What the Church Needs is Men Without Fear

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.

+ + +

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!”

 

19 comments

  1. Some scholars have also argued that Joseph does the “feminine” thing in staying with Mary after she gets pregnant and not guarding his masculine honor.

  2. Chuck, I think you give the pre-Constantinian  church too much credit.  While the change that 312 means to the church is without dispute, there was a strong misogynist leaning that developed as the church developed governmental systems headed solely by men.

    Paul Dalen

  3. Good stuff Chuck.  Totally agree.  Reminds me of Brene Brown’s “Vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage.”  A secure man can risk being close to women, close to men, close to God without fear of losing his power or his self.  

    Spot on, my friend.

  4. Amen. Nice re-direct. My favorite verse on the both ‘more masculine than any man’ and ‘more feminine than any woman’ heart of God comes from Zephaniah 3;17 – 
    “The Lord your God is with you,    the Mighty Warrior who saves.He will take great delight in you;    in his love he will no longer rebuke you,    but will rejoice over you with singing.”

  5. I agree with your assessment of masculine failures in the Church. However, I don’t think your narrative is in opposition to the one described by the young man at the beginning of your post. In general his narrative primarily describes an absence of male leadership in the Church, which is a real narrative that has occurred in our culture and it’s a real problem.

    You proceed to describe a narrative that reflects a Biblical masculinity that is able to be intimate, tender, and ridiculed for the sake of love. This is very good and it’s exactly what the Church needs from our men, but it is not opposed to male leadership the young man described. The right roles for each gender *have been* eroded and there is a failure to recognize authority structures within the Church that are outlined in the Bible. The Church needs loving, tender, humble, intimate men who are also present and who lead in Church.

    Paul outlines to Timothy that only men are qualified to be elders (the top tier of leadership in the church). Paul also explains that men should be leading their households.

    Now, if men are behaving in the kind of hyper-masculinity that you describe, then I totally agree with you. The glass-eating, silent wall, stoic marlboro man is actually an emasculation of the true man the Bible describes.

  6. And the pendulum swings the other way.

    I get Luke 15 Jesus. I get the intimate God.

    I also get Revelation 19:11-21 Jesus as well.
    Can I not think of Christ in that way and yet have this Rutherford’s quote on top of my little heart?”No words, no pen, no images can ever express to you the loveliness of my only, only Lord Jesus.”All the time.

    1. Except these are two different genres of literature.  One is narrative, and one is apocalyptic.  One seeks to tell the story of Jesus (although from a certain position and with a certain agenda), and one uses metaphor and imagery left and right to communicate something very different.  You cannot take imagery in Revelation on the same level as you take the words and stories of Jesus in the Gospels.  Yes, they are part of the same bible, but both books have different functions in the biblical narrative, and neither to to give us a detailed facts about what has, and will, happen.

  7. I think the ultimate irony about the “feminization” thesis is that the church, and its leaders have always been feminized. 

    What are the roles of the church leaders? To teach the children (the young in faith).  To care for the poor, sick, and destitute.  To make meals (preside over the Lord’s Table).  These are all domestic activities traditional ascribe to women.

  8. I think the ‘masculinity’ here doesn’t refer to ‘being macho’ (which I think is what all those passages
    effectively disproves. I think that ‘masculinity’ means the male role- the leadership, being the decision-maker. In
    a marriage, someone has to have the final say (after much arguing, sometimes, truth be told), and I
    believe that biblically that’s the husband. NOT ruling with an iron fist, but with (corny as it sounds)
    steel and velvet- the courage to weep when called for, the courage to say, “No” when called for, the
    courage to take a stand when necessary.Yes, there are many, many men who misuse this, who think that means that women are doormats. There
    are many women who feel that submission=doormat, but when a man is secure in who he is- and who 
    he is in Christ- he can listen to women, without feeling threatened. But here’s the thing ladies-
    sometimes these men need to say no to us, and we need to let them and not argue over everything.
    Everything doesn’t have to be a game of supremacy.

    My only big problem with the ‘yay chicks!’ theology is when people take a perfectly valid piece like
    this and use it as a springboard to extrapolate out from it ‘women should have free run!’ Gals, we can
    be strong *and* submissive at the same time. We are wired differently- yes there are exceptions. I
    was thinking about this the other day- ‘Why not women on the elder board? Don’t they need a feminine viewpoint and compassion?’ and I became convicted that while (as I said) there are exceptions, women are wired differently enough that we shouldn’t be. I know that hearing news about people’s sin can possibly
    change how I treat them. I can’t compartmentalize my emotions very well. Men can and it doesn’t
    take over their lives…. 

