The Scandal of the Evangelical Bicep

In 1994, Dr. Mark A. Noll wrote his pivotal work The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. The scandal, in his words, was that “there is not much of an evangelical mind.” In other words, Noll saw evangelical Christianity as moving away from intellectual pursuits, which largely left the world lacking any prominent voice from evangelical scholars.

More recently, author and blogger Rachel Held Evans noted what she called “The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart.” In her experience, evangelical Christianity was not welcoming of her questions. When atrocities happened, she found the church turning a blind eye. She saw the church dismissing questions about the Bible when they were asked. Rachel Held Evans called out the distrust of emotion that she saw in evangelical Christianity, and called for a more integrated approach to life and theology.

And, let’s be honest, if we neglect our minds or our hearts, we will live skewed and harmful lives. When we fail to use our minds, we are failing to use the capacity for reason that God gave to us. Or, as my mom liked to say to me quite often, “God gave you a brain so you could use it.” Likewise, life without heart is dangerous. Foisting theological agendas without heart has led to atrocities around the world – genocide, slavery, abuse.  Though we like to pretend it isn’t true, all of these things have been done in God’s name. All of them with some kind of messed up scriptural backing. All of them lacking the heart that allows us to see something important when we look at our neighbors, our relatives, our friends, and fellow human beings.

Dr. Mark A. Noll and Rachel Held Evans have offered important challenges to the evangelical community to love God with all of who we are, and not some fragmented manifestation of ourselves. Though there has been a bit more acceptance of intellectual Christianity since Noll’s book was written, and perhaps more of a cry from the blogosphere for an acceptance of our emotions and heart, these scandals are far from being mere remnants of the past. There continues to be a need for loving God with our minds and for loving God with our hearts.

That said, there is a relatively new scandal that has emerged in evangelical Christianity – and in many mainline protestant churches – that is in need of examination. I am calling this “The Scandal of the Evangelical Bicep,” and unlike the previous two scandals, this scandal is not defined by an absence, but rather a presence.

Largely in reaction to observations like this one made about “The Feminization of the Church,” many churches have begun to cater to the “manly man.” Churches have been started to counteract this so-called feminization, and pastors of these churches have been known to wear leather jackets, speak proudly about being the head of the household, call for a return to true manhood – which, of course, involves flexing your muscles, hunting, drinking and boasting about a high libido. It means gloating about the sex appeal of your spouse, and flaunting the multiple children you’ve produced. It means not singing those “Jesus is my boyfriend songs,” which Dr. William Lane Craig cited as one reason church no longer appeals to men.

The interesting thing to me about the assertion that praise music is overly feminized is that many popular praise songs and new hymns are written by men. Matt Redman and Chris Tomlin dominate the praise music world. Reuben Morgan, Paul Baloche, Louie Giglio, Michael W. Smith , and so many other male songwriters are featured over and over on Christian radio stations, and in worship services. If worship music has become overly feminized, it is not because of a lack of male voices.

The real problem isn’t that the church has become feminized; the problem is that only one expression of masculinity is acceptable. And, right now, I believe that the most acceptable expression of masculinity in the church today is a hyper-masculine, aggressive, overly sexual depiction of what it means to be a man.

The problem is that the church is telling men that they need to be a certain way or they are contributing to the feminization of the church. We are telling men that if they don’t fit in with the “manly men,” they have more in common with women than with men. And this shaming of the men in our churches needs to stop.

The beautiful thing about men and women is that even though we do have some unique things about ourselves as men and women, no two men are the same. No two women are the same. Each person is gifted with different things. We have skills to offer. We have insights to share. Each of us is important in the body of Christ. The scandal of the evangelical bicep is that we’ve told our men to flex their muscles or get out.

The scandal is that we’ve marginalized so many men in an effort to portray a single, unified image of what it means to be a man. And we’ve done this with so many other things, too: with what it means to be a woman, a Christian, the church. We tend to fixate on one aspect of faith and life, and amplify it as the most important thing.

And, I believe this is why Jesus builds on Deuteronomy 6 when he talks about how we are to love God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). Our love for God needs to be holistic. If we love only with our minds, we lack heart, soul, and strength. When we love only with our strength, it is not being tempered by our hearts, souls, and minds.

