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Calvinism, masculinity and niceness

In some ways, this isn’t really about Calvinism. That’s just how the conversation started. It’s about Christianity abandoning masculinity, and thus replacing love with niceness.

Desiring God recently posted that Calvinists should be calmest and kindest. In general I agree, but I’m going to venture some attenuating remarks.

By way of introduction, I think this article plays into a stereotype that should be repudiated rather than implicitly owned. I have met ungracious Calvinists, but I have met far more ungracious non-Calvinists. It seems to me that, on average, Calvinism actually does produce graciousness in people—but the perception of Calvinists in the mainstream is skewed by two major factors:

1. Most Christians are effeminate

In other words, masculinity is misconstrued as meanness. As the Art of Manliness documents, Christianity is plagued by feminization problems—from congregations which are disproportionately female, to pastors with generally lower testosterone and more feminine qualities, to “manly” men feeling excluded from or uncomfortable in church.

This creates a culture in Christianity that seriously skews how terms like “angry” and “mean” are used in the first place.

The fact is, most Christians, were they present at altercations between Jesus and his detractors in the first century, would say that the Lord himself was angry and mean. I can imagine most Christians tut-tutting Jesus as he drove the money-lenders out of the temple. “He could have handled that better,” they would say. Or take Paul’s comments to the Judaizers. The prevailing opinion would be something like this: “Wishing them to castrate themselves is really crude. Not a good witness at all, to be honest. Paul is too angry and divisive.”

Now, when I say that Christian culture is effeminate, I am not impugning femininity. God designed women to be feminine. But he also designed men to be masculine. Women glorify God by being feminine, and men glorify God by being masculine.

It is when feminine qualities start to occlude masculine ones in men, or masculine qualities start to occlude feminine ones in women, that God’s design becomes perverted. Effeminacy is not a word one tends to use of women, since it would be tautologous; it is a word one uses of men who exhibit feminine qualities to the detriment of masculine ones. Men who act like women or take on their roles are sinning. This is especially obvious in sexual relationships (cf 1 Corinthians 6:9, KJV), but is not limited to that context (cf Deuteronomy 22:5).

Since God designed men and women to go together, men and women as a unit should balance each other’s qualities. When there are insufficient men in Christianity, or when the men in Christianity are effeminate, Christianity as a whole becomes effeminate. While femininity is a virtue in a woman, it is not virtuous at all when it occludes masculinity in a society, rather than balancing it—whether that society is a marriage or a church or a whole culture. Femininity should complement and attenuate masculinity, not run roughshod over it. A feminine woman, for example, does not sigh and roll her eyes when her husband wants to go and play rough sports, and she does not recoil in horror when her husband uses the rod on their children. Rather, she glorifies God that her husband reflects many of God’s own attributes in ways she cannot. At the same time, she glorifies God in her own nature by drawing out a more balanced constellation of virtues in her man, through meekness, submissiveness and softness—as Ben so aptly noted in the comments below (cf 1 Peter 3:1).

A wife’s femininity models the kinds of Christian virtues that don’t come so naturally to her husband, helping him avoid his tendency to become violent or vicious; at the same time, her husband’s masculinity is developed by giving him someone over whom to have headship—his energies are channeled into guiding and protecting and providing for her.

In other words, Christian femininity does not make women into wallflowers. It makes them into genuine helpmates. They are the glory of man, as man is the glory of God (1 Corinthians 11:7; Proverbs 12:4).

Femininity is a way in which God reveals his strength through weakness. If we are to speak broadly, femininity is soft; and it is soft because it must balance masculinity, which, if we are to speak broadly, is hard. Though softness is not necessarily weakness, just as hardness is not necessarily strength, it remains that, speaking broadly, women are the weaker vessels (1 Peter 3:7). God reveals some of his strengths though the softness of femininity, and he reveals others through the hardness of masculinity. Jesus himself exemplified masculine virtues; for instance, in taking beatings, vigorously defending himself in debate, and ultimately giving his life for those he loved. These are not soft qualities; they are hard ones. A man should be hard; indeed, for men to be soft in general is a sin. But hard women are no better than soft men.

