Courage, Cowardice, & Jesus

So I’ve been writing a fair bit about the sin of effeminacy or what might be called “soft men.” And it might seem like I’ve found a new hammer and now everything is a nail – sort of like the Calvinist cage-stage of ye old lore of yore. And I want to grant that there is some danger of this, which must be resisted. This could run in at least one of two directions: the first is becoming dogmatic on particulars. And I mean that rather woodenly: linking orthodoxy/heresy to particular practices. So if a guy happens to wear skinny jeans, is he now hereby fo sho guilty of the sin of effeminacy and a flaming heretic? No. The other possible danger is a sort of knee-jerk testosterone reactionism: anything that smells like a locker room or looks like something out of Deer Hunter magazine becomes some kind of automatic good. I’m not arguing for that, and we need to be on guard against it. Nevertheless, I am increasingly convinced that effeminacy is one of the significant biblical category headings for sins that men commit.

In fact all male sins, in one sense, actually could be said to fall under this category to some extent because the Bible teaches that one of the distinctive characteristics of masculinity is courage. In Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” If Lewis is right, then courage is necessary at the point at which every virtue is tested. And therefore, wherever men fail, there is simultaneously a failure of nerve. And the Bible calls that failure of nerve in men acting like women. “In that day the Egyptians will be like women, and tremble with fear before the hand that the Lord of hosts shakes over them” (Is. 19:16). “The warriors of Babylon have ceased fighting; they remain in their strongholds; their strength has failed; they have become women…” (Jer. 51:30). The flip side of this is the positive Biblical command to act like men. Interestingly, Paul gives this exhortation to the entire church at Corinth: “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13).

Now, to thoughtful readers, this ought to raise the objection that this is insulting to women. And this is quite right: men who act like women are insulting to every woman, and Bruce Jenner is the current icon of this offence. But the question is also: Aren’t women called to be strong too? Aren’t women called to be courageous also? And the Bible’s answer is yes but differently, and courage and strength are not their distinctive characteristics. The Bible says that a woman, though she is a co-heir of the grace of life, is also a “weaker vessel” that men, especially husbands, are required to honor (1 Pet. 3:7). Strength and courage and responsibility are distinctive glories of men, while beauty and nurture and a certain form of weakness are the distinctive glories of women. For my selective readers out there, let me state clearly: I’m not saying that men should not care about beauty or that they have no weaknesses. Nor am I saying that the Bible teaches that a woman is weak in every way or not strong in any way. No, Paul made it clear that the women and children in Corinth were to imitate the men of the church in being watchful and firm in the faith and strong – Paul hasn’t succumbed to gender confusion. But, it is noteworthy, that when Paul wants to urge the entire church to be strong, he urges them to act like men. And if the Corinthians disobeyed and failed to heed his exhortation to stand strong in the faith, it would have been fully fitting for Paul to charge them with acting like women.

But let’s fill this picture out further with more biblical data in order to make it clear that this is a theme throughout Scripture. There is only one explicit mention of the sin of effeminacy in the New Testament, though as we will see, there is ample evidence of this perversion throughout Scripture. 1 Cor. 6:9 says that the malakoi will not inherit the kingdom of heaven. This word is only used in two other contexts in the New Testament, both places referring to the “soft” clothing that soft people wear in kings’ palaces in contrast to John the Baptizer’s bold and courageous prophetic identity. But there has been some controversy over exactly what malakos/malakoi refers to in 1 Cor. 6:9. The ESV has chosen to combine the word with the word that follows arsenokoitai, which is a hapax legomenon (only used once) in the New Testament and literally means “men in bed.” So, the ESV simply translates both words as “men who practice homosexuality.” The problem with this is that Paul is in the middle of a list, and he deliberately chose to list two different sins: malakoi and arsenokoitai. Many interpreters have thought that Paul is referring in the first word to the passive partner in the act of sodomy and referring to the active partner in the latter word. While this is admittedly possible and could be one application of what he says, there are a number of reasons to conclude that Paul had a broader application in mind.

