Rebuilding the social grammar of masculinity

To restore men’s confidence in what it means to be men, we need to work beyond individual performance and judgment. We must re-establish the kind of tacit cues that other cultures have taken for granted as shaping masculine (and feminine) expression.

In building a positive theology of manhood, a significant task is mapping the boundaries between men and women. This also naturally results in mapping the boundaries of effeminacy. We use the word mapping very intentionally; we are here as cartographers, not as eye surgeons.

The Bible speaks of malakia (effeminacy or softness) as gross sin that excludes us from God’s kingdom (1 Cor 6:9–10). Moreover, it speaks of it as if its nature is obvious. The fact that we have lost the ability to easily identify effeminacy—that we as a culture are generally shocked or amused at the very idea that a man might be (or feel like) a malakos, a soft man—is a central problem. Paul says that malakoi will not inherit the kingdom of God. He treated being malakia as a weighty thing; a thing of such seriousness that it prevented you even entering the kingdom, let alone coming into the court of the king (i.e., corporate worship).

Yet when we raise this issue, most Christians will immediately push back. They want to qualify. They want nuance. They start bemoaning what all enlightened 21st-century westerners “know:” that it’s just impossible to be sure what constitutes softness in men. Who is to say that a garment or a mannerism or a hobby is soft? We need to reason it through so carefully. We need to make very sure we can set clear boundaries and rigorously demonstrate them propositionally. We must be able to define softness in order to know it.

What they really want is cultural relativism. And so they do what every rational, Enlightenment-educated person does when seeking to understand something: scientific reductionism. They break it down into its component parts to measure and analyze.

This silk blouse is soft and effeminate, you say? How dare you sir—I have news for you! I have tested every thread of this blouse, and discovered that each one by weight is stronger than steel! Steel I say—is that soft?! And the buttons—pure ivory. What do you think of that then? From an elephant. An African bull elephant. Tore up a tree with those tusks right before it was shot by a man—a man mind you—with a rifle and a mustache. So you see sir, we have found no softness or effeminacy here at all.

Right, but you didn’t find a blouse either.

Strangely, when it comes to other aesthetic matters that relate to sexual sin, they are quite confident in their powers of discernment without the need for careful definition or argument, and quite unconcerned about being too cautious about edge cases. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was famously unable to define pornography, yet claimed, “I know it when I see it.” Any modern Christian would agree, yet cannot know effeminacy when he sees it.

Subjective gender expression grows out of objective sexual nature

Just like porn, the sexual sin of effeminacy is sometimes objective and sometimes subjective.

But as a culture, we have destroyed the social grammar that we once used for deciding whether something was effeminate or not. Once, we had our own cultural conventions, built on top of the objective substrate of nature. These conventions gave structure and commonality to our expression and perception of sexuality. They largely prevented us swinging into wild relativism.

We no longer have these. We destroyed them over the last century.

What It’s Good to Be a Man is partly about is re-establishing our own grammar of masculinity. We don’t expect everyone to agree on it, but we’re not going to endlessly argue it either. For instance, we recently had an involved discussion about the propriety of singing He Will Hold Me Fast in corporate worship (i.e., the heavenly court). That discussion prompted this post; if a song sounds like a boy band Disney cover, it just goes in the malakia basket. There’s nothing hard about it. It’s simple. It’s not relativism or being ruled by our feelings; quite the opposite. Given our culture and the meaning of boy bands and Disney movies, it’s obviously effeminate, it obviously doesn’t reflect strength, command, wisdom etc, and the people who want to argue about it are not on board with us and probably never will be. They’re probably the same kind of people who are trying to find Christian themes in overtly ungodly movies and other such TGC-esque skubalon. They’re probably the same people endlessly finessing the technical details of Greek grammar in 1 Timothy 2:12–14 in order to discover what it really means. It’s not because they’re trying to avoid being led by their feelings into overly-expansive generalizations or legalism or relativism. It’s because they are being led by their feelings to avoid the obvious.

The apostle Paul expected us to know effeminacy when we see it. He probably never imagined it could be so hard, because he probably never imagined a culture that would destroy its social grammar. He probably never imagined a culture that would ardently tear down the natural boundaries between men and women for over a century, until the very notion of a man acting like a woman, and vice versa, was no longer a thing that existed to be taken seriously. He probably assumed there would be real shame and ridicule reserved for being effeminate if you were a man, or butch if you were a woman. He assumed this because blurring the lines between the genders is so unnatural and ungodly that virtually no culture before ours has ever attempted it on a wide scale, and certainly not with the concerted and persistent effort that we have. The only shame and ridicule we now reserve is for those who uphold these distinctions that Paul took as so integral to knowledge of sin and salvation. The only disapproval and mockery we have left are for those who refuse to blur the lines that God treats as so important in corporate worship. And this is as true within the church as without; a prime example being the utter rejection of head coverings as “humiliating.” Indeed, the church has been active in facilitating the blurring of gender since the beginning.

Unfortunately, with most Christians this is the exact point in dispute. Thus there is no common ground upon which to work toward agreement. How can we reason together about more ambiguous and culturally-contextual cases of effeminacy if the clear and universal foundation of such reasoning is not first agreed? We cannot; and so why would we waste time and energy tilling barren soil, or worse, being trampled by swine? We’re eager to work with other explorers to refine the map, but we have no interest in performing ophthalmic exams.