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Being a Man: Defining Manhood Biblically

07.07.20 | Family Life, Biblical Manhood & Womanhood

Being a Man: Defining Manhood Biblically

    The Bible clearly reveals that God has established men for the purpose of being men. This may seem self evident, but in today's' society we can not be certain that all will see it as easy and obvious. We ask the question, what does it mean, biblically, to be a man?

    The Bible clearly reveals that God has established men for the purpose of being men. This may seem self evident, but in today's' society we can not be certain that all will see it as easy and obvious. We ask the question, what does it mean, biblically, to be a man? What does the Bible say about masculinity? Or, to put it another way, what does the Bible say about being a man? First, we’ll consider some passages from Scripture that provide the building blocks for our definition, passages that teach on this subject either explicitly or in principle, then we’ll discuss how the components of masculinity can be molded into a wholesome picture.

    The idea at this point is to explore the Scriptures that provide the “DNA” of Biblical Masculinity. We will do the same for biblical femininity in the next article.  Later, we’ll delve more into “what does this mean for women in the church” or “men in the home?”

    The first passage to consider iso Genesis 2:15-24:

    The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

    Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

    “This at last is bone of my bones

    and flesh of my flesh;

    she shall be called Woman,

    because she was taken out of Man.”

    Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:15–24, ESV)

    Primarily, the Scriptures make clear that responsibility and leadership are given to the man, Adam, by God.  How do we arrive at this? A couple of points:

    1. God put the man in the garden first (that is, before Eve was created);
    2. God charged the man to work the garden and take care of it;
    3. God gave the man the authority to name the animals. 
    4. Woman was created by God after the man and literally from the man. We see the woman being created for the purpose of being a “suitable helper” to the man. 
    5. God gives Adam the authority to name his helper (“woman” here, Eve in Gen. 3). 

    Notice that these aspects of the relationship between male and female, man’s responsibility to lead and woman’s natural role as helper, are instituted before marriage is discussed as part of God’s created order for men and women generally. These roles in the general relationship between men and women are not just for husbands and wives. (However, as we will discuss in future articles on this subject, those roles will obviously play out differently outside of marriage.)  Last of all, because of Adam’s relationship to this particular woman, taking Eve as his wife, he is to form a family with her, to live with and care for her.

    Here’s the bottom line: this passage reveals the creation order that God established, and the man is given the primary responsibility of leadership and care with respect to creation as a whole, including women generally as part of that created order, and especially with respect to his relationship with his wife.

    As a quick way to underscore these particular building blocks, consider these two passages in Genesis 3.

    And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”” (Genesis 3:8–9, ESV)

    To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”” (Genesis 3:16–19, ESV)

    Note that in verses 8-9, God calls out the man first, even though it was the woman who took the lead and sinned first and then tempted her husband. The man is still held responsible. Look also at the character of the curses pronounced upon Adam and Eve.  For the woman, the curse God pronounces upon her focuses on her relationship with her husband, and on her children. God’s curse illustrates how her sin has marred both the sphere of responsibility and the relationship she was given – her relationship with her husband as a helper

    To Adam, God says, “…cursed is the ground because of you.”  Through Adam, the sphere of responsibility which he was give, care for the creation along with his task of providing for his wife and family, is corrupted and ruined.  These characteristics of “responsibility” and “leadership” form some of the building blocks of Biblical manhood.

    If we accept that some of the basic building blocks of masculinity are responsibility, authority, leadership, then the question confronts us: what kind of leadership should biblical men pursue?  We begin to find the answers in Luke 22:24-30:

    A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.

    “You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Luke 22:24–30, ESV)

    This passage illustrates the exclusively biblical concept of servant leadership. Jesus takes the world’s idea of hierarchy and power, and he inverts it. He literally turns it on its head.  Not because there is no longer to be any such thing as a disparity of power/authority/responsibility.  Those disparities do still exist.  The revolutionary idea here is that leaders – those who have the power/authority/responsibility – are to exercise it not for the benefit or aggrandizement of themselves, but for the benefit of those who are under that authority. In God’s economy, to lead is to serve. So the building block of masculinity shown here would seem to be, essentially, selflessness. More on this later.

