(This was originally posted in The Evangelical Pulpit at Patheos)
The Masculinity Myth: The Real Reason Men Don’t Go to Church
Today during worship, we were singing a song about God being our loving Father. As we sang, I realized it was the kind of song manly-men Christian pastors hate. It’s the sort of song they rail against while crusading for the resurgence of “real men” Christian masculinity. As we sang tender words about a tender, loving, heavenly Father, I immediately realized why some men are so angry at spiritually wimpy men and bold Christian women. The thought just popped into my head: It’s Cain and Abel all over again.
Although it’s probably one of the most profitable growth areas in Christian publishing, I’m not a big fan of the “what’s wrong with the church” book genre. In the past four plus years as a Christian talk radio host, I’ve received a large steady flow of books attempting to address the “what’s wrong with the church” writing prompt. Invariably, these books blame the lack of church growth on fatal flaws within church leadership, structure and theology. They assume that healthy churches grow and unhealthy churches decline. Consequently, if the church is to be healthy again, it needs to find a way to reach the people who no longer call the church their home.
“Why don’t men go to church” is a subset of the blame the church publishing niche. These books seem particularly popular as they make great reads for frustrated wives tired of attending church without their husbands. They’re also great reads for bitter men determined to justify and fortify their reasons for abandoning the body of Christ. Let’s face it, as the church declines in size and membership, the demand for church criticizing material will continue to increase.
The church isn’t masculine enough?
Almost every book, post or tweet concerning the plight of Christian men eventually blames the church for not being masculine enough. The theory is men don’t go to church because church is geared to the needs of women. There’s too much sharing of emotions, too much hugging, too much singing, with too many effeminate leaders giving the ladies what they want: a church with no testosterone. This theory suggests that men don’t go to church because churches don’t meet the masculine needs of men. Many widely respected preachers seem to adhere to this concept that the church has been weakened by an overabundance of femininity.
The first time I heard an author accuse the church of being too feminine, I was annoyed by the accusation. Over time, my annoyance hasn’t waned. Since I am a pastor, those who advocate for a more masculine church expression will likely label me as one of those effeminate, emotional male leaders who is ruining the witness of Christ to real men. Don’t worry, while making my argument, I’ll make sure I don’t cry in front of you and endanger your ability abide in the room with me.
Calling the church too feminine is sexist
Most arguments that blame the church for the absence of men are rooted in sexist assumptions. If you believe men don’t go to church because the church doesn’t meet their needs, then you are implying that women go because more of their needs are being met. What if more women go to church because their faith has a greater integrity. What if more women go to church because they have chosen to persevere and demonstrate a moral fortitude that contrasts the weaknesses of men. What if women are more willing to work in community, more willing to repent, apologize and forgive. Maybe men are so emotional they are unwilling to learn how to abide in complex community. Maybe instead of following the moral lead of women, men have isolated themselves from the church to keep from having to mature and grow up.
There is another twisted, sexist logic to blaming the church for the refusal of men to participate. Instead of correcting those in rebellion, we attack those who are sincerely trying to be faithful. We tell the regular church attender that they are the problem, not the ones who abandoned the body of Christ. We tell the male leader who has remained, even in the face of tremendous cultural rejection, that He is the problem for the church’s inability to reach more men. Blaming the actions of the most dishonorable on those who are most faithful is an affront to the integrity of those who are actively supporting the church. To blame faithful women for the unfaithfulness of men is once again blaming the victim for being abandoned.
The masculinity logic is broken
I know these strong words will offend some, but I am being intentional to prove a point: the logic that men don’t attend church because it isn’t manly enough is just plain broken. Certainly there are congregations that have a more feminine expression based on the makeup of their leadership. Regardless, if one truly believed that the church was too feminine, they would not isolate from the church. Instead, they would actively work to facilitate a more balanced expression of masculinity and femininity in their church settings. The assumption that one can only change the church by leaving the church is not an act of noble masculinity; it is an act of disconnected, misguided brokenness. It is an act of isolation which is common among men unable or unwilling to learn how to abide in community.
Although some use the perceived femininity of the church as an excuse to stay home, others have used this argument as the basis for church transformation. They have formed new church expressions that have a strong focus on the role of men and the need for men to be manly. They create worship expressions and church structures that promote what they believe is a greater respect or appreciation for the needs of masculine men. Invariably, these church cultures also spend a fair amount of time telling women how to submit to the masculine lead of their male-centered church expression. Which brings me back to Cain and Abel.
The story of Cain and Abel is the story of conflicting and contrasting worship expressions. Scripture states that “in the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. And Abel also brought an offering – fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock” (Gen. 4:3-4). At first glance to the modern reader, there doesn’t seem to be much contrast between these two offerings. Cain worked the soil, so he brought a product of the soil, Abel kept flocks so he brought a product of the herd. God’s response to Cain and Abel demonstrates that their offerings were very different.
