Rebels Without A Cause

and the Transformation of Gender Norms


In his post You Will Never Guess Who Is Really Responsible For The Softening of Males In The Church, Mark Sayers shifts the blame for the current “sea of passivity” in modern males from feminism to men like John Newton.

To rescue masculinity in the West we must remember that we stand on the shoulders of giants. One such giant was John Newton, a man whose debauched life as a slave trader ensured that he had inhabited the old world of male violence. Yet Newton was thoroughly transformed by his encounter with the truth of the gospel. Newton operated as a template for the new evangelical mode of masculinity. He chose to champion others rather than simply build his own empire. A committed calvinist, he collaborated with and encouraged other believers who thought differently to him, maintaining a warm friendship and working relationship with John Wesley.Newton was not a prim and proper Georgian dandy, often he was described as uncouth. Newton was passionate and dedicated, his communication of the gospel was uncomprimising. Yet what entranced his contemporaries was that his gospel communication was described as having an almost ‘womanly tenderness’.  Newton was pointing the way forward to a new mode of being male, one shaped by the Gospel not the code of honour and violence. Newton would act as a father figure to a whole generation of evangelical leaders who would not just transform culture’s idea of masculinity but culture itself.

So what are we to do with our current crisis of masculinity? What advice should be given to young men who find themselves looking for male role models, who wonder what it is to be a Christian man in today’s culture of passivity and indecision. I think that if you want to be a man, stop trying so hard. Instead look to Newton’s advice, understand that you are a wretch who has been transformed by a grace that is amazing. Allow yourself to daily mediate upon and live out of that reality and one day you will get up to shave and the face in the mirror looking back at you will be the face of a man.

Great advice. But Newton and those of his time understood that men need a mission, something to construct and some to conquer. With the rejection of Christianity by our culture, that mission was replaced first with the empty quest for wealth, but now has been lost altogether. People, men in particular, are rebels without a cause. With everything else now shown to offer false hopes, the only real cause left is the New Covenant. [1]

Two Women for Every Man

In his post Old style evangelical gender politics, Steve Holmes tries to shore up the gender imbalance with some history of great evangelical women who followed this “transformation of masculinity.”

This evangelical generation changed the world, or major parts of it at least: they broke the international economic system of the day because it was unjust; they reformed prisons, factories, poor laws, and anything else they could think of; they saw major revivals, and huge numbers of conversions; when it came to gender politics, they taught men to be gentle, and women to be active in ministry.

Besides the few radicals he mentions, a lot of good was most certainly done, but how did that lead to the situation we are now in, where many men wouldn’t be found dead in a mainline Western church. Or, in reality, they might only be found in such a church if they were actually dead. Here’s a clue:

Methodist and holiness movements provided a particular intensification of this theme, as a woman who could lay claim to the experience of entire sanctification was in a demonstrable position of spiritual superiority to men who could not, a situation creating a significant pressure to reverse cultural-normative gender roles. Phoebe Palmer’s astonishing evangelistic ministry is the most obvious example of this, but there are many others (Hannah Whitall Smith’s entry in the Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals notes that, at the Brighton Convention for the Promotion of Christian Holiness in 1875, ‘[t]he most popular sessions … were those in which Hannah preached her practical secrets of the happy Christian life to audiences of 5000 or more, mostly clergymen who were theologically opposed to the preaching ministry of women’).

There was a deep-seated structural problem in this “transformation.” We might say that well-meaning evangelicals fell off the other side of the horse.

The Stigmatization of Male Traits

My friend Alastair Roberts’ comments after this post are the reason why I am posting this at all. He’s very familiar with the “liturgical” roles for men and women laid down in Genesis. [2] Modern evangelicals either don’t believe Genesis, or don’t know how to apply the Bible’s types, and so are left bumping around in the dark regarding gender roles in the Church, and in the interpretation of their history. Roberts makes a lot of sense, so I’ll post it in full. He writes:

It seems to me that the picture is rather one-sided. More probably needs to be said about the manner in which disempowered women and disempowered clergy joined forces to bring about the reformation of men’s morals, epitomized by such things as the temperance movements of the 19th century. This alliance between women and the clergy was coupled with a sentimentalization and feminization of religion, as in many quarters religion became conformed to dominant forms of cultural sentimental femininity, operating on the assumption that women had a greater affinity with religion and according to the narrative of the woman who reforms wayward men by making them see things more like them.