Imbalanced love is dangerous love.

And a church that focuses on proclaiming an imbalanced love for God loves God dangerously with a love that winds up looking more like a love for ourselves than a love for the One who made us. When we love with an imbalanced love, we wound followers of Christ, and we project a lousy image of our God to the world.

In the book of Romans, Paul talks about how the church is like a body, made up of many members with different functions. Each function is important, and the body would not be able to function without a diversity of members. When we elevate a stereotype of what it means to be a man, we are neglecting the gifts and talents of many other men who would greatly bless the body of Christ.

The church is the strongest when it faithfully loves God holistically, and when it includes the gifts of all its members.

About April Fiet

April is a pastor, wife, mom, and lover of words. She finds inspiration under the big Nebraska skies, in the garden, in the yarn aisle, and in the kitchen. Learn more about April here, and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

  • April, What a thoughtful post! As always, thanks for sharing.

  • Very well put.

    I also think there is something odd about the notions of what it means to be female, because these things promoting a certain type of masculinity also go alongside a certain type of femininity. What if a woman is good at traditionally-male things? Is she less of a woman when she does engineering than when she crochets a sock? Is a man less of a man when he washes the dishes than when he fixes a puncture? I spent the morning studying Mathematics (a traditionally ‘male’ subject) and will spend the afternoon baking scones and sewing. I enjoy them both and God has granted me a modicum of talent in both areas.

    My husband is never going to be a ‘masculine’ man (thank God), but he’s always going to be my hero. He was there for me and loved me when I was broken. He has taken care of me and the children when I’ve been unwell. He’s been patient and hard-working and kind. Funnily enough, these things sound much more like Christ than some chest-beating macho man. Why do we have to put human beings into boxes? Why so many labels? I think it’s because we’re trying to control God because we’re scared of being out of control, but of course being out of control is what happens when we truly surrender to God. I sincerely believe that we should be celebrating the abundance of his grace and sharing one another’s gifts and talents and hard work in whichever way God decided to share them out. I don’t believe God has called me to be ‘housewife’ or even ‘mother’. He has called me to be me. It is true what the ancients said – the closer to God we become, the more we become our true selves.

    Incidentally, I actually love being a homemaker, for now, and I think God has given me some great gifts that I love to make use of within the home. But it would be sheer audacity to say that everyone should be just like me.

    The worrying thing about ‘macho’ masculinity is that there is a subtext of the subjugation of women. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it openly endorses abuse, but I can see the potential for certain people to take it to its extreme and to promote spousal abuse. Also, I haven’t got a clue what the ‘feminization’ of the church is supposed to mean. It’s meaningless. Did they paint it pink? Maybe instead of flowers we should have footballs. And beer instead of wine.

    • Oh my goodness, yes! This is so very true! My husband is not typical “manly” man either, thanks be to God! In terms of cooking, baking, crafts, raising my children, I feel like I have those feminine gifts. But, like you said, I’m not defined by them and I’m not confined to them. I’m better with certain aspects of budgeting, I can help my kids with math homework. The most important thing we can do is make space in the church for people to be who they are, free of these labels and boxes we try to force onto people. Thank you so much for your wonderful comment!

  • RVRNDonna

    Wonderful writing April!

    If I may comment- equally offensive are the feminist voices that are shrill in their cries that “those men need to be shown what a woman can do!” It’s not the just the words, but the tone and intent.

    It is with understanding as this is the voice of centuries of oppression bubbling to the surface, this type of “war cry” can also marginalize. These statements automatically place a wall that impedes the flow of communication. It pushes away our brothers in Christ. It tells them that they are at risk of being bruised and battered. It also makes other women wary in that their voices will not be heard, especially if they disagree with the dominant voices.

    Your last paragraph is poignant- “…a church that focuses on proclaiming an imbalanced love for God loves God dangerously with a love that winds up looking more like a love for ourselves than a love for the One who made us. When we love with an imbalanced love, we wound followers of Christ, and we project a lousy image of our God to the world.”

