Several popular (though controversial) preachers have taken up a refrain of social commentary I’ve heard a few too many times. They denounce what they see as a trend of “Effeminate Worship.” (Here’s a typical message. Here’s another and another.) Apparently, modern churches have become “feminized,” unlike the old days when men were men. This means that manly men are staying out of leadership, so preaching has lost its edge and church music has devolved to sappy “Jesus is my girlfriend” songs. Those don’t interest macho masculine men, so they stay away.
I have a book that’s a good example of the way this case is usually argued these days. The first chapter is called “The Feminizing of Christianity,” and it begins like this:
The statement that the men in Christian countries take less interest in religion than the women requires neither argument nor proof. Not only have the statistics of church attendance been published, but also any one can easily verify the statement for himself in any congregation. The women in attendance always outnumber the men, often by several hundred percent.
Why do men stay away from church (assuming we accept that with “neither argument nor proof”)? The author explains:
There is one explanation so obvious that it seems to escape observation — the Feminizing of Christianity. When you stop to think of it, what is there in the personality of Christ, as usually presented, to attract the interest or inspire the enthusiasm of hard-headed, practical men? Of course men of emotional temperament or religious tendencies are likely to be attracted by the ideality of his character and doctrine, but the men who do the world’s rough work and have little idealism regard Christianity as all very well for women and children, but not “practical” for men.
Consider the conventional Christ, as presented by Christian art and Christian preaching. From lovely illuminated church windows and from Sunday school banners he looks down upon us, “meek and lowly”, with an expression of sweetness and resignation, eyes often down-cast, soft hands gently folded, long curling hair brushed smoothly from a central parting — all feminine, passive, negative. […]
The Feminizing of Christianity is the real reason why men are not interested. Christian art and Christian preaching need a strong tonic of Virility.
You can hear that same message, point for point, idea for idea, from most of those other preachers I mentioned. It’s like they’ve been exchanging notes: Men are staying away from church—check! That means the church has become “feminized”—check! By that we mean an excess of emotionalism and feminine traits in Christian art and preaching, which is bad—check! And down-to-earth working men today, unlike milquetoast intellectuals, aren’t interested in that—check! So the solution is to make our art, music, and preaching more virile, masculine, and manly—double check!
This is exactly the message they preach, exactly the way they preach it. The argument could have come word for word from any modern advocates of biblical manhood and womanhood.
But it didn’t. That book was published in 1904.
(It’s called The Manly Christ: A New View by Dr. R. W. Conant. Contemporary reviewers, though, remarked that Conant’s book was “not strictly a new view.” Much of the same ground was already covered in The Manliness of Christ by Thomas Hughes—in 1880. The origin of both was probably the “Muscular Christianity” fad of the late 1850s, but that’s getting a bit far afield.)
Every cultural criticism the detractors of “modern effeminate Christianity” trot out was there in 1904, not embryonically but as fully developed as today. They offer nothing new, no keeping up with cultural changes, no fleshing out concepts with fresh thoughts. It’s like reprinting an editorial on the Taft administration as a commentary on politics today. Old facts and truths and logic are wonderful things, but old editorializing on culture is used for lining birdcages.
Think about that. In its current form, this denunciation of “feminized Christianity” predates not only 1960s feminism but radio, movies, penicillin, and the Model T. They’re not offering a radical new cultural critique. They’re reanimating a musty old religious antique. It’s an outdated cultural meme masquerading as a timeless theological truth. We’re not just beating a dead horse; several generations of horses have come and gone while we’re still beating the spot where we think the first horse’s body decomposed a century ago.
The point is, when we’re talking about “masculine” and “feminine” especially in religion, the majority of our commonly held ideas don’t come from the Bible. Maybe a handful do, but not as many you think. Mostly, like this one, they’re an amalgam of cultural customs and hand-me-down moralizing, badly filtered through recent tradition.