The adjectives that accompany Abel’s offering are the key to understanding the worth of Abel’s offering. Abel brought God the “fat portions” of the “firstborn of his flock.” For the original reader of the Genesis account, “fat portions” was synonymous with best portions or choicest portions. Although our low fat society has a difficult time embracing this truth, the “fat portion” was the portion you reserved for the most honored guest. Along with being the choice portion, Abel’s offering was also from the firstborn. In other words, Abel gave God his first and his best.
In contrast to Abel’s offering, Cain’s offering is described as “some of the fruits of the soil.” Cain did not give God his first and best. Instead, he only brought God “some of the fruit.” Cain kept his first and best fruit for himself, while giving God what was leftover. Consequently, “The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor” (Gen. 4:4-5).
So what does this have to do with people and churches who think Christianity should be more masculine? For me, the answer is in Cain’s response to God’s discipline. God disciplined Cain for Cain’s benefit. Abel offered a worthy offering to God that contrasted Cain’s unworthy offering. Instead of repenting, Cain grew angry at Abel’s worship expression. For Cain, Abel’s worthy worship expression was the problem. It’s almost as if Cain resented Abel’s worthy choices contrasting his wicked choices. In response to this resentment, Cain tried to eliminate the competition by killing Abel. Instead of looking at his own sin and failing, Cain chose to tear down and kill the contrasting righteous expression of his brother.
This pattern of tearing down the righteous expression of others to defend an unrighteous expression seems to be the underlying force behind churches that tear down a strong feminine expression of worship to make room for a more masculine expression. To put it plainly, men refusing to give God their best have fallen into the rebellion of Cain. God does not accept leftover offerings and leftover worship. The absence of men in the church is ultimately the result of men rebelling against God, of men feeding themselves the best and choice fruit, while giving God little or nothing in return. In contrast to the Cain offering of men, we have the Abel offering of women. Despite the rebellion of their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons, women are still faithfully giving their best to God. They are giving their first and best fruit to God.
Sadly, in some circles, a response to the worthy offering of women has been to blame women for the lack of spiritual integrity in their male counterpart. As mentioned previously, there are proponents of a more masculine church that blame the bold commitment of women as the reason for the lack of commitment by men. As far as I’m concerned, this is no different from Cain’s resentment of Abel. Sadly, when humans are disciplined by God, we have a propensity to blame others for our rebellion.
Some of the strongest proponents for a more “masculine” church usually deal with male and female contrasting worship expressions in the following ways: they yell at weak men and blame strong women.
They yell at the men and tell them to be more manly
At some level, these churches and leaders recognize that men have not given God their best. In response to this problem, they often try to rally men like an angry coach or drill sergeant. The assumption is to make men more manly, we need to treat them like our culture’s best examples of manly men. Without having healthy family examples of their own, these “masculinity” leaders often go to Hollywood to find their examples of real men. Sadly, these cartoonish portrayals of masculinity often contrast the way Jesus lived and the words he spoke.
They blame women for the faults of men
Leaders who champion a resurgence of Christian masculinity often also decry the presence of strong femininity or strong female leaders. They frequently speak of feminism as harming the ability of the church to reach men. They view women in leadership as a threat to men being able to follow God’s lead. They portray powerful women as a hinderance to men being able to participate fully in the advancement of God’s kingdom. In other words, they blame the weakness of men on the strengths of women. In my opinion, this is simply Cain resenting Abel. If Abel wasn’t such a show off, Cain wouldn’t look that bad. If women weren’t so strong, men wouldn’t look so weak.
Obviously I’m talking about a general trend that certainly does not hold true of every man or every woman. However, I do believe that there is a certain segment of the church that has embraced a false notion of how the church can reach both men and women. In response to the rebellion of men, there have been some who’ve chosen to berate the men and accuse the women of causing the failings of their male counterparts. To me, this is Cain and Abel all over again.
The answer to man’s rebellion
So what’s the answer? It seems God’s response to Cain is the best answer to men and their unwillingness to participate in the gathered community of Christ.
“Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it’” (Gen 4:6-7).
I believe God’s words to Cain are applicable for all men. God has called every man to give his best offering. If we don’t give our best, it will put us in a very weak position, where sin will devour us. Our response to God’s discipline must be to follow Abel’s lead by giving our first and best to God. Abel is not the problem, righteous women are not the problem, it is our sin that is the problem. Thankfully, God will help us if we repent of our anger and follow his lead. I sincerely believe that if we repent of our rebellion and follow Abel’s example, we will pay far less attention to the masculinity or femininity of the church and far more attention to the condition of our hearts.