Misguided masculinity, from the NFL to the church

A bullying scandal involving the Miami Dolphins’ Richie Incognito and teammate Jonathan Martin has once again thrust the NFL into the national spotlight for something other than football. Much of the resulting conversation has been about the NFL’s culture of hazing, but the implications reach beyond locker rooms. The NFL has a masculinity problem. The same could be said of the church.

Incognito allegedly coerced Martin into paying $15,000 for a group trip to Las Vegas - a trip that did not include Martin. Incognito, who is white, also left threatening, racially charged phone messages for Martin, who is biracial. After yet another run-in with Incognito at the team’s training facility last week, Martin chose to walk away from the NFL. Incognito has since been suspended by the team, pending an investigation.

Many people both inside and outside the NFL have condemned Incognito’s behavior as unacceptable. But many others, including current and former NFL players and coaches, have placed at least some of the blame on Martin. And their comments all echo a similar theme: Martin should have stood up to Incognito, probably physically.

It’s not this sentiment that interests me, though - it’s the words they’ve chosen to use. Nearly every single one of them said something to this effect: Martin should have acted like a man. Their message is clear. In the NFL, men are invulnerable. Real men are aggressive, violent and never back down from a fight. If Jonathan Martin, a 300-pound offensive lineman, was unwilling to throw a punch to defend himself after months of bullying, then he wasn’t really a man. He didn’t belong.

It seems the NFL is only interested in men who have no concern for their own safety or the safety of others. They build teams around these kinds of men because doing so is immensely profitable. But let’s give this conversation a bit of context. It’s important to remember that we aren’t far removed from another scandal involving an NFL player. Aaron Hernandez, by all accounts, was a “real man” in the NFL. He was invulnerable and aggressive and violent. He is currently in prison awaiting trial for first-degree murder.

Of course, the NFL’s use of violent, aggressive language to define “real men” is not unique. It has even woven its way into the church.

Over the past few months, the Act Like Men conference has toured the country, headlined by Mars Hill pastor Mark Driscoll. Driscoll is an outspoken proponent of well-defined, prescriptive, unequal gender roles. He has derided many Christian men as being “effeminate” and “chickified” and has called this one of the biggest problems with the church. He praises King David not for his psalms or his wisdom, but rather for how many people he killed.

In a recent blog post, Driscoll posited this:

“Jesus is not a pansy or a pacifist ... he is saddling up on a white horse and coming to slaughter his enemies and usher in his kingdom. Blood will flow.”

This is the kind of violent imagery that might be used to inspire a listless NFL team at halftime. And it’s certainly the type of imagery that Driscoll will use to further the notion that “real Christian men” are aggressive and violent, just like his vision of Jesus. They’re certainly not “effeminate” or “pansies” or “pacifists.”

Driscoll’s inflammatory verbiage aside, I’m left wondering if there should even be a place in the church for this kind of black-and-white thinking about men and women.

After all, David was a renowned musician and writer of poetry; Jesus wept, turned the other cheek and forgave freely. At the very least, both men offer a more complex picture of Biblical masculinity.

So must we, as Christians, prescribe specific roles and personalities based entirely on gender? Does a one-size-fits-all definition of “Christian man” and “Christian woman” exist?

What then do we make of those who don’t fit the accepted definitions? Is there a place for them in the church? If not, how is Christianity any different than the farcical fraternity of the NFL?

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A couple minor points in the hopes of preventing some misunderstandings. First, is the “Act like Men” tour really reflecting Driscoll’s personal views? I don’t think we should be fooled by the extreme Dorito commercial graphics or the video treatment—I mean, near end of the video, James MacDonald says “Do all in love” (or something to that effect). I’m not convinced this is all about Mark’s views of manhood, especially from knowing a couple contributing speakers, Greg Laurie and Matt Chandler, who are faithful and loving pastors.

Am no expert on Driscoll, but I’m also not convinced he was “praising” David for killing in that clip. It seemed to me that he more trying to make the case that David, for better or worse, fulfilled some gender stereotypes. But regardless, yes, Mark does express some narrow views on what men are. I wonder if he’s aware of this and simply heightens his rhetoric with colorful language, but no matter.

I’m failing to contribute much to the great questions you brought up, but I thought I’d raise these side issues to help avoid adding to the confusion around Christian leaders these days. They certainly aren’t perfect, but I think it’s important—especially with those close to us in creed—to try to understand exactly what they’re saying and discern the good and the bad rather than throw the baby out with the bath water.


Thanks for the clarifying comments. I certainly don’t think the Act Like Men conference is all about Driscoll’s views. I would imagine that many of the speakers would, in fact, disagree with Driscoll on some issues related to masculinity. And I have no doubt that God can do great things through this conference, even if I question its premise.

Any criticism I have for the other speakers at the conference is not based on the problems I have with Driscoll’s theology. I simply wonder whether it is helpful or necessary to have a conference that presents a specific image of what Christian men should act like based on their gender. Or what Christian men should act like, as opposed to what Christian women should act like.

One thing I’ve learned as a Christian is that true strength (or at least true greatness and goodness) lies in submission rather than in overpowering others. It is in being so secure in ourselves and in God’s protection of us that we don’t need to grasp at what we have, to hold it so tightly because it’s all up to us. In some circumstances that will look an awful lot like being a pansy or a pacifist. You will not need to push others down to make yourself feel bigger.