    If a Biblical Masculinity involves the exercise of leadership and authority for the benefit of those he leads, the next logical question is how that leadership is to benefit those under it.  Let’s consider 1 Timothy 5:2-4.

    “…older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity. Honor widows who are truly widows. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God.” (1 Timothy 5:2–4, ESV)

    What we want to think about from this passage for the moment is the way men are called to relate to their sisters in Christ. There’s a lot to be gleaned here about the way Christian men in the context of Christian community are to act toward sisters in Christ of differing ages who are not their wives. What do we see?

    In the analogy of mothers and sisters, we see a general call to care for sisters in Christ as part of the family of God. Familial relationships are not relationships of indifference, they are relationships of care. Particularly in the social context in which this passage was written, it was readily understood that grown men were to protect their mothers and sisters. They had the responsibility to provide for them financially, if necessary. Also, this notion of treating younger women with “absolute purity” implies not just refraining from encouraging women toward sexual sin, but a proactive concern for their spiritual good.

    It’s interesting as well, that down in verse 8, albeit in a different context by then, Paul admonishes the people that, “…anyone who does not provide for his own relatives, especially his immediate family,” is worse than an unbeliever.  It’s important to note, by the way, that while the pronouns in that verse are generic, the only people capable of independently providing materially for anyone in that society in which Paul wrote this letter were men.  That’s relevant for our purposes.  Remember that just a few verses earlier, Paul called young men to treat sisters in Christ like mothers and sisters. In other words, like his own family.  While it’s certainly not the case that every man is financially responsible in some way for every woman, we can at least glean the principle that part of masculine leadership and care for women generally involves a disposition toward protection, provision, and fellowship with sisters in Christ.

    Finally, it seems from scripture that all the building blocks we’ve seen up to this point are particularized and greatly increased as a man relates to his wife in marriage.  Let’s look first at Ephesians 5:25-30, then we’ll look at 1 Peter 3:7.

    Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.” (Ephesians 5:25–30, ESV)

    Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.” (1 Peter 3:7, ESV)

    Leadership, responsibility, care, love in Christ, protection, provision, discipleship.  In marriage, we have the building blocks of Biblical Masculinity illustrated in their most acute form.  For our purposes now, we simply note that the marriage relationship is unique in male-female relations, and the marriage relationship involves the playing out of Biblical Masculinity in ways that would be inappropriate in any other male-female context.

    What do we get when we mix this all up, shake vigorously, and bake at 350 degrees for about 18-22 years?  In light of these passages, let me offer the following definition of Biblical Masculinity:

    The essence of biblical masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships.

    Our task now is to unpack the core elements of this definition, phrase by phrase.  We’ll begin with . . .

    “. . . A SENSE OF . . .”

    Sense? I know this may sound like a strange place to start, but to be biblically masculine, a man must not only be responsible (a theological reality that is outside of him and beyond his control), but must also believe, or sense, and consequently acknowledge that he is responsible.  If he does not “acknowledge” and “affirm” his responsibility, then he is not really mature in his masculinity; he’s not a man, but still a boy.

    On the other hand, the word “sense” also implies that a man can be “fully masculine” even when his circumstances are such that he is not able to regularly act on that sense of responsibility in relation to a particular woman or women.

    For example, a man may be in combat or out to sea away from women. He may be in prison. He may have a solitary job in some remote location, for example working out in the oil patch in Alberta. A man can still be properly masculine in those circumstances if he has that sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women, even if that sense is not directly actualized in relationships with women during every period of his life. 

