Masculinity, Marriage and Maturity
I’m a young(ish) man. Young men often get a bad rap in contemporary society. Apparently we are lazy, with a fear of commitment and a failure to take responsibility. Some say that we are in an extended adolescence. Obviously this isn’t universally true; I’m not even sure it describes a majority, but it probably is sometimes true and it certainly seems to be something people are worried about.
Sometimes in Christian circles, I hear this situation referred to as a crisis of masculinity. What we really need is for these young men to start being real men. And what that often means is that they need to get married. We call men to true masculinity through marriage.
And let’s be honest, sometimes such a call works. I have a friend who says he can relate to the stereotype of a young man in contemporary culture. In his younger years, that was him. And what helped him out of that was being challenged to be a man and get married. He heard that call and heeded that call, stepping into commitment and responsibility through marriage.
Marriage often does young men a lot of good. I’ve observed that in many of my male friends. In particular, I’ve observed that marriage is often good for the spiritual lives of my friends. Before marriage, their walk with Jesus seemed a bit lukewarm and half-hearted. In marriage, they seemed to quickly grow in maturity as a follower of Jesus.
It was this observation that really got me thinking about this phenomenon. It got me worried about single guys like me. If marriage is often the thing that helps young men get serious about being a follower of Jesus, what does that mean for men who don’t get married, and especially for those of us who are unlikely to ever get married? It seems to me that calling young men to true masculinity through marriage is problematic – it leaves some of us unable to be truly masculine and at risk of being unable to be real adults. (It also runs the risk of lumping young women with men who are still like teenagers and are not ready to take on the responsibilities of being a husband!)
But it’s also problematic because it’s clearly not what the Bible teaches. For one thing, the New Testament doesn’t call us to a certain form of masculinity. The New Testament authors lived in a world that had very clear ideas about masculinity – to be a man was to be one who mastered both oneself and others. Masculinity was mastery; femininity was being mastered. The form of your body wasn’t as important as the way you acted. Having a male body might give you a head start on being a man, but it didn’t guarantee that you would be considered a real man.
Into this context comes Jesus. A man who in his example and his teaching taught men (and women) to lay down any right they might have to master others and instead to use their position to serve others. A man who allowed himself to be mastered, to suffer at the hands of others, in order to benefit those who had wrongly tried to master their own lives and the lives of others. Jesus radically undercut his culture’s expectations about masculinity.
And, following the example of Jesus, the New Testament authors don’t partake in the masculinity games of their day. They recognised that being a man is a given identity, received through the gift of a male body, not created through acts of mastery. The New Testament doesn’t call men to masculinity; it calls men (and women) to Christlikeness.
The New Testament also doesn’t call us to marriage. Marriage is seen as a good gift, certainly. It’s seen as an opportunity to model the relationship of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:22-33). But men are not called to marriage in the New Testament. If there’s any challenge laid down for men in regards to relationships, it’s to seriously consider whether long-term singleness might be the right path for us (Matthew 19:12; 1 Corinthians 7:6-7, 8, 40). Marriage is good; so is singleness (and let’s be upfront, in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul says it’s better). The New Testament doesn’t call men to marriage; it calls men (and women) to faithful sexuality whether in marriage or, even better, singleness.
That means we have a problem. The New Testament doesn’t call men to masculinity or to marriage. And yet it seems Christian leaders often do. But what we men are called to is maturity. Maturity doesn’t equal masculinity and it doesn’t require marriage. Maturity can be lived out by men who fit all our cultural stereotypes about masculinity and by those who fit none of them. Maturity can be lived out by those who are married and those who are single. If that’s not been our experience, we might need to consider why: how can we help single men to grow into maturity?
So, let’s stop calling young men to masculinity and marriage. That’s not what God asks of us. But let’s start calling young men to maturity. And let’s do what we can to help them grow into that maturity.