Category: Systematic Theology

The Mature Man: Biblical Perspectives on Being a Man in Our Time By Thomas Bjerkholt

The Mature Man: Biblical Perspectives on Being a Man in Our Time By Thomas Bjerkholt

The mature man, who is he? He is responsible. He takes responsibility for his own life and that of others. The mature man is responsible and grown up, in contrast to the one who is irresponsible and childish. He takes personal and moral responsibility – in his home, at his work-place, in the church and in society. The Bible calls us to realize this mature man. And I am deeply convinced that the exhortations that are addressed to men and fathers in the New Testament will contribute to this taking place. Many are obviously skeptical to that today. Because question-marks are being put to the validity of the exhortations, both to those that are directed to the man, but, not least, to those directed to the woman. But let us approach the subject by listening first to some voices from our own time.

A Modern, Insecure Man

What do today’s people think about being a man or a woman? The answers are not unambiguous. One can sense insecurity. Men especially have become more insecure about what it means to be a man and a father. The ideal of equality can lead to the blurring of the differences between the sexes. But the thoughts and emotions are not always in accord. Listen to what the well-known Norwegian author Erlend Loe says in an interview:

We have grown up in a time of fundamental changes. Not of the kind ‘the nation must be built up, we’re threatened by an external enemy’, but of something as important as what is a man and what is a woman. Boys and girls were meant to be so very identical. Even as a child I realized this was rubbish … And so they (the parental generation) have upset the gender role pattern, which is good, completely necessary, but it has had some consequences. I believe my generation will experience long term effects with relation to something as big as daring to believe in love. You only have to speak to people who have been the victims of divorce; they struggle for years afterwards … The number of possibilities and amount of information means you have to be a rock to see what is important. There is so much garbage. I think many get lost there. And when the responsibility for your life only depends on you, I think the development will leave many disappointed and half-bitter destinies behind in the ditch (from the Oslo newspaper Dagbladet 06.02.04).

This is thought-provoking! Loe sees the necessity of questioning the traditional gender-roles. But at the same time he sees that the extreme equality principle is what he calls ‘rubbish’. The question of what it means to be a man or a woman is for him ‘fundamental’. But then there is also the problem that ‘the responsibility for your life only depends on you’ … It’s here that we Christians can answer : No, God has created us as man and woman, each with our own identity. And the responsibility for our lives doesn’t rest on us. We have a divine word that points to a design for being a man and for being a woman!

Longings in Our Own Time

Are we who want to follow the apostle’s words about men and women promoting an old-fashioned and reactionary masculine ideal? When we still want to claim that God has given the man a special responsibility in the home and the church, are we then upholding a masculine ideal that is oppressive and outdated? No way! For there are many voices in our time that express a longing for this mature man who takes responsibility.

In an interview with Dagbladet (The Magazine 12.01.02) the well-known Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad says this among other things:

I dream of a “Carl Larsson home”. A large, white house at Vindern (a place in Oslo) with garden furniture, a jug of fruit juice here and a bunch of flowers there. And then I stick my head out to the children on the veranda and call out that the buns are ready …

What does your future husband look like? He must be someone who wants something. Who has a project that is greater than himself. And greater than me (!) One who pulls me along with him and has drive. If not I get exhausted. Since I am so self-willed he has to be someone who stands up for himself and says: “Yes, Åsne. We’re doing it” I don’t think it’s so easy to find him.

No, he isn’t so easy to find! But perhaps we can help her by boldly building up men of authority in the image of Christ through our preaching and teaching! Because it is after all thought-provoking to read what Åsne Seierstad says. She wants a strong and mature man who desires something. Thus she confirms something that I’ve always claimed: No woman wants soft men they can manipulate how they want. They want kind, but mature men.

Listen to another voice of the time, the well-known Norwegian crime writer Fredrik Skagen. He has helped to start an organization called ‘Men against violence’. The main aim of the organization is to work towards men behaving with respect and courtesy towards women, respecting boundaries and refraining from any kind of violence. In an article in Adresseavisen newspaper (15.04.02) he says the following : “Some people think that this [the work of the organization] is going to be an affair for soft men. They’re wrong, completely wrong. It’s a part of the very most important aspect of a man’s identity to take care of women and children. That’s what it’s about, that and nothing else” (My italics).

What else are these voices other than a cry for mature, adult men who will be both strong and mild, firm and sensitive? The way is not far to what the Bible calls us men to be. No these voices are in fact confirming what the Bible says.

A last example. Let me take a detour to something that happened in my student days at theological college, in the beginning of the 70s, when the feminist movement seriously hit our society and lead to the college altering its view on women priests. “Man and woman” was strenuously debated. Professor in Systematic Theology, Leiv Aalen, took part actively in the debate. I remember that many laughed at him when he once said something along the lines of “the man represents to a greater degree the active and persistent principle, the woman the more passive and receptive”. This was really to speak “against the current”, and as I’ve said, the old man was laughed at. But look : At Aruna Development and Culture Centre in Son in Norway the couple Lisbeth Lind and Øivinn Øi work with courses on living together. In an interview with the newspaper Aftenposten (22.01.95) they say: “We try to accentuate and not least to enhance the typical gender differences. And because in our culture we’ve been so preoccupied with smoothing over them, that in itself becomes an important thing. – While the woman in her foundation is love itself and constitutes its passive principle, the man is created to love, to be the practicing part. Because he constitutes the firm, unshakeable principle, it matters more for the woman to find a man she likes the ‘direction’ of and whom she can stretch herself after, than to influence him to see things differently. Otherwise she can quickly end up with a weakling or the negative cold shoulder”. This couple would scarcely have laughed at professor Leiv Aalen! But theological students did. Now those who’ve been quoted here will scarcely rejoice over a view that leads to a No to female pastors, But my claim is that what we read here about man and woman is closely tied up with the masculine ideal that we find in the Bible, yes, amazingly close to the Bible’s thoughts about men and women and their differences.

