Here’s a question I got recently: Why has the Church become so feminized?
The young guy who asked me was earnest and sincere, and quite tuned in to conversations in the blogosphere on all things masculine in the church – men’s “roles,” authority issues, and more. He’d come to embrace a certain narrative that goes something like this: Until recent decades the church was run by men. Liberalism and feminism contributed to the rise of women, the softening of biblical authority, and the feminization of the church. Today, the church is more highly populated by women, but men of integrity must show renewed commitment to biblical authority and biblical roles, which will bring men back to church and bring Gospel renewal. He said to me, “Chuck, what I think the church needs is men without fear, men willing to stand for truth.”
I respectfully disagree with the entire narrative. In fact, though I respect the sincerity of this opinion, I think it’s been embraced by young men who don’t know much theology or church history, and who are often led by older men who, for whatever reason, actually live in tremendous fear. Let me explain with an alternative narrative.
What I believe the Bible teaches is that Yahweh, unlike the hyper-masculine gods of the ancient near east, dares to break the rules and enters in – vulnerably – to the pain and sin of humanity. From Genesis 3, God acts in grace, knitting clothing for his ashamed children. Time and again, he breaks through the barrier, vulnerably pledging faithfulness against all odds, amidst a people who continually break trust. In covenant, Yahweh pledges to take the ultimate hit instead of landing the final blow. Over and again, Yahweh says, “Yet, I will return to my people and forgive their sins and restore them,” a knockout blow to a theology of violence, of sacrifice, of entitled position and role.
In Jesus, the character of God becomes crystal clear. Jesus sacrificed glory to become human. He became a man…
…but a man who’d be the laughingstock to most ‘manly men’ of his day. Sure, some point to Jesus over-turning the temple tables as the example of the masculine God. But this is silly, really. If you want to psychologize the text, see it as an example of his extraordinary range of emotion. If you want to make Jesus into a UFC fighter and a tough guy, you’d have to read the Gospels with an agenda, an agenda that Jesus would overturn with equal passion.
One story, however, tells the Grand Story of the Incarnation – Luke 15 – the prodigal son (and as some say, the prodigal ‘father’) passage. It’s a story about a man who so loves his son that he is willing to look like a woman to save him. Read that line again. This isn’t me saying this. Read the many great books of Kenneth Bailey, a writer I was first exposed to when his text was assigned in seminary at RTS Orlando. A middle eastern scholar, Bailey lifts the veil, showing that what the father did only a mother in that day would do. In running to his son, he brought shame to himself. In exposing his legs, he looked like a woman. In his display of raw emotion, he’d be cast better as the over-emotional female than the stoic male. This, I suggest, is God’s character revealed in the Incarnation.
This is a man without fear, a man who revealed the heart of masculinity (and even more, humanity). The heart of it is this – intimacy.
Intimacy. The word in the Latin – without fear, an invitation into the innermost space. Jesus does what God had been doing over and again – relentlessly pursuing, and breaking even his own rules in the process. The vulnerable God who, in Luke 15, is portrayed with feminine qualities, angers those obsessed with roles and authority – the Pharisees. How this is missed today puzzles me, but even more – grieves me. While some Christian men seem obsessed with several debatable Pauline texts, they miss the core – Christ himself – the intimate God, the vulnerable God, the God who moves toward rather than pulling away. This makes our silly debates about feminization and roles quite small. With perspective, we’d keep the main thing the main thing – vulnerably living in and participating in the life of Christ in this world.
Here is the kind of church I fear – the church that moves away, that church that puts up walls, the church that doesn’t demonstrate vulnerable intimacy. This is the hyper-masculine church, a church that is made in the image of the ancient near eastern gods that mocked Yahweh, and the Pharisees that crucified Jesus, and even today hyper-masculine men who erect walls, proclaim authority and role, and miss the point.
Now, to get back to the opening story – the young man has the narrative all wrong. Two significant features, I believe, show the church’s commitment to what I’d call incarnational vulnerability – mission and contemplation.
Mission. The first centuries of the church show the commitment to be a church engaged in mission. Prior to Constantine and the advent of Christendom, the church fought only the crucial theological battles – Trinity, hypostatic union – and gave its effort to living in mission, saving young baby girls aborted by Roman families, moving into plague-infested territory, bridging ethnic divides, treating slaves and servants with dignity. The church-in-mission got the attention of emperors and historians of the day, in oft-quoted writings which lauded Christians for their generosity and care. Even the Cappadocian Fathers imagined the Trinity to be in perichoretic relationship – Father, Son, and Spirit in vulnerable, intimate relationship, giving and receiving eternally. No better picture of mission can be imagined. God’s icons (image-bearers) were bearers of divine intimacy – vulnerably giving and receiving.
Contemplation – a juridical understanding of salvation is just part of the picture. Justification, though seemingly central for some many, was only one metaphor for human salvation. For centuries, union with God was central, even so for Calvin. Union implies a vulnerable, intimate connection between God and man, a mystical connection, that Augustine, Calvin, St. John of the Cross, Athanasius, Samuel Rutherford, and many more didn’t shy away from. (Read Robert Webber’s The Divine Embrace). Yes, Rutherford was a Westminster Divine, whose erotic language of union with Christ in his Letters brought criticism. In fact, as a professor at RTS Orlando, I received criticism for quoting him, as some said I was promoting a feminized faith! But men…Rutherford wrote Lex Rex, and was a Westminster hero! For him, union meant intimate love, being kissed by Christ, being held by Christ, being pressed on by Christ! His words cause the manly man to shiver – “Oh, the many pounds of His love under which I am sweetly pressed!” (see full text below)
Mission and contemplation thus became the heartbeat of orthodoxy, a movement of vulnerable intimacy, becoming like Christ and living without fear.
Men, I have a challenge for you. Don’t settle for the silly, cheap, and fearful polarizations created by Christian leaders who use words like authority, feminization, and role in a way that disconnects from the narrative – the Christ narrative. Don’t buy the accusations of liberal. Don’t see it as moving away from truth. Don’t trust the contention that the biblical text isn’t central, for some. The cruciform narrative, in fact, is far more central, far more important, and far more revealing – particularly of a God who defies all cultural manifestations of god, whether in the form of the ancient near east (ANE) or the ultimate fighting championship (UFC).
Men…pray this…If this is the man I am to become, may I be given the grace to lift my robe and run, like the prodigal father, with vulnerability and without fear, into the brokenness of the world – even as the onlookers jeer.
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from Samuel Rutherford’s letters – “O that I should ever kiss such a fair, fair, fair face as Christ’s! But I dare not refuse to be loved. There is nothing within me, that is the cause for Him to look upon me and love me. God never gained anything from me. His love cost me nothing. Oh, the many pounds of His love under which I am sweetly pressed!”