But Christian femininity is not soft in a way that thinks of hardness as evil. Christian femininity does not faint at the mention that the Lord is a man of war, and does not avoid that pesky passage where Jesus strikes down the nations by the sword of his mouth. It does not create an idol out of Jesus of Nazareth, turning him into a fey hippie, while pretending that Jesus on the white horse and Jesus the angel of Yahweh who struck down the firstborn of Egypt does not exist. Nor does Christian femininity wilt in the sight of vigorous discourse or discussion, or assume that because a man staunchly defends his point of view and is willing to straightforwardly say that someone else is wrong, he is therefore “mean” or “not nice.” Rather, it recognizes that these masculine traits are designed to protect femininity. A Christian woman does not imagine that such a man is unchristlike, unless she imagines that Jesus himself was unchristlike when he said things like, “Get behind me Satan,” and “You pack of devils,” and “Watch out or I’ll spit you out of my mouth.”

2. Christians mistake difference of etiquette for gracelessness

The second issue that skews Christians’ perceptions of Calvinists is this: Reformed theology is attractive to people with argumentative personalities.

It is not that it only attracts such people; rather, such people tend to be among those who are attracted to it. This especially includes younger men, and intellectual men, who have not yet gained maturity or wisdom in their discourse, or who are accustomed to a more aggressive form of discourse than the typical Christian.

But it is hardly fair to speak of “angry Calvinists” when what one means is actually “young men who lack a sense of register and happen to be Calvinists,” or “aggressive debaters who are accustomed to completely different etiquette of discourse and happen to be Calvinists.”

I’m not apologizing for the legitimately angry or mean Calvinists out there. And we should keep our own house in order. But accepting that Calvinism, among all the theological traditions, is where the angry and mean Christians go, strikes me as a case of letting the plank-eyes tell us about our splinters. When I think of all the anger and meanness I’ve personally endured, it has typically been from Christians who are angry and mean about and to Calvinists—not Calvinists themselves.

There is also a certain irony here, because it is graceless to respond to graceless people by labeling and judging them. It is graceless to assume that young, enthusiastic men are angry and mean. It is graceless to assume that because someone doesn’t honor your preferred conversational etiquette, it is because he lacks sanctification.

Many Christians refuse to honor my preferred etiquette of discourse. But how does that make me graceless? Their limp-wristed hand-wringing in the face of assertive argumentation offends me. I would prefer an equally forceful pushback. If they would defend their positions vigorously, I would respect them; but because they do not, and prefer instead to attack me for being angry and mean, I often form the impression that they are fops with no masculine virtues to speak of. Yet I try to avoid saying so. I stick to the arguments, because it is generally graceless to call attention to someone’s failings. So hearing such people accuse Calvinists of gracelessness just strikes me as a farce.

Which brings me to the final point I want to make.

Niceness is not love

I believe this entire bizarre cultural issue could be avoided if Christians did not take the following assumption as if it were handed down by God:

It is better to be nice than to be right.

I can think of a great many places where the Bible emphasizes the importance of being right—for example, Ezra 7:10; John 6:45; 7:17; 8:31-32; 7:17; 16:7-14; Romans 10:17; Ephesians 4:14-15; 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12; 1 Timothy 4:6-7; 2 Timothy 3:15; 1 Peter 3:15; 2 Peter 3:17-18. That’s just a small sampling, which you should expect since the very existence of the Bible is predicated on the idea that being right, theologically, is of unparalleled importance.

Our eternal fates rest on being right—both in doctrine, and character (cf James 2:14).

But I can’t think of anywhere the Bible emphasizes the importance of being nice. The word doesn’t even appear in most translations.

