THE HEART OF MASCULINITY
The heart of masculinity is the joyful acceptance of sacrificial responsibility. But that statement is as dense as a North Jersey smog, so we need to consider each part carefully.
First, masculine and male are not the same word, and they don’t have the same meaning. All men are male, for example, but not all men are masculine. This is because “male” is a biological term, while “masculine” is a relational and vocational term. Someone is male if he simply has an X and a Y chromosome, but a man is only masculine if he acts in accordance with the role that God has given to men.
This means a man’s maleness is automatic and unchanging: he has an X and a Y chromosome, so he will always be male. But a man’s masculinity is not automatic and unchanging; it must be embraced and developed. This works a bit like the difference between physical growth and spiritual growth. Physical growth is automatic. For young boys to become men, all they have to do is wait for their bodies to grow naturally. But that’s not how it is with spiritual growth, including the development of masculinity (1 Cor. 15:10). Masculinity is not automatic; it must be embraced and developed.
Avoiding Two Ditches
Talk of masculinity today typically veers into one of two ditches, both of which are full of dead men’s bones: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Prov. 16:25).
The first is the there-is-no-such-thing-as-masculinity ditch. Put another way, this is the ditch for those who say, “Masculinity is whatever you make it.” This is not an actual answer. It is masculinity nihilism. It is a giant black hole that devours every distinction between men and women, claiming that such words are just “labels” or “social constructs.”
The second is the machismo ditch. Those who veer into this ditch have confused common male sins for the heart of masculinity itself. This would include sins like unbridled aggression, misused strength, self-serving sense of entitlement, etc. The ditch is full of über-macho males and men who take pride in being male (as if that were something to brag about).
Both ditches are the way to death, but when we live in a society that only ever warns us about one of the ditches—as our society does—then that means we have probably made our home in the other ditch. This is an important point to make, because it means that what God says to us about masculinity will seem to our darkened minds like we are heading for the other ditch. “Don’t go right!” the ditch-dwellers will scream. “There’s a horrible ditch over there!” This is quite true, and it must be avoided. But when you’re in the ditch on the left side of the road, heading to the right is the only way to get out of the ditch you are currently in.
Acceptance of Responsibility
We have said that the heart of masculinity is the joyful acceptance of sacrificial responsibility. This is because, like the first man, all men have been called by God to provide and protect—to “work” and to “keep” as the biblical language says (Gen. 2:15). Work has to do with cultivation and provision, while protection refers to a man’s duty to be a fortress of safety and stability for his family. Both of these are ways of accepting responsibility in a masculine way.
Note that God was the one who chose these functions for the first man and for every man made in his likeness. That means the dual-calling of “provider and protector” is not a human invention, a religious tradition, of a social construct. The masculine calling is an essential part of God’s design for men. That is why God tells us about it in the first pages of the Bible.
Evidence of the masculine calling to accept responsibility is found all through the Bible. God created man first as the provider and protector (Gen. 2:7), and he created woman second to be the one he would accept responsibility to protect and provide for (Gen. 2:21-24). And when the man and woman fell into sin, God held Adam responsible and addressed him first (Gen. 3:10). The Bible also speaks of men “taking a wife,” but never speaks of women “taking a husband,” which makes sense if the masculine calling involves accepting responsibility for others.
The most important example of the masculine calling to accept responsibility as provider and protector is seen in Jesus himself. In the fifth chapter of Ephesians, God speaks through the apostle Paul to tell us that every marriage is patterned after the roles of Jesus and his bride, the church (Eph. 5:22-33). Jesus provides his bride with all things and protects her from every harm. That is why God says, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church” (Eph. 5:25).
Practically speaking, a man’s acceptance of responsibility means taking the initiative in providing things like food and clothing for himself and for his family. That means the man needs to get a job and not be a stay-at-home dad. God says this is so serious that a man who refuses to provide for himself and his family in these ways “has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). A man is also called to provide for his family spiritually, washing his wife with the water of God’s word (Eph. 5:26), and bringing up his children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4)—which can’t happen if the man sinfully seeks to avoid responsibility by never having any children to begin with.
The acceptance of responsibility also means protecting his wife and children from physical, emotional, and spiritual harm. The man should be tough on sin, especially his own, yet tender with his wife and patient with his children. Mature men also honor the differences between them and their wives, using their greater physical strength and size to serve and protect, never to threaten or to harm (1 Pet. 3:7).
The responsibility that God calls men to take upon themselves is a sacrificial responsibility. This is because Jesus loved us with a love that knows how to bleed, and husbands are called to love their wives in the same way. That is to say, when Jesus died he was not just inconvenienced in a minor way. When Jesus died he was not briefly interrupted. When Jesus died he gave his bride all that he had to give: his own life. That is the model for husbands, and it is an example that should humble every man, yet not to the point of despair. For when the humble man cries out to his gracious God, he also trusts that the Lord will enable him to fulfill his calling.
To speak in practical terms again, sacrificial responsibility means hard work. It means that a masculine husband is the kind of man who gets up early and stays up late when necessary. He pulls his weight around the house and doesn’t expect his wife to have to act like his mother. He gets a second job, if needed, in order to provide for his family. He labors diligently to create an abundance for his family, and if lean times come, he takes the smallest share and maintains a sense of gratitude in the home. Sacrificial responsibility also means the man puts himself last, and the needs of his wife and children first, just as Jesus did with the church.
Finally, masculinity is not just the acceptance of sacrificial responsibility, but the joyful acceptance of sacrificial responsibility. This means men recognize that the masculine calling is something God designed them for and blessed them with for their good.
God is not ruing our lives; he is saving them. And one of the main ways that God rescues a man from a wasted life of irresponsible self-indulgence (whether video games, endless sports viewing, or any other fruitless activity) is to entrust the man with a wife and children to care for. This means a wife is God’s grace to the man (just as he is God’s grace to her in a different way).
In other words, the easiest way to lead a man away from laziness, away from unbridled lust, away from a life of sinful self-indulgence is to lead him to a wife. But don’t get it twisted. A woman is not a ‘reward’ for becoming responsible. On the contrary, almost all men (with very few exceptions, even in the Bible) must marry in order to become responsible adults. Thus a wife is a sanctifying agent straight from God—which is why it behooves single men who can’t stop fondling themselves and their video game controllers to seek one pronto (1 Cor. 7:9). As one author puts it, “Just as the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, so also is the love of a good woman the beginning of male responsibility.”
In this way God’s role for men matches God’s design for men, which means that men are a lot like trucks: they drive smoother and straighter when carrying a load. Men who know this truth can accept sacrificial responsibility with joy because they accept them with the eyes of faith. They believe that God is good to the core, that he loves us, and that he has given us all things so that we might be conformed to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:29). That “all things” includes masculinity and the roles God attached to it, and the man who embraces God’s design with faith will find there is joy at the end of the tether. And there’s more than enough to share.
Update: Our society is in the midst of a masculinity crisis, and the evidence of this is that we can no longer see how many of our problems are related to the loss of masculine men. For this reason I encourage every man to read Father Hunger by pastor Doug Wilson. It is the clearest, frankest, and most practical book on the subject of masculinity that I have ever read. Almost all of what I have written in this article was influenced that book, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.