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Ministry Monday: Repenting of ‘masculinity’

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Posted by Tom Woolford, 25 Apr 2016

We must call out the church for her failure to reach and disciple men effectively; but in so doing we must not abdicate our responsibility to call out men for their proud, sinful, 'oh-so-masculine' rejection of Christ and contempt for his people.

Two weeks’ ago, Steve Ransley posted a provocative piece about why and how to do men’s ministry in the local church. The importance of addressing that issue comes from the statistical evidence that women outnumber men in our pews at a ratio of roughly 3:2. Steve observed that “the church seems geared rather more to the feminine than to the masculine,” and that some models of men’s ministry are little more than “women’s ministry for men” – the same assumptions and format, only with added bacon.

My instinct is that there is a lot to those assessments, even if the brevity of a blogpost precluded the stacking up of evidence. But the alleged unbalance of the modern church toward a more feminine spirit is, even if accepted, only half of the reasons for the relative lack of men in church. The other half of the equation is in the sin of the men themselves: in their – and our – warped conception of ‘masculinity’ that gives men more reasons (excuses) for thinking Christ and his church are not for them.

A scientific study in 2008 found that the two things that men most associate with being masculine were (i) being seen as honourable, self-reliant and respected, and (ii) being in control of their own life. A lot of our cultural stereotypes about men bear this out: we men don’t like to admit when we’re lost – we won’t ask for directions; we don’t follow instruction manuals even if we’re clueless; we don’t go to the doctor, even when we’re sick; and we all know that big boys don’t cry.

No wonder, then, that men don’t naturally gravitate to Christianity. For Jesus said he came to seek the lost, to instruct the bewildered, to heal the sick and to comfort the broken-hearted. But men don’t ever want to admit that they’re lost, confused, messed up and weak! Christianity is OK for women and children - but not for ‘Real Men.’

Why not? Because society has come to define masculinity as dignity, control, strength, and self-sufficiency – all without reference to or grounding in God and his word. Without the Scriptures defining (and the Holy Spirit directing) these qualities, they are necessarily twisted both by individuals and societies into different ways to legitimize – even socially mandate – the root sin of pride. And the Gospel tramples all over pretensions to pride, even those dressed up in language of ‘masculinity.’

The Gospel is great news for men, but a death blow to society’s idol of masculine pride.

Accepting Jesus as Saviour means admitting that we are spiritually lost and made sick by sin. It means renouncing our pretensions to being ‘honourable’ in the sight of God and man by saying sorry for our sin. it means accepting that we need Him to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Confessing Christ as Lord means submitting to Him, acknowledging our dependence on Him, and giving up our lives to His service. Instead of the false worldly idols of dignity, control, strength and self-sufficiency; accepting Jesus as Lord and Saviour means humility, trust, weakness, and dependence – and finding our true dignity, strength and power only at the cross. That’s a big price for a man even to consider paying. Becoming a Christian amounts to repenting of his masculinity as society has idolatrously conceived it.

Pride, in its various manifestations, will always cause people to resist the gospel. But perhaps one of the reasons there are more women Christians than men in the UK is that a woman’s sense of self-worth and place in society is not as bound up in pride as a man’s?

Society’s conception of masculinity and femininity is changing. It is increasingly acceptable for men to be emotional, vulnerable, dependant, honest, even weak and needy. Maybe, therefore, we need to nuance what we as conservative Christians contribute to the current debate about gender. Some of the changes in the way in which people perceive of gender and gender difference might loosen the hold of those old idols of masculinity – even as at the same time these changes erect new idols and create new challenges to the work of evangelism and discipleship. Is there a way for Christians to be at the forefront of efforts to express a better paradigm of masculinity, while simultaneously rigorously defending our belief that in creation God made humanity with two distinct, different, and complementary genders?

Moreover, even as we rightly try to impart a more masculine spirit to our churches – perhaps by dialling up the volume with which we speak about the church in terms of risk, change and conflict – let us beware making excuses for those aspects of church life that sound to proud men like ‘feminine’ weakness – the value of loving relationships; the nurture, support, harmony and safety of being a part of the family of God. We must indeed call out the church for her failure to reach and disciple men effectively; but in so doing we must not abdicate our responsibility to call out men for their proud, sinful, ‘oh-so-masculine’ rejection of Christ and contempt for his people.

Tom Woolford is on the Council of Church Society.

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