    Thank you.

    Donna

    • Donna, oh yes. I long for the day when the church is a place where all people can use their gifts and voices freely. I hope for the day when men and women no longer see the other as competition or the abuser. Right now, abuses do exist – on many sides – but I am hopeful that there has been improvement so that we can all have the freedom to live into who we are in Christ. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

  • April, this is excellent!!! Brene Brown has identified a man’s greatest shame as “a fear of appearing weak”, hence the patriarchal fear of “feminization”. Many complementarians appear to have an obsession with speaking words of “masculine strength” over their men and leaders in an attempt to avoid appearing “weak”. I wrote a post about this awhile ago and make the connection of how patriarchy (male rule) and shame both began when sin entered the world in Genesis 3. http://theologyconnect.wordpress.com/2014/01/25/the-patriarchal-shame-connect/
    I think it ties in with what you are saying here.

    • Anne – wow! That is a fantastic post! thank you for writing it and for speaking this system of shame into the light!

  • Greg

    The body of Christ. My favorite part is that does not demand masculinity. In it’s writing (predominately gender neutral or feminine) there’s no mention of a need for a penis. Or a corvette.

  • Jarrod

    You make a very interesting observation about how so many men are writing so many of the “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs. At the risk of sounding cynical, I suspect this is another example of the cookie-cutter “Christian music” industry sticking with what sells. Darlene Zschech and the Hillsongs folks were kind of at the forefront of this explosion of songs in the mid-’90s, and all these guys (I’m afraid) are following suit because there’s a market for it. This is what makes the music of guys like David Crowder and Gungor so refreshing.

    Anyway, great piece. Get ready for Mark Driscoll to take aim at you in 5, 4, 3, 2 … 🙂

    • I don’t think it’s cynical, Jarrod. I think it’s right on. Unfortunately what we see in a lot of music in churches is more of a marketing tactic. :\ Also…I laughed about your Mark Driscoll comment! Too funny!

  • Jody Habinck

    Hey April, I think you know me and know that I have no problem with women in leadership in the church. However, I am a pastor that has tried to create space for the men and their families who do not feel at home in the typical church. By typical church setting in this area means one that is often governed by men, yet the work- most everything else is orchestrated by women. I would argue that typical church setting is highly attractive more to women than men. A good book on this subject until I can write one is “Why Men Hate Going To Church.” I am not for a Cave Man church but I do think the church is in most settings out of balance, and is attractive to those who have grown up in a church setting, or women.

    I am all for the reshaping, and re-imagination of the church that has biblical values yet challenges cultural assumptions of what church looks like. I think it can be done in a way that reaches men and women in culturally relevant ways. My friend Brodie Swisher and a few others are already undertaking this challenge. Checkout what the “church” looks like on his website, http://www.sportsmenchurch.com/ The name sportsman maybe offensive to some but it is hard to come up with a title in today’s hunting world where women are the fastest growing group of hunters in the nation. By the way I am a hunter, enjoy beer, military veteran, and wear camo, and someday I am completely okay with my two sons following in my steps, as well as their little sister. I look forward to someday hunting with my daughter, she will take up less room in the treestand.

    • Thank you SO much for weighing in here, Jody! I have always greatly appreciated and admired your work with outdoors and hunting ministry. I do see in my context and in many others where we do not make space for folks who enjoy these kinds of activities to do so in a way that connects them to each other and to God. This is a needed ministry, and I hope you don’t read me as saying these kinds of efforts aren’t important. They totally are! What’s important is that we find a balance and that we don’t tell all men that they must do certain things – like you must hunt in order to be a man. Or tell women you must be able to cater a funeral in order to be a woman. The best cake baker in my church is a man. I’m glad he has the space to use his gifts and feel appreciated. 🙂 But, we do have a lot of hunters who don’t really have a place to connect with each other and with God around what they are doing. I’d love to see something here like what you are doing!

  • Fantastic post, April.

  • Elizabeth Belill

    I do not disagree with your article! But I have be some so Leary of people who don’t bother to substantiate what they say…do you have numbers, percentages that support your article! I would love to see statements backed up with facts! Thank You

    • Elizabeth, thanks so much for reading and commenting! I totally understand being leery. I’ve had a lot of response to this article, so a follow up might be a good idea.

