By: Patrick Malphrus
It was 2005 and I was in my second year of study for my M.Div. at Erskine Theological Seminary. I had completed my Hebrew coursework and it was time for me to take an Old Testament book study. Without hesitation, I signed up for Dr. Culver’s course on the Pentateuch. If you ever had the pleasure of knowing Dr. Douglas Culver then you’ll understand what I mean by saying he was what some call, “The Genuine Article”. Not only did he possess a vast amount of knowledge in his field of expertise, he also had a wide array of life experiences and a great amount of practical wisdom for both life and ministry. The wonderful thing about his courses was that he brought all of his knowledge, wisdom, and practicality with him to the classroom and shared it with his students. He died and went home to be with the Lord in January of 2007 and I am so grateful I was blessed to be one of his pupils. It was in Dr. Culver’s class on the Pentateuch, that I remember hearing what was not only one of the best lectures, but was also one of the great teaching moments of my life thus far.
This formative moment came one class after Dr. Culver had finished lecturing on Abraham and his willingness to follow God. I remember the entire scene as it played out. Dr. Culver walked away from the white board at the front of classroom, sat down in a chair facing me and my fellow classmates, and said with firmness that, “Men, we need more men. Men that act like men.” Dr. Culver went on to explain what he meant, but what a statement! If this was the case in 2005 (and it was), imagine how much more the need for men that act like men has increased these past 14 years!
I ask you, dear reader, where have the men gone? I’m not asking where the males have gone. There are plenty of males in America. According to the U.S. Census Bureau there is pretty much a 1-to-1 ratio of males to females. I’m asking where have the real men gone?
Maybe it’s a good idea, and maybe it isn’t, but I usually consider television commercials as good indicators of what society really believes. Furthermore, I think commercials reveal what our culture is like and what our society really wants. The reason for this is simple: the people making the commercials are trying to sell something. As a result, they are trying to reach as much of society as possible and usually do so by means of relating to people.
As we consider the subject of masculinity, one particular television commercial comes to mind. Maybe you have even seen it. The commercial is an advertisement for a major automobile insurance company. The scene presented is that of two teenage boys whose car has a flat tire and who are stranded on the side of the road. One teenager is standing at the back of the car, trunk open, looking bewildered but says that his father bought insurance from the company that provides 24-hour roadside assistance. The other teenager is on the phone with his mother, asking (in a whining sort of voice) why his father didn’t purchase insurance from the company that provides 24-hour roadside assistance. He then went on to wonder whether or not the object he was holding was a lug wrench.
Yes, I understand this commercial is supposed to be comical. And no, the ability to change a tire isn’t the litmus test for masculinity. But even so, this commercial points to the greater reality that masculinity is vanishing. As I write this article, the Internet is buzzing over a commercial that was aired by the Gillette razor company. For as long as I can remember Gillette’s iconic advertising slogan has been, “Gillette: the best a man can get”. Yet in the commercial that has the internet ablaze, Gillette asks the question, “Is this the best a man can get?” They ask this question in relation to everything from the “#metoo” movement to the bullying epidemic. One is led to believe that men in general and traditional masculinity is to blame for all of society’s problems. It seems as though the motive is to make men feel guilty for being, well, men. Is sexual harassment, sexual assault, and bullying wrong? Yes. Absolutely. But is masculinity to blame?
I don’t mean to pick on Gillette. Despite the current trend in America where socialism is praised and capitalism is evil, Gillette, like all other companies, is just trying to make money. One Facebook philosopher (whose name I can’t remember) said something to the tune of “We live in a time where companies pretend to care about social justice in order to sell products to people who pretend to hate capitalism,” but I digress. Gillette isn’t the problem, but it is a symptom of the problem. It just so happens that their commercial is the most recent example of our society’s war on what has been labeled as “toxic masculinity”. What Gillette’s commercial exposes is the general idea that masculinity itself is a problem that must be remedied, and the remedies are frightening and damaging. Yet in the midst of all the controversy we would do well to ask what the Bible has to say about such things.