Take another example. One of the articles I linked above lists what the author, Douglas Wilson, sarcastically identifies as signs that “Your worship service and church community might be effeminate.” One of them is, “…a clerical collar and a powder pink shirt.” To us, of course, pink is a color for little girls. But here’s another quote from the early 1900s, this one from a clothing magazine in 1914:
“The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” (Source: Smithsonian Magazine)
In 1914, pink was the manly color and blue was “delicate and dainty.” A man who wore a pink shirt to church was “more decided and stronger.” Apparently, pink wasn’t even associated with femininity in the U.S. until the 1940s, mostly thanks to marketing by clothing manufacturers. Are we really promoting biblical masculinity or femininity here? Obviously not.
Taken to its most extreme, this becomes obsessive nitpicking and worrying and scrutinizing that something a man does might be (horror of horrors!) feminine. It can get downright laughable. I have another book in which several scholars try to explain “biblical manhood and womanhood.” Discussing the handful of scattered Bible verses that address gender takes them 575 pages—longer than the New Testament. As C. S. Lewis said in another context, this is “the discovery of the mare’s nest by pursuit of the red herring.”
The absurdity perhaps reached its nadir when Douglas Wilson listed this sign that a church is “effeminate”:
The worship music rides particular chord changes hard, with special mention being given to the shift from E Minor to C Major;
Because nothing says femininity like a chord progression with root movement of a descending major third. As a classically trained composer, the technical term I’d use for that is, “What?” Maybe he thinks men ought to go from E minor to B7 instead, since that’s the Dominant. Or to D#, which is the leading tone, because men should be leaders, and… Oh, forget it, I give up. It’s just sheer nonsense. It’s on a level with saying that men should avoid spelling words with W and F because they stand for Womanly and Feminine.
Once a debate has gotten into a state like this, it’s not only jumped the shark, it should be sent to sleep with the fishes.
What’s really behind this? It’s certainly not informed and reasonable concern for hymnology or music or liturgical content. Yet something is keeping this worn-out 110-year-old trope alive, shambling from the grave like a sermon zombie. There’s something more to it than our current culture conflict over gender roles.
Here’s where it gets ugly. In a follow-up piece, Wilson clarified his intentions, insisting that he didn’t see femininity as a bad thing; after all, the church is the bride of Christ and all that. Then he tipped his hand:
Our corporate identity is feminine. But if an individual man attempts to replicate that identity in his personal devotions, two bad things can happen. The first is that he finds he can step right into such role, no prob, and presto, we have ourselves a new worship leader.
Ha, ha! It’s funny because being feminine makes a man into a worship leader! Just like you! Get it? Pretty good, huh?
Those are the words of a bully.
This spiel about “feminized worship” is precisely tuned to please men’s instinct for self-gratification. Every guy knows it strokes our egos when someone says “You’re really manly!” And, conversely, it’s hard to think of a worse insult to a man than “You’re not a real man.”
So now, with this “effeminate worship” meme, not only do you get to say how much more masculine you are than those namby-pamby effeminate weaklings—well, you get to say those other guys are namby-pamby effeminate weaklings. You get to puff yourself up so you feel bigger, and you get to push other people down so you look bigger.
When a religious leader finds he can step into that role with no problem, then presto, we have ourselves a new case of spiritual abuse.
Someone might argue that “effeminate” is just a descriptive term for a man who’s acting like a woman, not an insult. Uh-huh. And “loser” is a descriptive word for someone who finishes last, and “fat” is a descriptive word someone who’s overweight, and “knucklehead” is a descriptive word for someone who thinks chord progressions have gender. A taunt doesn’t turn polite when someone says “But it’s true!”
No doubt Wilson would say he was only joking and we shouldn’t take his cheap shot so seriously. The Bible, meanwhile, would say this:
Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death
is the man who deceives his neighbor
and says, “I am only joking!”
Firebrands, arrows, and death in the hands of a madman. That’s the kind of damage this harmless “joking” can do. Cheap shots can be costly. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may break my heart.
