The conversation around gender in North America is chaotic, confusing, and caustic. When asked to define the word “woman” during her Supreme Court confirmation hearings last year, Ketanji Jackson Brown simply said, “I’m not a biologist.”
Colin Wright wrote a recent Wall Street Journal article in an attempt to provide an answer to that same question. “I am a biologist,” he said, “and I’m here to help.” “There are only two sexes. Sex is binary,” he stated definitively. So, on a biological basis, we can say, there are only males or females.
Matt Walsh from the Daily Wire has also been trying to provide clarity as he travelled around the world over the past year asking his famous question, “What is a Woman?” His answer: “an adult female.”
Here is a related, but perhaps even harder question: what does it mean to be a man?
It is a more challenging question because of all the anger and rage Western culture currently has toward men. We live in a culture where concepts of manhood are subject to daily accusations of misogyny or oppression or toxic masculinity. Men, our culture teaches and insists, can atone for their masculinity by being more like women.
“We live in a culture where concepts of manhood are subject to daily accusations of misogyny or oppression or toxic masculinity.”
I am grateful for the biologists that are weighing in on this question. But I want to quote someone even more significant than a biologist writing in the Wall Street Journal. In the first chapter of Scripture, God tells us that there are only two sexes.
“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:27, NIV)
Scripture sides with basic biology, stating there are just two sexes: male and female.
And yet, there is more than just biology in defining what it means to be a man or woman. In his Word, God also gives us a unique vision for men and women that guides us in how we should live out our gender.
This article is a summary of how Scripture answers the question: What does it mean to be a man?
“God also gives us a unique vision for men and women that guides us in how we should live out our gender.”
What follows is based on a short TED-style talk that I gave to 800 men who were gathered together in Nashville in April 2023 for an event called “Roll Call,” organized by Jason Whitlock, a journalist and the host of the Blaze Media television program, Fearless.
Bobby Harrington at Roll Call, Nashville ’23.
For the purpose of this article, I want to describe what it means to be a man as one who patterns himself after the archetype of Jesus Christ. I realize that all followers of Jesus, male and female, are to make it their goal to grow in Christlikeness (as the apostle Paul put it in Galatians 4:19, that “Christ is formed in you”). Yet, according to scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 4:15; 5:23; and Colossians 2:10, Jesus is held up as our archetypal “head,” and as such, he is the original pattern or model for men, especially in his relationship with the church. His model of headship encourages us to acknowledge gender-based points of emphasis and roles, while simultaneously recognizing a spectrum of giftings, talents, and inclinations among men.
Christians have been rightly critiqued for creating and fixating on rigid and false stereotypes (e.g., that real men should be like John Wayne or Kevin Costner). We must remember that each man has unique personalities, gifts, strengths, and weaknesses. A stereotype, as a fixed image, is an oversimplification of one type. Scripture gives us flexibility where there are principles and patterns meant for men, so that we apply them in nuanced ways, for example, when it comes to different personality types. (For an excellent explanation of stereotypes VS archetypes, click here.)
What does it mean to be a man? “I want to describe what it means to be a man as one who patterns himself after the archetype of Jesus Christ.”
How can men in this world be men who bear and testify to the image of Jesus? What kind of a summary description captures what Scripture teaches about this type of man? We’re going to try to summarize what Scripture says about what it means to be a man, but we must acknowledge that one cannot point to just one or two passages and say, “Here is our definition.” Instead, I’m going to try to summarize the breadth of Scripture’s teaching on this question in one short, four-pronged summary statement that many have found to be practically helpful.
The Roll Call event was a men’s gathering, so I began by inviting everyone in the audience to consider the way Jesus Christ modeled what it meant to be a man in this world. I pointed out that, in addition to honoring God, pursuing true manhood will improve the meaning and quality of …
- each man’s life,
- his wife’s life,
- his children’s lives, and
- the lives of those in the world around him.
