Recently when I spoke with a group about biblical teaching on marriage, one of the people in attendance told of a young Christian husband who refused to do a simple household task his wife asked him to do.
His defense: Doing so would require him to give up his “man-card.”
Such a view, which stems from a wrong view of “headship” in marriage, is showing up with increasing frequency at Christian seminars and on blogs, veiled as a biblical view of masculinity. Women are instructed to “respond” positively to such demonstrations of “initiative.” Yet nowhere in the Bible do we find teaching that anywhere resembles this sort of behavior.
Let’s consider the cultural context for Paul’s views on masculinity. We find some background information in Roman Sexualities. It’s a collection of essays published by Princeton Press and considered by scholars to offer a major contribution to our understanding of sexuality in Roman society. In it we find an explanation as to why gladiators, actors, and prostitutes were the three most dishonorable professions at the time: People engaging in these occupations had bodies that were subjected to public observation for profit. In Roman culture the body and honor were more connected than they are in contemporary Western thinking.
In another chapter of Roman Sexualities we learn that the honor/status-driven culture of Rome defined a truly masculine man in part by his class, the sign of which he wore on his garments. And class was broader than economic status. Class carried with it bodily rights. An adult male citizen got his man-card in part from his lack of subjection to sex on demand (required of slaves) and from exemption from beatings or violence without a trial (also something slaves endured). To an ancient male Roman, a big part of his macho power came from having the freedom to say “you must leave my body alone.”
Consider then, that a shock it would have been to the Philippian magistrates to learn that they had wronged Paul by beating a Roman citizen—and a citizen by birth, not even a freedman. What’s even more shocking is that Paul could have easily said, “Hey! Stop! I’m a citizen! You can’t do that!” But he waited until he had endured the humiliation of beating and gone on to spend some time in the prison chained to his companion before mentioning, “Oh, by the way—um, you totally violated my rights.” He waited for the right time to say it, and when he did, the news struck fear in his captors’ hearts.
Think about Paul’s behavior from a Roman perspective. He willingly gave up his man-card for the sake of the gospel. Let me put it another way: Paul let his so-called masculinity be violated and tromped on for the glory of Jesus Christ.
Even more stunning is Jesus Christ himself. He voluntarily endured the humiliation of nakedness and beating and violent death in a world where there could be no greater dishonor. The King of Heaven willingly chose shame—as the world defined it.
All this suggests that if Jesus Christ washed feet, every Christian should be willing, even cheerful, to fold socks—to serve instead of being served.
Consider what Paul wrote later (Ephesians 5) about enduring violence. In addressing the paterfamilias (the male citizen around whom the entire upper-class household revolved), he spoke first to the paterfamilias/wife relationship, then the paterfamilias/children relationship, and finally the paterfamilias/slave relationship—all the people under one roof. In each case, he made sure to address the person in the home with the most social power. And in the husband/wife relationship, Paul focused on the physical body—the center of rights:
Husbands, love (agape love) your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her to sanctify her by cleansing her with the washing of the water by the word… In the same way husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one has ever hated his own body but he feeds it and takes care of it, just as Christ also does the church, for we are members of his body…Nevertheless, each one of you must also love his own wife as he loves himself (Eph 5:25–43).
Remember what I said about violence and masculinity? A truly masculine man at the time did not have to endure violence. He was above it; he was too honored to be subjected to it. Yet Paul said the Christian husband must sacrifice his man-card for his wife. He was expected to give up both his sexual rights (1 Cor. 7), and even his very life as Jesus did in dying a violent death (see Eph. 5). Then Paul added an analogy to illustrate how the wife is the paterfamilias’s body. Picture a husband’s head on a wife’s body and you have a visual picture of what Paul imagined. “Word to the husband: She is you.”
Women often give Paul a bad rap because they think he teaches husbands to tromp on their wives. Nothing could be further from the truth. A godly woman who hears, “I can’t fold clothes—I’d have to give up my man card,” must know that such a response is not based on Paul’s teaching about marriage. It’s pride.
Popular teaching in the Christian subculture on masculinity and femininity is often off the mark. People who tell Christian men to act macho and Christian women to conform only to the “responder” role are teaching culture, not Bible. Such ideas would have kept Ruth from proposing to Boaz, Miriam from leading in worship, and Jael from driving a tent peg through the skull of God’s enemy. Women are called to have courage in the power of the Spirit, not to shrink back.
The best way to model ultimate manhood and womanhood is to pursue Jesus Christ, walk in the Spirit, and demonstrate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Sometimes doing so may even, at times, look un-macho and unfeminine. Fortunately, we are not called to imitate the culture—we are called only to imitate Jesus Christ our Lord.