Physical strength has been systematically alienated from the perception of modern ‘biblical’ manhood.
I’ve been reading heaps lately about biblical manhood (you might say I’m taking a learn-as-you-go approach to this blog) and one preliminary observation I have made that stands out immediately is this:
Biblical masculinity today is framed completely independently of any reference to physical strength or tactical skills, or the physical virtues associated with self mastery.
Modern biblical Christianity is emotional, relational and sensitive. It is exclusively focused on the man’s role as a gentle Christian, husband, provider and father. Manhood, is not something a man can have, for its own sake, it is subject to what he has to offer those around him. This does make sense. Christianity fundamentally is focused on Christ our servant, and our role as sharers of the Gospel in a fallen world.
Specifically, the virtues that are most commonly declared necessary for true biblical manhood are: Godliness (righteousness, humility, love, peace, faith etc.), Protection and provision of his family, and ‘Leadership’.
Even in more patriarchal descriptions of biblical manhood which hold to a complementarian view of gender roles, it still focuses almost exclusively on a man’s role in relationships. Real men lead, they protect, they treat women with respect, they love and cherish them. Real men are caring, compassionate and honourable. Obviously these are not bad things. But so often even the language used to describe these virtues is laced with gentility, so that the picture in your minds eye comes across a lot like this:
Instead of this:
But old fashioned physical strength is non-existent in the ideal of modern biblical manhood. The abstract idea of strength is used extensively as a buzzword, presumably because of the emotional significance it has for men (a telling observation in itself), but never in reference to being actually strong and capable.
Sure there are plenty of Christian men who workout, or consider themselves athletic, mechanically mined, hands on etc. but these virtues and pursuits have no bearing on their Christian life. They are purely secular characteristics that are not essential to a holistic view of ‘biblical manhood’.
It’s also true that Christian men have ‘get together’s’, men’s conferences, men’s bible studies and breakfasts and other attempts to vaguely foster a form of manhood for Christian men. But even here whenever there’s any emphasis on strength or any traditional masculine stereotype, it’s done ironically, as if traditional masculinity is a parody of itself. It’s made more into a caricature than a legitimate ideal.
To regard physical strength as a virtue in itself is considered shallow and worldly, a relic of ‘traditional’ (harmful) masculinity.
This is a problem. The modern trend in general to focus on vague, immaterial virtues like leadership, love, faith, empowerment, righteousness etc. without recourse to action doesn’t really make sense.
All it does is teach Christian men that it is sufficient to simply declare that they have these virtues and to only act them out passively.
What does ‘leadership’ look like in practise without action? We’re just told to be ‘leaders’ as if everyone intuitively knows what that means.
But in terms of strength specifically, how are masculine biblical virtues realized without reference to material physical strength, to tactical skill?
At first glance, it may seem that the Bible, particularly the New Testament does not explicitly affirm strength and physicality as worthy character traits. It is certainly true that it is not a salvation issue, or is it necessarily important for all men of God. However, it’s also true that getting married is not necessary for salvation, nor is the abstract idea of ‘leading your family’. No these are components of biblical manhood which, presumably, aim towards a conception of the ideal Christian man.
And yet, actually, physical strength is certainly seen as a virtue in scripture.
I shouldn’t have to ask who comes to mind first right?
Samson? Samson was a nazirite and the Lord blessed him with incredible strength; strength enough to slay tens of thousands of enemies single-handed, or to kill a lion with his bare hands. You might think Samson is a bad example.
“Oh but Samson was a womanizer, full of sin who disobeyed God”.
So what? Samson’s problem was not his strength. His strength was a gift from God. It was taken away from him as punishment for his sin, and it was restored when he demonstrated his faith in the Lord.
Do I even have to mention King David?
A man after God’s heart, David is arguably the most manly, most virile and violent man in all of scripture; maybe in history. King David was a ‘mighty man of valour’, beautiful looking and incredibly powerful. So was his band of mighty men, each of them lauded for their intimidating battle prowess, their skill and strength was unambiguously held in high esteem by the book’s author Samuel (a prophet of God). Once again, David’s problems had nothing to do with his strength. He was chastised for his sin, his rebellion against God, both in his adultery and his attempt to hide it, and again for his pride. His pride was not on account of his strength though. His pride was manifest in his desire to relish in the empire he had built.
The nation of Israel was forged, and protected by the edge of the sword (see: The entire Old Testament).
Both David and Samson were not only celebrated for their powerful physicality, but it was considered among their greatest attributes. It was a gift from God.
Various proverbs praise the value of strength and the working man.
Many of the qualities that describe biblical manhood today are not bad. I don’t think this modern view is wrong. But I think that the picture of strength as a virtue is worth exploring.
If ‘biblical manhood’ is not a necessary requirement for salvation, then it is merely an ideal which, rather than save us, merely fosters a good biblical sense of manhood designed to create spiritually fulfilled men of God.
I’m saying that ‘biblical manhood’ is an ideal, not one that makes us Christian, but that makes us men. Derived from scripture it is motivated by the question ‘how should Christian men be?’
So I’m asking the question. If biblical manhood is the ideal for a Christian man to live a satisfying, godly life in service of the Lord Jesus Christ then why is raw physical power non-existent in the view of the modern Christian man?
In terms of health and well being there are firmly established benefits to physical strength including:
- Improved mood
- Reduced anxiety
- Improved cognitive functioning (healthy body, healthy mind)
- Physical fitness (obviously)
- Increased strength (obviously)
- Fat loss
The list goes on.
What about men specifically however? Does physical strength have something to offer men psychologically and spiritually that would make it a worthy or even necessary component of a well rounded biblical manhood?
I expect that the answer is yes. I further expect that it has been marignalized because most men, especially many Christian men, are insecure about their physicality, so they downplay its importance to feel better about themselves. We really do structure our view of the world in the way that best justifies our own choices.
If a primary characteristic of ‘biblical manhood’ is the man as the protector of his family, then what form does this take? Why is there a clear neglect of the physical component of this protection? Is it simply because we leave in a peaceful, anti-war, non-violence culture?
How does the Christian man as a ‘leader’ of his family manifest itself in practise? (A whole post in itself)
Perhaps not just as the necessary complement to the biblical virtues of the Christian man as a leader, protector and provider, but also in terms of how it makes a man, a man.
Another important question is if there are benefits for the Christian man, then why has it been neglected by modern Christianity? Why have Christian men become so enamoured with the value of being ‘authentic’, or ‘real’ to the point where any emphasis on physicality is seen as shallow and superficial?
Partly the problem here is incorrectly assuming that increasing physical strength is a purely aesthetic endeavour.
The reality is there is a gender gap in the church. There has been a gender gap for centuries, but the reasons for it have likely evolved and changed over time.
Is there something about the modern ideal of ‘biblical manhood’ that’s keeping otherwise interested men in coming to Christ? Is there something missing from Christianity that’s failing the modern Christian man?
What does science say?
What about the early church fathers? Has it always been this way?
It is possible that getting stronger may even make you a better Christian?
Something tells me this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Stay tuned as I dig deeper into this topic, and the broader topic of biblical manhood as a whole.