This wasn’t the only thing that was going on at the time, of course. There was also the ‘muscular Christianity’ of such as Kingsley, with its commitment to an imperial model of masculinity, and the refined and aesthetic masculinity of the Oxford movement. However, this ‘feminization’ and ‘sentimentalization’ trend has had a significant effect upon the worship, piety, theology, image, and demographics of the Church in many quarters.

It led to a stigmatization of many stereotypically male traits, along with a celebration of many stereotypically female traits. Within such a context, Christian spirituality was increasingly colonized by the sort of sentiments that are usually reserved for cheap romantic paperbacks. The agonistic and martial language of much biblical piety was increasingly abandoned in favour of a rather sickly emotionalism.

The problem is that, in the process evangelical spirituality drifted further away from the sort of biblical patterns of spirituality that one finds in the psalms, which do not exalt sentiment and sentimentality to the position of dominance that it often possesses. Churches also lost contact with men, as churches increasingly ordered themselves around disempowered women and children and their forms of piety (in a related movement, Christian piety started to disconnect from the wider world of society, life, and work to focus ever more narrowly on the individual soul and its private spirituality). The expectation that men conform themselves to a culturally feminine sentimental model of spirituality (rather than the expectation that both men and women conform themselves to a biblical model of spirituality) encouraged men to view the Church as emasculating and irrelevant to their lives, or as an unwelcome imposition upon them to be borne grudgingly and passively.

If the full story of the evangelical transformation of masculinity is to be told, we need to take this part of the picture into account. The evangelical church has often tended to neuter its men in order to empower its women. Its celebration and empowerment of women within its walls has gone hand in hand with its cultural marginalization and disempowerment. It has also fallen prey to a gross distortion of biblical piety in the form of sentimental piety, which still prevails in many quarters. This sentimentalized evangelical church has proved more effective at producing milquetoasts, who are culturally ineffective, than it has at producing men and women of firm character who make a powerful impact in the wider society.

The ‘masculinization’ of the church championed by Driscoll and others is obviously not the answer, but the Church is generally ‘feminized’ in a profoundly unhealthy manner, and something needs to be done to address this. What we have at the moment is a culturally marginal or irrelevant institution where there are almost twice as many women as men, where men are more inclined to be passive, and where piety is overly fixated on sentiment and emotion. I hardly think that this this qualifies as a success in terms of the transformation of gender norms and the shape of society…

[I will] explain in more detail what I mean by the ‘feminization’ of the Church here. Gender identities are indeed largely socially constructed (which perhaps should not surprise us if our most fundamental identity as human persons is a symbolic one, rather than one of biological essence, as we are created images of God). The problem comes when a particular social construction of one gender, which has little to do with Scripture and is at odds with it at various points, becomes a norm that is increasingly imposed upon all within the Church. For instance, I think that it is fair to say that Mark Driscoll is attempting a ‘masculinization’ of the Church, without suggesting that the gender norms that he is working in terms of are anything but ones contingent upon the surrounding culture.

I believe that the last couple of centuries witnessed just such a conforming of the evangelical church to norms of a particular cultural gender identity, in the form of sentimental femininity. I don’t see this particular development in piety as having much to do with an attempt to conform to biblical patterns of piety. Rather, it seems to me to arise primarily out of particular set of historical circumstances in which the interests of clergy and women aligned against a dysfunctional masculinity, and men were increasingly expected to conform and submit themselves to a cultural form of femininity, rather than to Scripture.

[1] If you don’t understand Covenant-as-cause, please read my book, Bible Matrix II: The Covenant Key.
[2] See Liturgical Man, Liturgical Woman.

Share Button

Comments are closed.