Masculinity today is a dirty word. Toxic masculinity – cultural patterns and norms that lead to damaging habits in any relationship – is a real issue. And to make matters worse, Christians tend to ignore or make excuses for these behaviors, claiming there are biblical justifications for some of these habits. But biblical masculinity, when we actually dig into what it should look like, seems to paint a much different picture.
What Is Toxic Masculinity?
With mixed messages on what masculinity should actually be, we’ve arrived at a time when men tend to form extremely dangerous habits because of the confusion regarding how they should treat others around them. Toxic masculinity follows a pattern of abusive power, belittlement of those different from the accepted norms, and a denigration of anything not seen as “manly” or “tough” by society. In the article “What Is Toxic Masculinity?” (published through the New York Times in 2019), toxic masculinity is defined in the following way:
Toxic masculinity is what can come of teaching boys that they can’t express emotion openly; that they have to be “tough all the time”; that anything other than that makes them “feminine” or weak.Maya Salam, NY Times
Right now, we see some of the worst of this in hateful, misogynistic, and racist patterns of behavior. Men with toxic habits tend to manipulate those around them into feeling inferior, and they often exhibit narcissistic behaviors like blame shifting, gaslighting, and insulting people in order to maintain a sense of power and superiority. Essentially, toxic masculinity is a thinly veiled attempt at controlling everyone around them simply because they are men.
In the church, we often see this in leadership structures that discount or exclude women. We also see this in men who attack other men for not being strong enough, assertive enough, or tough enough. These power structures and social pressures typically sour relationships, create bitterness and resentment, and even cause people to leave the church – and faith – altogether. And far too often, the people who exhibit the worst habits are able to make justifications for them through poorly interpreted scriptures or traditions of the faith.
But biblical masculinity is a far cry from these deep-seated patterns and misinterpretations.
Toxic versus Biblical Masculinity
In contrast, true biblical masculinity focuses on humility, leadership, servanthood, and kindness. It’s not about maintaining power or belittling others to establish superiority. Instead, it’s about living the example Jesus gave us through His life, His death, and His teachings.
Here’s a quick comparison of some major differences between the two:
Toxic masculinity is about Pride. Biblical Masculinity is about Humility.
Most men learn to value their own status and power above all else – a major pride issue. But when we look to the Word, it’s clear that we are commanded to live with humility. Matthew 11:28 shows that Jesus’s own character was one of humility, seen even further in washing His disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. It’s completely contrary to the world we live in, and that should send up a red flag any time we choose our own pride over a life of humility and learning. When we feel entitled to something, especially due to our gender, we men need to sit up and pay attention. God’s design was one of service and servanthood, not power and entitlement (Ephesians 5)
Toxic Masculinity is about Belittling. Biblical Masculinity is about Building Up.
Too often we see men portrayed in movies and television shows as strong when they attack others, verbally or physically. We may see it less in recent years, but it’s ingrained in the subconscious of many men: act strong, attack first, and leave no doubt who’s in power. But, again, we see quite the opposite picture in the Bible. Joseph, son of Jacob, show incredible encouragement for even the worst people in his life. After being sold into slavery and living in prison for years, he welcomed his family back with open arms and built them back up to glory. He even told them that although they meant what they did for evil, God used it for good.
Toxic Masculinity is about Possession. Biblical Masculinity is about Protection.
There are several ways we can show our concern and care for the women in our lives in healthy ways, but if our actions restrict our wives’ (or daughters’ or mothers’ or sisters’) ability to live freely, we cross the boundary line into toxic behavior. Biblical masculinity doesn’t desire possession over the women in their lives, but instead wants to keep them safe from harm when possible. God’s character shows this fine balance in action with Israel. Even when they choose rebellion over dedication, God honors the decision. Nevertheless, God remained faithful to His promise. The book of Hosea is a long illustration of just what type of commitment we are to make to our wives, just as God committed to Israel.
Toxic Masculinity is about Stoicism. Biblical Masculinity is about Compassion.
Emotional suppression is dangerous, no matter who you are. But men don’t just do it for their own protection. We often choose to suppress our emotions so that we can look tough enough to those around us. Our biblical role models couldn’t be further from this flawed pattern. David frequently broke out in intense emotions, deep mourning, and unbelievable rejoicing. We see it in his psalms and poems, and we see it in the records of his life through the books of Samuel. And Jesus did the same, most intensely when learning of the death of Lazarus. Even when He knew how the story would end, “Jesus wept.” We’re designed for compassion, and biblical masculinity requires it of us.
Biblical Masculinity Modeled by Jesus
Let’s look at how Jesus defined biblical masculinity in His lifetime:
- Serving others is a top priority. This means that men should not be looking for ways to subjugate the women (or other men) in their lives, but instead look for ways to build them up and give them support. Jesus demonstrated this with the woman caught in adultery, with the blind man He healed on the Sabbath, and with the Samaritan woman at the well. None of them would have been built up by the Law or by the Pharisees, but Jesus always took time to address the marginalized.
