Our church used to have an annual two-part tradition every Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. On the former, all the women in the congregation would receive a small batch of candy and some flowers. Then on the latter, the men would each get a stick of beefy jerky, just so we didn’t feel left out.

It was done in a spirit of good humour, especially the Father’s Day part. But not being a big fan of beef jerky, I would make the occasional remark that I’d rather have the candy, like the women got, if it was all the same.

These half-joking comments would draw the odd strange look, and even a hint of mild concern, from a few people. They gave me the impression that my preference for jelly beans over dried meat snacks was somehow an affront to the idea of Biblical manhood.

I hasten to add this was in no way the prevailing attitude at our church. But it did offer food for thought, as it were. I was left to wonder: In our quest to be faithful to the Scriptural image of manhood (and womanhood, for that matter), is it possible that we often mistake our cultural biases for Biblical standards?

A clash of cultural stereotypes

It scarcely bears noting that there’s much cultural upheaval and confusion at present over what constitutes maleness and femaleness. Despite the evidence of Scripture, nature, experience and reason, popular rhetoric continues to insist that male and female are mere arbitrary social constructs that can be redefined however an individual sees fit.

Faced with the challenge of these assertions, it can be tempting to look for reassurance in the cultural standards of an idealized past – the so-called “good old days” when men were men and women were women, whatever that might mean.

For men in particular, it might mean being tough, taciturn, emotionally reserved, and interested in “manly” hobbies like cars and contact sports. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with any of those things, per se. But they can be used to build a caricature of masculinity that hews closer to a 1950s TV show than it does to the Scriptures.

A matter of heart and character

The Bible has a fair amount to say about the roles of women and men in the contexts of family and church. But it has comparatively little to say about outward trappings, interests or personality traits as markers of masculinity or femininity. There’s nothing intrinsically male or female about being either outgoing or introspective, upbeat or melancholy. There’s no suggestion that men should be more interested in politics and business than in arts and literature, or that women should be the reverse. David was a warrior king as well as a sensitive poet who wrote the bulk of the psalms. Deborah judged and led Israel during a time of war. Bezalel fashioned the tabernacle with all of its artistic decor. Lydia ran a lucrative fabric and dye company that catered to the rich and powerful of the Roman world.

For both men and women, the overarching concern of Scripture is for their heart and their character. God not only sees the human heart, but He designed it to be a reflection of His own. Love of God and of others, courage and integrity, justice and kindness, compassion for the poor and the powerless are all hallmarks of Biblical manhood and womanhood.

None of that is to deny the obvious differences between women and men, or the fact that they reflect these spiritual qualities in uniquely masculine and feminine ways. But it is to recognize that the qualities themselves are internal rather than external in nature. As God reminded Samuel when he was about to anoint David as king, “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

Choosing the right role model

“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” wrote the Apostle Paul to the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 11:1). And it’s hard to imagine a better piece of advice for anyone. As the perfect God-man, Jesus is by definition the ultimate role model of Biblical manhood.

Although He was courageous and powerful, Jesus was not macho. In fact, He described Himself as gentle and lowly in heart. Both the lion and the lamb are used as Scriptural metaphors for Him. He could be tough or tender as the situation required, upending the tables of the moneychangers but welcoming children with open arms. He treated women with honour and respect. He was not emotionally distant, but shared His affection, sorrow and joy with His friends. And when it was called for, Jesus wept.

Finally, in the ultimate display of servant leadership, He laid down His life as a ransom for those He came to save. This act not only secured the salvation of the world, but it has become the universal template of sacrificial love for all men to exercise toward their wives (Ephesians 5:25-33).

Spiritual unity within cultural diversity

It’s evident that God has infused a great deal of diversity into His creation, not least into the human cultures that have existed throughout history, and exist today. There’s a rich and seemingly endless variety of customs, dress, and standards of social interaction. In some societies, men greet one another with an embrace and a kiss on the cheek, even as men did in the Ancient Near East during Biblical times. In other societies, merely smiling at a stranger is considered presumptuous, and rather bad form.

In our own Western culture, informed as it is by so many others, it would be a mistake to insist on a one-size-fits-all standard of masculinity, especially one drawn from a half-remembered postwar past. Under such a broad umbrella, there’s room for men who enjoy a rare steak as well as for vegans, and even for those who prefer chocolate bars to beef jerky. Our model of Biblical manhood should be robust enough to accommodate fans of mixed martial arts as well as opera aficionados. It should be sufficiently flexible to include guys who get choked up at movies as well as those who keep a stiff upper lip, no matter what.

As with all areas of life, it’s deceptively easy to mistake a list of outward behaviours for inward spiritual qualities. But the Scriptures won’t allow that. Instead, they call men (and women) of diverse tastes, talents and temperaments to a unified heart standard that’s higher and more challenging, and yet profoundly simple at the same time.

In the words of the prophet Micah, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2018 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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