Jason Whitlock and friends at Roll Call, Nashville ’23.
When men know and pursue their archetypal role as modeled by Jesus Christ, they will live their lives as God intends. It will be their best life and will help them to be their best for others. The Christ-like man is a R.E.A.L. man who …
R – Rejects Passivity
E – Embraces Service
A – Accepts Responsibility
L – Leads Courageously
Many in our Western culture and even many in churches across the country (and perhaps the wider world), will likely want to put on the brakes to what I am telling you here.
“Many in our Western culture and even many in churches across the country, will likely want to put on the brakes to what I am telling you here.”
Many are jaded by experiencing un-Christlike, self-serving masculinity and so get nervous when anybody offers any vision that calls men to something besides the interchangeability of the sexes. To many, pointing men to an interchangeability of the sexes is the only safe way to steer them away from toxic masculinity. Yet I want to suggest that the way forward isn’t to try to suppress masculinity or condition it away, but rather to train it toward Christ-likeness. That’s the path Scripture puts before us.
So, in the interest of following God’s Word, let’s take a look at each of the four parts of Christ-like manhood.
A REAL Man…Rejects Passivity
The man in the Bible most noteworthy for cowardice and passivity is Adam. Scripture narrates how human history itself was distorted by Adam’s inaction in the Garden of Eden. Here is what he did:
God had given Adam the commandment not to eat from a particular tree—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:16). It was his responsibility to uphold this direction from God, yet there he was, passively at his wife Eve’s side, letting Satan tempt her to eat from the tree without raising an objection. Then he followed her lead into sin, as he stood subdued and inactive:
“She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” (Gen. 3:6, NIV)
Adam was with her, knowing what God had said, but passively left her to succumb to the temptation and then joined her. Then to make matters worse, when God came looking for them, asking what happened, Adam blamed the woman (and God as well!) for his actions: The man said,
“The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” (Gen. 3:12, NIV)
“Adam was with her, knowing what God had said, but passively left her to succumb to the temptation and then joined her.”
In the New Testament, we are told that this passivity created all kinds of problems. It goes on to describe how, in the church and in the home, men are called to what it calls “headship”—that is, an authority and leadership responsibility which is unique and appropriate to men (see Col. 3:18-19; Eph. 5:22-24;1 Tim. 2:14).
By contrast to what Scripture teaches, passive men reject God’s intention for them. We can name many such men in Scripture:
- Moses’ brother Aaron made the golden calf because he became passive and feared the people and did as they demanded. As a result, he brought God’s condemnation and wrath on the camp of Israel (Ex. 32:1-24).
- The priest Eli allowed his wicked sons to continue to minister before the Lord even though he had been given reports of the great wickedness of their sin. All he gave was an ineffective word of rebuke and his house was wiped out as a result (1 Sam. 2:22-25).
- King David was passive with his rebellious son Absalom, provoking his son to ongoing sin and eventually his tragic death (2 Sam. 15-18).
- The passive king Ahab allowed his wicked wife Jezebel to take the lead of Israel and it created great damage as a result (1 Kings 16; 21).
- Judas Iscariot passively and deceptively turned Jesus over to the Jewish authorities, so they put him to death. Then, like a coward, he committed suicide rather than repent (Matt. 26; 27:5).
Our progressive culture is creating passive men like these men.
“Passive men reject God’s intention for them.”
God was intentional when he designed men with testosterone—to have more muscle mass, to be more physical/active, to tend toward assertiveness and to rise to challenges. Although men and women share many similarities, our brains were created differently, we have a different set of hormones, and our bodies are different in many ways. We want to guard against turning these physical tendencies into rigid stereotypes for what it means to be a man. Individual men have all kinds of giftings, personalities, strengths and weaknesses, etc. But we also want to be careful that we are not working against our wiring.
