I have a vested interest in understanding what a gospel centered man looks like. I’m married to a man and raising two others. But even more than that, I am COMPLEMENTARIAN (a woefully inadequate term for the fullness of how the Bible speaks of gender). Despite the inadequacies of the term, when you boil it all down, my convictions from Scripture are that the husband is the head of the wife, the wife should submit to her husband, and that women can be deacons but not elders in the church. If you share those convictions, then you know how important it is for the men in your life to be truly gospel centered men. The caricature of a “real man” that masquerades as Biblical manhood in conservative evangelicalism just doesn’t cut it when the rubber meets the road–when your child gets cancer, when your husband abandons you, when your own discouragement turns into clinical depression, or when you need elders to lead in gospel grace in the midst of church conflict. Those are not the moments for the manly shepherd. Those are the moments for the godly shepherd. Being manly isn’t the issue. Being like Christ is.
What I say next may seem slightly offensive or controversial. But the truth needs to be stated, and as bad as it sounds, the gospel meets us in this truth and can transform us all. But not until we admit the reality of our sin. The sin I want to address is that some men with identity issues are defining Biblical masculinity for the evangelical church, and sadly we, the Church, are listening to them. These men have paved the road for emerging egalitarians. If I know one, I know 50 former complementarians who have embraced egalitarian thinking because they were spiritually, verbally, or physically abused by a man with identity issues who perverted his spiritual role in their lives.
Now, WHO AM I TO TALK ABOUT THIS?! I’m nobody. I have no authority, and no one needs to listen to me. But I am someone who at several points in my life was under the leadership of pastors with identity issues who had warped views of what it meant to be a masculine leader. Also, I have dealt long and hard with my own identity issues, especially those related to my perceptions of myself based on my physical appearance. Dealing with my personal identity issues and insecurities in the light of the gospel was the crux of my Ephesians Bible study. But I thought my insecurity based on my physical appearance was a distinctly female struggle. Then I heard a sermon on the gospel applied to our bodies given by one of our pastors a few months ago. He made this profound statement, which I transcribed and thought about.
“I grew up in a neighborhood full of boys, and the way you gained respect in my neighborhood was through physical prowess. You had to be the strongest, the most athletic, and because I was smaller, not only because I was younger but because of genetics, I was often ostracized. I was made fun of, and I remember those moments. … I at an early age decided the way I would deal with the pain is by becoming someone who is more athletic than you, smarter than you, who is better than you. That has defined my life and brought all kinds of chaos and trouble.”
He said this in a sermon on how the gospel transforms our views of our bodies. My respect for him grew as he gave testimony how the gospel changed his view of himself. His statement resonated with me and several things clicked in my head as he honestly assessed his identity issues based on his height. I had the immediate thought, “THAT EXPLAINS IT!” For both my youth and adult experience in the church have been heavily influenced by short pastors with identity issues. Unlike my pastor now, they apparently had never wrestled through how the gospel transforms their perceptions of themselves based on their genetic makeup. They adopted gospel-less coping mechanisms for dealing with it. Just as my pastor noted, they are going to be more athletic than you, smarter than you, and better than you. In my experience, they can be reasonably nice—until challenged. Then their bullying coping mechanisms rise up in irrational anger. When Napoleon runs the church, get out of the way.
That sounds harsh, doesn’t it?! Yet, the gospel meets men in this reality as surely as it meets women. The first step is to acknowledge the problem. Yes, you are short (or whatever the identity issue is), and no, that doesn’t define you Biblically. It makes you neither less a man or more a man. But your attempts to compensate for the way you perceive yourself are ruining you and your ministry. Perhaps your childhood made you feel humiliated. Were neighbor kids brutal? Did your father abuse you? Examine yourself. What coping mechanisms have you adopted to mask that pain and convince yourself that your physical limitations don’t define you?
In my experience, verbal tirades are the big coping mechanism, closely tied to an obsessive need to protect one’s authoritarian position at all cost. I remember so well the youth pastor who Let. Me. Have. It. when I had a bad attitude on a missions trip. I had rolled my eyes at something he said. Boy howdy, don’t roll your eyes at Napoleon, I learned the hard way. I was reduced to tears in the back of the church van after his verbal tirade against me in front of the entire youth group. Anyone who knew me would know it only took a look of disappointment from my father to get my attention, and I NEVER got in trouble in school. But I had rolled my eyes at a man with identity issues. When a pastor is insecure with his leadership around 15 year old girls, he’s got a problem.
Fast forward to today. I am a well loved wife in a church pastored by gospel centered elders. I recognize better than ever gospel centered manhood because it is lived out before me day by day. Both my husband and my father have 4 wheel drive pickup trucks, but that is irrelevant to them as Biblical men. Pick up trucks are a cultural perception of masculinity that has bled into (some segments of) the church. Biblical love, humility, and the laying down of your life in gospel grace for those who spurn you is transcendent. That’s the Biblical manhood God instituted when He created man in His image, and that’s the Gospel centered manhood to which, through the death of the Son of Man, He calls us back.
Women who love God, love His Word, and love complementarian values, don’t be fooled by the caricature of Biblical masculinity that hides deeper heart issues among many Christian men. Practically speaking, beware men who are easily threatened by perceived challenges to their authority. Especially beware men who speak with contempt to others. If ever there was evidence of masculine identity issues, that is it. Love is not rude, Paul says in I Corinthians. And men who treat you or others with contempt in their words show a heart that is far from God. Contempt and verbal abuse are their gospel-less coping mechanisms. The fact that someone can use the terms gospel, grace, and Jesus in context does not mean they understand either the gospel, grace, or Jesus. If you wonder what Biblical manhood really is, read the gospels at face value.
May we all adopt Christ as the essence of Biblical manhood, and may our Christian evangelical leaders lovingly confront those who twist Christ to their own purposes with their identity issues. Most of all, I pray for leaders who will stand up and point these men back to the gospel of grace that meets them in their struggles with their identities. God in heaven, not height or physical prowess, defines masculine identity. And it is right and good that women note that.