I hear many stories of appalling acts committed by men against women and girls in my work for Restored. The extent and severity of violence against women by men around the world is truly shocking. This creates a risk, however, that men are seen as a dangerous problem to be controlled, or even as enemies of women. The truth is very different. Most men are not abusive and want to love and respect the women in their lives. Central to this is our identity as men. From a Christian perspective, we stress the centrality of positive relationships and societies built on strong marriages and families. We have not done so well, however, in exploring masculinity, and what it means to be a successful and non-violent man in our rapidly changing societies.
Positive masculinities are essential to help our boys to grow into men. Positive masculinities do not need to be at the expense of women. Men as leaders, men as lovers, men as courageous and men as risk takers are all exciting models that do not need to exclude women from demonstrating the same characteristics. This is not a zero sum game.
Sadly, some of the models of masculinity that are out there are not very inspiring. Society glamorises physical strength, good looks, political power, financial wealth and the conquest of women. The models of men for teenage boys to aspire to in popular culture, and particularly films and television, are often violent and ruthless, with women portrayed as objects for their gratification. The extremes of this are seen in pornography which is violent, abusive and increasingly influential.
Christian writing on masculinity also has its drawbacks. John Eldredge in Wild at Heart characterises a man’s identity as being based on “a battle to fight, a beauty to rescue and an adventure to live”. This does not go down well with women friends who are not content to spend their lives waiting around to be rescued. John Piper, Mark Driscoll and other American church leaders have conflated the idea of rugged masculinity with the need to reform the character of the Church. John Piper comments: “God gave Christianity a masculine feel,” echoing the ‘muscular Christianity’ movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. David Murrow has picked up these themes in his influential book Why Men Hate Going to Church, warning his readers of the ‘feminisation’ of the modern Church.
I believe that these approaches are bad for both men (whether muscular or not) and women. They promote stereotypes and exclude men who do not conform. They encourage a passive acceptance from women, whose role is primarily that of being supportive of men rather than pursuing their own God-given visions. They look down on weak and excluded groups that Jesus was keen to promote and honour. I do not believe that we are called on to accept a pattern driven by the fall and centuries of human history that restricts the roles of both men and women and endorses a hierarchical view of gender relationships. Rather we are to reflect kingdom values of equality and the uniqueness of each individual.
Others have produced more balanced views, but have not captured popular attention in the same way. Roy McCloughry argued in Men and Masculinity – from Power to Love for an understanding of masculinity rooted in relationships and based on love and not power. If you want to follow this debate further check out the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood which adopts a complementarian approach, and
Christians for Biblical Equality, which is egalitarian.
My sympathies lie very much with the more inclusive and egalitarian approaches. I believe that our concept of masculinity needs to have three main elements.
• Firstly, it needs to be based on Jesus Christ as our model. Jesus was loving, non-violent, respectful of men and women and lived as a servant to others.
• Secondly, it needs to respect the diversity of men. We are all different and stereotypes restrict all of us from fulfilling our unique potential.
• Thirdly, it needs to be positive and fun. In particular, men need to be able to celebrate their sexuality in a positive way. We know that pornography is trash which degrades women and ourselves in both its production and consumption. But we enjoy sex and want to be fulfilled in passionate and committed marriages.
Central to a Christian view of masculinity is the positive use of power in service for others. Jesus gave up power and exercised what power he retained in the service of others. Men are physically strong and in most societies have the lion’s share of leadership roles. All men in leadership need to be conscious of their use of power, to exercise it positively on behalf of the weak and vulnerable and share it wherever possible. One outworking of this is in marriage where, in Ephesians 5, husbands and wives are called upon to submit to one another and husbands are commanded to love their wives as Christ loved the Church and gave up his life for her.
In Restored we are keen to make our own small contribution to positive masculinities. We believe that men and women need to stand together to end gender based violence. We have developed First Man Standing, a campaign which calls on men to respect women and challenge each other in terms of our behaviour, pledging never to commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women (sign up at restoredrelationships.org/firstmanstanding). The world would be a different place if we all followed the call of 1 Timothy 5: 2 to treat “older women as mothers and younger women as sisters with absolute purity”.
The practice of respecting women and challenging other men quickly tests us all in terms of our attitudes towards women and our courage in speaking out. Will you be the first man in your club, church or workplace to stand up and speak out about ending violence against women? It is in standing on behalf of those who are vulnerable and oppressed that we can show what it really means to be a man. There are brilliant men to emulate all around the world. Let’s celebrate positive models of masculinity in whatever shape they come and especially those which are explicitly supportive of the rights and dignity of women.
Peter Grant, Co-Director of Restored, a Christian alliance aimed at transforming relationships and ending violence against women, and former International Director at Tearfund.