The Male and the Manly: The lie of two-tiered masculinity that we’re peddling in the church
Kenny winced as the needle pressed into his skin. Then he set his jaw.
The pain felt good.
He thought about the “men” back on campus. The guy who held the door for him as he walked into class. The music major who was humming a Disney song in the dorm hallway.
He wished the tattoo artist would press the needle in deeper. More pain. More manly.
Kenny was in the middle of an identity crisis. He was growing up; stepping out of boyhood, into manhood. His issue was this: he didn’t really know what being a man was. He knew there must be a set of guidelines, a checklist for ultimate manliness. He just couldn’t quite figure out what items were on the list.
His confusion resulted in deep frustration and insecurity followed by an attempt to reject anything that felt slightly effeminate and embrace the hyper-masculine.
The journey had led him into a tattoo parlor getting the Greek word “ἀνδρίζομαι” tattooed onto his bicep. He came across the word as he was doing his quiet time in 1 Corinthians, where it had been translated, “act like men.” Being a first-year Greek student, he looked up the Greek translation in his textbook and set up an appointment to get it permanently imprinted on his skin.
It was perfect, the culmination of his struggle. He wasn’t quite sure what being a man was, but he loved the idea of having a constant reminder to himself— and others—that it was their duty to act like men.
He vaguely envisioned “ἀνδρίζομαι” meant something about not holding doors for other guys and not singing show tunes in hallways, but he wasn’t quite sure.
From what I’ve seen, Kenny’s struggle is not uncommon. Many young men hit a speed bump as they transition from adolescence to adulthood. They’re either left groping around in the dark, trying to figure out what manhood is and how to get there. Or they’ve been given a strict roadmap to manhood that they’re struggling to follow.
I’ve been kicking around this problem for a while, and here’s what I’ve concluded: This struggle comes down to a lie that the world started and the church adopted: That manhood comes in two tiers.
The first tier we achieve by simply being old enough to be called a man.
The second tier—the tier where “real men” reside—has requirements.
Those requirements vary by culture and subculture, but they’re always present. Many of us in the Christian subculture have adopted the lie of two-tiered masculinity but added a Christian twist. We use the world’s inadequate structure for masculinity, only substituting Christian principles for the worldly ones.
Some cultures say in order to be a real man, you must be sexually experienced.
We say in order to be a real man, you must be sexually pure.
Some cultures say in order to be a real man, you must have a muscle-bound physique.
We say in order to be a real man, you must use your strength to protect the weak.
Some cultures say that in order to be a real man you must make a lot of money.
We say that in order to be a real man, you must provide for your family.
Some cultures say that in order to be a real man you must have a solid career.
We say that in order to be a real man, you must have a solid family.
Going a little deeper, I think there’s another lie at play: the mistaken belief that we are what we do. That our activity—our choices—creates our identity.
In scripture, it’s the opposite.
Abram became Abraham—which means father of the multitude—before he even had one child.
Simon became Peter, “the rock” on which Christ would build his church before the church even existed.
And we became children of God without ever acting like people deserving of such a title.
In God’s economy, identity—including our identity as men—is granted as a gift that we get to mature into. And that maturing can take many different paths and forms.
In order to build up the young men in our youth ministries, we need to instill the confidence that God already granted them the identity of manhood. It’s done. They don’t need to earn it. There are no checklists.
They will grow into men.
They might grow into a man who likes fashion or a man who likes hunting.
A man who never marries or a man who marries and has several children.
A man who has complex sexual attractions or a man who loves women.
And if we come from a theological tradition that believes that God has given certain responsibilities to men, we should be talking about these from a perspective of identity first. That God has already secured their masculinity and he has some special jobs for them as a result.
It’s human nature to act in line with how we see ourselves, so if we help teens see themselves accurately, the activity will follow the identity.
Without a checklist of what it means to be a man, how do we build up young men in their God-given masculine identities?
I think we should start with ourselves. We should identify any masculine “checklists” we have personally believed for ourselves or the guys in our lives.
For guys: have we believed the lie of two-tiered masculinity for ourselves?
For women: do you see guys in two tiers, the male and the manly?
Chances are, whatever framework we’re working from, we’re going to pass that on to the teens we’re ministering to.
This framework shows up in ways that we might not expect. For example, we might choose certain activities for guys-only events based on what we believe guys should be like.
Activities like sports or video games may hit a large cross-section of the fellas, but it can also cause despair and disillusionment for the guys who don’t fit the mold. I always recommend doing a variety of activities to hit a wider cross-section.
For example, at the last guys’ all-niter I organized, we included: sports, video games, a lesson, food, a card tournament, a movie and graffiti art on t-shirts. Every person was not enamored with each activity, but there was an activity for every person.
Another way to teach teens about their masculine identity is to be explicit about it. Tell them that it’s OK to be “different” and still be a guy. Just because they have interests that are commonly associated with girls doesn’t make them “one of the girls.” It makes them a guy who happens to have interests that are outside of the cultural norm.
I realize that I’m writing this from a particular perspective and that there are complicating factors and questions that I don’t have space to address. For example, how do we minister to guys who feel like they should have been born girls? Are there special considerations for female ministers as they seek to teach boys about masculinity?
It’s complicated. I know.
I also want to note that I believe the church has adopted an erroneous two-tiered view of femininity, but having no personal experience there, I’m probably not the right person to parse that out.
All I know, from personal experience and ministering to others, is that figuring out what it means to be a man can be a difficult and rocky journey. But if we can encourage our young men to look to God for their masculine identity rather than arbitrary checklists, they will be better off.
Ash SanFilippo has done youth ministry from the streets of Chicago, to a small church on a secluded island, to the suburbs of Minneapolis. He currently works for TreeHouse, leading a team that creates online training content aimed at helping people minister to at-risk teens. Ash lives in Minneapolis with his wife and 1-year-old son. Check out TreeHouse at: TREEHOUSEYOUTH.ORG.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.