Stronger men? Let’s not dish up lazy male stereotypes in the name of Jesus

You might have seen the promo video for the Stronger Men’s Conference coming up on April 13-14 in Springfield, Missouri. It features commandos rappelling onto the stage, an MMA cage fight, monster trucks, and a guy firing semi-automatic pistols. In the video you can hear one of the speakers announcing that while the devil likes to make strong men weak, God loves to make weak men strong.

There’s been quite a backlash to this promo and the whole premise that strong men are into all this stuff, as well as woodchopping, firestarting, and motorbikes (which feature in an earlier Stronger Men’s Conference promo).

Leaving aside the concerns I have about a Christian men’s conference featuring gun play and violence, I have no problem with the fact that a lot of guys love monster trucks and starting bonfires. In the video, NFL players lob footballs into the crowd, and there’s a basketball player getting air, and a drum circle and jets of fire on stage. Cool.

My concern (aside from the cage fight and the guns) is the assumption that all this epitomizes masculinity. That to be a strong man you have to be into all this. More than that, to be a godly strong man you should be into all this. I get that those Christian men who do like chopping wood and watching daredevil aerial stunts on motorbikes want a gathering where they can whoop and holler and love Jesus together. But what about men whose pastime preferences don’t include cage fighting?

I understand that the whole definition of gender is currently being debated and that we hear voices saying gender is fluid or its an abstract concept or an outmoded binary, and I understand that makes a lot of people very uncomfortable. In times like these, conservative people tend to fall back to make an even stronger restatement of the way things were. More specifically, those Christian men who like dirt bikes and guns feel marginalized or mocked. An event like Stronger Men’s Conference is an outlet, a means for expressing their anxieties, and gathering with likeminded men.

But equating this stuff with strength and courage and saying this is what all Christian men want is dangerous. It is a capitulation to the lazy gender stereotypes that dog our society as a whole.

Those lazy stereotypes include such assumptions as the general inability of men to express emotion, or go deep in relationships, or to exercise intuition, or to be other-centered. We are bombarded with television comedies and advertisements that play up these distinctions that women are wise in matters of the heart, but men are emotional klutzes. Women do relationship, men are good at stuff that requires physical strength and confidence (although not even always good at that).

When the church starts mirroring these stereotypes and even baptizing them with some kind of biblical imprimatur, we are being shaped by the world. If the church fosters a masculine stereotype that frees men from developing emotional depth and from communicating openly and with vulnerability, we are conforming with our society, not being formed by the renewal of our minds and hearts by the Holy Spirit.

I know that monster trucks and rappelling commandos excite some guys (as they no doubt also appeal to some women), but to be a stronger man you don’t have to dig that stuff. In saying this, I’m reflecting on more than just Stronger Men’s Conference. So many men’s ministries seem to be capitulating to the assumptions our culture makes about manhood, not about the multi-faceted, beautifully complex vision of humanity presented in Scripture. Here are a few reasons I’m concerned about lazy stereotyping in men’s ministries.

1. IT’S LIMITING

A famous report into how the media presents masculine stereotypes found that boys were consistently presented with male role models on screen who were emotionally shallow and relationally inept. Although it found this stereotype was presented with five variations on the theme. Those types are:

The Joker:  The funny guy is very popular with boys, but the researchers found the stereotype reinforces laughter as a “mask of masculinity.” They said, “A potential negative consequence of this stereotype is the assumption that boys and men should not be serious or emotional.”  A variation on this type is the buffoon, the bumbling male, usually a father figure, who is full of good intentions but whose ineptitude in relationships, domestic chores and work reinforces the stereotype.

The Jock:  According to the report, the tough guy on film is willing to “compromise his own long-term health; he must fight other men when necessary; he must avoid being soft; and he must be aggressive.” It’s through these displays of power and strength that the jock wins the approval of other men and the adoration of women. This stereotype is presented negatively if the jock is too arrogant in his strength and charisma.

The Strong Silent Type: This character focuses on “being in charge, acting decisively, containing emotion, and succeeding with women.” This stereotype reinforces the assumption that men and boys should always be in control, and that talking about one’s feelings is a sign of weakness.

