In recent decades, evangelicals have invested a colossal amount of discipleship, activist, and publishing energy toward promoting “sexual purity” and a “biblical” vision for sexuality. Despite this, the pattern of scandal, abuse, and misconduct by men and male leaders makes clear that the purity movement has not solved the problem of unhealthy sexuality in the church. The #ChurchToo movement and related denomination-specific investigations have demonstrated that “sexual purity” is often a mere façade covering up deeper patterns of wickedness.
The crisis of abuse, dysfunction, and sexual violence in the church is downstream from a theologically deficient understanding of what it means to be male. Specifically, we have perpetuated a hypersexual vision of masculinity. These scandals and patterns of dehumanization have infected the church, not despite the purity movement but in many ways because of it.
It’s time to change the way we talk and think about male sexuality. This sub-Christian view of masculinity creates a culture in which men are allowed to wallow in ongoing sexual immaturity. It shouldn’t be surprising when dehumanizing theology leads to dehumanizing—and consequently sinful—behavior.
The church is beginning to grasp how purity culture objectifies women and dehumanizes them. What’s often less appreciated is the way the movement also has dehumanized men. If purity culture dehumanized women by treating them as sexual objects, it dehumanized men by casting them as sexual animals. If it hypersexualized women’s bodies, it hypersexualized men’s minds. Much of our rhetoric and resources adopted the culture’s assumption that men are helplessly and hopelessly hypersexual, a belief perpetuated in TV sitcoms and accepted in “locker-room talk.”
Christians will often critique the broader culture for its preoccupation with sex and sexual fulfillment, but the church is not innocent of fashioning its own sexual idols. While preaching abstinence and celibacy to singles and sexual minorities, some straight male preachers and authors turn around and gratuitously celebrate the glories of (male) sexual satisfaction in heterosexual marriage.
In a bizarre twist on the prosperity gospel, some Christian teachers have argued that following God’s design for sex is the path to your best sex life. Wives are charged to be more sexually available to their husbands as the solution to their struggles with pornography. Single men are told that God’s “provision” for their out-of-control sexual desires is marriage, reducing a covenant relationship to a permissible sexual outlet. Since sexual satisfaction subtly becomes normalized as the rightful inheritance of godly men, certain forms of male sexual entitlement are all too common.
The crisis of masculinity in the US goes far beyond sex and sexuality (data increasingly reveal drops in educational achievement, increased relational and romantic struggles, and patterns of domestic terrorism), but these topics have emerged as a crux of the conversation in the evangelical church, and for good reason.
We’ve seen girls be subjected to leering looks from men decades older than them. Some excuse marital rape on the grounds of a poor reading of 1 Corinthians 7. Men and boys who desperately want to quit looking at porn have trouble shaking the habit despite their best efforts in accountability and Scripture memory. Sermon clips and controversial books by well-known pastors go viral for all the wrong reasons.
Christians must forcefully resist the insinuation that masculinity and maleness are inherently toxic and dehumanizing. We must move beyond criticism and begin charting a course for positive and life-giving models of masculinity. And we can look to Jesus as our example.
First, we see the goodness of maleness in the Incarnation. Men and women are both created, affirmed, and blessed by God in creation (Gen. 1:26–28), and God’s Son himself came to earth embodied as a human man. And while it is true that Jesus is the model for true humanity, not simply for true masculinity, it is also true that his male embodiment can and should be uniquely instructive for men in how they think about and express their sexuality.
For example, we learn from Jesus that men do not need a sexual outlet to live fulfilled, self-controlled, and godly lives. Attaining to “true” manhood for many Christian boys and young men often implies a certain type of baptized sexual conquest—successfully wooing a wife and fathering children. Jesus did neither. If our script of masculinity has become so sex-centric that it excludes Jesus, perhaps it’s due for a revision.
Jesus also embodies a positive vision for nonsexual relationships with women. As John 4 makes clear, Jesus did not follow the Billy Graham Rule. He honored women with relationship and attention. In the Gospels, Jesus never utters a word about women’s clothing inciting men toward lust. But to men habituated toward overeroticizing women, he said: Cut off your hands and gouge out your eyes (Matt. 5:27–30).
Second, the death and resurrection of Christ inaugurates a new way to be human, and a new way to be human means there’s a new way to be male. The “old man” has died with Christ (Rom. 6:6). In a world given over to sinful flesh, too often, “boys will be boys.” But united with Christ in the Resurrection, boys can become mature, godly, gentle, self-controlled, and loving men.
Whatever “natural” or cultural inclinations we may associate with being male, if they tend toward sin and dehumanization, they have been put to death with Jesus on the cross. Christ’s death and resurrection means that masculinity need not be defined in terms of dominance, physical strength, hypererotic desire, sexual prowess, marriage, or the fathering of biological children.
Jesus’ kingdom does not reject the created goodness of sexuality, but it does decenter it. Living in imitation of Jesus, then, enables us to situate sex under the higher good of the flourishing of others. It frees men from the need to strive after a cultural narrative that focuses on a hypersexualized performance for the attainment of “true” manliness.
There’s a lot of deserved criticism that prevails in our current conversation around Christian masculinity. But what if we allowed ourselves to be captivated by a vision of redeemed masculinity? What if we dreamed of a church and a world where women do not live in fear of men? In Jesus’ kingdom, to paraphrase Micah 4:4, each woman will sit under her own fig tree, and no man will make her afraid.
But redeeming what it means to be male isn’t solely about protecting women from harm. It’s also about men’s joy. Do we really believe that new life in Christ offers men something better than the bodily pleasures of sex have to offer? Do we dare to hope that current and would-be abusers and sex addicts can be transformed by the power of the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead to be contributing and flourishing members of society? Can we expect broken men to find joy and grow in their capacity to love and serve others—as Jesus did?
The phrase “not all men” can be weaponized to silence abuse survivors and diminish problems and patterns of dehumanizing masculinity. At the same time, it is true that many men in the church already model a better way. Research shows, for example, that churchgoing men are significantly less likely than other men to have viewed porn in the past year. Many men take very seriously allegations of sexual abuse and would not hesitate to hold other men to account for these sins and crimes. Many fathers and male mentors teach boys from a young age to respect and honor others as sexual beings created in the image of God.
These role models already exist in our churches and communities. If we would open our eyes to see their quiet faithfulness, listen to their stories, hear their wisdom, and learn from their love, we may see that the slog of “every man’s battle” is not the only masculine script available to follow.
We can aspire to more for men. Not just to stop lashing out in violence or sinking into compulsive sexual behavior, but to become more truly human as advocates for justice, faithful friends, noble protectors, honorable husbands, and selfless lovers. As we look to Christ, the true man, we can become new men.
Zachary Wagner is editorial director for the Center for Pastor Theologians and the author of Non-Toxic Masculinity: Recovering Healthy Male Sexuality. Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column.
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