Illustration by Andrew Fairclough
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” — Matthew 1:18-19
We all saw the Gillette ad. Posing the question, “Is this the best a man can get?” the ad depicts men challenging other men (and boys) for behaviors such as objectifying women and bullying. With the clear message that the next generation is watching and learning how to be men, it is the kind of content one could imagine being produced in the 1990s by an organization such as Focus on the Family or Promise Keepers.
Except, of course, that it was produced in January 2019 by a company that, ironically, has traded for years on the idea that its products give men more power over women. Appearing in the wake of the #MeToo movement and in the midst of a national conversation about “toxic masculinity,” the ad and the phrase became controversial, as noted in a piece by Maya Salam, “What Is Toxic Masculinity?” in The New York Times.
Salam equates toxic masculinity with what the American Psychological Association (APA) calls “traditional masculinity ideology,” summarizing its clinical manifestations as “suppressing emotions or masking distress,” “maintaining an appearance of hardness,” and “violence as an indicator of power.” “In other words,” Salam writes, “toxic masculinity is what can come of teaching boys that they can’t express emotion openly; that they have to be ‘tough all the time’; that anything other than that makes them ‘feminine’ or weak.” This ideology is thought, then, to manifest itself frequently in the behaviors called out in the Gillette ad, as well as worse ones exhibited by predatory men whose stories make headlines — including those within the church.
That there are sinful expressions of specifically male behavior that tend especially to harm female persons is not news to readers of the Bible. Christians have always known about toxic masculinity, whether or not we used the term. When it comes to its causes and composition, however, we might expect the Christian perspective to differ from that of the secular culture. Clarifying any distinctions about what is and is not toxic means defining a positive vision of masculinity, and that requires going all the way back to the beginning.
Rooted in Nature
“Masculinity that is divorced from responsibility to community, to oneself, and to God is toxic.”
Stripping away headlines and advertisements reveals more common ground between believers and the culture than we might initially expect. The entire discussion rests on the fundamental assumption that male and female are different from each other, yet equal in value, dignity, and humanity. Believers will insist that toxicity cannot be something built into either gender (“Male and female created He them … and it was very good.”). Here, too, secular sources such as Salam and the APA agree insofar as they consider “traditional masculinity ideology” to be the result of socialization or nurture. As Salam writes, this “does not mean that all men are inherently toxic” by nature.
American Christians may look with skepticism at terminology that conflates the “traditional” with the “toxic,” but we do know that the fallenness now included in nature plays a role in how masculinity manifests itself. There are good reasons as well for focusing the analysis of toxicity on men.
“We pinpoint masculinity because men are physically and socially more powerful,” says Christian writer and speaker Hannah Anderson. “We have to resist messages that say there is something inherently dangerous about being male,” she says. “But without a moral framework that calls them to operate in care of those who are weaker, men will be more dangerous, not because they are more evil, but because they have more capacity to harm those around them.”
Anderson is the author of “Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God’s Image.” Having explored the question of expressing the imago Dei as a member of a particular gender, she takes a few philosophical steps from the creation of Adam to what we might call a biblical concept of masculinity today. Only then, she says, can we properly consider the question of toxicity in male attitudes and behaviors.
For Anderson, the matter of being human comes before any question of gender, which is something we share with the other animals. This is crucial because proper expressions of gender are rooted both in biology and in the special place humans occupy as image bearers in God’s created order.
“In a culture informed by Darwinian thought,” Anderson points out, “maleness acts like it does in the animal kingdom: unfettered, driven by survival, aggression, and reproduction. But insofar as it is aware of the imago Dei, a culture will alter its sense of masculinity so that it is more shaped by being offspring of the divine.”
Anderson’s summary of biblical masculinity, then, is “a male human being living at peace with God, himself, and others in the world around him. This must be defined by the vision in Genesis of flourishing, of shalom, of rightness of relationship with God, ourselves, others, and creation.”
Humans are tied to created bodies, which means living this way will play out differently for men than for women. Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief at Mere Orthodoxy, where he has written since 2011. He has been in the PCA for 10 years.
