“Act Like Men”: What Does Paul Mean?
A few weeks ago I received an announcement that an organization committed to teaching what the Bible says about being masculine and feminine had published an updated guide available for free.
Because the history of ideas about gender, especially within Christendom, is one of my fields of academic study, I eagerly downloaded and began reading. But only a few pages into chapter one, “Being a Man and Acting Like It,” an alarm went off. Here’s what I read:
“Paul writes to the leaders in the church at Corinth, ‘Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love’ (1 Corinthians 16:13–14).” He was using the ESV.
But the addressees in the apostle’s letter were not the leaders of the church. Paul addressed the entire congregation, establishing this in chapter 1, verse 2: “To the church of God that is in Corinth to those who are sanctified in Christ who are called to be saints.”
In the context of the actual verse quoted, which falls in 1 Corinthians 16, Paul has just finished his wonderful description of the hope for us all in the resurrection. And he is still speaking to the entire church, not a sub-group among them. Never does he narrow his audience.
So what does he mean when he writes to everyone, “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (emphasis mine)? It is worth noting that the NIV renders the phrase I italicized as “be courageous”; the NET goes with “show courage.” And indeed the emphasis is not about gender, but maturity—about being a grown-up. Paul made a similar contrast between “adult man” and “child” when he wrote three chapters earlier, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (13:11). So in summary, he contrasts being a man with being a child, not with being a woman. And he is not criticizing children. Children act like children! But adults are not supposed to do so.
Paul is consistent in his concern for maturity, not in pursing masculinity and femininity. In his letter to the Ephesians, he describes the ultimate end of discipleship: “Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13, KJV). Again, later translators have clarified that Paul is not suggesting some sort of transgender goal for women—that all women become perfect men. Rather, he has in mind full human maturity. Paul uses the idea of “man” to be fully mature, as opposed to being immature. He is not insulting women. Nor is he insulting children, whom we expect to act like children.
The writer in question, in explaining “act like men” (16:13), concedes that Paul includes a contrast with being children, but he goes on to say, “When Paul says to ‘act like men,’ he means something different from ‘act like women.’” The author says, “To ‘act like men’—or ‘be courageous,’ as the NIV puts it—is to act in a way that is somehow different from a boy, in terms of maturity, and is somehow different from a woman, in terms of gender.” Do you see the insult in this interpretation? It reminds me of how we disparage girls and boys when we say, “You run like a girl” or “You throw like a girl.” Have you seen this video, which Laura Murray posted earlier on this blog?
What, then, does Paul mean? The Greek word translated “act like men” or “be courageous”—andrizomai—occurs only once in the New Testament. But other uses of it outside of the Bible suggest it has to do with bravery and courage, which explains why the NIV and NET rendered the word the way they did.
This is how many church fathers have understood it. Consider this from Didymus the Blind, writing in the fourth century: “Paul tells them to be courageous and strong, like an athlete or soldier of Christ, doing everything with love toward God and each other” (Pauline Commentary from the Greek Church).
Writing in that same century, Ambrosiaster said of this verse, “They were to stand firm, being bold in confessing what they had been taught. They were to be strong in both word and deed, because it is the right combination of these which enables people to mature” (Commentary on Paul’s Epistles).
Paul’s point in the exhortation: Men and women alike are to be mature and courageous. He is not telling the women to act masculine, nor is he telling the men to avoid acting feminine. He exhorts both men and women to have courage. (As I have written elsewhere, courage is for women, too. Think of Esther, or of Peter’s exhortation to wives that they not be “frightened by any fear” [see 1 Peter 3].)
So through the apostle Paul in his word to the entire church at Corinth, God is not calling his people to act according to social norms of what is “masculine.” Rather, he wants all of his children to demonstrate the bravery and courage lacking in the immature in the faith.
Indeed, Paul’s vision was not for women to find some cultural ideal that is womanly. Nor did he envision men making as their goal ultimate masculinity, whatever that is. His vision was for all of us, male and female, to become mature adults in Christ. Our task, then, is not to pursue some nebulous change-with-the-times, stereotypical gender norms. Rather, our goal is to follow hard after him, to grow in maturity, and thus to demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit—whether we are embodied as males or as females.
You hit the ball out of the park on this one!
what thoughtful, insightful comments without emotional "steam of anger" but instead maturity and courage….I love to read ALL you write because you are committed to think through the issues with honesty.
your friend and fan, Dianne Miller
You write like a girl.
:::need a LIKE button:::
:::No, need a LOVE button:::
Thanks for your kind words
A former student of mine is a slender man who loves the arts and was never into guns, football, grilling, or mud wrestling. He is an artist with a sensitive soul who creates beautiful photos and draws compelling images. His work for the kingdom behind the scenes has greatly benefited many. Yet people question his masculinity. He faces ridicule because he does not fit the heteronormative definitions of masculinity that deny the full and dynamic range of male personhood. When I visited Versailles, I was struck by how much the macho man of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there differed from what Christians today consider a timeless ideal of masculinity. Those men wore silk stockings, walked around with big heels on their boots, had lace peeking out at their wrists, and wore hair flowing in waves down their backs.
