How the church makes it hard to be a man

How the church makes it hard to be a man

Stud Service

The worship of safety emasculates greatness. — Max Lucado

As much as I think it sucks to be a woman in the evangelical church, I often think it would suck worse to be a man. They are expected to carry more responsibility, evince more wisdom and act with more maturity than women, while engaged in a uniquely visceral struggle with the sin that bears the greatest taboo.

Moreover, I’m told that the fear of failure is one of the greatest undermining influences for men. So it’s kind of incredible to consider that most of the resources aimed toward male godliness are couched in the language of telling them how far they fall short. If I were a man, I’d have checked out long ago. It’s not surprising that many have.

Of those quality men I’ve met in the church — and there are plenty — I can’t call to mind any who owed their confidence or maturity to the church’s nurture in particular. Usually it was the gift of a good father, or taught through the experience of hard times.

Nonetheless, I like to daydream about a world where the evangelical church is known for the manliness of the men it produces. Part of it is a desire to see the church grow, both inwardly and outwardly. Any place is both more credible and more attractive when it’s populated by confident, self-possessed men.

But it’s also a selfish desire that I share with 50 million other women living in a culture of slacker romance, and disproportionately represented in gender by a ratio of 3:1. So I like to think of myself as part of a lobby for helping the church develop men with confidence, direction, and mastery. I’m thinking sort of an evangelical James Bond — the kind of man women want to be with, and other men want to be like.

Is that possible? I mean, is that the kind of man God is after?

Feminine Influence

In the world of church resources for men, writer and pastor Douglas Wilson stands out for his frank, guilt-free approach to the issues that plague masculine maturity. One man described him to me this way: “He’s thoroughly biblical, he doesn’t camp on the taboos, he’s always pushing toward this full spectrum enjoyment of who you are in Christ… and being a man.”

I asked Mr. Wilson if he didn’t feel the evangelical church was a little heavy on the feminine influence. He said it was a trend that started in the 12th century with French abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, whose teaching brought the Bible’s feminine imagery of the corporate church to an individual model. Before St. Bernard, men could exist in the church like sailors on a ship, staunchly masculine members of a corporate entity characterized as feminine. Afterwards,en were obliged in their private devotions to drum up the feelings of a bride awaiting her groom.

The problem was compounded during New England’s industrial revolution, which coincided with the disbanding of the last congregational church in America. This confluence of circumstances saw a lot of women and a lot of pastors with nothing to do.

“What happened,” says Mr. Wilson, “was [former] pastors started to write sappy novels, that were purchased and read by pious women. The basic plot structure was a handsome ne’er-do-well guy out misbehaving, and over the course of the novel he is brought to heel by the converting influence of the woman.” In other words, the Christian fiction of that time put women in the role of the Holy Spirit. It left an enduring impression that women are the spiritual force of good, which continues today. This, after all, is the framework for every Judd Apatow movie. It’s a model consistently followed by celebrity marriages. You can’t change the way people are,” says Wilson. “If you try, you’re going to get a deranged version of the same thing. A woman wants a man to lead. To provide for her. Protect her. And, he adds, to stand up to her when she tries to usurp his leadership. “If he just curls up in a little ball, she won the argument,” says Wilson, “but she didn’t want to win the argument. She doesn’t want to lead him into leadership. She wants him to lead because he wants to, because he has a backbone.”

But to see this kind of leadership take place, two things have to happen. One is that women and the church at large have to stop asking men to follow the godliness model that is appropriate to women. “Women know one kind of godliness, and men know another — it’s an apples and oranges kind of thing.”

The other thing that has to happen is that men need to be allowed a more liberal learning curve, as they face their fear of failure and begin to practice leading. A man, says Wilson, “needs to lead more than he needs to lead perfectly.” And women and churches need this, as well.

Church and failure

Since the feminized influence on godliness dates from so far back in history, that may be why the church’s self-styled revivalists of masculinity draw their models from even more primitive sources. But if a man can’t get down with their specific social mores (beer and MMA, yes; Star Wars bed sheets, no) or their drill sergeant teaching methods, what is he to conclude? That he’s not a good Christian? That he’s not a good man?

A friend of mine, who refers facetiously (I think) to himself as “the Clark Griswold of dads, the Don Juan of monogamists, and the Johnny Cash of Christians,” informs me that a man’s biggest fear is, indeed, failure. Especially, he says, failure in front of a woman.

So it’s easy to imagine the crippling prospect for a man learning how to lead in a context dominated 1.56:1 by women. Especially since, in the vast majority of Western churches, the leadership place he’s trying to fill is currently being held very competently by a woman.