The Big Shot:  The researchers found this kind of character is defined by his professional status. He is the “epitome of success, embodying the characteristics and acquiring the possessions that society deems valuable.” This stereotype suggests that a real man must be economically powerful and socially successful.

The Action Hero: This kind of male character is “strong, but not necessarily silent. He is often angry. Above all, he is aggressive in the extreme and, increasingly over the past several decades, he engages in violent behavior.”

All in all, these five types are telling boys the same thing. Men don’t do emotions, relationships, share feelings, express doubt, or show weakness. Men like dumb fun like monster trucks and aerial bike stunts. We’re teaching boys that men are aggressive, independent, tough, dominant and in control. Can you see how limiting this is?

2. IT’S NOT BIBLICAL

You won’t find a sustained definition of masculinity and femininity in the Bible. There are a number of passages that discuss the preferred behaviors of both women and men, such as Titus 2, where Paul says, “Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance. Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good” (Tit 2:2-3). But we can’t read this as a discussion of gender differences. Men should also be advised not to be addicted to much wine, and women should be temperate and self-controlled. 

Likewise, consider the oft-quoted Proverbs 31 passage about the “wife of noble character” and tell me which of the characteristics mentioned there don’t also apply to men.

The Bible presents us with a marvelous array of characters, both male and female, that display an astonishing (and comforting) breadth of characteristics.

I could definitely imagine Samson or Jehu or David’s “mighty men” loving monster trucks and fire jets. But sweet, sensitive Jonathan, timid Gideon, and melancholy Jeremiah wouldn’t be so enamored of it all, would they?

The Bible presents some women, like Ruth and Esther, who are forced to use their beauty to fulfil their destiny. But we also meet Deborah and Jael who, I’m pretty sure, would want to join the paramilitary rappellers onstage.

The Bible presents the elements of godly character and calls both women and men to embrace them. As Kaitlyn Schiess writes,

“Scripture offers us beautiful examples of masculinity and femininity that push back against harmful stereotypes: we read about men writing poems and songs and women running businesses and bankrolling Jesus’ disciples. We have every theological reason to celebrate the goodness of relationships and the dignity of work for both genders.”

There’s no particular kind of man or preferred kind of woman held up to us in Scripture as the epitome of all that we should aspire to become, except Jesus, which brings me to my third point.

3. IT’S NOT CHRISTLIKE

I don’t mean to suggest that the Stronger Men’s Conference and its organizers, nor the men who like the stereotypes represented by that conference, are not Christlike. I hope I’ve been clear in saying I think it’s great that some guys who like that stuff will get to hang out in Springfield. But I am saying that reinforcing the cultural stereotype that all strong men must avoid being soft and must be aggressive, actional, unfeeling and efficient goes against the example we see in Christ.

Jesus displayed an extraordinary sensitivity toward those around him. He had a remarkable empathy for the lost and suffering. He understood what people were going through, frequently sensing not only their pain or suffering or grief, but also perceiving their objections and struggles with his teaching. He showed a gentle patience toward both their misunderstanding and their arrogance.

Jesus included women in his band of followers. He praised women as examples of faith and persistence and curiosity. He was strong enough to buck convention and resist any urge to conform to the limiting mores of his time.

Jesus refused to protect himself against pain. He expressed his vulnerability and anguish, grieving openly, sweating blood, shedding tears. In the end, Jesus was beside himself, crying loudly to God, looking repeatedly to his friends for comfort, praying for an escape from death.

He refused to defend himself against his accusers. He submitted to weak, vacillating men and underwent a humiliating and tortuous death. Even in his resurrection he revealed himself first to women and then to the male disciples. He was tender with Thomas’s unbelief and gentle with Peter’s reinstatement.

Is it possible to be Christlike while enjoying NFL games, monster truck shows and starting bonfires? Of course. As it’s possible to be Christlike while enjoying crochet and attending art exhibitions and ballet recitals. What Christ models for us is love, compassion, gentleness, kindness, forgiveness and empathy. His strength is shown through ‘weakness’ not through outward displays of aggression or physical prowess. He knows sadness and pain, rejection and death and models a whole new way of being human for those who follow him.

