Is there such a thing as Biblical Manhood?

Quite a few years back now, the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood was set up by the likes of John Piper and Wayne Grudem. The primary purpose of CBMW was to advocate for complementarianism – the belief that men and women  are made equal but different so that husbands are to exercise headship in the home as husbands and that eldership in the church is male.  CBMW was a response to the Egalitarianism in the church with women’s ordination and what its founders perceived as a growing influence of radical secular feminism. 

Personally, I’m complementarian. I agree with the position that eldership is male and that husbands are to exercise headship. That means you will find me sympathetic to the position set out by Piper and Grudem as well as a number of other Bible teachers, pastors and scholars who contributed to a book on the theme.[1]  However, you will see in the contributions I’ve made to the subject that I don’t always agree with the main proponents. My primary point of departure is that I believe that whilst there is an authority carrying order through headship that men and women, husbands and wives are to mutually submit to one another. I believe this to be the classical reformed position going back to the likes of John Calvin.

However, it is fair to say that when you look at those original proponents of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, their use of the terms was reasonably narrowly focused on helping us to understand that distinction in terms of marriage and church. In recent years, we’ve seen a growing focus on attempting to describe Biblical manhood in more detail.  In fact the emphasis now is on discovering “manliness.” 

Last year, one group of Evangelical churches hosted a conference at which former footballer Gavin Peacock spoke on the topic “Dominion” the theme was based on Genesis 1-3. You will note there that the implication is on the man exercising dominion whereas in Genesis 1-3, this is applied to man and woman together.

I’ve also seen a growing emphasis, particularly on social media, on associating manhood with what might be termed “laddish” behaviour. We are men because we banter and our banter uses language that strays into the aggressive because men must fight and perform to show their alpha dominance in the pack.  Sometimes, such behaviour is also defended as being “working class” and essential to inner city and estate ministry, though having grown up in a working class context, attended the comprehensive on the estate and now for the past decade lived and pastored in an estate context, I don’t remember seeing those behaviours glorified among working class men. At times I think gang behaviour is confused with working class behaviour.

At the same time, I wonder whether we can go the other way and fail to think at all about whether there are specific qualities and characteristics that the Bible primarily looks for in men. I want to suggest that there are and that they are quite different from the kind of brash, chest puffing, noisy aggressive stuff we get from Twitter Manhood.

I want to pick up on two Bible passages that give us some clues. The first is Genesis 2.  In this passage, God takes the first man and places him in a garden. There he sets him to task “to work it and keep it” or tend and guard.[2]  This type of language is later used of the priests and Levites in the Tabernacle.  It is also at the root of the shepherding language in Acts 20 when Paul instructs the Ephesian elders to feed the flock and fend off wolf attacks. Biblical men are those who provide for those in their care and protect them from danger.  Personally, I think this “provide and protect” language is describing both our physical role in creation, our part in filling and ruling the earth.  In the Garden, man also names the animals, a form of classifying or ordering (subduing). Knowing each creature by name is a shepherd’s quality and because naming in the Bible also reflects identity and character, it is about knowing each animal, what it brings and what it needs, where it might cause danger and where it might be vulnerable to danger. These are the very things man needs to know in order to provide and protect.  I think this explains a bit more about why the elders in the church are men because that is concerned with providing spiritual food and protecting from false teachers.  Remember, my position is that eldership is male but leadership is not.  Alongside this male tendency towards providing and protecting, I wonder if we can see a female equivalent in birthing and nurturing?

I want to point you as well towards Ephesians 5, the passage that looks at husbands and wives and that picks up on Genesis 2.

“25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.[a] 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. “[3]

The husband provides and protects in a self-sacrificing way. He puts his wife’s needs first. He is the one who puts himself between his wife and children and danger. He is the one who goes without so his family can get by. His aim is to see his wife presented as radiant and beautiful. In other words, he is concerned to see her flourish.

It is worth adding that for someone to be an elder, their home life needs to be examined first and they need to be exemplary in that area.  The focus there is on temperance and self-control. Again, I would dare to say that these descriptions seem a far cry from the aggressive, self-promoting motor mouth, prickly versions of Biblical manhood we see online. I can’t imagine the Biblical man becoming increasingly reliant of abusive ad-hominem attacks as they lose an argument before eventually blocking their interlocutor in a fit of pique.

Whether my mum’s old refrain that “manners maketh the man” is exactly Biblical, it is certainly trut that in godly Biblical men we see a model of gentle toughness, humility, kindness, love and service. If we want to aspire to Biblical manhood, we would do well to aspire to those things.

[1] Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A respond to Evangelical Feminism (Eds Piper and Grudem. Wheaton IL.: Crossway, 1991).

[2] Genesis 2:15.

[3] Ephesians 5:25-28.

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