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.