Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Acting Like Men

“Act like men.”

Yesterday I watched a few seconds of video from the recent attempted mass shooting at the West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, Texas. It’s all up there on YouTube, of course. The church was livestreaming its service when the incident occurred.

Running Forward and Running Away

Lots of things might be said about such an appalling act, but the most obvious in this instance is that the shooter chose his target poorly. Unlike the Sutherland Springs shooting in 2017, where 26 Baptist churchgoers were killed and 20 more injured, this killing spree was terminated rather abruptly. A retired FBI agent and member of the congregation standing fifteen yards away put the shooter down with a single headshot before he was able to get off his third shot. (Sadly, both shots the spree-killer did fire were ultimately fatal.) But what is most remarkable to see is that when the shooter pulled his gun, no fewer than six congregants pulled theirs in response. That’s Texas for you.

In the video, it is impossible to miss the fact that all six individuals running toward the conflict are males. The church’s womenfolk — and rightly so, I might add — can be seen hiding in the pews or pulled to the floor and covered by husbands and fathers.

Notwithstanding the immense societal impact of feminism, Christians see nothing weird about drawing hard lines between gender roles in times of crisis. Nor, for the most part, do the unsaved, at least when lives are at stake. Even the national media prudently allowed the egregious lack of proportional feminine representation among the armed responders at West Freeway Church to pass without comment.

Sometimes the patriarchy isn’t so awful after all. But is that what Paul meant when he wrote, “Act like men”? Maybe not precisely.

The End of the Letter

The apostle Paul is closing his letter to the Christians in Corinth. As is common not just for Paul but for many letter writers, his comments are getting shorter and less obviously related to one another. He’s past the serious doctrinal passages, has made his practical applications in a number of areas of Christian living, and now he’s pretty much bringing it all home.

So he tells them, “Act like males.” The Greek is andrizomai, one word. And it’s not “men” as in “mankind”, but “men” as in “husband”, “father” and so on. Behave like a particular sort of human being: the kind that carries the Y chromosome.

What are we to make of that?

Well, we can be pretty sure he’s not saying, “Watch football, drink beer, fart and tell rude jokes.” He’s not even saying, “Bring your gun to church and be ready to defend your fellow believers,” though that is certainly better than watching them get shot one after another. He’s not holding up masculinity in general as some kind of ideal, let alone some of the more sophomoric features of maleness that have found their way into our modern stereotypes.

The Limitations of Word Studies

In our effort to understand Paul, we’re not going to get much out of picking apart the word andrizomai, or trying to compare this particular use to other uses of the same word in scripture. This is the only time the word appears in our Bibles. My online Strong’s tells me the word is used by writers like Xenophon, Plato, Appian and Plutarch, but good luck isolating those references and parsing them for clues unless you are very familiar with ancient Greek literature. The average Bible student is simply not going to find his way into the original source material with any ease.

Furthermore, etymology may not be particularly helpful even if we could analyze andrizomai’s usage in the literature of the day. Students of language know that new words are often coined with very specific meanings, and that this specificity tends to erode over time as the word becomes part of the vernacular. In this case, assuming andrizomai was in use for a century or two at least, it would not be surprising to find that masculinity was no longer the chief characteristic the word called to mind for the average Greek. By the mid-first century, “act like men” may well have meant not much more than “be courageous”, regardless of the sex of the person to whom the command was directed. Even more likely, the intended contrast in Corinthians could be between men and boys rather than men and women. The apostle may be saying, “Act like an adult. Be responsible.” That certainly suits the general tone of the book, which is not directed to a suffering church, but rather to an immature one.

Immediate Context and Application

Despite the terse nature of many of Paul’s closing statements, there is also a little bit of immediate context to consider. The text reads, “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.” If indeed the apostle is counselling his readers to behave like males, then he is probably looking at a subset of appropriately male characteristics, not the entire spectrum. Good men are watchful, firm and strong. They stand for what they believe. They protect the weak. They keep an eye out for problems and deal with them before they become bigger problems.

Was that the men of West Freeway Church? Yeah, kind of.

Would Christians of both sexes benefit from being watchful, firm and strong? Certainly. Would a church be better off if its women distinguished themselves from its men by being inattentive, feeble and unstable? Of course not. Even if Paul turns out to be primarily addressing men, both sexes can benefit from applying what he is saying to themselves to the best of their ability.

But in the end, Greek is not our first language, and we are living a couple of thousand years down the road from the time Paul wrote his letter. It is not possible to be dogmatic about what the apostle intended by “act like men”, though we can certainly limit the possibilities by ruling out the ridiculous. The more general interpretations I’m advocating (“be brave” or “act like adults”) are the most uncontroversial guess at understanding what Paul intended, and they are certainly the way modern evangelical women are most inclined to read it.

