By Thabiti Anyabwile
It seems “manhood” is an en vogue topic these days. In recent weeks we’ve read of the juvenalization of men, what Al Mohler calls “adultolescence.” We’ve also heard of the need for the church to have a “masculine feel.” Of course, that stands in contrast to the oft—expressed concerns about the “feminization” of the church and, by implication, the feminization of Christian men. It’s clear we’re at a moment in cultural history where the notion of “manhood” defies easy explanation. It’s also clear that the topic is deeply personal, perhaps because so many of us men have grown up either without a good father or even a father, with few male models, and a nagging sense that we have to “prove” our manhood, without exactly knowing what the tests are.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s no shortage of people willing to jump into the void to tell us what the “tests” are and precisely how one ought to look, talk, dress, and act to be a “real man.” Usually the first to rush into the breach are young men who themselves are the very products of history’s worst period of absentee husbands, fatherlessness and gender confusion. Some of the things on offer really do read like the blind leading the blind. Men barely in their thirties—which is to say, men with more than half their lives left to live and less than half the experience they’ll eventually gain—ready their pens and give us their wisdom. Please excuse me if I sound a little bit skeptical. I’m just one of those guys who came of age in this same era with doubts and struggles of my own to prove it. It’s difficult for me to believe that my peers will have the practical and experiential solutions required. While I appreciate most their wrestlings with sacred scripture, what I suspect most is Junior’s “practical advice.”
So why am I writing this (being a 40-something “junior” myself)? Well, I’m not writing to add my voice to the cacophony of 30- and 40-something year old men trying to “fix” this problem. So, right up front, let me say I don’t have “manhood” all figured out. You can stop reading here if you like. I’m in a Charles Barkley kinda mood on this topic. I’m not as unqualified about it as Sir Charles, but I’m not offering myself as a role model either. Honestly, I think the best thoughts are likely to come from 60- and 70-somethings. What I hope to do is think out loud (or think in pixels) about this issue as a form of catharsis and biblical exploration. If there’s something helpful here (I’ll be surprised if there is) then take it and use it. If not, spit out the bones.
What I’d like to do is whittle my way through a basic biblical definition of “manhood.” Obviously we need to answer this question because the culture remains confused about it. And we need to answer this question for the integrity and flourishing of men, their families, and the church. Everybody seems to understand (except the hardest misanthrope) that “getting this right” makes a great deal of difference for everybody.
So what is “manhood”? I’m scratching around in Genesis–before all the trouble starts—and I’m thinking we might define manhood in terms of three relationships: God (worship), creation (work), and society/family (woman). There’s perhaps a fourth “w” —wealth. We’ll consider how each of those relationships are ruined, restored and renewed across the course of redemptive history.
One way to basically define manhood would be to think of a man as someone who stands in a consistent relationship to God. Any man apart from God is not, in the higher sense, a “man.” He’s a beast really. He lives beneath his calling and purpose because he’s not properly oriented to His Creator. A man, put simply, is a worshipper.
I’m gleaning this from Genesis 1-2. The entire creation account intimates worship. We get hints of it in at least three things:
First, we see that man is created “in the image and likeness of God.” He creates them “male and female,” both with this distinctive characteristic of being in His likeness and image. Centuries of ink have been spilled on attempts to define what this means precisely. For our purposes, we can simply say that man shares some communicable attributes of God that are designed to image forth God’s glory and to facilitate communion with God. Man is the only creature created by the hands of God. Everything else springs from divine fiat. But with His hands, God scoops man from the dust and then he breathes the breath of life into him, making him a living being (Gen. 2:7). There’s intimacy and relatedness in this text, the foundation of communion with God.
Second, we see hints of worship in the different names used for God in Genesis 1 and 2. In Genesis 1, as God creates by His omnipotent word, the writer primarily uses the name Elohim. But in Genesis 2, he switches to the name “Lord God,” or YHWH Elohim. Why the switch? YHWH is God’s covenant name. It’s a name implying a relationship, a bond, or intimacy. Here in the very creation of man—both male and female—we have the suggestion of a covenant relationship with God revealed in God’s name. Man was created to live in that relational bond. The act of creating under His covenant name foreshadows God’s intention that man be oriented to Him in worship. If the act of naming implies authority, then God’s naming Adam and Even under His covenant name suggests a worship relationship that orients man to God in a communion wherein man exists under YHWH’s authority and love. “Manhood” is, then, the state of existing in and enjoying such a covenant relationship.