    What might that look like?  Well, even if there’s not a woman anywhere to be found for miles, a man’s “sense” of responsibility will affect how he thinks and talks about women, how he thinks about the propriety of and whether he engages with pornography, and his sense of responsibility will be revealed in the kind of concern he shows for the marriages or relationships of the men around him.

    This idea of “sense” also means that a man can still be biblically masculine as a husband and father even if he is not physically able to provide for or protect his family. As a hypothetical example, he may be paralyzed. He may have a disabling disease. If he’s married, his wife may be the main breadwinner in such a circumstance. She may also be the one who has to get up at night to investigate that frightening noise in the house. Now, make no mistake; circumstances like those would be incredibly hard for any man (not to mention his wife), but if a man maintains a sense of his own benevolent responsibility under God, one thing he will not suffer is the loss of his masculinity. 

    His sense of responsibility will find expression in the ways he conquers his own self-pity, the way he gives moral and spiritual leadership to others, the way he takes the initiative to protect his family from Satan and sin – which, truth be told, are ultimately even greater enemies than physical hunger or anything that threatens his family physically.

    We could talk about a lot of other examples here, but the important takeaway is how this idea of a sense of masculinity (which is really just shorthand for a conscious, biblical understanding of the required traits) can transcend the tyranny of events and circumstances of this broken world, and leave the masculinity of godly men intact.

    Next, we move on to . . .

    “. . . BENEVOLENT . . .”

    This word is intended to capture the idea of servant leadership that Jesus talked about in Luke 22.  “Benevolent” is defined as “characterized by or expressing goodwill; desiring to help others; intended for the benefit of others rather than for personal profit.”  One of the central, essential responsibilities of manhood is the pursuit of good for woman and others. Benevolent responsibility is meant to rule out all self-aggrandizing authoritarianism. It is meant to rule out all disdaining condescension, any act that makes a mature woman feel patronized rather than honored and appreciated. Benevolence rules out not only those actions or omissions intended to harm or undercut a woman, but also those actions intended solely to puff up the man. The word “benevolent: occupies the place it does within the larger definition of masculinity so that it hard-wires the ethic of selflessness into everything else that follows.  More on this later in the course when we talk about the nature of authority.

    “. . . RESPONSIBILITY . . .”

    The role of this word in the definition is to stress that masculinity is a God-given trust for the good of all his creatures, not a right for men to exercise for their own self-exaltation or ego satisfaction or selfish desires.  Piper and Grudem describe it as “less a prerogative than a calling. . . a duty and obligation and charge.”  Like all God’s requirements of us, it is not meant to be onerous or burdensome. Yet it is a burden that is to be borne.  The word “responsibility” also correctly implies that man will be uniquely called to account for his leadership, provision and protection in relation to women and in relation to the rest of the garden that he has been called by God to care for as his central task.  This doesn’t mean the woman has no responsibility, as we will see. It does mean that man bears unique and primary responsibility for the state of the creation he is called to rule over, and for the relationship between man and woman.

    “. . . TO LEAD . . .”

    Now we get to the heart of the matter, and also to a more difficult idea to tease out. Remember this idea of male leadership, or headship is evidenced in Genesis 2, in 1 Timothy, in the marriage passages. It is there, so we need to figure out what it means. People’s experience with both the definition and practice of leadership will lead them to think wildly different things when they hear the verb, “lead.”  Another problem is that this one word carries many different nuances and implications for different contexts and situations. Let us consider a handful of clarifying statements on the meaning of biblical, masculine leadership.

    1. Biblical Masculinity expresses itself not in the demand to be served, but in the strength to serve and to sacrifice for the good of woman. 

    Again, think back to Luke 22. Jesus said, “Let the greatest among you become as the youngest and the leader as one who serves.” Leadership is not a heavy-handed, demanding demeanor. It is an attitude toward service and moving things forward to a goal. If the goal is holiness and Heaven, the leading will have the aroma of Heaven about it, the demeanor of Christ.  So immediately after saying that, “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church,” Paul said, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, to make her holy,” (Ephesians 5:23, 25).  Jesus led his bride to holiness and heaven on the cross. Though he looked weak by the world’s definition of power, he showed infinite strength by rejecting the world’s understanding of power and embodying servant leadership. Biblical men will feel this tension all the time if they take up the responsibility to lead according to Scripture.

