“What man? Which man? Who’s the man?
When’s a man a man? What does it take to be a man?
Am I a man? Yes, technically I am.” – Flight of the Conchords
It has become trendy in some Christian circles to talk about biblical manhood. Here’s a confession. I am a man. I have been a Christian since 1982. I have read the Bible from cover to cover more than once. I am a trained scholar and theologian. I’ve heard dozens of sermons and read books and articles on the subject, and I still have absolutely no idea what sense to make of the term “biblical manhood.” Here’s why.
Many seem to intend biblical manhood to refer to people who (1) have a male anatomy, (2) behave in stereotypically male ways (leadership, chivalry, toughness, athleticism, assertiveness, etc.), (3) are also able to relate to others with appropriate sensitivity and gentleness when the situation requires it, and (4) read the Bible and try to follow its pattern for life. Here’s the problem with this description. With the exception of (1), most of these traits apply to my wife, and my daughter, and my female co-workers, and my mother, and Mother Theresa! Are these women behaving un-biblically if they behave in some stereotypically male ways? If not, then the only part of biblical manhood that is exclusively male, is having male anatomy!
Ok, so maybe the previous paragraph was a touch cynical. Honestly, I understand why there has been a push over the past decade to discuss the subject. Many men, especially young men, have lost their way. They’ve grown up in a world where devoted fathers are increasingly rare and mothers anchor the home. They’ve learned that women can do most anything that men can do, and they’ve seen women surpass men in achievement in both educational and professional contexts. They’ve been told that there are almost no psychological or emotional differences between men and women, and that to attribute certain traits exclusively to men is stereotyping at best, or sexist at worst. In short, America is a low-context culture when it comes to gender roles, meaning that there are fewer and fewer cultural norms that help men learn what it means to be a man.
That being the case, some have sought to use the Bible to fill the void, interpreting the patriarchalism of ancient Israel and the Greco-Roman world as prescriptive and not merely descriptive. In other words, the role of men described in the Bible should be the role of men today, or so the argument goes. But one of the most basic principles of biblical interpretation is that you should not make the Bible say what the Bible doesn’t say, and the Bible just doesn’t say that men in every culture should behave as men did in the world of the Bible’s authors. The Bible does say that Eve was created as a helper for Adam (and vice versa), that sin resulted in a condition in which Adam would “rule over” Eve, that the husband is “head of the wife as Christ is head of the Church,” and that wives should “submit” and husbands should love. We could argue all day about what these verses mean, but at the end of the day, these passages are more about marriage than manhood. We could analyze Paul’s instructions about how men should behave in church, but again, these passages are more about leadership in a particular context. We could try to arrive at a view of manhood based on the instructions Paul gives to women about church behavior, which would be like learning to play basketball by watching soccer.
I realize that this is not a comprehensive discussion of the subject; I intend it as a conversation starter. In the final analysis, the Bible simply has much more to say about being Christlike than about being manly. I tend to think that when we men get Christlikeness correct, then manhood will take care of itself, and if we focus on manhood to the neglect of Christlikeness, we’re to likely to screw up both.