“When you read Paul, you see that he appeals a lot to a creation order,” Meador says. “The design of our bodies is fixed, and this tells us something about masculinity and femininity that we cannot ignore.”
There is a danger, Meador says, in being too prescriptive about what is appropriately masculine or feminine. Because the New Testament epistles address only some contexts in a Roman culture, Christians must be careful about exceeding its actual requirements — or, in effect, “baptizing our cultural model of gender roles,” as Meador puts it.
“When Paul says to Titus that younger women should work in the home, does he mean laundry and floors? That seems more of a postwar industrial idea of domesticity, with the husband earning an income outside the home, than a biblical or even historical idea,” he says. By contrast, Proverbs 31 presents a more entrepreneurial picture of a wife. “We need to recognize what is and what is not in the text and be careful about binding consciences.”
On the other hand, Meador observes that it is equally mistaken to constrain all notions of gender difference to behavior within churches and households.
“The Bible gives us principles for existing as men or women, and those do not flex to infinity,” he explains. “Paul is telling us there are non-arbitrary differences written into our bodies, but relevant outside our bodies.” Thus, the church has truth to convey about the appropriate expression of masculinity in spheres beyond the familial and ecclesiastical.
Service, sacrifice, and prioritizing the needs of others are at the core of Christian morality because these are exactly the things that reflect what Christ has done for believers. It follows that Christian masculinity will demonstrate these in distinctly male ways.
“Our physical embodiment is a gifting,” says Hannah Anderson. For men, some of this gifting, such as greater body mass and testosterone, is directly physical. Other aspects of male giftedness flow from sexual design. “Men have a brief engagement in reproduction that leaves them free to pursue other things,” she says. “Carrying a child for nine months and then nursing that child is a particular kind of gifting for women. That men do not do this is a particular kind of gifting for them.”
Still other gifts — and here one might use the word “privilege” — are realized in social and cultural contexts. “If you are part of the physically larger class and your experience in society differs because you are male, that is a gifting,” Anderson continues. “It is not something to be ashamed of, but to be used as a resource.” The over-arching point is that all these gifts of maleness come with responsibilities.
“Christianity says that we have an identity given to us from many directions, including our biology,” says Jake Meador. This is in contrast to the individualistic notion that human beings can define their own identities, including choosing any obligations that might come along with them. As an example of this, Meador suggests that having a disabled parent places an unchosen obligation on a person that is a part of that person’s identity.
“Agape masculinity is attentive to those callings. The proper utilization of strength is to fulfill the responsibilities given to us by our identity,” Meador said.
The most obvious application of this is in sexuality, marriage, and family. “Part of the giftedness of male sexuality is that there is nothing physical that binds them to a child they create or to the woman they slept with,” says Anderson. “Instead, men have to bind themselves faithfully.” This opportunity to choose virtue is one way image bearers are intended to act.
Meador agrees. “If we value life and want to see more of it, then we see that creating life renders women uniquely vulnerable,” he notes. “So there is a call for men to use their strength to create space for the woman and child to thrive.”
The Bible’s calling of married men to self-sacrifice on behalf of their families is abundantly clear. But this principle can be reasonably applied outward to many other facets of life. Our modern cultural context presents any number of opportunities for men to deploy masculine strength in ways that are right and good, fostering safety rather than fear or discomfort. The corporate workplace is one example.
It is easy to envision a conference room full of workers displaying testosterone-driven behaviors as they discuss a contentious issue. Raised voices, interruptions, and aggressive attacks on different points of view may always be impolite, but among competitive people, they may go largely unmarked and occur without offense being taken. True strength, however, will be attuned to the quieter voices in the room, whether male or female. A man is justly masculine, then, if he skillfully uses his position of relative power to make sure softer voices are heard respectfully. This may also have the added business value of bringing forward a new, superior idea from someone who has been reflecting quietly on the problem at hand.
What Is Toxic?
