Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

Calvinism, masculinity and niceness

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8 minutes to read 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.

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