I believe the concept of niceness has done an awful lot of damage to the church because it is disconnected from any kind of biblical principle. When Christians say we should be nice, they usually mean we should be loving. They are thinking of passages like 1 Corinthians 13. But love is not a sentiment, and turning it into a sentiment—as you do when you equate it with niceness—is deadly.

If you read the gospels, Jesus is very seldom “nice.” In fact, as I’ve mentioned, he would have been condemned by most Christians as mean and hurtful.

I agree that we must build each other up in love, and that theological knowledge without love is pointless. Being right is of no value if one is not actually like God in character. But God’s character is not “nice” as most people would define the word. God’s love is not soft, and he would not have ours be either.

Niceness is getting along for the sake of sentiment. It sacrifices genuine unity for a short-term facsimile, where every man is an island answerable only to God. Needless to say, genuine fellowship, let alone discipleship, is impossible for people who are only interested in being nice. By contrast, biblical love means acting to ensure genuine unity through the Spirit—unity that rests on rightness of doctrine and rightness of character. Unity is achieved through discipleship, which means exposing and killing wrongness of doctrine and wrongness of character—ie, sin.

But when exposing and killing sin is the loving thing to do, nice people bail. Because exposing and killing sin is often hurtful and divisive. So let’s stop worrying about being nice, and start thinking about how to be right, and how to help others help us be right. This might also have the unintended side-effect of giving Christianity its teeth back in the broader culture, as opposed to the current state of affairs where we are quietly accepting the secular pillow pressed into our face. Christianity is on the brink of full-scale persecution in the West because we have accepted the lie that to love people means to say nice things about them; so if we’re saying something that upsets anyone, we’re not being loving. No wonder the offense of the gospel has utterly no influence any more.

16 comments

  1. steve hays

    http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-feminization-of-christianity

    http://www.reasonablefaith.org/why-dont-i-quote-more-women-philosophers-or-theologians

  2. steve hays

    https://www.samharris.org/blog/item/im-not-the-sexist-pig-youre-looking-for

  3. Ripken Holt

    Christianity is on the brink of persecution because we are too nice and unoffensive? I agree that Christians should be straightforward in the offense of the gospel, but I feel as though that would lead to more persecution, not less.

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Here’s what I mean: Christianity has been giving up ground to the culture for decades. Most of that has involved various kinds of compromise for the sake of being palatable. But since Christianity is unpalatable to the natural man by definition, the result has not been to make the gospel palatable, but rather to marginalize it. We have ceded power through agreeing with secular ideas about discourse, in a vicious cycle where the end result is not merely that saying Christian things is unacceptable, but in fact being Christian at all.

  5. Kaffikjelen

    I agree that modern Christendom has a tendency to be overly feminine and passive, and that needs to change. However, a potential problem with putting more emphasis on masculinity and assertiveness is the lack of discernment, another feature of Christendom (as well as people in general). It’s easy to devolve into being argumentative or nasty simply for the sake of it. These are natural impulses that need to be distinguished from being passionate and steadfast about what actually matters. One needs to be able to critically evaluate masculine responses, so that one can separate the vicious from the virtuous, what’s an egotistic/otherwise unjustified fight and what actually matters.
    So I would suggest that the change needs to be twofold, Christendom needs to move away from “niceness” and become more masculine; but at the same time we need to become more discerning.

  6. Kirk Skeptic

    There’s another issue here: one can be passionate for truth on a truly important point and still come off as a mouthy punk, thereby losing credibility. This is especially true on the ‘net where one can’t see one’s opponent(s), who are well out of punching range. Much of what we call manners developed in order to preclude murder and mayhem; eg not putting one’s elbows on the dining table made it harder to skewer one’s opposite with the cutlery. To dismiss manners as effeminate per se is only safe if one is 6’ 8″, armed, and not afraid to return to prison.