This past summer at our General Synod meeting, the Moderator used I Corinthians 16:13 as the theme for Synod. In this verse Paul wrote, “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.” In the event that you are not familiar with current language and phrases, one particular term that has become popular as of late is “triggered”. This term is used to describe someone whose sensibilities are offended and, as a result, reaches a frenzied level of emotional disgust or dismay. As you can imagine, just one glance at I Corinthians 16:13 and the phrase “act like men” could (and would) result in lots of folks being “triggered”. But what a sad thing that is! I Corinthians 16:13 sheds light on what it really means to be a man and on what real masculinity should look like.
Consider the problems plaguing the Corinthian church who first received Paul’s letter. They were dealing with real sin issues within the church. One man was living in a sexual relationship with his own stepmother. Some were getting drunk during Communion. They all lived in a town noted for its immorality and where the opportunity to commit heinous sin was on every corner. What were the men of the Corinthian church to do?
First, the men of the Corinthian church were to “be watchful”. They were supposed to be on the lookout for spiritual threats that would turn into real sin problems if left unaddressed. The men were supposed to take it upon themselves to be the spiritual watchmen of the church. The general idea of a watchman is that he is someone who is alert to danger and can do something about it. Second, they were to “stand firm in the faith”. When threats were detected they were supposed to stand firm in the truth of God’s Word, not backing down in the face of adversity. When it was time to fight for the truth they were supposed to be ready, and not back down. Third, they were to be strong. The strength Paul wrote of had nothing to do with physical ability, but rather, pertained to spiritual strength in the Lord. They were supposed to put emotions and feelings aside and do what was right. In short, it was by doing these three things that the men of Corinth really would “act like men”. And in the same way, it is by doing these three things that men in today’s church will “act like men”.
According to worldly wisdom, the greatest crime one can commit is against him or herself. The idea that a person should go against his or her feelings is seen as treason of the highest order and when a man does this it is considered “toxic masculinity”. Yet the masculinity the Bible commands for men is not toxic in any way, shape, or form. Instead, it is principled and based on the idea that men of God are to do what is right in God’s eyes and that everything else must fall under that primary objective. The masculinity the Bible teaches is that if men are given a choice between following their feelings and doing what is right, there really is no choice at all because doing what is right must prevail. Biblical masculinity is based on sacrificing everything to follow God and doing what is pleasing to Him.
Let’s go back to the classroom with Dr. Culver at Erskine Seminary in 2005. After Dr. Culver said to the class “Men, we need more men. Men that act like men,” he finished his lecture for the day on Abraham. He took his Hebrew text and read the story of Abraham and the command he received from God to sacrifice his one and only son, Isaac. Dr. Culver read Genesis 22, the passage that I have no doubt you’ve read and from which you’ve probably heard many sermons.
Dr. Culver began by highlighting the fact that Abraham received the command to sacrifice Isaac in verse 2 and then not only rose the next morning to “do Jehovah’s bidding”, but rose early the next morning to do so. He talked about how God simply commanded Abraham to go and to take Isaac to the place that would be shown to him, and how Abraham didn’t question God’s command or offer any alternative suggestions.
But it was when he came to verse 4 which says “Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar” that Dr. Culver really began teaching. He pondered aloud what the force of temptation must have been, deep within Abraham’s heart, when he saw the place that his son would die. He also marveled at the temptation Abraham must have faced when Isaac, that son so long in coming, that one and only son whose birth was so unlikely asked of his father in verse 7 “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” The temptation that Abraham faced to do any number of things BUT follow God must have been vast beyond reckoning.
Yet it was at this point that Dr. Culver, my Hebrew professor, turned to Hebrews 11:19 in the New Testament that says “Abraham ‘reasoned that God was able even to raise him (Isaac) from the dead’.” When Dr. Culver said “Men, we need more men. Men that act like men.”, he was referring to the trait of masculinity that leads to reason triumphing over emotion. He was referring to Abraham putting his emotions aside and, instead, trusting in the power of God and the surety of God’s promise. Though he had many failings, Abraham, in Genesis 22 and the time of his testing, acted like a man and trusted the Lord. This is what real masculinity and being a real man is all about.
A few paragraphs ago I asked if masculinity was really to blame for so many of society’s problems. Certainly, the answer is a resounding “NO”. However, masculinity, like every other facet of human character and emotion, must be captive to the Word of God. Instead of suppressing masculine traits, men must use these traits for the Glory of God and for the purpose of following God’s commands. When the time of testing comes, men must, “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.”
Reverend Patrick Malphrus is the pastor of Old Providence in Virginia.