First, we should note that while malakoi does often refer in ancient Greek literature to younger men and boys favored to take the “female” position in homosexual acts that is not exclusively the case. As Robert Gagnon notes, “The word ‘malakoi’ and its Latin equivalent ‘molles’ (and their cognates) were often employed in antiquity in a restrictive sense; namely, to refer to adult males who were biologically and/or psychologically disposed to desire penetration by men and who actively feminized their appearance and manner as a means to attracting such partners.” In the course of the article Gagnon is arguing against a scholar who wants to interpret malakos/malakoi as “undisciplined” or “lacking self-control,” emptying the word entirely of any sexual connotations whatsoever. The word does literally mean “soft” or “weak,” but Gagnon argues persuasively that given the context, surely Paul does have sexual perversion in mind. And the key thing to note is that this perversion includes a man feminizing his “appearance and manner.” Now the objections will erupt shortly that, well of course if a man is actively trying to get sodomized by another man, and is dressing up with the express intention of inviting that kind of attention, then of course that’s sinful. But a man who cares about his appearance? A man who gets his nails done? A man who likes a professional haircut? A man who likes tight pants? Who is to say really? How can we know why he’s doing that? Can you see into his heart? Surely every man who does any one of those things is not at that moment trying to hook up with another man. Right. This is true.

But the Bible is not silent about how sexual sin works. A man with a wife and three children does not one day randomly think to himself: You know, I think I’ll go see a prostitute and ruin my life today. No, when a man comes to the point of this kind of sexual suicide, he is already up to his neck in sins of omission and commission. He has become accustomed to crossing lines in his mind, in his heart, with his eyes, and he has likewise become accustomed to abdicating responsibilities that God has assigned him. He can’t even see all the ways he is failing to love his wife and children, failing to serve the Lord, failing to pour himself out for the good of others. He’s so self-centered, self-obsessed, so enslaved to pleasures and lusts and his own vanity, that he’s oblivious. He’s like an ox going to the slaughter. He’s walking toward a pit that he can’t see. If you were to try to warn that man a week before he lit the stick of dynamite to blow his life to smithereens, he would almost certainly look at you like you’re crazy. This is because he has been groomed. He was lazy in his fight against sin in his own heart, in what his eyes looked at, in where he served, in how he led. Laziness and cowardice and weakness became normal, habitual, and comfortable to him. Perhaps it was even justified by some periodic shows of heroism and strength and courage, like completing every level of Doom over the weekend.

And the point of this is that we need to take a step back and do some serious thinking, praying, and reading of Scripture and the world around us and come to a far deeper understanding of how homosexual temptation works. It’s not just random. We are being groomed to see certain behaviors by boys and men as normal, fine, good even, which are setting us up to be tempted in far more egregious ways. When it comes to heterosexual lust, we’re a tad bit better at this. Don’t watch porn. Don’t watch certain movies, television shows, avert your eyes, stay away from the public pool, whatever. We know where the “prostitutes” hang out and we don’t go down those streets. But when it comes to homosexual temptation, we have basically bought the bill of goods we have been sold by the homosexuals. Since we’re conservative, Bible-believing Christians, we still say that it’s sinful, but we’ve basically concluded that either it must be some kind of innate, random tendency some people are just born with or maybe there was some really horrific abuse in your past. And meanwhile “good” Christian boys and girls keep growing up in “good” Christian families and churches and find themselves (inexplicably) drawn into these temptations. And we shrug and keep on doing exactly what we were doing before. But isn’t that the definition of insanity?

Second, the Bible says, “A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God” (Dt. 22:5). So most conservative Christians would say that this is why a man should not wear women’s underwear or dresses. But it doesn’t take but five seconds to get conservative Christians to show their own postmodern panties. What about a woman wearing a sport coat and tie? What about a woman wearing slacks? What about woman in military fatigues or a police uniform? What about a man wearing a speedo? What about boys and men doing ballet? And everyone says, who’s to say? I’m not saying that the answers are all easy. They aren’t. But the Bible says that cross-dressing is an abomination – something that God hates, something full of destructive power. In other words, it’s something that Christians must hate and fight.