  7. Ben

    Overall I quite appreciate this post, especially the distinctions you draw concerning etiquette. We might say that just as the difference in etiquette between (urban) New Yorkers and Georgians does not indicate a moral deficiency in either one, the same is true for more argumentative folks, even if we also would caution that argumentativeness can be an occasion for sin. And that caution could be accompanied by a parallel caution, that a “nicer” etiquette can be an occasion for its own brand of truth-neglecting sin.

    I also very much appreciate the discussion of gracelessness. Openly criticizing a stranger’s character when he, at most, commits a peccadillo – if it is not merely an inculpable difference in etiquette – is indeed graceless.

    That said, as a matter of emphasis and not substantial correction, I do think it’s important to say that the manner in which the masculine and feminine are to be balanced should be hierarchical, i.e. patriarchal. Far too often I have seen professed anti-feminist Christians argue that women are a civilizing force for men, without whom men would decay into savagery and brutality, just as men are a guiding force for women, without whom women would be purely sentimental and unproductive. This same thought then holds that a role of women is to be on the lookout for hypermasculinity in their men, so that they can identify and correct it, on which grounds the “sin of servility,” or hypersubmissiveness, is condemned over against some golden mean. But this view, or tendency, seems quite egalitarian to me, promoting a sort of mutual (non-hierarchical) governance which undermines the true hierarchy of biblical headship. There may be elements of this in your discussion of women’s “attenuating” masculinity, of a wife’s “making sure” her husband is not too vicious, and of women’s watching out for the sin of being a “wallflower.” Even if the extreme of hypersubmissiveness is a theoretical possibility, given that the Bible never mentions it in its practical directives and that, today, our modern feminist sins are all usurpative and never hypersubmissive, it’s problematic to cater to this mindset. (On that note I highly recommend Dalrock for your reading pleasure, as he is the top Christian anti-feminist blogger today: https://dalrock.wordpress.com/)

    The correct position, as I see it, is that femininity truly complements masculinity, thus aiding the moral development of men, but not in such a way that women are to be on the lookout for hypermasculine sins to correct (or even worse, to discipline). Rather, through meekness, submissiveness, and softness, women can provide occasions for and even draw out a more balanced constellation of virtues in their men (cf. 1 Pet. 3:1). This can be contrasted with the way in which men balance women, which far more involves explicit guidance and direction, as men are charged with headship over their women.

  8. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Very well said, Ben. I think that’s important enough a correction that I’ve updated my article to reflect it. And thanks for the link—I am enjoying it.

  9. Corey

    Very good article, brother! It brings to mind the modern church’s abandonment of the Psalms in worship. Many Psalms laud the greatness and covenant faithfulness of God (which we view as nice and palatable), but too many more are filled with anguished wrestling with God’s sovereign choices (which is uncomfortable) or else imprecatory urges toward His enemies (which is embarrassing in the current politically correct culture – and like you said, it just isn’t ‘nice’). So instead many churches sing watered-down and syrupy-sweet love songs with Jesus’ name thrown in there for effect.

    I believe that switch from a God-inspired language of worship (which we were instructed to use – Colossians 3:16) to a culturally acceptable playlist has had far more influence on this overall feminization of the church than practically any other factor. In my thinking, it would be very difficult to think of appropriately masculine discourse as ‘mean’ if a church had regular exposure to Psalms like 137 and 109.

  10. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Thanks Corey. We work through the Psalter every Sunday morning at our church, before the message. It’s a good opportunity for men to get up in the pulpit and get fluent in saying a few words about Scripture without having to prepare a whole sermon.

    I recently had to speak on Psalm 109. It was quite challenging. Not so much because it isn’t “nice” as because there is so much to say, and I only had a few minutes. It was also fascinating seeing the range of opinions from commentators—some were very faithful, while others outright dismissed the possibility that it could even be inspired!

