The greatest challenge facing men today is defining manhood itself. I don’t think that’s hyperbole. I think it’s true — mainly because confusion on the concept gives rise to the many other challenges men face. Once we’re clear on what a man is we may be certain about what a man does.

That’s why I really appreciated Tony’s definition of manhood in relation to honor in this week’s podcast. He defined a man as someone who honors God, honors parents, honors women, and honors his word. Putting honor on the table reminds us that being a man is supposed to be noble, dignified, and worthwhile. There’s a gravitas, a weightiness and seriousness reflected with this focus on honor. And one can readily see that failing to assign appropriate weight and seriousness to God, parents, women, and promise leads to sin and chaos.

When I think of honor, I think of a man’s attitude or virtue. We want to be honorable in the sight of all. But Tony’s framework also implies the importance of relationships. A biblical man is someone who stands in relationship to at least three things: worship, work and women.

A man is someone who stands in submissive relationship to God in worship.

“The apex of manhood is worship.”

Any man apart from God is not, in the higher sense, a “man.”  He’s a beast, really.  He lives beneath his calling and purpose because he’s not properly oriented to his Creator.  A man, to put it simply, is a worshipper. This is true of women, too, but the point needs to be stressed for men who view worship as weak and feminine. The entire creation account of Genesis 1-2 intimates worship. First, we see that man is created “in the image and likeness of God.”  This characteristic allows man to commune with his Creator. Second, we see hints of worship in the different names used for God in Genesis 1 and 2. In Genesis 1, the writer primarily uses the name Elohim. But in Genesis 2, he switches to God’s covenant name, “Lord God” or YHWH Elohim. It’s a name implying a relationship, a bond, or an intimacy. The use of God’s covenant name foreshadows God’s intention that man be oriented to Him in worship. Third, we see the call for men to worship in the creation account of Sabbath rest. God ceases from His labor after the sixth day and rests on the seventh. The day of Sabbath rest is the first thing God makes holy. One theologian describes the Sabbath as a “temporal shrine” designed for man’s communion with His Lord.

The apex of manhood is worship.

A man is someone who stands in ruling relationship to creation in work.

After creating Adam, God places him in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:8-17). There, God gives man work to do. He is to “work and take care of” the garden. For the remainder of Scripture, the phrase “work and take care of” is only used of the temple priests. Perhaps that continuing usage illustrates how sacred a relationship man has to creation in the call to work. In effect, Adam is to be the priest of the garden. Adam’s work is part of his worship.

Adam is to extend God’s dominion and glory from this central place of paradise to the ends of the earth. Men are to spread God’s glory primarily by their work in creation. Adam’s rulership over all things—while real—is merely a reflection, an image, a shining forth of God’s ultimate dominion. The garden is a place for God-worship, not self-worship.

A biblical man does not worship his work. He does not seek worship from those he works with. A biblical man works as a form of worship.

A man is someone who stands in intimate relationship to a woman as his wife.

The Lord God completed all of creation in its vast array, surveyed it all, and concluded, “It’s all good.” OK — that’s a great start. Then in Genesis 2:18, the Lord takes a look at Adam and says, “It is not good that man shall be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Ouch. It’s not that Adam had some creative defect, as though God goofed on the basic design. But, in light of the work mandate Adam received and God’s design to reveal something of his love in human marriage (Eph. 5), Adam was incompetent. Alone, Adam could not do all the work God desired in creation. Adam needed a helper. So, God — in his wisdom and grace — created woman.

Man’s participation in God’s social design primarily and fundamentally takes the form of marriage as an enduring relationship to women (Genesis 2:18-24). So, God creates woman out of Adam’s side as a suitable helper for him. As a helper she is to “honor his vocation, to share his enjoyment, and to respect the prohibition.” As a “suitable” helper, she is equal and adequate.  Her contribution is essential.

It is not good for man to be alone. So he must stand with his wife in the structured relationship of marriage—he leads, she helps. God orients Adam to the work of the garden; He orients Eve to her husband. Marriage and leadership are inextricably connected to being a man.

Adam himself celebrates God’s gift of a wife with a poem in verse 23. Marriage is to be celebrated and embraced by men. And like other things in the Garden, marriage is to be worked and cared for, nurtured and protected. It’s obviously an institution for a man and a woman based on complementarity. The woman is made uniquely and suitably to complement a man for the glory of God. This is why a male’s avoidance of marriage (except in cases of a gift of singleness) generally signals immaturity and a questionable understanding of what it means to be a man. It’s also why a male’s abuse of a woman equals glory-stealing wickedness and rebellion against God. Both avoidance and abuse distort the biblical picture of man’s relationship to woman. The biblical truth lies in an exquisite middle where a true man commits himself for life to one woman and enjoys communion (not conquest!) with her alone, forsaking all others.

