Saturday, 6 December 2008

Men of God’s Word

An address given to the Benefice Men's Breakfast.

The original subject I was given for addressing this men’s breakfast was ‘Being men of God’s word.’ The more I thought about this, however, the more I became convinced that the important word here was ‘men’.

The talk I would give on ‘God’s word’ would be no different for a women’s breakfast, or indeed a children’s group (though in the latter case would be pitched differently).

The question then becomes, ‘What does it mean to be a man of God’s word?’ What is special — what indeed is specific — about being a man from a Christian point of view?

Quit yourselves ...

In the closing verses of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (16:13) is an exhortation which was once famous in the English language for its force and brevity in the King James’ Version:

Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men ...

To the modern ear, however, ‘quit yourself like a man’ doesn’t make any sense. The modern sense of the word ‘quit’ is to resign, to stop, to leave-off. So the NIV translates it ‘be men of courage’.

But that rather misses the sense and the subtlety of the Greek. The word ‘quit’ here means ‘act’: ‘behave like men’. Yet even that is much more elaborate than Paul’s Greek, which just has one word: andrizesthe!

It is an imperative, a word of command, and it means simply ‘be men’. But what is it to ‘be a man’? Paul’s meaning is clear from the context, where there are four imperatives in the one verse: watch, stand fast in the faith, be men, be strong.

A man’s a man ...

The important thing, for our purposes, is that Paul evidently expected his readers to know exactly what he meant by ‘being men’. Moreover, he obviously thought this was a good thing — indeed that it was what we would call a virtue.

It is as much a virtue as what Paul goes on to say in the next verse: ‘Do everything in love.’

We would have no problem recognizing this as a Christian virtue. But the next thing to notice, therefore, is that there is no contradiction between the virtue of ‘doing everything in love’ and the virtue of ‘being men’.

Paul does not address one command to the tough types and another to the tender types: you tough types be men, and you tender types be loving. No, there is one connected thought:

Be watchful, stand fast in the faith, be men, be strong, do everything in love.

The point is, we don’t have to give up being men to be good Christians. It is not a case of ‘be less of a man, be more of a lover’. The Christian man can and must do both. His identity as a man must be moulded by his Christianity.

But at the same time, he must bring his manliness to his Christianity. If we are to be men of God’s word we must be men. We cannot obey Paul’s command and at the same time not bring to the table what Paul commands us to bring.

Men of Courage?

One of my favourite maxims, however, is that our strength is always our weakness. The very thing that is our best point is often also the key to our worst point. The intellectual is sometimes too cerebral, the feeling person doesn’t think enough, and so on.

And so when it comes to the Christian life, the very thing that makes men ‘manly’ is the thing that will most readily prevent them being good Christians.

Amongst men, courage may arise out of a sense of reputation. In his book Redcoat, Richard Holmes writes this about officers and men in the 18th century British army:

A soldier of the 95th who helped bandsman carry wounded to the rear was shunned by his former comrades, and [private Edward] Costello thought that ‘no good soldier would venture, under so frivolous a pretext, to expose himself to the indignation of his comrades, excepting for any very extreme cases.’ At the Alma, Colin Campbell widened the field in which status could be lost by warning that ny solider who left the ranks to help the wounded would have his name posted up in his parish kirk [church].

Benjamin Harris observed that:

It is indeed curious how much a man loses or gains caste with is comrades from his behaviour, and how closely he is observed in the field. The officers, too, are commented on and closely observed. Their men are very proud of those who are brave in the field and kind and considerate to the men under them. (400-401)

Courage is motivated by what men think of one another, and by what men think other men think of them.


The problem for men of faith, then, is not that they are afraid of being religious, but that they are afraid of being thought to be soft or cowardly by other men.

This goes a long way to explaining why mosques are full of men and churches are largely empty. Islam is a man’s religion in every sense. The men are in control. The men are the ones who pray in the main part of the mosque. The women are sent in and out through the side door and made to sit in a separate room, out of sight of the men and often unable to see or be seen by the male preacher.

