Was Jesus a Fighter?

August 15th, 2011
Photo © by robert.melok | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license.

Mixed Messages for Men

What does it take to be a man? If you take your cues from recent Hollywood “bromances” like the movie Superbad, you might think that being a man means developing a close friendship with another guy, talking about women, and behaving badly. If you attend a gathering of the Promise Keepers movement, leaders lift up real men as being committed to Christ and “pursuing vital relationships with a few other men” for accountability to “spiritual, moral, ethical, and sexual purity.” If you attend Xtreme Ministries, a small church and academy near Nashville, Tennessee, you will find people trying to live out a vision of the Christian man through mixed martial arts under the motto “Where Feet, Fist, and Faith Collide.”

With such a variety of messages about masculinity, men and women are navigating in new waters as they think about what a man should be. Within the Christian church, new debates about masculine roles have arisen alongside old debates about the role of women in the church. Books, movements, and exchanges among Christian leaders on the Internet have ignited new conversations about what Christian faith teaches about men and how Christians ought to model behaviors for men.

Engaging Men With Church

Xtreme Ministries may be a bit, well, extreme in the way that it reaches out to men, but it is not alone. Within churches, many are looking at the demographics of congregations and asking, “Where are the men?” This is backed up by studies such as the 2008 Pew Forum Survey of the US Religious Landscape, which found that mainline churches are disproportionately female by a ratio of 54 percent to 46 percent. Other branches of the Christian church have similar ratios. The same study found that men were also significantly more likely to have no religious affiliation than women.

Given these facts, some churches are responding by presenting an image that feels more masculine. Like Xtreme Ministries, nondenominational Canyon Creek Church outside of Seattle, Washington, offers fight parties as a way of attracting young men. The New York Times reported in an article earlier this year that the events draw about 100 men, “many sporting shaved heads and tattoos . . . watching bouts on the church’s four big-screen televisions.” Brandon Beals, lead pastor of the church, told the Times, “Compassion and love—we agree with all that stuff, too . . . but what led me to find Christ was that Jesus was a fighter.”

A Modern Men’s Movement

Fight clubs may be in the minority, but there is a larger movement to claim space for a more muscular Christianity. John Eldredge’s 2001 book, Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul, launched a new wave of books exploring the idea of masculinity within a Christian context. Many of them developed Eldredge’s claim that most congregations were simply telling men that “God put them on earth to be good boys.” He felt that Christian discipleship should draw on a more robust understanding of the masculine spirit that tapped into desires for a battle, a quest, and a beauty to rescue. His book, he said, was “an invitation to rush the fields at Bannockburn, to go West, to leap from the falls and save the beauty.”

Mark Driscoll took the rhetoric one step further. The pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle has gained notoriety for his depictions of Jesus as a guy with “callused hands and big biceps” and that he was one of those “heterosexual, win-a-fight, punch-you-in-the nose dudes.” In a recent Facebook post (which Driscoll subsequently deleted following critical responses in the online community), the pastor called into question the masculinity of some male worship leaders. Responding to the controversy, Driscoll seemed to be aware of how loaded our language around masculinity is these days. “How can believers speak to the gender issue?” he asked. “These are big, tough, far-reaching issues. Too big, tough, and far-reaching for things like Facebook and Twitter, I’ve recently learned.”

A Contentious Issue

The ongoing conversation on men and the church can raise concerns, even when the language is not so inflammatory. Some see it as a backlash against women’s movements in the late 20th century. Christian author and blogger Rachel Held Evans says that it would be wrong to think that the lack of men in the church is solely a result of those movements or that it is evidence of a feminization of the church. “The discrepancy between male and female religious fervor is not a new thing, but has shown up for as long as Pew and Gallup and other research institutions have been collecting data.”

Writing about the masculinity movement for Christianity Today in 2008, Brandon O’Brien wonders about the limited range of expression for masculinity that is represented. “I’m not sure where a man like me fits when the only categories for masculinity are ‘metrosexual’ [a slang term for men who take an extraordinary concern for their appearance] and ‘Ultimate Fighting champion.’ ” O’Brien also worries about addressing the issue by “re-masculating” Jesus. Referring to Philippians 2:5-8, he writes, “Humanity in the image of Christ is not aggressive and combative; it is humble and poor.”

However, the movement does seem to speak to a deep hunger. Many leaders in the movement talk about how safe church has become and about how bored many men are with the models of discipleship offered in most congregations. Surely God must be speaking to and through the currents coursing through men’s souls.

Biblical Models of Masculinity

What does Christian tradition offer in the way of models for masculinity? The biblical story gives us plenty of warrior figures like Joshua and heroic strongmen like Samson. However, it also gives us men who do not fit the mold of “manly men.” Abraham was an old man before God called him to take off on a grand adventure to an unknown land (Genesis 12:1-4). Jacob is described as “a peaceful man, living in tents” (Genesis 25:27, New American Standard Bible). David, though he became a military leader, is initially described as “good-looking” with “beautiful eyes” and musical skills, as well as “strong” and “heroic” (1 Samuel 16:12, 18). An Ethiopian eunuch was one of the first to be baptized in the post-Resurrection church (Acts 8:25-39).

But what about Jesus? What kind of man was he? Charles Wesley wrote a famous hymn entitled “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild,” and churches are filled with portraits and stained-glass images of a Jesus in soft robes with flowing hair. However, the biblical picture of Jesus is complex.

Jesus displayed traits such as anger at the moneychangers in the Temple (John 2:13-16) and fierce condemnation of religious leaders, as when he called out as hypocrites those who condemned his sabbath healings (Luke 13:10-16). He went into the wilderness for 40 days of fasting, faced down the devil, and told those he called to follow him that they could expect no comfort. These passages suggest a Jesus who was not safe or risk-averse. At the same time, Jesus was not a Hollywood action-hero kind of man. He displayed tenderness and compassion in welcoming children and grieving with widows. He met violence with forgiveness; and when one of his disciples drew a sword at Jesus’ arrest and sliced someone’s ear off, Jesus healed the man and rebuked the disciple, saying, “No more of this!” (Luke 22:51). On the cross he accepted torture and death.

Seen in the light of these passages, Jesus seems to model qualities that have been traditionally masculine and feminine. He also seems not to conform to our cultural models of masculinity. In fact, Jesus displays a much greater range of expression across gender roles than we see in our contemporary world. So perhaps the identity of men will not be solved by trying to make Jesus more manly, but by helping men to reach their full potential by following Jesus.


This article is part of FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs. The complete study guide accompanying this article can be purchased here.

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