A “real man” grows up, settles down, and stays in marriage with his wife for life.

The Work of the African-American Church

If we define a man as someone who stands rightly related to God in worship, to creation in work, and to society with a wife, then we see how serious a theological, economic, and sociological crisis Black manhood is undergoing.

Theologically we must get Black men to see that they are meant to be worshipers who reflect the image of God. By and large, Black churches remain dominated by Black women. We must acknowledge and even celebrate the heroic role sisters have played in making the church vibrant, even keeping it from closing its doors, humanly speaking. Yet, too many men think of worship as an essentially feminine activity. So men avoid worship of God and instead worship the creature. The failure to get significant numbers of Black men to worship God diminishes Black manhood itself. We need a genuine spiritual revival among men. We need an aggressive evangelistic outreach to boys and men across the age spectrum.

“We need a genuine spiritual revival among men.”

The significant rates of African-American unemployment and under-employment contribute to a shrinking sense of manhood in the community. We’ve downplayed the importance of defining manhood by an ability to earn a living and to care for one’s family. But are we inadvertently lowering the bar on manhood by lowering our emphasis on providing? Some argue that a woman earning more than a man should not be all that important to men. It is worthwhile to push back on the kind of male pride that can’t joyfully accept a wife earning more than the husband. We can make earnings an idol and a stumbling block for relationships. Yet for most men, Black men included, the ability to provide is the the indispensable mark of masculinity. Churches might do well to rethink our messages in light of biblical evidence and men’s continuing finance-related identity struggles.

Moreover, the work of the Black church in impoverished communities must include addressing chronic unemployment and under-employment. We won’t fix the macro-economic environment, but we can chip away at individual employment. We’ll especially need a focus on helping men with criminal records find gainful employment. We need to leverage the social networks of the church to get Black men jobs. Otherwise most won’t feel like—and in a real sense won’t be—the men of God they’re called to be.

Finally, the church must embrace the challenge of fostering and supporting healthy or “good enough” marriages. While it’s a well-known fact that everyone does better when adults marry and raise their children together, research studies consistently reveal that male-female mistrust exists at alarmingly high rates in the African-American community. This relational turbulence makes marriage formation extremely difficult. If we want to see men, women and children flourish in the community and the church, we will need to invest significant energy in helping men learn to love, protect, communicate with, and lead women as Christ leads and sacrifices for the Church. We’ll need to identify pathways to marriage preparedness, celebrate covenant love, fight for marriages in difficulty, support women fleeing abuse, and call rebellious and abusive men to account. We’ll need to restore community norms and values that esteem marriage highly, encourage men to “do the right thing” as an act of repentance and responsibility, and puts intimacy behind commitment. The church continues to be the best group of people to address the values involved in Black manhood.

The church has her work cut out for her. But if she can regain a biblical definition and vision for men, the blessing to women, children, church and community will be invaluable.

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7 Comments

  • Avatar Jeff McKeever says:

    So many helpful insights here. I love the first point regarding men being in right relation to God as a worshipper in order to truly be a man. As you know, it’s not just the African-American Church that suffers from too few men being actively involved worshippers. I think it is helpful to engage at such a foundational level with such men: “You aren’t fulfilling the role for which God made you. You’re living beneath your calling and purpose.” If said in the right way and in the right context of relationship, this kind of approach might just get men thinking about whether they are a “real man” and start asking questions of their own about being in right orientation with God. Thanks again for your shepherding of the church, T.

    -McKeev

  • Avatar daveski says:

    Thabiti,

    This was a very insightful article. I sincerely appreciate the foundational theological approach you gave from Scripture and the implications of such. Right theology is so important for application. I think one of the other problems we have in the African-American church, generally speaking, is a steady diet of unhelpful theology. We need our imperatives grounded in solid theological indicatives, which your article is a good example of.

    Looking forward to more from the front porch!

    David

  • Avatar Thabiti Anyabwile says:

    Hey David,

    Thanks for the encouragement, bro, and for joining us on the porch. We’re glad to have you and join with you in the prayer that all God’s churches might be rooted deeply in the truth and live from God’s salvation rather than for it.

    Much grace in Christ Jesus,
    T-

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