    2. Biblical Masculinity does not presume superiority, but mobilizes the strengths of others.

    No human leader is superior to those he leads in every way. Because of that, a good leader will always take into account the ideas of those he leads, and may often adopt those ideas as better than his own. This applies to husbands at home and elders in the church and men leading in various ministries or business ventures and everywhere leadership is critical. A man’s leadership is not measured by his indifference to the ideas and desires of others. A leader of peers may be surrounded by much brighter people than himself. A good leader will listen and respond to those he leads. The aim of leadership is not to demonstrate the superiority of the leader, but to bring out all the strengths of people that will move them forward to the desired goal. Men, single or married, in the home or the church or in student ministry, or whatever it is, lead the people around them by valuing them. This is servant leadership.

    With respect to marriage, in Ephesians 5:28-29 the wife is pictured as part of the man’s body jusut as the church is part of Christ’s body. Keep in mind as well that Christ does not lead the church as his daughter but as his wife, his bride. He is preparing her to be a “fellow-heir” (I Peter 3:7), not a child.  This understanding of Ephesians 5 rules out any brand of leadership that treats a wife like a child. Any kind of male leadership in any context that, in the name of Biblical Masculinity belittles, patronizes or marginalizes a wife or any other sister in Christ, into personal immaturity or spiritual weakness, has entirely missed the point of biblical leadership.

    3. Biblical Masculinity does not have to initiate every action, but feels the responsibility to provide a general pattern of initiative.

    This means that in a family setting, the husband need not (and should not) do all the thinking and planning, but that he is to take overall responsibility for initiating and carrying through the spiritual and moral planning for family life. There will be many times and many areas in the specifics of daily life where the wife will plan and initiate and run numerous things within the house and family.  Nevertheless, there should be a general tone and pattern of initiative that should develop and that should be sustained by the husband.

    A husband is falling down on his leadership responsibilities if the wife in general – consistently – is having to take the initiative in getting the family to church, gather the family for devotions, and discussing with her husband what moral standards will be required of the children, and talking over ministry possibilities and how the family should prioritize serving in the church. A wife may initiate the discussion and planning of any one of these, but if she becomes the one who senses –and then takes – the general responsibility for these initiatives while her husband is passive, something contrary to Biblical Masculinity is happening. 

    If the family never reads the Bible or prays together, God holds the man responsible. If the children are disrespectful and disobedient, the primary responsibility lies with the father, not his wife. This is the same sentiment another author expresses when he says he assumes that every problem a couple has is the husband’s responsibility. It’s not that the wife has no fault or responsibility, but leadership means that primary responsibility for everything that grows out of the general spiritual pattern of a home lies with the head of that home – the husband.

    4. Biblical Masculinity accepts the burden of the final say in disagreements between leader and led, but does not presume to use it in every instance. 

    In marriage, the idea here seems to be that in a good marriage, decision-making is generally focused on the husband, but is not unilateral. A good husband actively seeks input from his wife and may often adopts her ideas. This pattern gels scripturally with the love that governs the marital relationship (Ephesians 5:25), with the equality of person-hood implied in being created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), and in the status of being fellow-heirs in Christ (1 Peter 3:7).  Unilateral decision-making is not usually a mark of good leadership.  Now, on the other hand, husbands should also work to avoid passivity. Husbands should also avoid the insistence upon “family consensus” with the wife or children which might lead the family to perceive a pattern of infirmity or indecision in the husband.  There’s a balance to be struck there.

