safe deity, John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart (2001) offered a God who is wild and unpredictable. Neither image is grounded adequately in Scripture. With good intentions, the Promise Keepers movement apparently did not have a significant lasting impact. Nor, I predict, will the call of New Calvinists to a Jesus with “callused hands and big biceps,” “the Ultimate Fighting Jesus.”

Are these really the images we have of men in the Scriptures? Furthermore, are these the characteristics that the New Testament highlights as “the fruit of the Spirit”—which, apparently, is not gender-specific? “Gentleness, meekness, self-control,” “growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ,” “submitting to your leaders,” and the like? Officers are to be “apt to teach,” “preaching the truth in love,” not quenching a bruised reed or putting out a smoldering candle, and the like. There is nothing about beating people up or belonging to a biker club.

Horton’s essay is worth reading, and it reminded me of a similar piece addressing some of the same concerns. Here’s the conclusion to Brandon O’Brien’s article “A Jesus for Real Men”:

Indeed, Jesus was not afraid to offend and rebuke. He was not kind at the expense of the truth. But those qualities are not masculine as such; they are godly. Imposing qualities we consider masculine on an image of Jesus we consider feminine does not solve the problem. It only gives us a new problem—another culturally shaped Jesus, only masculine this time.

The way to recover the biblical image of Jesus is to submit ourselves to the Scriptures and let them discipline our preconceptions. In the process, we must remember that the purpose of discipleship is not primarily to become fulfilled men or women, but rather to be transformed into the image of Christ. In the end, the biblical image of Jesus presents a far more radical role model than Jesus the dude. Jesus was gritty, honest, and fearless. Yet his strength was not displayed in his willingness to punch evildoers in the mouth, but in his suffering at the hands of the wicked for their good. Where such strength is found—whether in a man or a woman, a latte-sipping sissy or a muscled mason—there is godly strength.

For those of you who aren’t evangelical or Reformed, you might want to have a look at the way a close friend of this blog, Christopher Roberts, treats similar themes from a Catholic perspective. In his book Creation and Covenant, he critiques Pope John Paul II for filling in the content of “masculinity” and “femininity” in a way that doesn’t fully adhere to Christological premises. “To ask why God created two sexes, and what significance the distinction between the two sexes has,” Chris says, “is not quite the same exercise as focusing on the specific vocation of one sex or the other.”

In other words, don’t let the bad efforts of people to do the latter (tell you, in Eldrege-ian terms, what the vocation of “masculinity” entails) keep you from recognizing the legitimacy of the former (asking why God created two sexes and what significance that has). And conversely, don’t assume that the effort to spell out the rationale for God’s creation of sexual difference necessarily entails a commitment to the “masculine Jesus” movement.

Wesley HillWesley Hill is an assistant professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Zondervan, 2010). He can be followed on Twitter: @WesleyHill.

7 thoughts on “A Note on Jesus and “Masculinity”

  1. I really appreciated this post and the opportunity to read the sources you reference here, Wes. I’ve long struggled with the notion of “Biblical Manhood” and “Biblical Womanhood” as currently portrayed by the pastors mentioned and others besides, and it’s reassuring to read a different viewpoint. Thank you.

  2. Another useful essay on this subject is Are Women Human? by Dorothy Sayers.

    The point of the question is that many discussions of male and female roles start from the presumption that men and women are practically different species, when in fact many of the traits which some want to make specifically “masculine” or specifically “feminine” are just human traits. If men are thought to be more likely to excel at math than women (whether this is due to biological or cultural factors), the ability to reason mathematically is just a human trait which some have to a greater degree than others. There is no reason why a woman with an aptitude for higher mathematics should not be allowed to use her natural gifts to her full ability. Though Sayers does think there can be important differences between men and women, she thinks that we can only think intelligently about these differences if we have first recognized and appreciated the enormous amount that they have in common, as human beings, not simply as “men,” or as “women.”

  3. Thought provoking to be sure Wes. A while back I read a line in a spiritual book encouraging men to be real men by practicing meekness……by that the author didn’t mean be a doormat…..but he said if men are humble they can be really macho by reigning in their …um….macho-ness – but without true humility it would be a losing effort.

    On the feminine side of this coin St. Teresa of Avila once told he nuns to stop acting so womanish…by that she meant they weren’t practicing the virtue of courage instead they were acting like wimps when real women were endued with strength. Both of these were good to read because, as you mention, guys feel the necessity to be brutish when to act brutish or gruff just shows lack of manly humility. Vise versa with women………they need to practice another kind of spiritual virtue to grow into real women.

  4. I read O’Brien’s article three days after turning in my 55 page paper on Christology, masculinity, and evangelical rhetoric. Man, I could have saved myself SO much time. It’s one of my favorite articles from a Christian magazine.

    Thanks for this, Wes.


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