Women are not the only ones injured by such thinking about gender.
Sensitive, are we?
Honestly, my answer to your question “Do you see the insult in this interpretation?” is “No”. It seems to me that one would only be insulted if one were looking for an insult.
Furthermore, if you as a writer, are unable to define “masculinity”… (ultimate or otherwise), then it begs the question of why you were so insulted by it… or more important… if you have any solid foundations for arguing that either the ESV translators got it wrong… or that the organization that published the guide “interpreted” it incorrectly.
Seems like that ought to be the starting point for any meaningful discussion on the matter.
What is masculine vs. what is godly
What is masculine? A great place to start the discussion. The reason I said "ultimate masculinity–whatever that is," is because the history of ideas about what's masculine and what's feminine reveals that definitions have fluctuated across time and geography. And they continue to do so. Today in America, a woman roofer might be considered to be doing masculine work, while a woman roofer in Maasailand is doing woman's work.
For the Sun King of Versailles, a man with a Christian chapel in his home, "masculine" meant wearing heels, lace, and tights complemented by long, flowing hair. A Christian male seeking to act masculine in 21st-century America would do no such thing.
So…my apparent lack of surety about the definition was a nod to this fluidity. I think we can agree on what ultimate godliness is (Christlikeness), but ultimate masculinity might differ from place to place and era to era.
Here's what dictionary.com says: “Masculine.” Noun. Having qualities traditionally ascribed to men, as strength and boldness.
But here's what John Piper says: [caps his] AT THE HEART OF MATURE MASCULINITY IS A SENSE OF BENEVOLENT RESPONSIBILITY TO LEAD, PROVIDE FOR AND PROTECT WOMEN IN WAYS APPROPRIATE TO A MAN’S DIFFERING RELATIONSHIPS.
George Winston, a graduate from a well-known conservative seminary, along with his wife, self-described complementarians, challenge Piper’s definition in their book on the subject. They ask, on what is this definition based? (The Bible, they point out, does not offer a definition of "masculine.") Is a man unmasculine if women are absent? Is a male’s masculinity only in relation to woman?
So there is some question about how we as Bible-believing Christians should even define the word.
Jesus and Paul often pushed back against what their culture considered manly. Jesus compared himself to a mother hen, and he allowed himself to be publicly stripped naked, a true insult to his manhood in that culture. And Paul sacrificed his man-card for the sake of the gospel. It appears that they were much more concerned with being godly than being masculine, just as Christian women should be much more focused on developing the fruit of the Spirit than trying to figure out the ideal of femininity:
act like men
Hebrews 5;12-6:1 may be Pauline. It contrasts babes with the mature. "Perfection" may mean more like maturity.
For good insight on what it is to be a man I recommend men read the following book by Stephen Mansfield – Mansfield's Book of Manly Men
Subtitled: An Utterly Invigorating Guide to Being Your Most Masuline Self
Ron Johns Jr
I will be passing this one along
Reaching understanding of all the gender issues in the 21st Century will require many steps carefully considered. Harsh voices on many sides foster division and entrenchment. Your writing (in the blog and in your replies to comments), the Always #likeagirl initiative, and gender thoughtful translations of the Bible offer small manageable steps toward better thinking. Thank you.
Thank you for this kind comment. May God increase the tribe of those, like you, who are willing to listen, engage, and affirm.
Your Video and Luke 10:42
I loved watching the video of your lecture. Wonderful!
A while ago I was feeling guilty because I was spending so much time reading and studying the Bible. I was discussing my guilt with God and then went to read the Bible. My reading that day was Luke 10. When I got to verse 42 my guilt disappeared. I felt God's blessing on the way I had been spending my time, and I continue to feel God's blessing in how I spend my time.
Okay. I hate to have to disagree. But why would we think of this any differently than in current contexts where we say “act like a man”? Yes, it means to be courageous, but there is a reason we use those words. We cannot just gloss over it with our current understanding of “gender” and write that into the text. Just as being adopted as sons was different than being adopted as children, their context enriches the text while we try and dissolve the meaning with ours. “Be[ing] a man” is not some nebulous idea. It implies the good generalized aspects of being a man. Just as there are good aspects of being a woman. And we should celebrate how God made us in His image, man and woman! We should not be too blig and gloss over the truth of our design.
Glib* not blig. lol.
But that is exactly my point. Paul was talking to a mixed audience. So, Paul wanted both men and women to act “like men” (e.g. mature in Pauline contexts) as oppossed to “manly” (courageous or assertive or wearing flannel or playing football in ours) . We are injecting our typical cultural gender ideal into our interpretation if we think he is talking about pursuing manhood and manliness when he is talking about acting like a grown-up. One cause of gender confusion is women thinking the Bible teaches that they need to “act” like a sex they don’t embody.