What are men good for?
Biceps, brains, and simplicity.
That’s the take from a recent article by Andrée Seu Peterson, where she responds to the recent outpouring of antagonism towards men in positions of power and more broadly throughout America, by enumerating all the things she appreciates about men.
From one angle, Peterson is correct: the gender atmosphere of our day exudes poisonous bromides, virtually neutering male energy and power. But what’s the right response to this quandary? Netflix and Disney tell us that the right response is a carefully curated film where female might makes right. Only special people—strong female characters—are allowed to one-up men, who invariably demonstrate cupidity, stupidity, and ineptitude. Thus, the abuse of power by men necessitates dismantling through outstanding female prowess in the same fields. Laud the woman who becomes the first to play quarterback.
The alternate path (as Peterson’s article describes) sees men as burly, brawny, simple creatures, women as delicate flowers trapped in dreary environments, were it not for the genius of men. Not content to reclassify men as blunt objects, Peterson also labels us “simple.” We enjoy lifting heavy objects and never complain.
Speaking of heavy burdens, I’m starting to feel one now; specifically, the burden of stoic masculine confidence. Bogart never had it so good. Is this pressure a clue to the current epidemic of middle-aged mental illness? Certainly any pressure to tamp down male emotion is sub-biblical, as King David demonstrates with his melding of poetic affect and undaunted courage. Yet the ‘traditional’ gender role of strong, silent men damages male-female relations as much as any effeminacy. The exaltation of a performative masculinity in which stoic brawn or whiz-kid technology are the only masculine ideal is as harmful to men as the June Cleaver / Pamela Anderson archetypes are to women. Woe betide the man who cannot invent “neat stuff” for his wife’s comfort. Even more disheartening is the claim that men are owed gratitude because they’ve invented most of the cool whiz-bang technology in the world. Apart from the tendency to idolize Top Men, a bug in Palo Alto’s penthouses would be shocked by the abuses of male power. Where is robust forgiveness found in the glitz and glamor of Silicon Valley? Sordid sagas like this one should make us reticent to exalt brains or brawn, wealth or status.
Furthermore, this picture of manhood is antithetical to the ethics of the cross. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). Consider our Savior, who melded diamond-sharp courage with heart-rending compassion, who rules with justice and is acquainted with our deepest griefs.
We need weak men and weak women. God has not chosen many who are strong, or wise, or powerful in this age. As much as it may wound Christians used to exercising the ways and means of polite society (with its attendant political mésalliances), we need to refuse the false dichotomy. There is no need to disparage men or exalt them; no need to vilify women or destroy the patriarchy.
It’s the false dichotomy that fills me with greater trepidation than the false ideals. Such a view leads ultimately to men (and women) who don’t image Jesus Christ, but Greek idols—when we champion men who fit the mold of heroes, we slide inexorably down the mountain towards Apollonian ideals. (One side note: for women, look at the diversity of femininity found in Scripture. Better to use the strong female characters found in the Gospels. Consider the Gentile women, who served Christ out of their substance (Luke 8:2-3). Consider Dorcas, the disciple (Acts 9:32). Consider the strength of the teenage virgin who showed courage (that pesky masculine virtue) when the angel announced that she would bear the Christ-child (Luke 1:38)).
For a more beneficial approach to gender, Christians have no need to look farther afield than the opening chapter of Scripture. When you look closely at the patterns of Genesis 1, you see that the Lord has created dancing partners—earthly couples—who display a greater wholeness through the integration of their differentiation. Light and dark form a single day; the sun (“greater light”) and the moon (“lesser light”) together display the rotation of the spheres; the land and the sea together form the stuff of earth—and to cap it all off, the creation of humanity as male and female signals the start of a glorious vice-regency. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The covenantal alliance between men and women is a grand part of God’s design for marriage, both riffing off Jesus for the other’s sanctification.
But what exactly are the valuable qualities men bring to the table? A scan of the qualifications for office in the body of Christ illuminates what Jesus Christ calls men to be in 1 Timothy 3: sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable…gentle, not quarrelsome; not prone to violence (literally, “not giving blows”). Nowhere here do we find that men are valued in terms of their physical labor, nowhere is creative nous exalted, nowhere is tire-inflating or tool-working mentioned. And why would the apostle mention the threat of pugnacity and quick-tempered discord if men were not given to anger or complaint?
The sad reality is that men do complain. Men don’t always fix the tire (I call Triple A). Raw physicality is not a high priority for health in the church, nor is technical expertise the extent of wisdom. And it is true, 12 out of 12 disciples were men, but if we use simple math as our metric, we shouldn’t forget that the foes of Jesus were also men—not weak, effete metrosexuals, but the movers and shakers; the kings and prefects of the age.
For Christians—especially for those who aspire to leadership roles—the cruciform call of the apostle remains eternally relevant. Wasn’t Paul the Doogie Howser of the Pharisees, the precocious intellectual prodigy under Gamaliel’s tutelage? (He didn’t invent the Internet, just revolutionized religion.) Yet that same intrepid apostle can speak these words: God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Cor 1:27-29).
I sympathize with the security provided by an easy dichotomy of male and female: blue/pink, physical/emotional, technical/creative—it’s an achievable and safe way to live. Christians cannot, however, settle for laws we can achieve. We are called to a greater walk, a higher ethic—to set our minds on things above, to deny ourselves. That’s why the greatest concern I have is Peterson’s hidden assumption that we are delivered through our obedience: “Isn’t it just like God to make His command to be thankful simultaneously His means of deliverance?”
Here is where human prowess leads—whether male or female, Olympian or Chthonic, Silicon Valley or Hollywood. Freedom is found not in exalting men or women, but in loving allegiance to the King who has laid down his life for his bride. We should be grateful for men. We should be grateful for women. But we should be grateful ultimately that Jesus Christ has called us to be part of his new humanity, made not in the image of strong man or of porcelain women, but after the image of Christ. Not because we’re strong or creative, but when we were weak, when we were lying cold and lifeless—when you were ungrateful to him, the Word became flesh.
Only the freedom found in this Incarnate One, in the God-man made like his brothers and sisters, will give us the ability to spend ourselves for one another, to be truly men and women secure in our bodies and our souls. As Calvin once remarked, “Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not contemplate him outside ourselves from afar…but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body—in short, because he deigns to make us one with him.” So then you can fix the flat tire, gentlemen. You can cook the Christmas ham, ladies. Not to live up to a stereotype or to score points for or against the church’s cultured despisers, but out of the largesse of the Gospel. Jesus the strong is not Jesus the simple, for in his taking on weakness he demonstrates his love for those confused by their bodies, bewildered by rapid social change, and searching for a rock to cling to. Come to Him, and you will find the only Husband who can lift your burdens—and call you to die to yourself. Love for Christ will constrain all our obedience—male and female.
John Stovall currently serves as Pastor of the Rock Presbyterian Church in Stockbridge, Georgia and is a doctoral candidate in history at the State University of New York, Albany.
 For more intrepid readers, see the work of Belgian bête noire philosopher Luce Irigaray on the interplay of the sexes, particularly in her Je, Tu, Nous. Roland De Vries
 Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), III.xi.10.