    I think the big problem we’re facing now is that too many people think that can=should (A woman
    CAN be trained for combat, ie she should be in combat, for example). Even worse is the converse-
    equating the things we *shouldn’t* do with a lack of competence or intelligence. Women are smart,
    darn it! We all need to stop taking things so personally.

    I know that the people who read this are balanced in their viewpoints and most of my ‘problems’
    don’t apply here. I know that there are people who have suffered sexism in their church that
    was sinful. Please don’t think I’m defending that and saying it was right in the name of anything
    biblical, I’m not. I think that men should be strong AND sensitive and women should be the same. I
    think that men are better suited to some roles, women are to others and why can’t we be who we
    are to the best of our abilities?

    Thanks for giving me stuff to think about- I love putting things into question and clarifying why
    the heck I think/believe certain things…

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, brother, but your entire description of gender differences above does not reflect reality in my experience as a woman. Just thought you should know that those of us “exceptions” don’t find support for your gender construct in any of the four sides of Wesley’s quadrilateral: Scripture, Church tradition, the Holy Spirit, or personal experience. What does that mean? That you will need to listen to a few more women before you can become an expert in what makes us women. I sympathize with your thought that we ought to be the best versions of ourselves, and serve based on what we are good at. I ask you, if your strengths were ot commonly accepted as masculine traits or roles, would you advocate downplaying them to be more like other acceptable men? The women I know who are natural-born leaders in their families, professions, and communities are responding faithfully to God-given gifts (calmly flouting Western gender constructs inherited more from Aristotle than Paul) by USING them. Scripture also makes the case that we are to “boast in our weaknesses,” so that Christ can reshape us in his image. This might mean we are not allowed to just do what we’re good at, but must allow others to teach us their strengths in community, even if it’s awkward or difficult. Ask any widow, or any spouse of a deployed soldier: life in fallen world demands flexibility in roles and responsibilities. We cannot afford to generalize, entrench, and stagnate behind what we think men and women are good at–we are called to participate in each other. If you enjoy exchanging perspectives different than your own check out the books “What Paul Really Said About Women” and “How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership.” Even if you disagree, it will help you understand better what to do when a woman comes along who doesn’t fit your paradigm for a God-fearing woman, without damaging the Spirit’s work in her. I have seen many well-meaning Christian men cause women who were walking in faith second-guess themselves and put out the Spirit’s fire in their lives by giving ill-suited advice and claiming to be experts about what makes men ans women different.

      1. Whoops, Cheryl, in responding to your post I got lost and attributed your thoughts to another person–a guy. Sorry! My argument remains the same: you and I experience womanhood very differently, it seems. There are probably even women in your life who don’t see it as you do, and you can investigate their perspectives. I grew up believing as you do, but eventually enough experiences piled up that didn’t match and I had to relook my assumptions about the Bible and gender. As a military wife and mother (meaning I’m in uniform, too), God has made it very clear to me why women should do what we’re good at, even if it flouts convention. I am in the most challenging and most rewarding place I can be right now: balancing what C.S. Lewis dubbed “The Four Loves.”

  9. I would add another “womanly aspect” to Christ’s role: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45 NIV) Serving has always been the women’s role in both the European and Eastern cultures. Fortunately, many pastors in our churches are living out the Servant Leadership model that Christ displayes in His life.

  10. This piece is well-reasoned, but it excessively flattens the
    OT’s panoply of imagery for IHVH.

    This is the God who thunders from Seir, and for whom the infants of the goyim
    are dashed upon the rocks, remember.

    Moreover, it was likely the Deuteronomists’ misogyny that re-pointed Astarte as
    Asherah, effectively doing more to masculinize OT religion than to soften it.

    Whereas
    comparing IHVH’s “personality” to that of the Canaanite Ba’alim or Molech, or
    that of Philistine Dagon yields a tenderer portrait, compared to other ancient
    deities of the Levant, IHVH is plenty “UFC”
     

  11. Hey Chuck, Carrie Rose (Dan’s wife) from seminary days. Found you through the Deeper Story blog. Small world!  We got to spend time with Curtis and Lisa about a month before you did. So good to love on old friends.

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