More insidiously, but just as importantly, the heroes of Islam are the mujahideen — the warriors who fight in the cause of Islam. People may not like the idea, but no one is going to think someone is ‘unmanly’ for embracing Islam.

On the contrary, to embrace Islam itself says to other men that you are a ‘man of courage’. To embrace Christianity, however, is to have one’s courage called into question.

A different kind of courage

What being a man of God’s word calls for, therefore, is the courage to risk being misunderstood — the courage that risks being marginalised and isolated.

Yet this courage was also once counted a virtue. It is celebrated in Kipling’s poem, If:

IF you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise

... and so on. And significantly, Kipling’s poem ends after all these ‘ifs’,

Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

The man does not, according to this poem, count the opinions of other men too highly, and for this reason, has a reputation amongst men.

Christian virtues?

But are these cultural values or Christian virtues? I would venture to say they are (or were) common virtues, but with a Christian nuance or expression.

Courage, for example, is a common virtue. The Christian nuance is to offset the obvious manly virtues with the not so obvious. It occurs where Paul says, “Be men, do everything in love.”

It is the virtue which Christ commends when he says, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” People have laid down their lives for all sorts of things, and it takes courage to do so. But Christ commended it above all when it is done out of love.

However, if the primary concern is merely a matter of ‘saving face’, of not being reviled or seen to be a coward, that leads not to virtuous behaviour but to vice.

It is the constant emphasis on ‘saving face’ which seems to lead to so many teenage knifings and killings — what the Detroit police in one study called ‘trivial altercation’ homicides. The rational fear of fighting or being hurt is overcome by a bigger fear — of being seen to be slighted.

By contrast, the Christian is called to set self aside, and so courage serves others, not self. And this produces a unique character.

Christian Character?

Theodore Dalrymple has written of the British character as it once was:

Many [foreign observers] remarked upon the gentleness of British behavior in public. Homicidal violence and street robberies were vanishingly rare. [...] Vast sporting crowds would gather in such good order that sporting events resembled church meetings, as both George Orwell and anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer (writing in 1955) noted.

[...] The crowds were almost self-regulating; as late as the early sixties, the British read with incredulity reports that, on the Continent, wire barriers, police baton charges, and tear gas were often necessary to control crowds. [...]

The English must have been the only people in the world for whom a typical response to someone who accidentally stepped on one’s toes was to apologize oneself.

It is not, obviously, that only Christians could be polite, or that only the English could be modest. But I would venture to suggest it is that over centuries of exposure, the Christian gospel impinged upon the English character.

The English of long ago had a bad reputation. The English of the present also have that reputation. It was for a brief period that things so coincided as to produce a noble national character.

Now it is down to the individual. We can no longer rely on our culture to instil that character. And so we must here and respond to Paul’s imperative, “Quit yourselves like men. Do everything in love.”

John Richardson
6 December 2008

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  1. There is an interesting and related article at Cranmer "Why it ain't raining men in UK Christianity" at

    Chris Bishop

  2. Rachel at re vis.e re form.
    Hi Iconoclast

    There are some reasonable points made by the article that you point our attention to but my concern is over the comments that this type of article breeds - there is a verbal violence there that leaves one staggering to catch one's breath. You know, thinking as I am about ordained ministry - I'm realising how tough it's going to be out there in the face of such vehement opposition. The great thing is, I can happily say of myself, this girls got 'balls'! I'll be using my sword, shield and armour to defend myself.

  3. Chris, I can't edit a comment you post - it has to be all or nothing. Also, although it ic clear she supports women priests, I am not sure what Christina Baxter's views are on men in ministry, so I would not be able to post any comment which speculated on this. Hope you can rewrite yours.