As Ron Rolheiser puts it,

It’s better to be sad than bitter, better to be hurting than hard, better to shed tears than be indifferent, better to taste death than never risk living, better to feel rejection than never to have loved, better to groan in interior anguish than to prematurely resolve tension, and better, for the sake of love, family, faith, and commitment, to sometimes look the fool, the needy one, the simpleton, than to always successfully hide what’s most true inside us so as to be the one who never has a hair, a feeling, or an opinion that’s out of place.

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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25 thoughts on “Stronger men? Let’s not dish up lazy male stereotypes in the name of Jesus

  1. Hit it again Mike. Thanks

  2. Well said Mike. Thanks.

  3. But……CHUCK NORRIS

  4. This is excellent. More Christian men need to stand up and speak out. Until men are free from the constraints of stereotype behaviors, none of us will truly find freedom. We get there together.

  5. I wonder if they will speak into the Christlike qualities in men that you have brought forward. Apart from the shooting off machine guns in the promo I think this will hit a demographic of men that will say “finally something for me”. Thanks Mike for your insight on this.

  6. “Stronger Men Conference” reflects the toxic patriarchy in the church because it understands God in exclusively male terms whereas scripture reveals God as both male and female (Proverbs 8, Matthew 23:37).

  7. Great post on multiple levels. I am very thankful for all of your work.

  8. An almost completely useless correction, but those are automatic pistols, not semi-auto. But many of the conference attendees would probably argue since he is wearing a Chuck Norris wig, he can do anything he wants.

    1. Thanks. I’m not good with guns.

  9. Um, just face persecution, being pushed and slapped around by 50 – 60 angry and abusive men. Have your child not included because she is a Christian and will not be ecumenical.

    Be denied promotions, discriminated at work. Be accused of apostasy and dishonoring other religious figures.

    Will you be accused of being a Christian true to his faith still?

    I think others will testify of strength of faith and trust in the Lord.

    These activities just show how far we are from the Lord and the Bible.

  10. I saw the promo . Ministry of propoganda ,Mr Bulshitzki !

    ” they…exchanged the glory of the invisible God for images made to look like mortal man..”Romans 1 :22,23

  11. Thank you Mike. Spot on 🙂

  12. Good post Mike, a valid critique. Right there with you re: the celebration of violence with guns and MMA. Do we realise we’re heading back to the Colloseum??? Those were terrible times!

    Curious though, do you think we should pursue gender specific ministry events? If so what kind of topics and activities would you include in a men’s conference? What would you say are the tenets of biblical manhood and womanhood, or do you think these are unhelpful categories?

    Though it does at times caricature masculinity i’ve appreciated Eldredge’s books and Robert Lewis’ ‘Raising a modern day knight’ as I’ve thought through how to disciple young men and raise my son. As you pointed out in your Jordan Peterson post we’ve made great progress in affirming young women, and I think more attention needs to be given at the moment (shrewdly) to how to help young men grow and mature.

    1. Good question, Nick. My first instinct is to say we don’t need gender-exclusive events, although I’m open to being convinced otherwise. I think it’s important that we host events that explore issues relating to gender, including events that might attract men more than women, or vice versa. But I think the male-only or female-only conventions don’t seem to be helpful. The male ones often end up like the event I critique in this post. Is it only Christians who host those kinds of events? I know there’s an annual conference in Sydney that invites speakers to address “women’s issues”, but they have some male speakers and men attend (in fewer numbers than women, admittedly).