In fact, the Bible specifically denounces this combination of praising God and putting down people. In a diatribe on the destructive power of words, James writes:
Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. […] It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. (James 3:5-10)
From one side of our mouths we’re praising God—see, worship!—and from the other we’re tearing down our brothers. Praise the Lord with manly hymns, because God doesn’t want namby-pamby girly-men like you! Praise the Lord; you’re a pansy!
That’s built into that whole concept. Even if the bullying isn’t as blatant as Wilson’s, there’s no way around it. The inherent attitude in the terminology is mockery: “Heh heh, dude looks like a girl.” To say that to a man is to insult him, tear him down, dehumanize him, browbeat him into following your gender rules. To do that in the context of worshiping God? “My brothers, this should not be.”
If we want to know the reason men are staying away from church, maybe we just found it. Maybe they see church people as bullies. When somebody tells me I’m not a real man, I don’t want to hang out with them. I had enough of that in the locker room in sixth grade, thanks. If that’s what I’ll find in church, I’ll pass—and so will every other man who doesn’t meet that narrow, culture-blinded, anti-biblical ideal of masculinity.
Enough is enough. This whole tired clichéd pointless insulting emasculating graceless sanctimonious frippery of bellicose machismo should have been laid to rest a hundred years ago.
As with most worship wars, the problem isn’t worship. The problem is lack of worship. We’re looking at culture, not at Christ. We’re preoccupied with effeminacy, not having faith. We’re teaching gender, not the Gospel. We’re talking about manliness, not the Son of Man.
What would happen if we made our standard of “biblical masculinity” the Bible’s main character, the Son of Man himself? Let’s make a few things absolutely clear:
Showing your emotions and crying in public doesn’t make you effeminate. “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).
Finding beauty in nature doesn’t make you effeminate. Jesus told us to “consider the lilies” (Matthew 6:27).
Being gentle, quiet, kind, and humble doesn’t make you effeminate. Jesus was “gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29).
Having an intimate, emotional friendship with Jesus doesn’t make you effeminate. “There was reclining on Jesus’ bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23). (That was John, the rugged blue-collar fisherman, by the way.)
Liking beautiful music and poetry doesn’t make you effeminate. Jesus sang hymns (Matthew 26:30).
Even being a victim of bullying doesn’t make you effeminate. “Herod and his soldiers ridiculed him and mocked him” (Luke 23:11).
Sure, Jesus was a strong man, a tough guy with a beard who worked with his hands for a living, called out Pharisees to their faces, stared down a mob, and overturned tables. But Jesus was also a man who wasn’t ashamed of being emotional, enjoying beauty, liking music, being humble, getting bullied, crying, expressing love, hanging out with women and children.
Brothers, anybody who told you that doing those things makes you “effeminate” didn’t understand Jesus.
And if me saying that makes someone think less of Jesus, then they’re the one with the gender problem. If your doctrine of masculinity or femininity gets in the way of your love for Jesus, you’re an idolater.
The Bible doesn’t mention masculine worship or feminine worship or effeminate worship or tomboy worship. It mentions true worship. That comes from the true worshipers, who worship the Father in spirit and truth.
Being a true worshiper doesn’t mean following a list of biblical rules that will make you into someone who’s stereotypically masculine or feminine by cultural standards. It means following Jesus, and letting the Holy Spirit make you into someone who’s like Him by His grace.
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:29)
Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)
And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 2:18)
Not the likeness of gender roles. The likeness of God’s Son.
Be free in who God made you to be. Let God make you more like Jesus. When you worship, don’t look at cultural rules—look at Christ. That’s all worship is.
There’s a lot more that can be said on this subject, and fortunately, a lot more people are saying it. Here are a few more posts for recommended reading:
“Esau” Christianity? by Chaplain Mike
“Effeminate”: Christianity and Gender Shaming by OutOfTheAshes
Mano-a-Mano: A Letter to Mark Driscoll by Tyler Clark
The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity review, by Daniel P. Moloney (a devastating critique of Leon Podles’ book that Douglas Wilson claims as a source)
Muscular Christianity by Clifford Putney (a fascinating little bit of history)
Muscular Christianity by Michael Horton (See, complementarian theologians critique this meme too)