The Definition of Manliness

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Earlier this month the American Psychological Association (APA) came out denouncing "traditional masculinity" which it defines as "a particular constellation of standards that have held sway over large segments of the population, including: anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence."  This kind of masculinity, the APA has said, is "harmful."  Even more recently, Gillette released an online advertisement that eschews several masculine traits and behaviors, seemingly in line with the APA's definition of "traditional masculinity."  The Gilette ad generated quite a bit of backlash, and there have been at least two very good biblical responses to the content and message of the ad, and I commend them both to you (this one, and this one).

More and more frequently, it seems, our culture is generating new definitions for words and ideas that, heretofore, have been affixed in their meaning and commonly embraced by our society.  The most significant example I can think of has been the redefinition of words like "marriage," and "love," and "man," and "woman."  These words have been redefined within our society in order to accommodate the political and personal persuasions of cultural elites and vocal protestors, and now the same thing is being done to the concept of masculinity.  The understanding of what is (or is not) masculine, and whether or not those traits and characteristics are either harmful or beneficial is only the most recent concept in our society to be judged by cultural elites as wanting, and quickly redefined.  

Leaving that discussion aside for a moment, hopefully we can all agree that the definition for "traditional masculinity" generated by the APA is almost laughably absurd.  As Adam Ford has pointed out, who among us is not thankful for the for the risk, achievement, and spirit of adventure that led us to send men to the moon?  And is there anyone among us who is not glad that brave men used violence to overthrow Nazi Germany?  Does not the APA believe that a man's willingness to use violence to overthrow evil represent a good and positive thing, rather than "harmful, traditional masculinity?"  I, for one, was glad that when I was a child, I could count on my dad to "eschew the appearance of weakness" when faced with trials.  Once, when I was eight or nine years old, an intruder attempted to break into my family's house in the middle of the night.  But before he could do so, he was confronted by "traditional masculinity": the physical presence of my dad, placing himself between the intruder and his family, willing to do whatever he had to in order to protect and preserve them.  I thank God for my dad's "traditional masculinity."  

Similarly, just a couple of nights ago, around 10:00 PM, my wife called for me to come upstairs.  Our daughter had a bad dream and my wife said she needed a "Dad Hug."  I came upstairs to find my daughter sitting up in bed with a worried and scared look on her face.  I sat down and asked her what was the problem, and she told me about her dream.  She dreamt that there was someone who was breaking into our house with an intention to hurt her.  After hearing about the dream I did my best to calm and encourage her.  I told her that it was just a dream, and dreams aren't real.  But even if there were someone trying to break into our house, it was my job, both as her father and as the "man of the house," to do everything in my power to protect her (and her mother and brother) from anyone who might wish to do her harm, and that, under my protection, she need not fear intruders.  According to the APA's definition, my assurances given to my daughter that I would deal with any threats to her wellbeing exhibit at least three, and perhaps four, characteristics of this "traditional" and "harmful" masculinity.

The APA has answered that, of course they don't mean that all forms of adventure, or achievement, or risk are inherently harmful masculine traits - just the ones that are taken to an extreme.  But what do the "extreme" versions of these traits look like?  And who gets to decide which masculine traits are harmful and which aren't?  And therein lies the problem with redefining words and ideas in order to fit the cultural persuasions of the times: all of these definitions (such as this new definition of traditional masculinity) are utterly subjective, and are only based on the preferences of the elites who are self-appointed to make such definitions.  The APA has appointed themselves the arbiters of the definition of masculinity, and have implied condemnation for all forms of masculinity that don't fall within their approved parameters.  

We need better definitions, and I don't mean definitions that fit more in line with my preferences over and against the preferences of our culture or of the APA.  After all, my preferences are just as affected by sin as those of the larger culture.  Rather, we need objective definitions of words and ideas.  Thankfully, we have them.  The Bible shows us what masculinity looks like, and it doesn't change with the times or at the whim of cultural elites.  

The Bible tells us what a real man is, what he does, the kind of character he exhibits, how he acts, how he talks, how he treats women, how he relates to his kids, how he works, and so on.  Rather than try to formulate a new definition for masculinity that complies with our day and age, we would be wise to learn, study, and master the definition that God provided millennia ago. 

This is not to say that the APA is entirely wrong in its evaluation of "traditional masculinity."  Indeed, many forms of "traditional" (read: cultural) masculinity are abhorrent and should be admonished.  Certainly men should treat women well, measure their actions against potential consequences, admit their weaknesses, be satisfied in an honest day's work, and restrain their propensity towards violence.  But the reason for this is not because I or anyone else happen to think so, but because the Bible has spoken clearly.  These are all traits that the Bible has commanded and commended for millennia.  

And we should also be quick to affirm that the Bible teaches that human masculinity is fallen; that is, it has been corrupted by sin, and as such, needs to be redeemed.  The Bible has much to say about "harmful masculinity" and it only takes a brief look through its pages to find a myriad of examples.  There are indeed sinful aspects to fallen masculinity.  But we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Rather, let us preach the gospel so that men - and their masculinity - can be redeemed through by the power of the Holy Spirit and be transformed into men that will follow the example of Jesus and lay down their lives for others daily through service and love.  

The same is true of femininity.  Our culture has much to say about what femininity is and isn't.  To give weight to such definitions is just as effective as chasing after the wind because the definition will likely change in the near future.  Women, like men, need an objective and eternal standard of womanhood.  We don't need new definitions that are based on a self-appointed elitist's fallen moral preferences.  Instead of listening to cultural definitions of important ideas, Christians should return to their Bibles.  God has already told us what a man should be.  That was enough for Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, and Paul, and it is enough for me and for my son.  Let's not train up our sons to be men of the APA, but men of God according to his word.