Evangelicals and Masculinity

Joe Nelms' inappropriate use of public prayer is symptomatic of a larger disorder among evangelicals -- masculinity compensation disorder. The movement needs aggressive treatment.
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Tennessee Baptist pastor Joe Nelms recently offered the opening prayer before NASCAR's Federated Auto Parts 300, thanking God for "my smoking hot wife." Nelms' clever allusion to "Talledega Nights" notwithstanding, this inappropriate use of public prayer is symptomatic of a larger disorder among evangelicals -- masculinity compensation disorder. The movement needs aggressive treatment.

Nelms' prayer hardly stands alone. Just a few years ago, the Rev. Ed Young, pastor of Houston's 53,000 member Second Baptist Church and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, challenged the married couples in his congregation to have sex with each other every night for a week. Pastor Young vowed that he and his wife would lead by example. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has admonished young adults concerning the sin of delaying marriage. Mark Driscoll, pastor of Seattle's Mars Hill Church, imagines Jesus with "callused hands and big biceps." John Piper, pastor of Minneapolis' Bethlehem Baptist Church and a prominent advocate for wives' submission to their husbands, maintains that truly masculine Christian men better suit a society with "a wartime mindset." And we all know about Bishop Eddie Long and the Rev. Ted Haggard, vocal anti-gay activists and national evangelical leaders, who have faced charges of soliciting sex with other men.

These are not simply individual aberrations; they grow from a distinctive religious subculture that tells young men to suppress their sexuality, then marry early and raise up a "quiver-full" of children. It's no accident that Rev. Nelms serves "Family" Baptist Church.

Some might suspect that this critique comes from a hostile outsider who doesn't know or value evangelical culture. It does not. I was converted in a Southern Baptist Church, served several Baptist churches in various capacities, and for two years served the Southern Baptist Convention as what was then called a home missionary. In high school I was president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and in college I served as FCA vice-president. I even helped to start the Baptist Student Union. I graduated from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary just before Al Mohler, mentioned above, was elected president. Evangelical piety and values shape my spiritual life to this day.

I know this culture. And I cannot count how many times I have heard male pastors struggle to demonstrate their masculinity from the pulpit. They insist they love their wives. I hope they do, but we don't need to hear about it during worship. Their old football stories serve as sermon illustrations.

If they can come to terms with their masculinity anxiety, evangelicals have lots to offer the larger culture. They know that one does not demonstrate one's masculinity through sexual conquest or through domination. Born-again quarterback Roger Staubach famously compared his sex life to that of notorious playboy Joe Namath: "I'm sure I enjoy sex just as much as Joe Namath. It's just that I have sex with one woman -- my wife." Evangelicals champion the rewards of fidelity. They also testify that relationships depend upon how partners serve one another, not simply the acquisition of pleasure. Indeed, some secular research suggests that evangelical men likely make some of our society's most successful fathers.

One may only guess concerning the masculinity disorder's etiology. It likely has something to do with tensions arising both within evangelical values and between evangelical men and their secular counterparts. Young evangelical men are expected to maintain sexual purity until marriage, then to transition into effective lovers and fertile parents upon marriage. They're to cherish, and emphasize, their sexuality while remaining virgins. The energy regulated by that potent on/off switch can quickly short a circuit. Meanwhile, their secular peers demonstrate their masculinity in counter-productive ways: through sexual conquest and physical domination. At school and at work, young evangelical men face mocking for failing to live up to conventional masculine expectations.

The Bible offers some help for this dilemma. Waves of recent research (which I report in my book, Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers) interpret the lives of Jesus and Paul in the context of Greco-Roman gender conventions. Both figures excelled according to some conventional expectations: Jesus and Paul alike were skilled in speaking and gathered followers. But in other respects Jesus and Paul lived outside of and against the cultural values of their day. Neither married, produced children, or ruled a household. Neither amassed wealth. Both suffered public torture and humiliation. Both occasionally applied feminine imagery to their ministries, Jesus comparing himself to a mother hen and Paul to a nurse.

In short, both Jesus and Paul demonstrated freedom from external standards in order to pursue the good news. Their lifestyles do not conform to evangelical idealizations of masculinity, but they promise freedom to men -- and to women -- to pursue their callings from God, whatever those callings look like.

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