When I used to lead women’s ministry at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, I helped organize our yearly Women’s Retreats. The men, however, never had Men’s Retreats. They had Men’s Advances. Retreats, as they saw it, were for sissies.
Nevermind that the larger church adopted the concept of retreat from Jesus’s example in the Gospels. Jesus withdrew/retreated on several occasions, the Greek word meaning to make space away, to retire to make room for something else. In contrast, the men at Mars Hill Church were not discipled to withdraw to make room for Jesus. The Men’s Advance had quite the reputation for being a boisterous weekend filled with conversations about sex and UFC fights. Perhaps the men did spend some quiet time in prayer and Bible study, but if they did, no one talked about that aspect of the Men’s Advance when they got home.
Since the release of Kristin du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith, evangelicals have been buzzing about her portrayal of the recent history of conservative evangelicalism. I didn’t need to read Jesus and John Wayne to believe the author’s main conclusion—that American evangelicalism has had a long affair with warrior masculinity, to the point that evangelicals are willing to sacrifice character for leaders who are willing to kick some butt. My experience of American Evangelicalism from the independent fundamentalist churches of my youth to Mars Hill Church as an adult fit the one du Mez described. I was caught up in the warrior model of Christian manhood for a while. I looked to marry that kind of man for myself.
The warrior mentality that has emerged in the last fifty to seventy-five years of evangelicalism is not new in Church history. It was bred, for example, in actual warriors during the Crusades, to devastating effects. It has been used metaphorically to describe Machen and his warrior children or in the popularization of the warrior as the model for Christian manhood among Baptists on the heels of the rise of dispensationalism with Scofield and Ryrie. In Scofield’s end times scenario, Christ raptures a marginalized church valiantly holding off secular opponents. The gates of hell are biting at the church’s heals, with liberal wings falling left and right. Only those who valiantly fight to the end will be found holding on to the fundamentals of the faith.
I would like to argue that the warrior mentality is not the Biblical paradigm for Christian manhood, or womanhood for that matter.
After the implosion of Mars Hill Church and a divorce I didn’t want, I moved from Seattle, Washington to my grandparents’ farm in South Carolina. My elderly father still shares crops with the farmer who rents our land. For the last six years of my life, rocking on my screened porch overlooking the fields, recovering from both my divorce and the cancer diagnosis that followed two years later, I have been detoxing from the poor discipleship around sex and gender I received at Mars Hill and the warrior mentality for Christians, particularly Christian men, of my upbringing. The fog has cleared in my brain, and the true model for Christian manhood and womanhood has become as clear in my head as it actually is in Scripture. I stare at it every day.
Land. Seed. Work. Harvest.
The model for Christian manhood isn’t a warrior. It’s a farmer. Once you see it in Scripture, you’ll never unsee it. I wonder sometimes how I missed it myself for so long.The LORD God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden to work it and watch over it. (Gen. 2:15)
The first thing God did when He created the man was lead him to a garden and give him the instruction to tend and keep it. This was our occupation in perfection before the fall. This was what man and woman were created to do.
Mankind’s call to farm wasn’t lost at the fall. In fact, the language of farming permeates God’s instructions to us throughout Scripture, from fall to redemption.
Trust in the LORD and do what is good; dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness.
“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows… But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle because the harvest has come.”
Therefore be patient until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth and is patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, because the Lord’s coming is near.
When Christians began to boil down discipleship to preparing culture warriors, they lost greatly. God did not create us for war. We were created to plant, tend, and harvest. We were created to cultivate and grow. We may war for a season to protect those things we are planting and growing, but we were not created to be a standing army. We were created to farm.
J. R. R. Tolkien understood this. The entire goal of resisting Sauron was to preserve normal life, of which the green growth of the Shire became symbolic. When Galadriel gifts the Fellowship with special help for their journey, Sam is disappointed not to receive an elvish dagger but a box of dirt and a seed. But his box was more valuable than the dagger. He was given what was essential for life after war. Sam was meant for greater things than war. He was a gardener.
Wars will cease, but we will always be cultivators and caretakers, literally and figuratively. Adam and Eve were created for this in the Garden. And we are being redeemed to that good work for eternity. The farmer motif is foundational because cultivation and care of creation is what it means to image God.
Onward Christian Farmer,
Rebuilding after war.
The fields are strewn with shrapnel,
But call to us for more.
Their depths hold precious nutrients
Our people deeply need.
We cull out now the metal,
That we may plant the seed.
Wendy Alsup is a mom, author, and math teacher who lives in the lowcountry of South Carolina on her grandparents’ farm. She is the author of Practical Theology for Women: How Knowing God Makes a Difference in our Daily Lives and Companions in Suffering: Comfort for Times of Loss and Loneliness.