Third, the Bible also says, “If a man lies with an animal, he shall surely be put to death, and you shall kill the animal. If a woman approaches any animal to lie with it, you shall surely kill the woman and the animal; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them” (Lev. 20:15-16). And our question should be: how does something like this even happen? How do people get there? If we merely shrug our shoulders and assume it’s a random mutation or something, we are just functional evolutionists and postmodernists. If you can’t see that the resurgence of pedophilia and bestiality in the West is directly related to all the other compromises and confusions we’ve allowed into our land, you are utterly blind. In other words, for things to get as bad as they are, we have to recognize that we are all compromised. These are sins that defile the land. And that’s not just some kind of mystical thing. It means we’re all sitting in it, covered in it. The confusion and perversion reaches to us all. It’s naïve to say that you can’t be cross-dressing because you bought the shirt off a rack labeled “Men’s” or “Women’s.”

What I’m arguing for here is that the Bible teaches us to see that there is an intermediate sinful step (or likely, steps) that often occurs before explicitly being tempted to or actually engaging in perverse sexual acts. When a man falls into the sin of adultery, the Bible says the he does so because the Lord is already angry with him (Prov. 22:14). The adultery is the judgment. Likewise, Paul says that God hands men and women over to sexual perversions because they have already darkened their own hearts and become fools, while proclaiming themselves wise (Rom. 1:21-24). One name the Bible gives this path of judgment is the sin of being “soft.” Soft, effeminate men are weak, cowardly, and vain.

How about some more biblical data?

Fourth, I already referenced the only other use of the word malakoi in the New Testament in connection with John the Baptizer, but thankfully the word is also used a couple of times in the Septuagint. “The words of a whisperer are malakoi; they go down into the inner parts of the body” (Prov. 26:22). The words of a whisperer are soft, sweet, easy. While a related word — malakia — is used numerous times in the Old Testament Septuagint, meaning weakness, sickness, or disease, the underlying Hebrew word rak is helpful in filling out the picture. Rak means soft, tender, or fainthearted. It certainly can refer to various benign forms of youth or gentleness (as can malakos), but in a number of places, it indicates a sinful softness and cowardice. When an army was mustered for war, Moses instructs the officers to speak to the people and say, “Is there any man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go back to his house, lest he make the heart of his fellows melt like his own” (Dt. 20:8). Or the same word is used in 2 Chronicles 13 to refer to Rehoboam: “And certain worthless scoundrels gathered about him and defied Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, when Rehoboam was young and irresolute and could not withstand them” (13:7). This brings us full circle to the fact that when men lack courage, when they have a failure of nerve, the Bible says that they have become like women. They have become soft and effeminate.

It was Pastor Tim Bayly who first began connecting these dots for me, and he says it well when he says (I’m paraphrasing) that human physiology and biology is one of the central places where God is speaking to every single one of us. He speaks and gives us a calling: to be a man, to be a woman. This calling is sacred, glorious, and requires great courage and faith. But this means that we must be about understanding what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. If God has given you an XY combination of chromosomes, He assigned you the task of being a man in this world. And this means that you are called to learn what it means to be a man, what it means to be male and masculine. And if God gave you an XX combination of chromosomes at your conception, He assigned you the task of being a woman in this world. He’s speaking to you. And He is telling you that you are called to learn what it means to be a woman, what it means to be female and feminine in this world.

It’s striking to me that in John’s vision of the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her Husband – as that vision is coming to a close, John looks away for a moment and sees those who are left outside of that glory. He writes: “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Rev. 21:8). That first one weighs on me. There will be some on the last day, to whom Jesus says, depart from me you workers of iniquity, I never knew you. And if they have an opportunity to ask Jesus what their great works of iniquity were, He will tell them, you were cowards.

