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Muscular Christianity

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Pastor Sean Harris of Berean Baptist Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, made the news this week with his suggestion that physical pain was an appropriate way to correct effeminate behaviors in boys, as a way to stop sexual immorality before it began. He has since issued a clarification and a public apology, but as one of his more recent tweets suggests, nothing will be sufficient to stem the tide of controversy his sermon unleashed.


In my most recent article for Modern Reformation, I argue that biblical views of complementary gender roles are not only being rejected on the left, but assimilated on the right to a reactionary cultural ideology of caricatured stereotypes. Tragically, feminists and the LBGT community need these parodies of the traditional family, just as right-wing extremists need visible targets of social breakdown to justify their reactionary calls to arms. Both are unbiblical and deeply destructive of human identity and community.

It is hardly a newsflash that we've been living through an era of upheaval in gender roles. Churches have been divided over the role of women in ministry. In "Young, Restless, Reformed" circles, a new generation is discovering Jonathan Edwards and "masculine Christianity" in one fell swoop. Weaned on romantic—even sentimental—images of a deity who seems to exist to ensure our emotional and psychic equilibrium, many younger Christians (especially men) are drawn to a robust vision of a loving and sovereign, holy and gracious, merciful and just, powerful and tender King. As David Murrow pointed out in Why Men Hate Going to Church (2004), men are tired of singing love songs to Jesus and don't feel comfortable in a "safe environment" that caters to women, children, and older people. His critique is familiar to many: men don't like "conformity, control, and ceremony," so churches need to "adjust the thermostat" and orient their ministry toward giving men tasks (since they're "doers"). Men don't like to learn by instruction; they need object lessons and, most of all, to find ways to discover truth for themselves.


I get the point about a "soft" ministry, especially worship, with its caressing muzak and the inoffensive drone of its always-affirming message. It's predictably and tediously "safe." Get the women there and they'll bring their husbands and children. Not only has that not worked, it's sure to bore any guy who doesn't want to hear childrearing tips or yet another pep talk on how to have better relationships.


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  • Guest - Rebecca

    Dr. Horton, thank you so much for this piece. As one of those New Calvinists, I've been waiting a long time for someone to call out those particular noted pastors (from whose ministries I have nonetheless benefited enormously) for pushing cultural definitions of gender roles where the Bible is silent. This whole issue of MR has been a huge refreshment to my feminine soul.

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  • Thanks for the compelling article, Dr. Horton. You might find interesting an article of similar subject matter which I recently wrote entitled "The man God hasn't called you to be: What the Christian masculinity movement keeps getting wrong." It appeared in the Jan/Feb issue of Converge Magazine (a Christian magazine up here in Canada).

    Blessings on your ministry,

    Mathew Block
    Editor, The Canadian Lutheran magazine

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  • I think the message of those calling for a more masculine spirituality is to correct what it's advocates see is the vastly out of balance in the direction of feminized spirituality in the name of Christianity. If your article is a warning not to take the correction too far, that's fine. However, I for one agree that femininity is still the dominate paradigm of modern American spirituality. And so telling us not to be too masculine is about like telling us to make sure we get enough fat and sugar in our diet. Are there some Americans who don't get enough fat and sugar? I guess. Is that the dominant problem. Not by a long shot. Just so, an overly masculine spirituality simply isn't a widespread problem in our church culture today.

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  • Guest - Rebecca

    @John Carpenter: I'd argue that an overly feminine spirituality isn't particularly widespread, either, if you're using a Biblical model of femininity. I'm convinced that the heart of Scripture's vision of full femininity lies in the same kind of covenant submission the Son shows to the Father, and American church culture shows precious little of that.

    I'm all for guys, blokes, dudes, and other adultolescent males being encouraged to grow up and act like men, but it seems unfair to blame their failure on feminization when it's really a problem of sentimentality and mush. That's no more essentially feminine than it is masculine, by Biblical standards.

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  • Guest - Michael Horton

    Nicely put, Rebecca. Just as I worry that egalitarians often make contemporary feminism a normative presupposition for "the way things should be" and then screen out whatever in Scripture doesn't fit, I'm concerned that conservatives--in reaction--begin with extreme views of gender drawn also from contemporary culture and go fishing for Bible verses.

    Women were disciples of Jesus--that itself was a paradigm-buster in first-century Judaism. "That's just not their role," people would have said, defining "femininity" by the tradition of the elders rather than by what Jesus was doing and saying. Similarly, what would we say if at a Bible study the women were so engrossed in the conversation (like Mary sitting at Jesus' feet) that the men instead decided to make the coffee? We don't have to reject the New Testament teaching on distinct roles in church office to affirm the equally clear New Testament evidence for women benefiting equally from the same ministry of "growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ."

    Yes, Jesus drove out the money-changers with a whip. However, the best place to see the sovereign lordship of Jesus Christ is on the cross: the husband giving his life for his bride. That's the point that Paul makes in Ephesians 5. The relationship is sacrificial service toward wives and respectful submission to husbands. When we encourage our sons to "man up," is "Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her" what we have in mind? And when we encourage our girls to "be a lady," do we mean "be passive and surrender your mind, will, and body to your man"? I sure hope not.

    What's often called the "feminization" of the church is something that no godly woman should be attracted to any more than a man. But the answer is the strength of loving service, not showing women who's boss.

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