How much better it is to connect the dots between how God created men and how Scripture calls men to live—and thus to aspire to a biblical manhood. Yet, in today’s culture, the trend is toward suppressing masculinity and even feminizing men. One result is that men are increasingly choosing moral and societal passivity.
- Too many men are not dating or pursuing women. Instead, they are withdrawing into video games and pornography.
- Too many men are developing moral laziness and an acceptance of sin and perversion.
- Too many men are constantly pursuing entertainment and mindless pleasure or are checking out by using casual drugs or alcohol.
- Too many men are aimless and lack conviction.
- Too many men are abdicating responsibility and letting women be the primary protectors and providers.
Passive men let life “pass” them by because they are paralyzed by all kinds of inner fears and insecurities—resulting in men who are indecisive and withdrawn.
“Passive men let life “pass” them by because they are paralyzed by all kinds of inner fears and insecurities—resulting in men who are indecisive and withdrawn.”
Too many men believe they are entitled to certain things as opposed to working for them.
I just have to ask…men, what is happening to us? Step into who God made you to be!
Don’t be like Adam. Don’t be like Aaron with the golden calf. Don’t be like Judas.
Be a godly man. Reject passivity.
A REAL man…Embraces Service
To know what a true human is meant to be, we need look no further than the life of Jesus Christ. Jesus came to save us, and also to show us how humans are meant to live.
Yet, as mentioned earlier, there is a sense in which Jesus also gives us the epitome of manhood, as the perfect example of what a true man looks like. We are going to see how Jesus calls men to (and models) a servant-hearted headship, showing us how it is based upon service to others.
As the “head” (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:23), married men are to serve their wives and families. Notice these texts.
“Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.” (Col. 3:19, NIV)
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (Eph. 5:25, NIV)
What does it mean to be a mean? “Jesus calls men to (and models) a servant-hearted headship, showing us how it is based upon service to others.”
But hang on. Wouldn’t “headship” and any leadership it entails provide an excuse for men to simply get what they want? Not if we’re learning headship from Jesus. Jesus called his disciples together to talk about leadership and said,
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:25-27, NIV)
How does a man, with Jesus as his archetype, live out this servant-hearted headship?
- When a godly man sees his wife has a need, he serves her in that need.
- When a godly man knows that his wife desires security, he watches over her and gives her that safety.
- When a godly man sees that his children need help, he serves and helps his children.
- When a godly man knows that his children require his guidance and training, he invests his time and energy to train and equip them.
- When a godly man sees trouble at work, he steps up and seeks to provide solutions.
- When a godly man realizes someone must take responsibility and God is calling him to it, he says, “I will serve.”
What does it mean to be a man? “When a godly man realizes someone must take responsibility and God is calling him to it, he says, ‘I will serve.'”
Whether a man is married or single (as Jesus was), part of what it means to be a man is to use his manhood to step up and serve. And, whether they want it or not, husbands and fathers are called to servant-hearted headship in the home. There is no biblical headship unless it is first grounded in service to others. It is the way of Jesus.
A godly man gives up his life to serve others. Embrace service.
A REAL Man…Accepts Responsibility
Don’t be like Adam who blamed Eve.
Don’t be the passive man who waits for others to do the hard, right thing.
Don’t be the husband who lets his wife do it all.
Don’t be the father who lets his children flounder.
Don’t be the church leader who fails to speak the truth as the culture spirals downward.
Stand up. Accept responsibility. Be a Christ-like man.
Notice the responsibility that God gives to husbands. Ephesians 5:25-27 says that a husband is to give himself up for his wife to help her be holy.
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” (Eph. 5:25-28, NIV)
As Jesus gave himself up for the church to make it holy, so husbands are to give themselves up for their wives and to help them be holy. That’s a quite a responsibility God is giving to husbands!
What does it mean to be a man? “As Jesus gave himself up for the church to make it holy, so husbands are to give themselves up for their wives and to help them be holy.”