  • I’m writing to you as one of the adherents to the perspective that today’s church has become highly feminized. For the sake of cutting to the chase I’ll say that if you don’t see it it’s because you don’t want to see it. I’ve seen it in the laments of Christian single women I know. I heard a number of times that they were treated better by non-believers than by believers. When I sought clarification what it boiled down to is that the non-believers knew better how to pursue a woman, but the believers were typically passive. The Christian guys are bewildered because they were nice to the gals -and so were the non-believers, but they pursued them, played the man more than the Christians knew how or were willing to.

    Your comment about so many male voices on the Christian music scene is hollow. Trade Matt Redmon or Michael W. Smith, for example, for an alto or soprano and who can tell the difference? I’m not impugning these men’s masculinity when I say this. It’s not about the song writer’s gender but the content and arrangement – the songs are love songs to Jesus. Try to say that it shouldn’t matter all you want, but in doing so you’re ignoring what men are saying with their feet.

    God made men and women as bearers of different aspects of His image. Jesus was a man, that is to say He was masculine. But try to get people to listen to an honest discussion of His masculinity sometime – many are not receptive, they cannot grasp it. For example, I was pointing out to a group of men over breakfast one morning recently that Jesus was not always nice. This was part of a larger discussion of the message to men in the church is that we’re to be the nicest guys on the block because after all that’s what Jesus was. One example of this is the story of His clearing the temple (Jn 2). He walked in and was angered by what He saw. He left and went into the market place to procure the makings for a whip (so He knew what they were), assembled it (so He had knowledge of that), then went back to the temple and carried out His plan. That is known as premeditation. I don’t mean to imply any wrongdoing on His part – far from it. Rather I seek that we should look at it as it was – and to the folks whose tables were overturned and who surely in some cases were trampled on by the fleeing animals it did not look nice. Likewise you’ll not convince me that when He called the Pharisees hypocrites and whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones…sorry, but that’s not a compliment, not nice.

    I’m only going to carry on here for so long, rest assured. My last point. We need to get away from what I call the flannelgraph Jesus and the flannelgraph David. This is the Jesus or David of second grade Sunday School. How do I mean that? Consider David & Goliath. We only tell part of the story, the part that stops with the giant slain. But it goes on from there. David proceeds to use Goliath’s sword to cut off his head which he then takes to Jerusalem and puts on display, also putting his armor in his tent as a trophy – and in all of these actions God is glorified. Likewise with David’s mighty men. Their exploits are recorded in Scripture followed by “and The Lord brought about a great victory that day.” So God was pleased with their exploits. Are we raising up men like this in today’s church (no), or are you thinking I’m a heretic for asking such a question?

    Hopefully there’s something coherent in this. In a nutshell, I disagree with your notion that there’s a “scandal.”

    • Mark, thank you for being willing to disagree, and also for doing so respectfully. I appreciate that. And, I do hope that my piece can be a conversation starter rather than a “last word” kind of thing.

      My question about the David and Goliath reference is what part of what happened was God pleased with? Was God pleased with the added flare of violence, or was God pleased with David’s willingness to fight for the people? I don’t know the answer to that, but I think it is worth asking. David did amazing things for God, to be sure, and many of those involved violence. But, his violence did come with a cost: he was unable to build the Temple because his hands had shed blood.

      As for the arrangements and love songs to Jesus, I’ll be honest that they bother me too. They are theologically hollow and more reminiscent of marketing tactics than worship. And so I wonder: why is it that some male songwriters (not all, for sure!) are producing these kinds of songs? Is it because they think it appeals to a target demographic? Is it because they really want to sing these kinds of songs?

      Anyway, my hope for this post is to get us to consider what it really means to be a man. Does it always look the same way? Is there room in the church both for the typical man’s man and for a man who looks much different? I would hope there is.

      • April – a conversation is always more helpful. To your question on David v. Goliath, I see no reference to God being displeased with anything David did there. There’s no indication of Him correcting David in the story. So to infer it is to bring an external perspective to the story and violate the text. David was at heart a warrior as well as a poet, and God said of him he was a man after His own heart. Let that speak for itself.

