Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Vice President at Family Research Council. This article appeared in Religion Today on September 5, 2013.
The day after the verdict was announced in his trial for "disclosing ... classified and diplomatic information," Army PFC Bradley Manning announced to the world that he now prefers identification as a woman named Chelsea.
Were this not so sad, it would be ludicrous. A biological and physiological male, wearing male clothing, and not a minor, decides to call himself something he fundamentally can never be. His genetic code will always be male. He will never give birth. Only through extensive processes of surgery and chemical modification can some of his male characteristics be sufficiently altered to enable him to look something like a woman.
Yet Manning's pathetic attempt at self-redefinition illustrates a larger issue: What does it mean to be a man? This is a particularly important question in society where self-evident gender identity is being intentionally, if absurdly, obscured.
As he lay dying, King David said to his son Solomon, "I am going the way of all the earth. Be strong, therefore, and show yourself a man" (I Kings 2:2). Paul the Apostle, writing to the church in Corinth, commanded the believers there to "be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love" (I Corinthians 16:13).
The common element in both of these charges is that strength and manliness are linked together. What is also interesting is that the men giving these charges, David and Paul, were multi-dimensional.
David wrote hymns, played the harp, and wept for his sons when they died. Paul reminded the Thessalonians that he and his colleagues had "proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children" (I Thessalonians 2:7).
David and Paul were tough. They endured great physical and emotional hardships. Pain was their companion more often than not, and death stood before them as a daily possibility. They were strong men.
David, the warrior, began his public career by slaying a giant and then decapitating him. Paul, raised in the milieu of the Roman Empire, frequently used military analogies to describe the Christian life. For example, he describes "the armor of God" to the Ephesians and tells Timothy to "endure hardship as a good soldier of Christ Jesus."
Yet in their strength they avoided stoicism. Their courage and confidence were tempered by compassion and tenderness. In this, they imitated the Messiah, Who spent most of his earthly life performing difficult and repetitive, if skilled, labor, yet Who would nestle children in His lap and rebuke those who tried to keep the little ones from Him.
The comprehensive biblical vision of masculinity, one that integrates unflinching resolve and unconditional love, is under attack throughout our culture. Yet, as commentator Meagan Hill argues, "in the conservative Christian community, we are still holding firm. We are pushing back against the blur by proclaiming the creation pattern, the beauty and complementarity of gender differences, and the need for young people to embrace their gender responsibilities."
At the same time, Hill wisely warns that "by standing against gender and sexual ambiguity, we risk over-defining and forcing our young people to prove what does not need to be proven." As she observes, we have to be careful not to diminish heterosexual moral sin with an attitude that says "at least (my son and his girlfriend) weren't tempted to homosexuality."
We cannot affirm the good by depreciating evil. We should never equate masculinity with overbearing dominance or predatory heterosexuality. Being a man means being strong and gentle, both of which demand self-possession and moral courage. The two qualities are as connected as the covalent bonding within a molecule of hydrogen and oxygen (aka water).
In his final moments, David also tells Solomon to be faithful to the commands of God; Paul ends his exhortation to the Corinthians with the command "to do all that they do" in love. Love and obedience, strength and kindness. Manliness.
Swaggering is a pose. Cowering is weakness. For the Christian male, seeking to be like the Master is the surest way to be a man in the fullest, most Scriptural sense. When you forget about trying to impress and instead seek, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to form the character of Christ within yourself, you are never more free and never more fully a man.