Third, we see the call to worship God as a defining aspect of manhood in the creation account of Sabbath rest. God ceases from His labor after the sixth day and rests on the seventh. God establishes this seventh day as a day of rest, blessing it and making it holy. It’s the first thing the Bible tells us God makes holy. One theologian describes the Sabbath as a “temporal shrine.” Rather than a stone or brick shrine for worship, it’s a sacred “space” in the rhythm of time itself. It’s a space in time specifically designed for man’s communion with His Lord. We’re not surprised then that later in redemptive history the Sabbath becomes a sign of covenant relationship between God and Israel (Exod. 31:13, 17) and that defaming the Sabbath becomes an egregious offense against God himself.
As part of the Mosaic Law, the Sabbath points us beyond the day itself and beyond the temporary and temporal rest of this life to a much greater reality. The Sabbath is a type of Christ, a picture of the rest we’re to find in the truest man and True God, Jesus Christ. Consider Colossians 2:16-17: “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”
The dark shadow of Genesis 2′s Sabbath is cast backward by the hard substance of the body of Jesus Christ. He has become our rest (Matt. 11:28; Heb. 4:1-3), an unending and always satisfying rest. In Him, every day becomes a Sabbath, a temporal shrine of constant worship and communion with God through the Holy Spirit. We have ceased from our labors and entered this rest through faith. This, it seems to me, was what man was created for: perpetual Sabbath and communion with God. If he doesn’t enjoy this, then he’s not himself; he’s not a man.
Now I’m multiplying words here and I’m bound to misstate or even sin in my much speaking. But I hope I’m traveling the old paths. It seems to me that from Ecclesiastes to Westminster the clear minded saints and divines have told us this basic thing: manhood (and womanhood) means full-grown worship. How does the writer of Ecclesiastes put it after surveying everything old under the sun? “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccl. 12:13). Or consider the first question of the catechism:
Q1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.
Or as Piper likes to edit it, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever.” What we’ve perhaps failed to do is to read these texts and to learn from our catechism questions in a way that makes specific application to the question, “What is a man?” When the Bible talks about the entire duty of man, or when the catechism queries the chief end of man, they refer to mankind or humankind collectively, but no less to manhood and masculinity specifically.
The apex of manhood is worship. Duh, right? I know I’m not breaking any new ground here, but it seems to me we ought to start our basic thoughts about manhood where the Bible starts. And the Bible starts with God and with everything’s relationship to God, especially humanity and men. This is important for me, if for no one else. You see, I’m tempted to want to run to “practical things” and to try and assess “what is masculine.” And I miss the point: The truest man is the worshiping man. Worship of God has implications for everything else considered “manhood,” thus we can’t skip the worship of God and expect to get anything else correct.
Here, I think, is a besetting sin for men. We … find it far too easy to be passive in our worship of God, and far too easy to think of our lives as primarily secular with a little spiritual devotion sprinkled on. It’s far too easy for too many of us to “let the women teach the children how to worship God.” And we find it far too easy to think of spiritual exercises in the home and church as drudgery and duty, with no joy. Perhaps the reason we find it easy to abdicate in these areas is because we’re not convinced that expressive, joyful communion with God and worship are really “manly.” Moreover, perhaps we find it easy to duck worship because deep down we feel insecure about worshiping God. Follow me here: If “manhood” is about appearing strong and unmoved, and “worship” has become a feminine construct, then we’re not surprised that these worldly notions destroy both worship and manhood. But it is not worship that is feminine, but apathy toward worship that falsifies claims to manhood. It seems that many men confuse this all the time. Just as Satan would have it.
Our enemy is the most subtle beast in the field, and he’s been wreaking havoc on men and manhood since Adam. So, we shouldn’t be surprised that we spend so much time debating what is “feminine” or “masculine” worship or what practices belong to “manhood” rather than actually worshiping the Lord in the freedom He gives. We’re too often preoccupied with the idea of manhood and masculinity and too seldom preoccupied with the privilege and joy of actually being men—in all the diverse splendor with which God has fashioned men. Isn’t it a curious thing that we read about manhood more than we apply ourselves to living it out? We think carefully about the latest books on the subject while we barely think about the latest opportunity to praise God for real. It’s a demonic diversion for far too many of us.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that reading good books on the subject is unnecessary or unhelpful. Reading is fundamental. In fact, prayerful reading is an act of worship. But I am suggesting that one quality peculiar to adolescent living is a lot of talking and information-gathering and not a lot of application and consistent habit of life. Manhood is about worship, and worship is not a Sunday morning exercise only. It’s what you do with your entire life. Manhood and worship are a consistent Godward orientation, a life consecrated to His will and purpose, a life of glory seeking—His, not ours.
Thabiti Anyabwile is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman in the Grand Cayman Islands and a Council member with The Gospel Coalition.