  13. Great post, Mike. And thank you for quoting a woman as a voice of authority. Something that’s increasingly come to my attention is a lack of viewing and using women as knowledgeable sources of authority on most given subjects, especially in the public space.
    It’s very easy to give a talk or sermon and not mention women at all, especially if it’s aimed at a general audience. Because men are viewed as general, automatic representatives of humanity. While women can, apparently, only represent women, not the whole of humanity.
    This relates to my next point, about the question Nick Varady-Szabo raises about gender-exclusive events. My answer is a firm “No.”
    As Mike’s post points out, such events ultimately lead to a fixed, limited idea of what a man or women are and what they’re capable of being or doing. This is not biblical. As seen time and time again the Bible, God uses people based on inner qualities anyone is capable of having, not their outward appearance.
    For example, again as Mike points out, there are women of authority in the Bible. And not just because a man wasn’t available (as I’ve heard a pastor argue about Deborah). If God wanted a man, there’d have been one.
    Besides this, gender-exclusive events splinter and alienate men and women. Men don’t show up to a woman’s event and vice versa because it’s clearly not meant for them. Men don’t care about “women’s issues” because they are not women.
    Both Jesus and the early Church show a different picture – men and women, girls and boys, all together working to build the church, using whatever gifts God gives them. Working together. Sharing their experiences and knowledge.
    C.S. Lewis argues for this approach in his famous “Mere Christianity” in regards to what Christians believe.
    This makes logical sense. Together men and women form the whole of humanity, a spectrum if you will. And we all live together in this world. Every day you meet both men and women. We don’t live separately.
    And it’s hard, if not impossible, to live together peacefully if we can’t understand each other or respect each other. That’s why, for example, issues such as rape and domestic violence aren’t just “women’s issues”. They’re men’s issues too.
    Because we are all effected.

  14. I also want to point out that the “Stronger Men’s Conference” shows a limited view of strength – namely, physical strength (and maybe will power to dominate others.)
    Yet physical strength is scarcely the only or best type of strength there is. Mike points this out using various examples in the post. There’s emotional strength, such has having the strength to forgive someone who has wronged you, gentleness, which is control of your strength, intelligence, and teaching others so they can become stronger and better themselves.
    And physical strength won’t help you in times of doubt, when you have to cling to your faith and remember all the reasons why God is true and exists, even as all your thoughts and feelings try to convince you otherwise.

  15. This post completely misses the mark and so do all of the comments that support the writers opinion. Of course I would expect just that from a bunch of keyboard cowboys who formulate their entire opinion of a 2 day men’s conference that draws over 8,000 men together for an encounter with Christ on a 2 minute video. The substance of the conference is quite contrary to the aforementioned criticism. If you came to the conference because you thought MMA fighting, monster trucks, and guns made men “stronger”, you learned a valuable lesson there. Try getting into the substance before you take a stab at something.

    1. Your attitude only confirms my suspicions.

      1. Your ignorance abounds. What will the clowns in the click-bait factory come up with next?

        1. Your hubris and the name-calling simply illustrates the kind of male aggression I fear is being encouraged by events like Stronger Men. It’s not “stronger” to call people cowboys and clowns while ignoring the substance of the post you’re reacting to.

          1. There is no substance in the post. You bashed a 2 day conference based on a <2 minute video promo before the conference even took place. Zero substance.

          2. You do get what *promo* video means, right? It’s a taste of the event to come. It’s how the organisers want to represent the event. As for substance, I think there’s plenty there about how men are represented on film, what the Bible says about masculinity and the example of Jesus. You might want to reread it to pick up on some of that stuff. Or you could just keep over-reacting.

  16. The video is a “teaser”, not a representation of the conference as a whole. If you did your due diligence and took a moment to examine the substance of the conference you would already know that. Instead, you used the teaser to contort the truth about what the conference really is about and spit out another blog post for the click bait factory. It’s consistent with typical sensationalism and yellow journalism. So no, I wasted enough time reading the post the first time and it’s not necessary to read it again. The conference opener from 2018 isn’t online yet but the opener from last year addresses specifically what your April 5 rant was about.
    https://youtu.be/1XaNBQckPCQ

    1. I used the teaser the conference produced to attract registrations to contort (did you mean distort?) what the conference was really about??!? That’s nuts. That promo/teaser was how the organisers wanted the event to be seen and it served as a very useful object lesson in what constitutes real strength.

      1. You can rant all day long and it’s not going to change the fact that you wrote a knee jerk rant about a 2 day conference for men based on a 2 minute teaser video without taking even a moment to analyze the actual substance of the conference. That rush to judgment clearly illustrates the lack of intellect that actually goes into your writing. #blogpostfortheclickbaitfactory

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