A Thought Experiment

All the same, we need to be careful not to lose the force of Paul’s command in our rush to appear egalitarian, to miss his likely reasons for giving it, or to fail to understand the most urgent way in which it needed to be applied in Corinth.

So let’s do a little thought experiment. If all Paul was really doing was commending bravery equally for both sexes, he could easily have used less ambiguous words like tharsos or tharreō. If all he meant is that both men and women should behave maturely, he could have chosen teleios, which implies completeness or full development. He didn’t have to introduce the question of maleness or gender differences at all. The Greek language certainly didn’t compel it.

So let’s just suppose for a moment that andrizomai really does mean “act like males”, and that what the apostle is advocating is really not the sort of behavior we tend to associate primarily with the fairer sex. Would that be such an outrageous interpretation?

Setting Appropriate Standards for Men

You see, there is real value in singling out males and asking them to live up to a specific standard of mature, uniquely masculine behavior, failing which everyone will acknowledge that their conduct is something less than acceptable. Thirty years ago, the son of a non-practicing Algerian Muslim and a former Catholic nun went on a shooting rampage in the École Polytechnique de Montréal, murdering fourteen women and wounding ten others, as well as injuring four men. He specifically targeted women, claiming feminism had ruined his life.

He began by entering a second-floor classroom and ordering over fifty male students out of the room. Unlike the men of West Freeway Church of Christ, the men of École Polytechnique simply complied. These engineering students felt no special obligation to “act like men”, to stand firm, to be courageous or strong. They felt no special obligation to watch out for anyone else. So they left, and Marc Lépine promptly shot the nine women they left behind them.

We quite appropriately find their conduct discreditable. I imagine those nine women did too during their last moments on earth. Better that ten or fifteen of those young men had died subduing the shooter (though likely no more than three or four would really have been required; Lépine was not exactly a behemoth, and you can’t fire a weapon in four directions simultaneously). Better for the women, and better for them.

More Than Superior Upper Body Strength

There is a time for men to act like men, and there is a time when only men can. It’s not just when superior upper body strength or speed are required. In the New Testament church, men are assigned specific leadership obligations which women are not. It is the responsibility of males to guard the flock and to oversee the people of God. It is the responsibility of males to silence insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers. It is the responsibility of males to give instruction in sound doctrine and rebuke those who contradict it. These are not tasks God has assigned to women, and rightly so.

Of course there were both men and women in the church at Corinth, but it was the men who were uniquely obligated to lead the congregation responsibly. The failures of Corinth were thus first and foremost male failures, just as the theologians of the New Testament hold Adam responsible for the fall of man in a way they do not hold Eve. The partisan divisions of 1 Corinthians 1 were men failing to lead in Christian unity. Chapter 5’s passivity toward sexual immorality was men failing to lead in holiness and courage. The lawsuits of chapter 6 were men failing to lead in right judgment. (Seriously, how many Christian women do you figure were rushing to into court in the first century to sue one another? My guess would be not many.) The mess they were making of the Lord’s Supper in chapter 11? That was men failing to lead in worship.

Where the Responsibility Lies

Sure, there may well have been questionable theological opinions circulating among the Corinthian women. Perhaps there was gossip and squabbling and all kinds of girlish nastiness. Each of the problems Paul addresses surely had women who had contributed to them in some measure. That said, the responsibility for forcefully and spiritually dealing with these issues in the congregation was uniquely male. Should the apostle eventually appear in Corinth to set things straight, would any man in that congregation believe for a second that “My wife made me do it” would constitute a credible excuse? Come on.

Don’t get me wrong: for women to show foresight, strength and courage is a great thing. A congregation full of women of strong character exercising their various gifts cannot help but be a fantastic testimony to Christ. But even unusual foresight, courage and strength among the women in a congregation cannot possibly make up for husbands and fathers who repeatedly abdicate the responsibilities with which God has entrusted them. Godly women cannot take over the public teaching roles men have abandoned. They cannot shepherd or protect in the ways God has equipped men to. They cannot lecture the congregation back to sanity when it goes off course. That would not just be inappropriate, but also self-defeating.

In the church of God, the primary responsibility to act like men belongs to ... men. If we miss that, we have pretty much missed everything.

1 comment :

  1. A good thrust at the need for spiritual men to be what they are, and need, to be. As one older brother used to exhort, "women do not take the roles that God has given to men; but men, you also don't take the roles that G od has given women. There is vast blessing to be doing what God has set out for you."