The church has long bought the lie that being a man is something akin to being Mister Universe. If you don’t love to watch sports, hunt, or fix things, you’re likely too effeminate to be part of your men’s ministry—you’d be better served to go get some more dirt under your fingernails. While you’re at it, make sure your heart is wild enough.
This problem isn’t new. There are plenty of voices that have written on this topic before me. But I’m worried many of our conversations try to address manhood in big categories, causing us to effect relatively little change. Yes, our conferences and Christian living books are great. Yes, championing complementarianism is a good thing. But true manhood must come off the paper and alive in our homes.
Paradoxically, manhood is tiny, yet grand. It is glory-filled, yet self-denying. It maximizes our God-reflecting, but in doing so minimizes our self-justifying. Manhood isn’t about having everything together, exercising your calloused hands, or trying to remain emotionless. Manhood is about primarily about smallness, and it happens in the minutia of everyday life.
To a certain degree, I think our ideas about manhood have been culturally informed. Perhaps the most dangerous lie we have told the boys in our churches is that real men keep their chins up at all times. Even within the complementarian camp, there is a strange fascination with toughness and machismo. An impressive bench press, twelve-point buck, or mental fortitude is great, but manhood ought to be made of much nobler things.
The best men do not believe in themselves but walk according to biblical wisdom (Prov. 28:26). This means our manhood ought to be measured by biblical nobility rather than cultural nobility. Instead of trying to tell men they ought to do more or work harder, we ought to be focusing on the ways a man is cultivating the fruits of the Spirit in his life (Gal. 5:16-25). Biblical men do not domineer over nor patronize their wives; instead, they honor them as they live understandingly according to the role God has given them (1 Pet. 3:7). To put it succinctly, men are not in the business of strengthening themselves—they are in the business of giving themselves up (Eph. 5:25). The faux-nobility that the church subtly creates is actually antithetical to the gospel. The gospel is not self-reliant, but self-surrendering. It’s easy to grow a generation of men who want to flex their chops, but it’s difficult to find even a handful of men humble enough to admit their shortcomings. Fewer are willing to embrace them.
Biblical nobility is most fruitful in the pursuit of gospel-focused normalcy. Most men will never advance to a position of culture-shaker, CEO, or athlete; instead, they become a husband, father, and friend. While twenty-first century culture might call these positions underwhelmingly normal, they are the very places in which biblical nobility happens. It is in the context of a home that wives feel honored, children grow up, and sin gets killed. A man doesn’t die to himself in public. He dies to himself in the relationships he has with those to whom he has been given.
Let me give a personal example.
Recently, I was eating dinner with my friend Brandon and his wife. They spent several minutes patiently settling down their daughter, who is usually well behaved. On this night, however, she was unexplainably fussy. As soon as we gathered around the table, we hear a knock on the door leading to the garage. It was the boy visiting his family next door, asking if Brandon’s daughter could come out to play. Brandon’s wife calmly explained that we were eating dinner and that she might be able to play after we finished.
The boy interrupted dinner ad nauseam, upsetting their daughter with every knock at the door. I could tell Brandon was getting annoyed with him, and I watched him pause, regain his composure, and go to the door to speak firmly but kindly with the boy. During the whole ordeal, he never lost his temper, even when it was tempting.
This scene is exactly the kind of manhood I am talking about. Brandon could have snapped at the boy, his own daughter, or his wife. He could have punished his daughter out of frustration or could have resorted to a bad attitude by internalizing how he felt. Instead, he chose to die to self.
Manhood happens in the minutia. It concerns itself with smallness, not self-sufficiency. We are not called to do many of the things that culture would call noble, but we are called to kill sin and exercise humility. These are the truest marks of manhood. Let us not seek cultural nobility, but seek biblical nobility—the kind of nobility that changes lives and demonstrates the gospel.
Cody Glen Barnhart
Cody Glen Barnhart (@codygbarnhart) lives in Maryville, Tennessee, and is a student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has written for sites such as Canon & Culture, For the Church, and Gospel Centered Discipleship.