    The main points about it that I thought were worthy of note for Christian conduct were:

    1. While there is a tension between praying for those who persecute us as per Matthew 5, and praying against them as per Psalm 109, Scripture illustrates that there comes a time when their evil is so severe, and their opportunities for repentance so limited, that we are following God’s own heart to beg for their destruction.
    2. The psalm itself sets a very narrow context for when this is okay. Verses Ps 109:1-5 clearly show us that those who would pray a prayer like David’s must be like David. They must be loyal to God. They must be right with God. They must be genuinely innocent—and their enemies must be genuinely deserving of God’s wrath. We can’t simply use God as a weapon against people we don’t like. (But I also think it’s quite notable that the sins committed by David’s enemies here are primarily sins of the tongue—God takes our words very seriously.)

    My sense is, as we think about how Scriptural imprecations apply to us, we should remember Proverbs 26:2: “Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying, so a curse without cause does not alight.”

  11. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Btw, I’m not sure if you were advocating for exclusive Psalmody. If you are, I’m afraid you’re out of luck, because I won’t truck with that! But I completely agree with you about the hymns sung in most churches as well. When you can swap out “Jesus” for “baby” and no one would notice the difference, you aren’t singing anything that qualifies as genuine worship.

  12. Corey

    No, I’m absolutely not advocating for singing the Psalms exclusively. Colossians 3:16 makes that pretty clear. I just lament the fact that so many churches will have almost nothing to do with them. And generally, the ones that do pick and choose.

  13. Jayro Boy

    Hey Bnonn, great article. I’d like to translate this to portuguese, but i wanted to get your permission/approval first. I have one question, though. Even before reading this article, which is a great summary of a really big issue we as Church are facing, i had always argued at my local church that true Christendom will always be shocking to the natural man, and that if we were to worry about not causing a “bad impression”, we should just leave the bible aside. However, people always objected quoting Proverbs 15.1, Luke 6.29 or I Corinthians 8.13, arguing that we should “back down” even when right in order to give a good witness(i am sorry if this sounds wrong, I don’t have a lot of experience talking about theology/doctrine out of my mother language). Although i do agree with your article, i do not think that this line of reasoning is completely wrong. Any thoughts on it?

  14. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Jayro, you have my permission to translate anything from my blog into any language you’d like. If you check out the legal disclaimer at the very bottom of the page, you’ll see that all content is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

    With regard to your question, I agree that we should not deliberately stir up trouble. But the same Paul who encouraged us to be good witnesses was also flogged, stoned and imprisoned for witnessing—so we need to read him in that context.

    To deal with your passages specifically:

    Proverbs 15:1 is about attitude and approach to discussion; it reflects a similar sentiment to verse 18: “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention.” But we also have to balance it against, for example, Proverbs 27:5: “Better is open rebuke than hidden love.” Proverbs are, by nature, situational; they don’t try to address every possible scenario, but are adages that give wise guidance in certain cases. So I don’t see any contradiction here between the advice of Proverbs and the need for masculinity over niceness.

    Luke 6:29 is not speaking of our giving offense, but rather how we take it. The point is that we are not to repay evil for evil; if Jesus could suffer the ultimate shame on the cross, we should not be afraid to lose face in much more minor ways. I’m not really sure how this would undermine the argument I’ve developed here, since if anything, acting the way Jesus commands takes a certain emotional fortitude that strikes me as a manly virtue. Indeed, when you compare this kind of response to the norm in our society, where cry-bullies reign, it’s pretty counter-cultural.

    1 Corinthians 8:13 is specific to how we treat other Christians. The point is not niceness, however, but rather condescension. We should not think our freedom in Christ such a thing to be grasped that we “weaponize” it against those who have not yet come to understand it as we do. However, Paul’s point is not that we should therefore be under the tyranny of a weaker conscience—for that would plunge us immediately into legalism. The fact that we should not provoke a weaker brother to sin does not mean we should ignore his weakness; rather, we should teach him. But that teaching will involve correction—which is not “nice” by most standards!

  15. Jayro Boy

    Thanks for the response!

  16. Nick

    Ahh so many years I’ve been saying this. You’re so right. Carry on.

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