Editor's Note: This article is part of a blog series for Women's History Month featuring stories of men and women working to create a more equal and safe world. May we all continue to partner and pray together for gender justice—download our free March 2015 Prayer Calendar.
"Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband."—Ephesians 5:25-33
Defining masculinity is complicated. We have pick-up artists, Men’s Rights Activists, and Mark Driscolls who posture their manliness and viscerally react against what they see as a mainstream feminist image of masculinity. Then we have a conventional understanding of what it means to be a man within a capitalist society (ably decoded in a recent documentary, The Mask You Live In). For those who identify as Christians, we can’t slip into these cultural assumptions but should live in conformity with Christ rather than the world.
As a Reformed Christian, I turn to the Bible for answers on masculinity. Looking at gender in the New Testament, we quickly come across what are usually called household codes in Ephesians 5:22-6:9 and Colossians 3:18-4:1 (for bonus jargon points, Haustafeln)—a Greco-Roman genre of moral instruction about how households should work. If we want to take the Bible seriously, we don’t get to ignore these difficult passages: we must explore what Paul, in a misogynistic society, says to men and women in families about their responsibilities toward each other. Fundamentally, he understands masculine roles as deeply involved with others in the body of Christ in loving service.
To keep focused, let’s only look at a husband’s responsibilities in Ephesians. We can read Paul as talking about gender identity in general—the roles of husband, father, and master which he explores are elements of masculinity that tell us about the whole. Paul shows us that we need each other since we cannot be the body of Christ and be alienated from each other. This is why he can call on everyone to submit to each other out of reverence for Christ (Eph 5:21). In concert with Paul’s general ethical imperative for sacrificial, self-giving love (most eloquently described in Phil 2:1-11), his picture of masculinity is a life of loving community with others.
Husbands are commanded to love their wives as Christ loved the church by giving themselves for her. As Christ’s gift was total, so the husband’s gift ought to be—they are to care for their wives as they do for themselves (vv28-29). Paul’s discussion of Christ’s sanctifying work focuses us on how a husband’s love for his wife should promote her spiritual growth. Other forms of care are necessary (as Paul’s imagery of the body suggests) but ultimately marriage should be oriented toward sanctification.
More than this orientation of marriage to sanctification, Paul teaches a bedrock unity in marriage. Both the Christian wife and husband are members of the Church which is Christ’s body (v30) and have further cemented this with particular devotion to union with each other (v31). Since we have this fundamental unity, a divisive gender identity in marriage or elsewhere is impossible to accept—it sets up barriers where Christ recognizes none.
As such, men inside or outside of marriage must follow Christ’s example in giving of themselves for others, particularly to those who rely and trust on them. This is why domestic violence is such a satanic perversion of masculinity: it replaces a protective, self-sacrificial love with a violent, domineering authority. A relationship which should point to Christ and the Church instead becomes controlled by power and violence.
Paul forces me to think differently about what it means to be a man. I need to reorient my actions in a way that recognizes that Christians, male and female, are all part of one body of Christ. That should push men, especially those in positions of authority, to a love that seeks to build up and to serve rather than domineer. That love, rather than a macho authority, is the true mark of a man.
Greg Williamsis Communications Assistant for Sojourners.