That’s not a male/female thing, I don’t think. I’ve always been a tomboy and more comfortable hanging out with the guys as a friend rather than girlfriend, so I was never really socialized to think and act like most girls are. That means I tend to see gender issues more along a continuum than other people might, I guess. But I can’t see this understanding of “manning up” being a good way for any Christian to live, personally - if strength is important, then we need to look for a better idea of what it means to be truly strong.

Good thoughts, Michael.  Football is a tough man’s sport, so it seems reasonable that this sort of thinking might emerge there. Doesn’t make it right, however.  In the church, that is another story.  In the case of M.D., I think he likes to get out there to say something outrageous so his name is mentioned again and again in social media.  I always feel that the gospel seems to be about “him” too often.  Also, he sells lots of books and this is a good way to market.

As someone who attended Act Like Men in Indy last weekend, I’d say that any attempt to draw parallels between the type of bullying currently being decried in the NFL and the ALM conference is at best misguided, and at worst represents an unfair attack on good people trying to do good things.

“Does a one-size-fits-all definition of “Christian man” and “Christian woman” exist?”

The answer from the podium at Act Like Men would have been an unqualified “no”. I heard every speaker start to finish and at no point was it suggested that stereotypical superficialities make the man. On the contrary, men were challenged to have the love and compassion of Jesus.

“After all, David was a renowned musician and writer of poetry; Jesus wept, turned the other cheek and forgave freely. At the very least, both men offer a more complex picture of Biblical masculinity.”

Nothing less was promoted at Act Like Men.

I have visited a lot of churches. I once made it a point to visit every Christian church in Kent, Ohio when I lived there, just for the experience. Every ministry displays a posture and appeals to a certain segment of the population, especially if they do not have the diversity of leadership available to a megachurch (I’m a member at Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago and consider it one of the most racially and socioeconomically diverse churches I’ve ever attended).

If we’re going to engage in stereotyping, here’s the thing: Mark Driscoll and events like Act Like Men reach men who are never going to be able to relate to a minister with manicured hands wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches and a turtleneck with a conspicuous cross pendant worn on the outside, talking about free trade coffee in front of stained glass windows. I can send Mark Driscoll videos to people who are simply not going to listen to Rick Warren. And vice versa.

500+ men were saved at Act Like Men (including one of our bus drivers). 12,600 men heard the message that they need to stop acting like selfish little boys and instead live sacrificially for the benefit of others. Why not just be grateful for that?


Thank you for the comment and the first-hand account of the Act Like Men conference.

I’m glad to hear that a more nuanced view of masculinity was presented. I’m not all that surprised, as many of the other presenters there (outside Driscoll) do often espouse a broader view. It’s also wonderful to hear that so many men were saved. As I said in a comment above, I believe God can work wonders through such conferences, even if I disagree with their premise.

And I am grateful for the positive things that happened (and are continuing to happen) through the Act Like Men conference. However, that doesn’t mean I cannot be critical of it, and ask questions about it.

In the case of this blog post, the title of the conference and the presence of Mark Driscoll made it an obvious tie-in to a discussion about prescriptive masculinity in the church. That’s really all I meant it to be.

The thing I take stronger issue with is the language Mark Driscoll often employs to describe what Christian men should be. One could argue that he uses such language for shock value or for attention-getting or just to appeal to a “certain kind of man.” Whatever the motivation, the fact remains that he has used, and continues to use, those words, and words mean something.

He may say that Christian men should just attempt to be like Christ… but then he writes a blog post claiming that Christ was not a “pacifist,” or a “pansy”—words he has also used to deride other men who don’t look or act like him. The implication is that if you are a pacifist or a “pansy,” then you aren’t like Christ, and aren’t a real Christian man.

Any frustration I feel is with Driscoll and his continued use of these types of words.

I do also have questions about a conference that titles itself “Act Like Men,” which implies that there’s a way for a man to NOT act like a man. If all the conference presented was Christ, as the way ALL Christians should act, then I see no problem with that. It’s separately prescribing actions/behaviors/emotions to men and women that I take issue with. If the Act Like Men conference avoided that entirely, then it’s a huge step forward from previous Christian conference attempts to speak about gender.


I completely understand your taking issue with things Mark Driscoll has said, and I am not a fan of his every remark. There are videos of his that I would not send to anyone. I also think he has probably benefited from some push back and accountability on those things.

Just a response on a specific point, that being that the charge (presumably to men in particular, given the language) in 1 Corinthians 16:13 is to “act like men”. It’s a direct quote, as translated in the ESV and the NASB (which likely indicates it is the most direct translation). Other translations and paraphrases read “be courageous”.

I do think there are many ways in which a man can fail to act like a man. Abusing the weak, cowardice, hiding from difficult issues, refusing to act in defense of others, self-absorption, preoccupation with diversions, promiscuity, lack of will power, laziness, etc.

Please understand, I’m not exactly a grunt. I’m an illustrator and graphic designer who spends too much money on magic markers and colored pencils. I do not believe for a moment that there’s only one way to act like a man. But I think our society is replete with examples of men who are failing at it.

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