Be a man. That’s part of the closing message St. Paul gives in his first letter to the Corinthian church.
This, from the same guy who sounds like he’s downplaying being a man. He says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Ga 3:28).
And this, from the same guy who admits at times his frail and even sickly appearance. People say of him, “His letters are lengthy and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible” (2 Co 10:10). He thanks the Galatians for not being disgusted by him. He says, “though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus” (4:14).
Having said that, I admit he says some stuff which seems to demean his sisters in Christ. One example would be, “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent” (1 Ti 2:11-12). That doesn’t appear to line up with his other thoughts. It’s been said he’s referring to a particular situation, but I won’t get into that now!
You might ask, “Where does he say, ‘Be a man’”? Most translations don’t use that phrasing.
There are four commands in 16:13. “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.” It’s that third one—be courageous—which comes from the Greek word, ανδριζεσθε (andrizesthe). And it literally means, “be a man.” I don’t suppose it would be a big surprise to hear “being a man” linked with “being courageous.”
If you’re wondering what the command to “be a man” has to do with the other half of the human race, don’t worry, I’ll get to it in a few moments!
Recently, conservative columnist David Brooks published an article entitled, “Before Manliness Lost Its Virtue.” He uses as a starting point the ancient Greek concept of manliness. I wouldn’t say the ancient Greeks’ point of view is the epitome, or the final word on the subject, but since there is that cultural background in the apostle Paul’s world, maybe it deserves a look.
“Greek manliness,” he says, “started from a different place than ours does now. For the ancient Greeks, it would have been incomprehensible to count yourself an alpha male simply because you can run a trading floor or sell an apartment because you gilded a faucet handle.
“For them, real men defended or served their city, or performed some noble public service. Braying after money was the opposite of manliness. For the Greeks, that was just avariciousness, an activity that shrunk you down into a people-pleasing marketer or hollowed you out because you pursued hollow things.”
Brooks talks about certain traits the ancient Greeks considered indicative of a manly man: being courageous, assertive, competitive, demonstrating his prowess, being self-confident. Still, there is something else about the manly man. “[H]e is also touchy. He is outraged if others do not grant him the honor that is his due… They are hard to live with. They are constantly picking fights and engaging in peacock displays.”
When he says, “Be a man,” I really don’t think Paul is telling us to act that way! He’s had plenty of run-ins with characters like that. For example, in a couple of places, he mockingly refers to “super-apostles” (2 Co 11:5, 12:11). These guys are flexing their apostolic muscles! (Like bragging about the size of their audience.)
Brooks mentions a corrective the Greeks had. They “took manliness to the next level. On top of the honor code, they gave us the concept of magnanimity… The magnanimous leader possesses all the spirited traits described above, but uses his traits not just to puff himself up, but to create a just political order.”
And accordingly, Paul warns us, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Co 8:1).
Here’s where I get back to the question of what “being a man” says to women and children. Clearly, the apostle is addressing the whole church.
He praises women who have served Christ and the church, sometimes at personal risk. Paul refers to Chloe as one of the church’s leaders (1:11). And in his closing statements to the church in Rome, he gives God thanks for Phoebe, a deacon, for Mary (one of several Marys, we don’t know which), the sisters Tryphaena and Tryphosa, and the beloved Persis, among others (16:1,6, 12).
It’s safe to say these women have demonstrated, they have lived, the four-fold command of verse 13.
What they have not done is spread gossip, look with a greedy eye at their neighbor’s possessions—or at their husband (if they’re in the market for that sort of thing!) Their favorite song is not “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.” (Apologies to fans of Marilyn Monroe.) And they don’t have as many shoes as Imelda Marcos did.
Something else about this business of being a man is the term “son of man.”
In the book of the prophet Ezekiel, “son of man” (בֶן־אָדָם, ben ’adam) appears 93 times. For him, it simply means “mortal.” It doesn’t have the messianic tone it takes later on.
However, for Jesus there is a sense of being the messiah, the Christ. Still, aside from that, “Son of Man” describes him as the essence of what it means to be human. It’s Son of Man as opposed to Son of God. He is “the human one.” To the extent we are like Jesus, to that same extent we are human.
Jesus embraces, personifies, both what are often thought of as masculine and feminine qualities, such as might and meekness. Over and over in the gospels, we see him moving beyond what his culture rigidly assigns as the realm of men and the realm of women. He welcomes women as his disciples; he actually teaches women! That’s a big no-no.
So, having said all of that, we immediately have verse 14. “Let all that you do be done in love.” That comes right after being told, “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.” Be a man. Be courageous, but do it in love. Maybe we can say, as we saw earlier, be magnanimous!
What does all this mean? Well, let’s look at Ezekiel and Jesus again.
The first time the Lord calls Ezekiel “son of man” is when he gets his commission. He’s given quite a task. “Mortal [son of man], I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day.” (2:3). Hmm, I’m not sure I like where this is going. Is there anything else?
“The descendants are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God’” (v. 4). It doesn’t sound like the prophet will get a welcome reception.
Hostility is not the only reaction. Later in the book, we see him being disregarded. In chapter 33, the Lord tells him about the people, “To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it” (v. 32). These folks aren’t mad at him. They applaud and say, “Wonderful job,” and then go on about their business.
Even so, Ezekiel loves his people. He demonstrates loving courage. Love is no easy thing.
What about Jesus? He tells his disciples, his friends, something that will shock and dismay them. He lets them know what is in store. Jesus will be betrayed, condemned to death, mocked, flogged, and crucified. Now there is the tiny bit about being raised from the dead, but they can’t get past the laundry list of insane stuff coming first.
Knowing what’s ahead of him, Jesus demonstrates loving courage.
What does loving courage mean for us? What does loving courage mean for me? I wonder, in what ways do I ignore St. Paul’s call to live a life of courage, shot through with love? How often do I imitate the admirers of Ezekiel, finding joy in art, books, film, and music—even the scriptures—and yet not allowing it to change me? How often do I lack that courage—to not fully be a man—to not fully be human?
What does loving courage mean for all of us? Do we have the courage to ruffle some feathers? When the loving Holy Spirit prompts us, do we change the way we’ve been doing things? Do we make room for others?
These are questions to ask the person in the mirror. Do I help others to be courageous? Do I help others to be human?
In his final words, Paul cries out, “Maranatha” (v. 22). Maranatha means two things. “Come, our Lord,” and “Our Lord has come”! May we be people who find the loving courage to live out those words.