Lately, I've seen some Facebook controversy amongst my friends over masculinity, particularly between those (mostly older men) who want to emphasize the spiritual aspects of masculinity (being a good man) versus those (mostly younger men) who want to to recover the physical aspects of masculinity (being good at being a man), like weight lifting. Some might describe this as a controversy between those who want to emphasize "beta” male qualities versus those who want to exalt “alpha” male qualities. I don’t particularly care for that terminology, but it gets at something important in current debates over masculinity. Should men be tough or tender? Rugged and decisive or compassionate and patient? Differentiated leaders or empathetic consensus builders? Frankly, I find a lot of the current discussion entirely unnecessary and unproductive. It’s largely based on false dichotomies that divide things that ought to be held together. Masculinity involves both virtue and virility. It involves being both tough and tender. The best men are a wise combination of both “alpha” and “beta” traits. I want to reproduce a comment I made on Facebook here, and then expand upon it, in order to (hopefully) further this discussion:
There is no question men are called to be strong (see Proverbs, Psalm 45, etc.). Strength is the defining characteristic of men as men in the Bible. Men were made for dominion, protection, provision, etc. The man’s bodily design shows he was made for fathering, for hard work, for ruling, for guarding. But at their core, these tasks are more spiritual than physical; the physical is designed to reveal spiritual realities. The man’s bodily design points us to his spiritual calling.
Thus, men must recognize there are different types of masculine strength. Strength of character is always most important, by far. Without strength of faith, it does not matter what else a man does - he is weak. But spiritual strength is obviously not the only kind of strength we should care about. There is also physical strength, intellectual strength, financial strength, skill strength, etc.
The ideal man would cultivate every form of strength to some degree (again, recognizing strength of character is most fundamental).
On the one hand, it’s mistaken to reduce masculinity to physical prowess since bodily strength is only one small piece of manhood. On the other hand, it’s wrong to mock men for being concerned with developing physical strength since it is important to many of the things men are called to do (and we’re not gnostics!). There is always a ditch on both sides, and anything good can be turned into an idol. Warning about the dangers of something should never cancel out it’s proper use or proper pursuit. Some men will excel in physical strength, other men in intellectual strength, still others in other forms of strength. God does not apportion strength to men equally any more than he apportions beauty to all women equally. Testosterone is a wonderful gift of God, but fallen testosterone is dangerous. Christian men must strive to display sanctified testosterone. But manhood can be never measured solely in physical terms, like how much a man can bench press or how good he is at hunting. True manhood goes far deeper. Paul affirms physical training has some value, but immediately adds that spiritual training has greater value (cf. 1 Tim. 4:8). The godly man will channel all of his masculine energy and gifts towards serving God.
Further, not all men have the same callings, and our callings can shift over the course of our lifetimes. Proverbs emphasizes physical strength as the glory of young men. That glory fades as a man ages, but it is replaced by an even greater glory — the glory of wisdom, represented by the gray head of the elderly. Given the variety of callings men have, some men will need to work developing one kind of strength over another. There are only so many hours in the day and an hour at the gym is an hour that cannot be spent reading a book, studying markets, honing an economically productive skill, etc.. Men must steward all that God gives them wisely and in a way appropriate to their station/vocation in life. All things being equal, I’d rather have physical strength than lack it, just like I’d rather have intellectual strength, car repair strength, stock market investing strength, marksmanship strength, plumbing strength, electrician strength, welding strength, etc. than lack them. But no man can be good at everything. What we can do is appreciate ALL forms of male strength and encourage one another as Christian men to pursue these various forms of masculine strength in accord with our individual callings. In a time in which both masculinity and femininity are being subverted, recovering the distinctive gifts, callings, and design for each sex is a biblical imperative. The loss of sexual polarity in our day is crushing marriage rates, birth rates, etc., not to mention contributing to general unhappiness, mental and emotional illnesses, loneliness, etc. I think we should encourage men to better themselves - to strengthen themselves - in every way they can. The perilous times we are entering into are going to require a wide array of strengths from Christian men.
One way I have tried to summarize this in the past is by calling on young men to become a “triple threat.” Men should develop themselves in three areas – spiritually, intellectually, and physically. (Obviously there are more areas for self-development and sanctification than these three, but I take them as a summation of the whole.) Keep improving in these three areas and you will become the ideal man, a well-rounded man, with wide-ranging skills and wisdom. Be the kind of man who knows what to do if someone puts an Abraham Kuyper book in your hand. Be the kind of man who knows what to do if someone puts a wrench in your hand. Be the kind of man who knows what to do if someone puts a barbell in your hand. Be the kind of man who can work with his hands and his head. Most of all be the kind of man whose heart belongs to God so that you do everything for his glory as an act of faith. Obviously, the pursuit of intellectual and physical excellence should flow out of a desire to be of the utmost service to God and his his kingdom, not some kind of quest for vanity or status.