Behavioral psychologists often note that success begets success. This is why perhaps it’s so much easier to be a woman in the church. The setting is flush with resources that tell a woman she is already loved, already beautiful, already worthy in God’s eyes, that there’s no deficit she must make up before she can have what (they tell me) she most desires — true love.

By contrast, while the “tough love” neo-Calvinists are good at whipping into shape the recently converted, they do little for the man who was raised in the church to a mature sensitivity to sin. In fact, their bluster is one of the most likely things to deepen the ratio of church attendance. Why go to church to feel like more of a failure?

I can’t believe it’s right for there to be nothing to positively nurture a man’s craving for respect. To dissipate his self-sabotaging urgency to deserve respect with the sense that he is starting from a place of security and success.

There must be some grounds in the Bible for this. Or else godliness really is weighted toward women.

The Lust Factor

The more men I asked, the more I heard it confirmed that the main factors in a man’s confidence are pride and purpose in his work, and the ability to attract women. What the church can offer, that the world cannot, is freedom from these factors — not in the sense of denying them, but in not being shamebound if they aren’t present.

The church has been faithful to teach that the real mark of success and meaning in a man’s work is the sincerity of his effort before the Lord. It’s no argument against a man finding a job that brings him personal satisfaction. But it’s a guarantee of dignity, regardless of the status his job confers. It’s a way to transcend the confidence a man derives from professional success.

However, it appears that no such method exists of transcending sexual confidence, or the shame a man feels without it. In fact, many of the men (of all ages) that spoke with me about this topic said that the church has made them feel embarrassed at best, and guilty at worst, for having a sex drive at all. Until, of course, they are married. Marriage is the only excuse for being interested in sex, and the church is very quick to counsel young men in particular to marry as soon as they can. This is, presumably, in order to cut off sexual sin at the pass.

But this approach typically results in skewing men’s sexuality, and that can take years to unwind. One extreme was characterized to me this way, by a man who just welcomed his second grandchild:

“Suddenly, you get married and you’re in a hotel room with this woman, and you’re like ‘What the heck am I doing here?’ You’re 25 years old, and all of a sudden there’s this expectation [that] you just shed all this guilt trip laid on you for the last fifteen years?”

The other extreme is the change my girl friends and I bemoan, that comes over good Christian boys after they get married. Two weeks of honeymoon change them from “bros in Christ” who break into cold sweats every time their hand bumps a girl’s knee, into John Legend. (Proverbs 30:23 applies as much to men as it does to women, apparently.)

Mr. Wilson himself tends to advise young men in the throes of sexual frustration to marry as soon as practicable. Besides diverting a man’s temptation, he says, it’s also advantageous to the woman to get a husband early “while he can still be trained.”

But I would assert here that it does a woman no favours to marry a guy whose main reason for asking her is to satiate his lust.

It’s uncomfortably similar to a vestal virgin sacrifice, tossing her to the lions of an immature man’s sexual appetite. Equally distasteful, to me at least, is the prospect of “training” a grown man. There can’t be many women who get married in the hope of being a mother before they get to be a wife.

I’m not saying that marriage based on sexual fulfillment wouldn’t be fun, at first. But sex-eclipsing complications — usually in the form of children, or lack thereof — eventually uncover a man’s inadequacies. Suddenly, his confidence is shaken by the suspicion of failure; only now he has a lot of responsibilities and dependents and no youth left to excuse his incompetence.

One friend of mine, who continues into his 30s to wait for marriage (in the literal and the rhetorical sense), tells me he’s seen the sex-driven marriage fail repeatedly among church friends, sometimes with disastrous results. For himself, he says, ” I didn’t wait as many years as I have to marry somebody just because I’m getting uncomfortable with the fact that I’m a 32-year-old single.”

Far from suppressing his sexuality, he uses the sometimes painful awareness of it as an occasion for developing a herculean degree of self-mastery. Not surprisingly, this attribute often makes him more desirable to women… which naturally increases his confidence, and compensates for sometimes, “feeling like a complete square in a world that views it as physically unhealthy not to be sexually adventurous.

“One thing that helps me is that Christ lived his entire life without sinning in this area,” he tells me. “By that standard, what I’ve sacrificed is actually very small. And that’s the only thing that can kind of pull me out of the pit of despair sometimes.”

I can’t help returning again to James Bond — the impervious self-possession, the ability to leave fast cars and exotic women as easily as he could take them, the unshakable commitment to accomplishing his mission. In biblical terms, what is this but power over sin?

I could spend a lot of time daydreaming about how things would change, if the church put its mind toward training men in the ability to lead themselves. But maybe it’s better not to. Lust isn’t only an issue for men.

Flickr photo (cc) by  smswigart