The Need for Positive Manliness

Today’s men are often insecure about their own identity. The reasons can be many. But one of the main reasons is undoubtedly the fact that so many boys grow up alone with their mother, or experience difficult situations when a new partner moves in with her. The absence of a good man is a fundamental problem for all too many young boys. The fact that so many boys today grow up without a faithful and good father at their side is, according to the Norwegian social anthropologist Jan Brøgger “without historic parallels”. The results of this are among other things an increase in violence, because male energy isn’t being channeled in a healthy way. The police inspector Arne Danne in Stockholm said therefore in an interview several years ago, “The reason for the violence is that men no longer bring up men. In the whole of the western world the need is the same : positive manliness”.

Jesus of Nazareth : The True Man

Eivind Berggrav, who was a bishop in Norway, wrote the book The Man Jesus in 1921. He characterizes Jesus with these qualities : wise, manly, strong and free. He stresses the balance in Jesus’ personality : “In Jesus’ character there is a remarkable interaction between the authoritarian and the mild”, he says. Jesus has power and strength in himself. He is the man of action who wants to improve, change, lift and ennoble. Berggrav compares Jesus to the male figures within Buddhism and Islam : “When we think about Buddha’s crossed arms and place him next to Jesus whose hands are always active, then in spite of all its spiritual refinement and beauty Buddhism nevertheless becomes a bed-ridden religion”. On the other hand in Islam the man appears as one-sidedly cold and oppressive. “He may have a certain fire, but lacks depth and warmth”, writes Berggrav. In the book The Wild Man Richard Rohr is preoccupied with similar ideas. The man’s energy has to be tamed, he says. The man’s authority must be a compassionate authority. Manliness implies action, responsibility, decisiveness.

It is this we find in perfect balance in Jesus. He is the Lion of Judah. He is the Lamb. He grasps the whip and clears out the temple court. He cries at the grave of Lazarus. He had the courage to reprimand the Pharisees and the scribes. He dared to show weakness when the trial was at its hardest—in Gethsemane. We see that love and strength, tenderness and firmness, mercy and truth are in perfect balance in him. Therefore Jesus is in a special way the true model for all men.

Ephesians 5:25-33

The Christian man is obliged to live in the same way that Jesus did in relation to his bride, the church. There is no text in the whole Bible that will protect women and children better than a brave and practical preaching of this passage. For this is how the husband must live, says Paul : Just as Jesus invests his whole life in service for his bride, so shall the husband’s life be a continuous service for his wife and his children. We sing about Jesus : “He walks by my side, he leads me along, he doesn’t grow tired as I do. And in mercy he guards me the whole day long, he never lets me down”. As men we can feel a great inadequacy in relation to such an ideal. Who of us does not get tired? No, we are only human beings. None of us can be wholly and completely like the Master. But what a marvelous picture to aim at! The man Paul portrays for us is the one of authority and maturity who takes responsibility. He is a servant. He wants to lift and protect his bride, love like Christ, forgive, comfort, listen, lead. God has laid on him a responsibility that every husband should be aware of—in Jesus’ name.

C.S. Lewis has some interesting observations on this: “Christian law has crowned the husband. It has given him—or should I say ‘inflicted on’ him—a kind of leadership. The perfect embodiment of this leadership is not in the husband we all wish to be, but in him whose marriage is more like a crucifixion. The anointing for this dreadful coronation is not seen in the joys of a man’s marriage but in its sorrows. The husband who has a leadership that is Christ-like—and that is the only kind that is allowed—will never give up”. Lewis is thinking here of the difficult marriage where the partner is difficult, demanding, unloving—and whatever it may be. As Christ loves sinners and endures, so will the husband’s Christ likeness become extra distinct when he remains faithful during “the bad times”.

To Call the Man to Responsibility and Give Him Courage

In Isaiah 32:2 we find a beautiful picture of the good man: He shall be “like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land.” This is a picture that is wholly in line with what modern psychology has said about the ideal relationship between the man, the woman, and the child : The woman must embrace the child, the man must embrace both the mother and the child! The man as protector and guardian, as life-giver and as the firm rock. Again: We will never manage it fully. We need God’s grace and power. But is there a more lovely picture to paint for our time?—A young couple visited me in church a while ago. They were living together. “I don’t know if I dare get married”, he said. No, this lack of courage to take on commitment and responsibility marks more and more people. The young of today can “bungee jump”, seek the challenges of extreme sport and set off for remote corners of the world in search of adventure. But the courage for commitment and responsible love “in good days and bad” is being lost by steadily more and more. The Church of Christ and we who preach God’s word must give them that courage and call them to their true image, in Jesus Christ!

“Discipling God”

“Discipling God”

“We have the idea that God could not reign if he did not have wise and understanding people to help him. . . . [The wise and understanding] are always exerting themselves; they do things in the Christian church the way they want to themselves. Everything that God does they must improve, so that there is no poorer, more insignificant and despised disciple on earth than God; he must be everybody’s pupil, everybody wants to be his teacher. . . . They are not satisfied with what God has done and instituted, they cannot let things be as they were ordained to be. . . . These are the real wiseacres, of whom Christ is speaking here, who always have to have and do something special in order that the people may say, ‘Ah, our pastor or preacher is nothing; there’s the real man, he’ll get things done!’ . . . Should God be so greatly pleased with these fellows who are all too smart and wise for him and are always wanting to send him back to school? . . . Things are in a fine state indeed when the egg wants to be wiser than the hen.”

Martin Luther, preaching his last sermon, on Matthew 11:25-30, quoted in Luther’s Works: Sermons I, pages 383-384.