Among all the idiomatic phrases regularly used in American English, two in particular irritate me beyond measure: “Man up” and phrases or sentences related to “having balls.”
“Man up” – what does this mean anyway? I hear people use it when they want to challenge a man (or even at times a woman) to be decisive, to take action or control of a situation. Perhaps it implies having courage or boldness. But what do any of these have to do with being a man? More specifically, what do they have to do with being a man as opposed to being a woman? Can women not be decisive, take action or demonstrate leadership in a given situation? Do women lack the ability to show courage or boldness? Or do we believe that, by doing so, they are really acting more as men? Are these qualities really more “masculine” or “manly?” And if you affirm them as such, does that somehow make them more desirable or laudable than a quality or characteristic that you would label as “feminine?”
The phrase “to have (or show) balls,” used either as a description of a person or as an admonishment, comes from the same mindset. Men have balls. Men should be strong, courageous, aggressive or assertive, confident. Therefore men who lack these qualities lack balls and need to grow some (yes, that expression gets used too). Women who demonstrate these qualities are displaying masculine characteristics. Whether that is good or bad depends on your view of what women should be like. But she is certainly not being a “lady.” She's acting like a man. At least that is what our use of these expressions implies.
Our very use of language indicates that we view certain qualities as being more male and therefore more desirable. We affirm certain characteristics in men and use them to define manliness. At the same time we either devalue such qualities in women or, if we allow women to display them, we view her as being less feminine and more masculine. But the character traits we have in mind do not depend on gender. They do not define us as men or women, nor should they. Women are fully as capable of showing courage, confidence and leadership as men. Often they do it better, but the fact is that these qualities vary from person to person regardless of gender.
Unfortunately particular groups and leaders within the Church seem intent on exhorting men to be more masculine, as they define the term. Godly men must “reject passivity” and develop the following characteristics, (borrowed from Karl Wheeler's challenging blog post):
- a strong backbone—a sense of moral conviction
- courage in the face of opposition
- the ability to lead by setting a strong example of moral purity and devotion to Christ
- taking the initiative in matters of faith
- a servant's heart (willing to do some “women's work”)
- a desire to rescue women
But, as Wheeler points out, we see these same qualities in many godly women. The problem is not with the qualities—it is with the idea that these qualities are somehow “masculine” and should define a godly man. They can't define godly women, who are told that their image of godliness is to be passive, meek, submissive, gentle and kind. Never mind that these same qualities can and should be demonstrated by godly men.
When I read Colossians 3:12 – As God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience – I don't see any indication that these are directed only at women, although these character traits would likely be viewed more as “feminine” than masculine. Despite this, I've never heard anyone admonish someone to “show some ovaries” (to again borrow from Wheeler), although if we affirm the idea of some qualities being more masculine and others more feminine, we should do exactly that if we want to encourage men to be more godly. In fact, I think these “feminine” qualities fit far more closely to the image of godliness that we see in Jesus than any of the ideal “manly” qualities that are more often pushed on men. Maybe we should start exhorting one another to “show some ovaries” or to “woman up.” We could do far worse.