  4. Rachel,

    Read my reply I just put on AB-Cranmer. I think a group of blokes using reasonable observations to excuse their own absence from Church isn't really mainstream (my post is directed at them).

    But as the cliche says, when you point the finger, 3 point back. There is a section of the Church that always cries "oppression" and claims to have been verbally attacked. They generally are those whose views are well represented in Synods. They also have no problem misrepresenting differing views and resorting to a childish name-calling. Just read Fulcrum Forums for some examples.

    Darren Moore

  5. Rachel, your post is very interesting. By saying "this girl's got balls", you tell us that you have certain virtues- courage, or maybe determination. But you use masculine language do so- you metaphorically attribute to yourself masculine (physical) characteristics! There seems to be an implicit recognition that these are "masculine" virtues. Isn't it rather ironic that the very language used to assert egalitarianism can actually affirm complementarianism?

    Steve Walton
    Marbury, Cheshire

  6. Hello Rachel,
    I would not be overly concerned as to the various comments that have been made on the Cranmer blog. I think they express the extreme end of a deep sense of injustice felt by many men.

    I think there are several issues here:

    1. The general disenfranchisation of men in recent years, particularly by the Labour government. For example, as men we have little or no right over our children and a child's need for a father has now been officially removed by *legislation*. I don't think that many women fully appreciate how offensive this is to men.

    2. The unstated assumption that all men are potential sexual predators. This is reflected in the way anonymity is withheld in case of rape accusations, the dearth of male teachers in primary schools in case they may be paedophiles, and the fact that some airlines now refuse to seat men next to children. In one case I read of recently, one council has made it a rule that men who are walking by themselves in a public park have to account to park wardens their reasons for being there. It is shocking how much this kind of thing is now taken for granted.

    3. Now you might wonder what this has to do with the dearth of men in the church? Well, I think part of it is due to the new paradigm as men now being seen as second class citizens. The recent decision by Synod to provide no protection for men who cannot in all clear conscience accept the ministry of women priests is a case in point. Now the theological arguments for and against women priests and Bishops has been flogged to death elsewhere, but the fact is, there *do* exist well reasoned arguments on both sides. Now I do not accept the argument that acceptance of male headship makes women 'second class'. I think it a facetious argument. I also believe shock! horror!, that there *does* exist inequality of purpose between men and women in the Bible. I think that it is divinely ordered that a man is the head of the woman and they are not equal in this respect (gasp!) I also believe that it is divinely ordered that women should bear children and so I am unequal to a woman in this respect. And to cap it all, I think that God in fact *does* discriminate between men and women for reasons of divine purpose.

    Now there are many who would disagree with these views of course (although maybe not about men bearing children), and I understand that others may think otherwise, but the CoE should be big enough to ensure that *both* views are accommodated and *protected*.

    But not if people like Christina Rees has her way, whom I expect, would probably regard men like me as misogynist bigots (but quite nicely of course) and attempt to marginalise and neuter their influence in the church.

    Unfortunately, it is notoriously difficult to have rational discussions about these issues without either tales of woe on both sides being trotted out, or the conversation reducing to ad -hominem spats.

    4. I think that women-led churches can drive men away because of a fundamental failure to connect with a man's basic needs. Men and women *are* different and the extent of this has been argued for centuries. My own perception (and correct me if I am wrong) of both women and men's ministry, is that in matters of church doctrine and praxis, men are mainly concerned with what is right whereas as women are concerned with what *feels* right. These do not often coincide and lead to disagreements.

    I think a key issue that has to be explored here pertain to the nature and extent of men and women's spiritual needs. Clearly they will have common needs, but *where* are their spiritual needs different?

    The other important issue to consider is to what the Bible means by 'equality' as opposed to the secular definition. I suspect they are not the same. But maybe this is the stuff of another thread.

    Yet I will finish by saying I think it is women like you Rachel, who think carefully about these issues, who are the people who God will use to bring more men into the church - -'balls'y girl you are!

    Chris Bishop