        Moses. Joshua. David. Jesus. Paul. Barnabas. Peter. Thomas. Joseph (Jesus’ earthly father). Just naming a few of the admirable men in Scripture to speak to the variety of expressions of masculinity that are acceptable. One thing they have in common, though, is they risked greatly as they walked with God.

  • Nicholas

    I agree on the point of Types of Masculinity…in that, not every man has to Smoke Cigars, Drink Scotch, and Drive a Motorcycle…but the point is, that the church as a whole, for a long time, has looked down on that type of Masculinity, when it is no less “Christian” to do those things. It was as if the church was telling the Men, you cannot act those ways, you have to be the “Nice Boy”.

    Now I agree, we shouldn’t look down on dudes, who are more in touch with their emotions, and like to watch Downton Abbey, or Sense and Sensibility (like me), but we need to accept Masculinity and all that falls under it. Manhood is not something gained by the correct formula, it is a test of character.

    Is a man less of a man for tearing up when he hears a Michael W Smith song and is confronted with the conviction of the spirit, and is overwhelmed by his God? NO! Just like I am no More of a man, if I do a War Cry listening to For Today in my car on my way to work, worshipping God. They are equally Masculine.

    However, when we muzzle Courage in the face of Opposition because we are trying to be “Nice”…that is not ok. And in my opinion a part of this so called “Feminisation”.

    • I sure hope “nice” isn’t what people think I hope for Christian men 🙂 Nice is pretty over-rated. Haha!

  • Mark Munsey

    One last comment for you, April. If you haven’t already discovered it and would be interested in exploring the actively pro-masculinity camp a bit more in depth (or at least one manifestation of it) check out the Blog of Manly (blogofmanly.com). If you’re open to it there’s much there that acquits us well.

  • Tom

    I do need to weigh in on this a bit. I’m not a big sports guy, I don’t hunt, I like to cook and enjoy all kinds of things that are not traditional “male” activities. I’m not a fan of Driscoll and that group. I do think that the Church needs to look at the message they are sending males.
    The “loving Jesus like a boyfriend” issue is very real and not only is difficult for men, but it brings God down to a level that makes him more of a buddy than a God and trusted friend. I think much of what passes in the Church today for worship is nothing more than feel good music and in many cases is childish.
    Many believers began their walk with Jesus at Bible camp and have never grown up and moved past that stage. It is like being infatuated and never really learning to love.
    Worship needs to include a lot of things other than the music. Our praise, our offerings, our readings, the placing of ourselves in a humble position before God as a group, even our lamenting should be part of worship. In most Evangelical churches, worship is limited to camp song type music, where we are forced to stand and encouraged to clap, even if we don’t feel like it at the moment, and in most cases, people don’t even pay attention to the words they are singing.
    It is uncomfortable and distracting for most men (and even some women) and takes away from truly worshiping God. Maybe we need to change the whole view of how we do worship.

    • Tom, I completely agree. Those songs bother me also. I’ve heard some suggest that the songs are indicative that the church is overly feminine. I don’t think it is so simple. There’s a whole culture of praise music writing/praise music leading that keeps the cycle of these songs going. I wanted to shout out “YES!” at your suggestion that we change the whole view of how we do worship. I think that right there is a huge thing we need to be wrestling with as Christians. Worship is so much more than music.So much more than a sermon. We need to figure out why the “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs are being written…and why churches use them when so many people are uncomfortable with them, and when these songs present such poor theology.

      This is something I want to look into more deeply. Thank you so much for reading and engaging!

  • Tom-
    I can’t agree with you more. I feel that “intentional, meaningful worship” is being sacrificed for “fun”. You mention Bible camp– that is geared to an age group where ‘fun’ is essential to the learning process. As we age, fun shouldn’t be thrown out the window–nothing should be so dire– but if we aren’t challenged in worship and are just given fluff, then our own spiritual formation is at risk.

  • Oh yes! Meaningful and fun don’t have to be mutually exclusive 🙂

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