- Men are designed to lead others as Christ led His disciples and followers. Jesus did not treat them with cruelty or contempt, but instead invited even the least likely to sit at the table with Him. He was criticized for inviting tax collectors and prostitutes to meals. He didn’t care. Jesus washed the feet of His disciples, even insisting that it had to be that way despite the social stigma. And when women joined the disciples, He never pushed them to the sidelines but instead invited them to sit at His feet and learn. He served first and honored always.
- Jesus did not seek status in order to control the people He encountered. Instead, He gave that power away in order to do the work He came to do. From the Garden of Gesthemane to the Cross, Jesus gave away every earthly power and argument that could have saved Him. He put power in the hands of His disciples at Pentecost. Jesus commissioned sinners, murderers, zealots, rebels, and cheaters to be His hands and feet in the world. He would always sit on the throne, so earthly power had no value. For us men, this means that seeking our own interests to control our lives is a fleeting and meaningless chasing of vapors (Ecclesiastes).
- In every encounter with women, Jesus brought them closer to God, inviting them to be equal partners in Kingdom work. The woman at the well, the adulterer, the prostitute, the terminally ill and unclean. Every single time, Jesus had a place for them in His Kingdom, and in His presence. We can’t ignore this and call ourselves biblical men. Biblical masculinity is about loving our women as Jesus loved the church (Ephesians 5), and until we are willing to be just as sacrificial and unconditionally loving towards the women in our lives, we can’t live out the full image of Christ in our own lives.
Our “religious” distortions of male power, pride, and entitlement no longer seems to fit so well into the image of God, does it?
How Do We Develop Biblical Masculinity?
So, in our modern context, where the word masculinity in and of itself brings about animosity in culture, how do we reclaim our biblical design and start living as men of God? What steps can we take that will show not only fellow Christians, but also nonbelievers, exactly what Christ has done in our lives?
ONE: Be In The Word.
True disciples develop true character. If we want to redefine biblical masculinity, we need to start with the basics. Begin a daily habit of digging into, meditating on, and studying the Word. Scripture is our most important source of wisdom and spiritual enlightenment. Jesus’s most significant teaching, the Sermon on the Mount, takes a deep dive into Kingdom character. Biblical masculinity starts with this character.
TWO: Start Serving Your Family.
Whether it’s your hereditary family or the adopted community around you, show your masculinity through service rather than power. See the needs of those around you, and go out of your way to meet those needs in ways that Jesus demonstrates. Paul’s epistles spend a great deal of time discussing our relationships with other Christians, as well as those outside the faith. Take this advice seriously, but always use a lens of cultural and Christ-centered context.
THREE: Honor The Women In Your Life.
God’s design for the relationship between Him and us is a marriage covenant. When we interact with the women in our lives, we need to honor them, love them, and respect them as God has loved us. Encourage them, protect them from evil, and always do all you can to build them up. They are precious to our Lord, and they should be just as precious to us.
FOUR: Lead By Example, Not By Force.
Too often we are taught as men to be forceful and demand respect from those around us. Toxic masculinity uses this philosophy to denigrate and insult those around us to maintain power. But Christ made it clear that the last will be first and the first will be last: humility is a key component to honoring God and loving people. Stop trying to control, and instead put your energy to encouraging and teaching. Walking beside the people in your life, instead of hovering over them, makes all the difference. And it’s a hallmark of biblical masculinity.
FIVE: Find A Mentor.
Good men don’t stand alone. They have people in their lives to keep them accountable, encourage them through struggles, and help them maintain the journey of faith we claim to walk. Find a man who embodies biblical masculinity and get connected. And when you see someone who needs mentoring, don’t be afraid to dig into the hard stuff and encourage them.
The Role of Communication in Biblical Masculinity
It’s obvious that we have a lot of work to do to live a life like Jesus, but it can start small. The first step we need to take as men is to communicate with each other and with the women in our lives. Good husbands are good communicators. Through communication, we know our wives’ needs, and they know ours. We understand their fears and regrets, and we work to encourage and support them as they walk beside us. We act as the head of the house through loving deeply, just as Christ loves His bride, not through control and domination. And it all starts with opening up.
One of the greatest tools in our arsenal is date night. Make it a priority, and do it often. Take time to talk and laugh and love each other deeply. And make it a priority to keep her second only to God in your life.
But date night is just the start. We need to communicate daily. Not weekly, not monthly. Daily. Don’t know where to start? Just ask how she’s doing each day. When she answers, ask for more details. Don’t be satisfied with inch-deep answers, but show that you truly care by seeking depth. And be ready to share your day with the same thoughtfulness and depth. It may take some practice, but it’s worth the effort to establish this foundation of trust and openness.
The Most Important Component of Biblical Masculinity
More than any other quality we can develop, humility will revolutionize our masculinity. Modern toxic masculinity is founded on pride and power. Jesus Christ, however, spent His ministry preaching humility and service. If we humble ourselves, He will lift us up. We shouldn’t be trying to lift ourselves up! So, when your testosterone is getting the best of you, remind yourself that the meek will inherit the earth. Take a few deep breaths. Say a prayer. Focus on the Word. And start loving like Jesus.
When our goal is serving, rather than being served, God’s design for men shines brightly. He designed us as leaders that cultivate what is under our influence. And servanthood cultivates life, love, confidence, and strength in the image of God.