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Muscular Christianity

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Among the contradictions of my childhood experiences in churches was the fact that, on one hand, there was the famous portrait of Jesus by Warner Sallman—meek and mild verging on the effeminate—and, on the other hand, the appearance of various sports figures to remind us that Jesus was not just male but a man's man who ran the moneychangers out of the temple with a whip.

It is hardly a newsflash that we've been living through an era of upheaval in gender roles. Churches have been divided over the role of women in ministry. In "Young, Restless, Reformed" circles, a new generation is discovering Jonathan Edwards and "masculine Christianity" in one fell swoop. Weaned on romantic—even sentimental—images of a deity who seems to exist to ensure our emotional and psychic equilibrium, many younger Christians (especially men) are drawn to a robust vision of a loving and sovereign, holy and gracious, merciful and just, powerful and tender King. As David Murrow pointed out in Why Men Hate Going to Church (2004), men are tired of singing love songs to Jesus and don't feel comfortable in a "safe environment" that caters to women, children, and older people. His critique is familiar to many: men don't like "conformity, control, and ceremony," so churches need to "adjust the thermostat" and orient their ministry toward giving men tasks (since they're "doers"). Men don't like to learn by instruction; they need object lessons and, most of all, to find ways to discover truth for themselves.

I get the point about a "soft" ministry, especially worship, with its caressing muzak and the inoffensive drone of its always-affirming message. It's predictably and tediously "safe." Get the women there and they'll bring their husbands and children. Not only has that not worked, it's sure to bore any guy who doesn't want to hear childrearing tips or yet another pep talk on how to have better relationships.

Having said all that, where did we get the idea that men are insecure jerks who can't learn anything or belong to the communion of saints as recipients of grace? And are we really ready to identify shallow sentimentalism with "feminization" of the church? Do godly women want this any more than men? In my experience at least, a lot of men and women alike are devouring good books of theology these days, especially in Reformation circles. Yet also in my experience, women—and men—are still being distracted from being immersed in the faith by countless exercises in "applied Christianity" (i.e., niche studies) without much "Christianity" to apply.

The stereotypes can be as belittling to men as to women. Jesus' disciples were, well, disciples. They followed Jesus and listened intently to his teaching. Not incidentally, there were women, too. Mary broke the stereotype by being catechized by Jesus when her sister Martha thought she should be making coffee for the next group.

Take the stereotype that men don't like to be taught; they like to discover truth for themselves. This is as cliché as saying that real men don't ask for directions. Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus may have some interesting generalizations, but a lot of gender differences are cultural. In a society bombarded by niche-demographic marketing, what may have appealed to just about anybody in another era is packaged specifically for men or women (or children or teenagers or older folks).

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.

And what about the fact that women as well as men are identified as "disciples" in the New Testament—something that was quite unusual for Second Temple Jews? Or Paul's expressions of gratitude and greeting to the women who assisted him in his work? Not to mention that "there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). It was Dorothy Sayers who castigated the pale curates of England for serving up a thin soup of moralism instead of the serious, dramatic, and counterintuitive message of the gospel: "the greatest story ever told." She wasn't trying to "masculinize" or "feminize" the gospel, but to join the throng of Zion's worshippers in all times and places. "In Christ," not "in manhood" or "in womanhood," is our ultimate location. One Lord, one faith, one baptism.

So enough with the beards (if it's making a spiritual statement). Enough with the "federal husband" syndrome that goes beyond the legitimate spiritual leadership of the heads of households found in Scripture. Enough of the bravado that actually misunderstands—sometimes rather deeply—what real sanctification looks like in the lives of men as well as women. And why does every famous pastor today have to write a book about his marriage and family? Beyond Scripture, there is godly wisdom and Christian liberty. Biblical principles focus on what it means to live in Christ by his Word and Spirit, and even in those few passages that speak directly to men and women, there will be legitimate diversity in application.

My point is that the larger goal here shouldn't be to trot out more gender stereotypes from our culture, whether feminist or neo-Victorian, but rather to rediscover the ministry that Christ has ordained for making disciples of all nations, all generations, and both genders. We need less niche marketing and more meat-and-potatoes service to the whole body of Christ. There, men and women, the young and the old and the middle aged, black, white, Latino, Asian, rich and poor hear God's Word together, pray and sing God's Word together, and are made one body by receiving Christ's body and blood together: "one Lord, one faith, one baptism." In that place, at least, there are no women's Bible studies and men's Bible studies, distracted youth groups and child-free golden oldies clubs, but brothers and sisters on pilgrimage to a better homeland than those that have been fashioned for us by this passing evil age.




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Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.

Issue: "No Girls Allowed" May/June 2012 Vol. 21 No. 3 Page number(s): 46-47

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