If righteous masculinity means fulfilling obligations — even unchosen ones — to others outside oneself, then arriving at a working definition of toxic masculinity is straightforward. As Hannah Anderson states it, “Masculinity that is divorced from responsibility to community, to oneself, and to God is toxic.” Words such as “selfish,” “immature,” and “irresponsible” come to mind. These adjectives certainly apply to many men we might call toxic, though the picture is somewhat different from the APA’s description of suppressed or masked emotion. More to the point is the question of what specific behaviors should be called toxic.
It should be easy for Christians to agree that the abuse, harassment, and sexual objectification of women (including, for example, leering and suggestive comments) are wrong in all cases. So far, so good.
Beyond this, the conservative impulse is to fret that the world’s definition of toxicity is too broad, wrongly including stereotypical behaviors such as competitiveness and physicality in confrontation. Are we to believe it is toxic when two little brothers wrestle with each other? Or to feel the exhilarating thrill of victory or the sickening agony of defeat instead of some serene sense of satisfaction over a game well played? Was it toxic for Jesus to turn over the tables at the temple? It is easy from here to descend to the caricature that the only nontoxic men are the ones sitting around a campfire, tearfully singing “Kum Ba Yah.”
An overbroad cultural definition of toxicity may be an initial concern, but the reality is more likely the opposite: The world’s definition is far too narrow. It will not say, for example, that any man who indulges his sexual desire with a woman without committing his future to her in marriage is behaving toxically. This is the church’s position, and it is true even when she consents, and even when he can afford financially to support any children born out of their relationship. For single Christian men, it goes uncomfortably further. Even a nominally chaste dating relationship can be toxic if it is not oriented toward the end of marriage.
The notion that there could be anything morally amiss with casual dating is nonsensical to a secular culture, especially as long as the parties play the game according the rules of informed consent (“Just so you know, I’m not ready for a serious relationship.”). But for the Christian man, this selfish refusal to be tied down is the antithesis of godly masculinity. The man who is not ready to pursue marriage is not ready to date.
“Toxic masculinity is maleness that takes all the privilege, but does not fulfill the responsibility,” reminds Hannah Anderson. She believes this is happening within the church, with important ramifications. “Christian men have not made choices toward [marriage] and fatherhood, and they have not pursued this intentionally.” According to Anderson, the church has not invested enough of its discipling capital preparing men for family and fatherhood, teaching them that this is a social responsibility as much as an individual one.
“We don’t talk like this to young men,” Anderson explains. “Instead, we prepare them for their careers, their callings. But we don’t tell them that their careers only have purpose in service of community, including their families first.”
This discipleship gap has consequences. “I lay the responsibility for the singleness of many Christian women at the feet of Christian men,” says Anderson. “They aren’t thinking about a life partner, a family, or future generations. Instead, they are thinking that they aren’t willing to commit until they find the one girl who’s good enough to give up all other women for.” According to Anderson, allowing men to live with this kind of unchallenged selfish privilege is definitionally toxic. It requires a prophetic response.
The church has a chance to present a vision of masculinity that differs from both its chauvinistic and its transactional, consent-based incarnations, both of which are toxic. “If Christianity is good news,” says Jake Meador, “then what it teaches about sexuality and our distinctiveness is also good news. There is no implicit competition between flourishing and biblical truth. These teachings actually free us to be what we were intended to be.”
This includes the courage to confront bullies and demand that other men respect women, both of which are on display in Gillette’s ad. And, yes, it includes men who will run into burning buildings, respond to 911 calls, and fight what we must pray will be rare wars.
Most situations demanding this sort of selfless strength, though, will not appear so outwardly heroic. Joseph provides one biblical example. His intentions toward Mary when he assumed her unfaithfulness show his willingness, even as the aggrieved party, to protect and preserve the dignity of someone in a weaker social position. He was willing to bear a cost to treat her honorably, as indeed he may have by staying with her.
Like Joseph, the nontoxic man thinks actively about the needs of others, both individually and communally, because he knows he is part of something bigger. He lays down his life for them, literally, if necessary. He behaves not like the first Adam, who selfishly blamed his bride, but like the Second, who gave Himself up for His. This is the kind of man the world urgently needs.
Phil Mobley is a writer and consultant living in the Boston area.