This article is already far too long, but I can’t bear to leave it there. It seems entirely wonderful and fitting that in Isaiah, the prophet describes the suffering servant as a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief [Gk. malakian]… But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed [Gk. memalakistai] for our iniquities…” (Is. 53:3, 5). No, it’s not the exact same word, but it’s a related root, with overlapping meaning on at least a couple of levels. But the point is simply this: Jesus was acquainted with our weakness, with our fears, with our pain, with our sorrow. Jesus knew it well. In fact, He faced it for us. He walked through this world bearing the grief of misunderstanding, rejection, accusation, and betrayal. And He was pierced for all our transgressions, all of our lawlessness, all of our abominations and vile passions and perverse thoughts and desires. In fact, He was crushed for them. He was — in a way — emasculated for our emasculation. What is more unmanly (in one sense) than the shame of the cross, the shame of condemnation, the shame of loss? And yet that moment truly was the most manly moment in all of history, the most masculine event of all time: in that moment when He was unmanned and utterly humiliated, He was crushed for our iniquities, and He was taking responsibility for us. He was standing between Hell and us. He was doing battle for us. He was being courageous for us. He was being a man for us.

“The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion” (Prov. 28:1).

  1. Steve Bezner August 17

    Just to clarify the final push of your argument: Are you saying that Jesus’ embodiment of “softness” was to allow our own “softness” to be crushed and therefore despised and rejected by those who follow him today?

    Meaning: Using this line of reasoning, are you also arguing that cruciformity in personal life is a false ethic? And, if so, what to do with meekness, humility, service, and the like? What to do with carrying our cross? Why carry a cross unless you, too, will be hung on it? Isn’t Jesus commanding us to be “soft” in that way?

    And, if so, wouldn’t that mean that “malakoi” in the Pauline epistle is used following the usage of Plato and others toward a sexual term?

    Perhaps I am misreading your argument, for you seem to have placed a great deal of thought toward this.

    • Steve, Great question. I would say that Jesus crushes our sinful softness in an act that *appears* weak/soft but which in fact is the very definition of strength because our sin could not be destroyed in any other way. This is actually a crucial (pun intended!) distinction to make because too often people think that their own cross is merely doing the soft/weak/humble *looking* thing, but in reality, the cross we must take up is obedience to Jesus no matter what.

  2. Matthew Gunn August 17

    Hey, Toby. This article sincerely convicted me at a variety of different junctures in my life. So, I thank you for speaking as you did. I still feel, as I think your article hints also, that moving forward with this understanding of Christ-like masculinity in mind will require much (though, no more than ever WAS needed) subjection of the self to scripture and saturating ourselves in it. With a generation of men subjecting themselves earnestly in that way, I’m sure that we’ll come to many hard-lined and obvious answers of specific things that need to change. But I suppose my question is, where do you see the coverage of scripture like Romans 14 ending, knowing for a fact that there will be men who try hefting it in defense of their own pet habits/behaviors?
    (I’m not sure whether or not this question calls for specific examples, but you can answer as you think best.)

  3. Brent August 17

    Great thoughts. Really thankful for the post. You wisely acknowledge that applying these principles to particulars is difficult, though that’s not an excuse to reject the principles. That said, I am skeptical of your suggestion that ballet is inherently emasculate. Traditional ballet makes clear distinctions between men and women. A man is required to dance “manly.” He cannot be “soft.” He must be elegant, but in a masculine sort of way. Given the proper teachers, I could see ballet being a wonderful tool for teaching men-women differences. Children who grow up under this training would internalize many of these differences–the man must lead and the woman follow, the man must be strong and the woman graceful, the woman must be the glory of the man, etc.

    Not long ago I saw Steve Harvey interview two children ballet dancers and was struck by the boy’s responses to his questions about why he does ballet and what he wants to do when he grows up. I think this is an excellent example of how ballet done right might instill masculine characteristics in boys: (sorry, I couldn’t find a youtube link)

  4. Jack Bradley August 18

    “We are being groomed to see certain behaviors by boys and men as normal, fine, good even, which are setting us up to be tempted in far more egregious ways.”

    This gets to the heart of the issue exactly, Toby. This entire piece is so well done and to the point. Thank you for your faithful shepherding of God’s people!

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