Notice also the responsibility that God gives to fathers. Ephesians 6:4 says,
“Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”
Husbands and fathers, these texts teach us to take responsibility. It is our job to do our part for the well-being of our wives and children.
Now, let’s talk about the next level of accepting responsibility.
God’s Word only calls qualified men to be the pastors/elders in the church. In Titus 1:5-9, God commands these male leaders to accept responsibility …
to live blamelessly, not be given to drunkenness, not violent, and not pursue dishonest gain. Rather, they must be hospitable, love what is good, be self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.
If you’re a church leader, you must take responsibility for your life and the doctrines in the church (1 Tim. 4:16). Be like Jesus and shepherd the people under your watch (1 Peter 5:1-3). They need you to take responsibility because Satan is currently eating them up for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
What does it mean to be a man? “Be like Jesus and shepherd the people under your watch.”
Men, humbly accept responsibility. You were made by God for it.
- For all of you, there is a Word to know and obey.
- If you’re married, there is a woman to love and protect.
- There is a work in this world at which you must excel.
- There is a world that needs redemption so it will be a better place for your children and/or the children of others.
Do your part. Accept responsibility.
A REAL Man…Leads Courageously
As mentioned earlier, God’s Word teaches that men are to be the head to their wives as Christ is the head to the church. Although some are uncomfortable with it, the word “head” includes a measure of authority. Heads serve, love, and lead.
For more on the biblical concept of headship, see Male & Female: A Biblical Look at Gender, edited by Renée Webb Sproles.
Yes, lead. This doesn’t make them the leader. This doesn’t mean women can’t be great leaders too; many are. But it does mean that, within the marriage, men have a unique headship responsibility, and part of that means to lead like Christ and for women to respect and submit to that leadership. Again, according to Ephesians 5, the role of Jesus and the church is like the role of the husband and his wife; they are not interchangeable.
“For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” (Eph. 5:23-24, NIV)
Scripture envisions that an exemplary, godly man has a special headship role in their families:
“He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect.” (1 Tim. 3:5, NIV)
What does it mean to be a man? “He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect.”
Note the profile of a godly men serving as pastors in God’s church.
“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve.” (1 Peter 5:2, NIV)
But wrong is still wrong, even if everyone is doing it. And right is still right, even if few are following it.
Stand up and follow Jesus.
Say “no” to a culture that switches labels on what is right and wrong.
Say “no” to passivity.
Say “no” to the voices that tell you to shut up and check out.
Say “no” to those who tell you that you’ve got nothing important to offer.
Say “yes” to Jesus.
Say “yes” to service.
Say “yes” to responsibility.
Say “yes” to courageous leadership.
What does it mean to be a man? “Say yes to Jesus. To service. To responsibility. To courageous leadership.”
Say “yes” to being a R.E.A.L. man. Join with me and commit it to memory. A real man:
R – Rejects Passivity
E – Embraces Service
A – Accepts Responsibility
L – Leads Courageously
 Colin Wright, “A Biologist Explains Why Sex Is Binary,” Wall Street Journal, April 9, 2023.
 Robert Lewis, the longtime leader of Men’s Fraternity, worked for years on a version of this definition that he promoted widely and he supports the following iteration. I have worked with our team at Renew.org to provide all the background research behind this definition, including interacting with the contemporary debates in the Evangelical church in blogs on renew.org and in two books, Renée Sproles, editor, Male and Female: A Biblical Look at Gender (Renew.org, 2023) and Renée Sproles and Bobby Harrington, Five Conversations on Men and Women for Church Leaders: A Companion to Male and Female: Biblical Look at Gender (Renew.org, 2023).
 Some believe that the word “head” primarily means source (and that it therefore has nothing to do with authority), but we do not find that the evidence supports this claim. There is no way that Jesus and the church mutually submit to each other in the same way; authority is part of the meaning of headship. For more information, see Male & Female: A Biblical Look at Gender, edited by Renée Webb Sproles (Renew.org, 2023).