The manhood conundrum

Perhaps one of the reasons that men are increasingly absent from the church is because it is difficult for them (us) to understand what Christian manhood (in distinction from cultural manhood) really is. This is because–as with so many other things–the Christian witness has become polarized around this topic.

On the one hand, some Christians argue for a “Biblical manhood” that often is really little more than an expression of Victorian gender roles with Christian language added as a justification.

On the other hand those who tend to be more egalitarian often focus on womanhood leaving Christian men to stumble into a self-identity often shaped by a variety of forces, perhaps even by guilt.

This is the #1 ranked Google image for “manhood”

Looking to the broader culture is not much help either. Manhood’s cultured despisers argue that there is no such thing as manhood and fold it into some sort of neuter personhood where the sovereign individual chooses “its” sex. Alternately, some would seek to diminish, marginalize, or punish manhood.

Perhaps worse still is the perfection now demanded of men that was once (and still is–welcome to a woman’s world) demanded of women. A man must be perfectly comfortable with his emotions, able to be tender and caring, and simultaneously possess a perfectly-sculpted body and a near encyclopedic knowledge of music, business, the arts not to mention capable of field dressing a deer and stripping and reassembling an AR-15 blindfolded. 

If you can do all this at the same time, you’ve made it.

Is there a third way? I think so. I call this “complimentary equality,” a real equality that cherishes rather than discards the differences between the sexes. And there are differences. 

The reality is, of course, that there are myriad ways that men and women are alike. There are also a myriad of ways in which men and women differ. Some of these related to our bodies, some are biochemical, some are innate to sex, others (perhaps more than we imagine) are formed in us by culture. These differences are often used as a means of comparing and contrasting to the end that we attempt to shore up our own preconceptions about gender.

The argument that women ought not to be elders because session meetings would last too long is as ridiculous as asserting that men ought not be elders because they pass gas and talk about sports. I’d venture a guess that most of the items a session disposes of with great efficiency are hardly worth the time it takes to do so. In reality, wisdom takes counsel and discusses complex situations in depth and with nuance without rushing to “execute” a decision.

Not all women are “too emotional.” And not everything that is seen by men as “too emotional” is really that. Crying, for example, is not simply an emotional reaction devoid of underlying reason. For some women it may be, but for others it is not. Crying is often a physical manifestation of a justified frustration at the lack of emotional intelligence on the part of another or the difficulty of the situation in general. Perhaps it’s the equivalent of a man putting his fist through a sheetrock wall.

Not all men are “all business.” And being “all business” is not present on any list of qualifications for spiritual leadership found in the New Testament–nor is the ability to pass gas loudly.

Ideally, men and women realize that their identities compliment one another (for the most part). God designed it this way not so that men can rule over their wives and/or other women, but so that in the new order of God’s kingdom they can serve and lead in partnership.

I don’t mean this in a trivial or universal way, however. It’s not a case of “men are reasoning and women are emotional. Women are people-oriented and men are task-oriented.” That’s superficial, largely inaccurate, and more likely the result of the projection of one’s own identity and presuppositions onto reality.

Men need to be free to be men as women need to be free to be women. Both need to be welcomed into spiritual leadership, not because they’re identical as neuter “persons”, but because God created humanity/mankind as a duality and gifted both for service and leadership of the other. 

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