    In terms of authority, both husband and wife should agree on the principle that the husband’s decision should hold sway if it does not involve sin, but this principle does not mean that a husband will often use the prerogative of “veto” over the wishes of his wife or family.  If it’s a matter of mere preference (so not where a moral or spiritual issue is at stake), some of the other principles we’ve already discussed (Luke 22) suggest that a husband should seek to love and please his wife and family by not doggedly defending his preferences for their own sake.  That’s not what his authority is given for. Even where important issues are at stake, a husband’s awareness of his sin and imperfection should guard him from thinking that following Christ gives him the ability of Christ to know what’s best in all situations.  

    All that said, the bottom line seems to be that in a well-ordered Biblical marriage both husband and wife acknowledge in principle that, if necessary in some disagreement, the husband should accept the burden of making the final choice.

    This aspect of Biblical Masculinity transfers to other contexts of leadership outside of marriage as well.  Whether in ministry, at work or anywhere, a biblical man understands that servant leadership means he does not jealously guard his own preferences where it’s not substantively necessary. To lead is to serve, and to serve is to encourage so far as that is possible. Responsibility to lead is one thing, desire to dominate is something else entirely.

    5. Finally, Biblical Masculinity recognizes that the call to leadership is a call to repentance, humility and risk-taking.

    Every man is a sinner, and Masculinity and Femininity have without question been distorted by our sin.  Because of those truths, taking up the responsibility to lead must be a task of great care and humility.  This principle transcends life context. Every one of us as single men/husbands/fathers have ample cause for contrition at our passivity or our domination or our treatment of women generally.  Some of us have neglected our wives by squandering way too much time in front of the TV or messing around on our own little projects or spending too much time away from home, whether for work or recreation.

    Others of us have been too arrogant or harsh or domineering or belittling, giving the impression through act and innuendo that our God-given position of leadership means we know everything and our wives owe us respect because of who we are and not because of who Christ is. In all these things, we have essentially remained boys, immature and unbiblical in our masculinity. Every man should humble himself before God for his past failures and for the remaining tendency either to shrink from his responsibilities or to overstep them for personal gain. The call to leadership is not a call to exalt ourselves over any woman. It is a call to humble ourselves and take the responsibility to be a servant-leader. 

    “. . . PROVIDE FOR . . .”

    “The essence of Biblical Masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for . . .”

    As we saw in I Timothy, the general sense of responsibility to provide that is part of Biblical Masculinity can play out in any number of ways. In the case of singles or generally outside of marriage, it might mean a son or brother or uncle or grandfather stepping up and providing financially for women relatives who need help. It might mean providing financial or other help to an elderly widow within the church. It might mean taking the responsibility to pay for everything on a date, or on many dates. The notion is that where a man can be helpful materially in an appropriate way, he is sensitive to opportunities to do that and considers it a part of his manhood to do so.

    In marriage, where this aspect of masculinity most acutely applies, the point of saying that a husband should feel a responsibility to provide for his wife is not the same as saying that the woman should refrain from assisting in maintaining support for the family or for society in general. Obviously Proverbs 31 pictures a wife with abilities that extend both within the sphere of the home and also in business and other affairs outside the home. The point is that when there is no bread on the table it is the husband who should feel the main pressure to get it there. It does not mean his wife can’t ever help by taking a job outside the home. In fact, it is possible to imagine cases where she may have to do it all – like if the husband is sick or injured.

    Still, a husband will feel his Biblical Masculinity compromised if he becomes unnecessarily dependent over the long term on his wife’s income, either through sloth or folly or lack of discipline, or even because he or his wife desires a standard of living that requires more money than he makes.  Remember, the responsibilities are laid out in Genesis 2. The point of that text is not to define limits for what else the man and the woman might do.  It does suggest, however, that significant role reversal at these basic levels of childcare and bread-winning labor will be contrary to the original intention of God, and contrary to the way he made us as male and female for our ordained roles. 

    Supporting the family materially is primarily the responsibility of the husband. Caring for the children is primarily the responsibility of the wife. With that fun teaser, we will return to this topic in future articles.