One way that critics of more conventional/traditional (for lack of a better term) masculinity seek to push back on this kind of emphasis is by pointing to Paul’s profession of weakness in 2 Corinthians 12. Paul was a real man, no doubt, and yet he gloried in his weakness. So why should godly men be concerned about strength? What if weakness is actually godlier?
It is true that Paul boasts in showing weakness (2 Cor. 11:30, 12:5). But given the overall context in 2 Cortinthians, there may be more than a hint of sarcasm in Paul’s talk about weakness. But even if there isn’t any sarcastic mockery aimed at Paul’s pseudo-apostolic rivals, note that Paul says God turns his weakness to strength. “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). In other words, Paul’s weakness is opportunity for God to show his strength in Paul’s life: “when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:10). Also note that Paul is not confessing to some kind of physcial weakness as if there were virtue in weakness for weakness’ sake, or frailty for frailty’s sake. In this section of 2 Corinthians, Paul’s weakness comes from his circumstances - trials and hardships he catalogs in 2 Corinthians 11-12. In confessing weakness, he is not emoting or claiming victim status as a badge of honor; rather he is recognizing he does not have ultimate power over his life or circumstances. In this sense, confessing weakness is just another way of living by faith - it is entrusting ourselves to the grace and power of God. Everyone is weak in the sense that Paul describes his weakness.
Thus, the weakness in view in 2 Corinthians has nothing to do with Paul being “vulnerable” in the way of the modern “sensitive male.” It is not a confession of effeminacy and certainly not an admission that physical strength is of no value (cf. 1 Tim. 4:8). It doesn’t even have to do with sin in Paul’s life per se. More than anything, confessing weakness here is a recognition of creatureliness. Think of the main theme of Ecclesiastes here — even the great King Solomon was “weak” in the face of the vaporous nature of life. Indeed, even Christ was weak in this sense, as he was given over to shame, humiliation, and death. But as the weakness of the cross reveals a hidden strength, so it is Paul’s life. The cross is the real key to 2 Cor. 12:7-10 because it unites strength and weakness, or better, brings strength through weakness. To summarize: Paul’s weakness is a creaturely weakness that requires him to live by faith, but precisely as he lives by faith, the manifold strength of God is manifested in Paul’s ministry. Paul’s life becomes the embodiment of the paradox in 2 Corinthians 12:8: The persecution Paul suffers reveals he is weak — he is not in control of his circumstances — but at the same time it becomes a revelation of strength as Paul remains faithful to his missional vocation in the midst of hardship and trial.
All that to say: Paul is not aiding those who want to undermine more robust forms of masculinity. After all, in Acts, we find that Paul is most certainly strong is the conventionally masculine sense. He is putting all his masculine energy to work in the service of his mission. Paul is clearly a take-charge, run-the-show "alpha male” type all the way. He is constantly under attack but always remains courageous and does the right thing. He never has a failure of nerve, as Edwin Friedman would put it. He has no problem being high status and exercising that status in strategic ways. He is not embarrassed or shy about embracing a leadership role or speaking his mind with boldness. He does not shy away from conflict, such as breaking fellowship with Barnabas over Mark. (Judging from that episode and his letters, I doubt Paul scored high in agreeableness!) Paul was savvy and had no objection to outwitting those who were out to get him, e.g., escaping by being let down from the city wall in a basket. His leadership role in every context in which he finds himself in is unquestionable. Even in prison, like Joseph, his “alpha" qualities shine through. We see the same thing in all his letters - he is constantly arguing, he does not hesitate to tell people (even women!) what to do, etc. Paul was no beta. He never self-deprecates. He does not glory in weakness for weakness’ sake. Paul is the perfectly wise mix of toughness and tenderness, courage and compassion, strength and dependence, grit and grace. Paul's is a man's man, a idealized archetype of integrated and mature masculinity. If you want to know what evangelized, transformed, sanctified manhood looks like, other than Jesus, Paul is likely the best case study we have.
Whatever weakness in 2 Corinthians 12 means, it cannot contradict this overall picture of Paul we get from the rest of the NT. Paul is acutely aware of his weaknesses, his limitations, his fragility as a creature — and he knows God has intensified this weakness with the thorn in his flesh. But in the midst of this weakness Paul finds strength - he finds grit, resilience, toughness, courage, etc. In the midst of his fragility, he becomes antifragile. Even the thorn that weakens him makes him stronger, by the grace of God. Thus, even the shipwrecked, beaten, and imprisoned Paul becomes an unstoppable force for the gospel. If that’s not a model of manhood, I don’t know what would be.