Men and women have their differences, but what I’m arguing is that a Christian’s strength of character isn’t derived from their sex but from the object of their faith. The women exemplifying these traits do so for the same reasons some men do: because they are made in God’s image and equipped by Christ’s work and the conviction of the Holy Spirit to do the things commanded them in 1 Corinthians 16.
As the public surfacing of countless accounts of men’s abusive behaviour continues with no end in sight, the consequences of this necessary but painful upheaval are yet unknown. By now, to all with eyes to see, the evidence is clear of the pervasiveness of a toxic masculinity that cultivates male violence, sexual aggressiveness, and emotional distance. But it is too early to say whether we will see any change in our society’s perception and treatment of women and other vulnerable people. What might it take for Hollywood, for politics, for all our institutions to be transformed into bastions of equality and fraternity after the reckoning of its tyrannical power players?
This past Sunday, my pastor preached on 1 Corinthians 16:13-14: “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love.”
The New American Standard translates the latter part of verse 13 as this: “act like men.” Note that Paul does not command us to act like The Man, though of course we are told this elsewhere. Here, Paul draws on military imagery, evident from the Greek: grēgoreite: keep awake, keep vigilant, take as your inspiration a Roman soldier. It’s a metaphor for the spiritual life, intended for all Christians, men and women (see Ephesians 6:12).
One difficulty with biblical metaphors, however, is the temptation to interpret them literally. For some complementarians, these verses and others like them demonstrate that leadership, strength, and courage are primarily masculine, that is, they are qualities God designed men (and not women) to have. Among other things, men’s typically greater physical strength is frequently appealed to as evidence of this. Women have strength, so it goes, but it is a different kind of strength, lacking a warrior-like quality necessary for protecting the weak and vulnerable and guarding boundaries. Some go so far as to warn men not to give away their strength to women. To do so is to relinquish one’s manhood. Or so they say.
Truly, we don’t have to look very hard to find pastors using these verses as a mandate of so-called ‘biblical manhood.’ A sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Mississippi is one prominent example, directed entirely to men. Here, the pastor says that “Paul is calling the men of the church to literally be a man.” We encounter a similar message on Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, and of course the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. As Jeff Robinson at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary writes, “Paul, in 1 Corinthians 16:13-14, summarizes authentic biblical manhood well.”
The great irony in this way of thinking is that, in my observation of the modern church, it is primarily Christian women and not men who display the qualities Paul speaks of. Indeed, over the past few years, as I have researched issues affecting women in the church, I have seen such powerful courage and demonstration of Christian character among women as should make the aforementioned complementarians stop their mouths.
Those who think women lack an inner warrior need only look to those who have fled dangerous homes and faced poverty and great uncertainty, at great risk to themselves and their children; to the women who have put their bodies between an abusive spouse and a child; to those who have come quickly after a husband’s unfeeling words to a child and comforted, encouraged, and made that child whole; to the single women missionaries and Bible translators who outnumber their male counterparts; to the women who do jobs that men are taught is beneath them, for no pay; to the women whose work in the home and church is so often devalued, unacknowledged, and taken for granted.
In a culture rife with toxic masculinity, women are leading in still, quiet, unnoticeable but monumentally sacrificial ways. Among the excesses of complementarianism, many women are standing firm in the faith, doing all in love for their families, their churches and their God, who sees and loves them and knows their worth.
Christian women’s heroic self-sacrifice is nothing new. Kristin Aune writes, “Women’s (mostly voluntary) work has always been crucial to Christianity’s vitality.” Others, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, go further, alleging that men within Christianity have historically strategically emphasized the altruism of women, particularly to the service of men. The point here is that many men would rather be served than serve.
Putting aside that provocative point, the strength of Christian women has nothing to do with their sex. Men and women have their differences, but what I’m arguing is that a Christian’s strength of character isn’t derived from their sex but from the object of their faith. The women exemplifying these traits do so for the same reasons some men do: because they are made in God’s image and equipped by Christ’s work and the conviction of the Holy Spirit to do the things commanded them in 1 Corinthians 16. There are certainly men who flout the cultural norms taught them from birth, choosing by God’s grace to display the strength of character and steadfastness necessary for leadership. Consider Aimee Byrd’s example, “The pastors and husbands who … are quietly taking out the trash and wiping runny noses.”
But there are also those in the church who have confused strength with dominance. At this crucial moment, as the Christian church considers how to resist and reject rampant toxic masculinity around and among us, men would benefit not from ‘manning up’ but from looking for inspiration in an overlooked place: the sacrificial strength of Christian women. As Penny Long Marler contends, “As the women go, so goes the church.” Consider therefore how Paul’s metaphor might translate to all our ears today:
Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like women, be strong.
Let all that you do be done in love.
Dr. Valerie Hobbs, Ph.D. is a Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics, University of Sheffield.