The toxic and the true

by Jeffrey Hemmer

Long, long before it was trendy to decry “toxic masculinity” on social media, we had a serious problem with masculinity. Although distortions of masculinity — played out in the lives of self-indulgent men who think that sex is for self-gratification and that women are objects to be taken, conquered, traded or sold — have been much in the news this year, our modern predicament is hardly new.

Indeed, it could hardly be older.

At the dawn of creation, Adam was the first man to distort real, godly masculinity, and Eve was the first woman to be let down and left hurting by a man’s inability to understand and live out his manly calling.

Man down

Adam was called to protect his bride, to provide for her, to populate the world with her. He was given to be selfless in his service toward her, caring more for her own good than his own. And things were going swimmingly until he and Eve suddenly found themselves face to face with the father of lies in the form of a serpent.

When the serpent approached the woman with his wicked distortion of God’s Word (“Did God really say … ?”) and outright lies (“You will not surely die”), where was Adam? When Eve saw that the fruit was pleasing to the sight and good for food, where was her husband? Hint: he wasn’t out cultivating a garden, checking on the animals or otherwise exercising his lordship over creation.

He. Was. Right. There.

“She took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” (Gen. 3:6, emphasis mine). It is almost as if Adam has been treating his wife as a kind of lab rat with which to test the veracity of God’s Word. Will she die? Only when she doesn’t immediately keel over does he join her in eating the forbidden fruit. Eve, Paul tells us, “was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Tim. 2:14). Adam “was not deceived,” and yet he sinned. He failed to intervene to shield his wife from the attack from the serpent, to wield the Word of God he had been given to preach against this slithery deceiver.

Then, when they hear the sound of their Creator walking in the Garden and Adam has the opportunity to emerge from the fog of selfishness, what does he do? He tells God, “The woman, whom You gave to me, she gave to me, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12). In other words: “If we’re being honest, God, the blame falls first to her and second to You for giving her to me in the first place. Keep that in mind as You’re doling out punishments.”


This is toxic masculinity. Adam would rather throw his wife under the bus than expose himself to divine wrath. He shamefully and selfishly cowers behind his wife’s fig-leaf skirt.

Since then, every man has been an heir of Adam’s selfish distortion of manliness. We men are all selfish jerks by nature. We all are more inclined to save our own hides than to offer our bodies and lives for the good of others entrusted to our care. We’re born rebellious against God, with our shoulders slumped and our eyes downcast, curved in on ourselves. This is sin.

Man up

Only one Man in history has not been guilty of this kind of selfish, toxic masculinity. He is the Man born of Mary, the Eternal Word who became flesh — the One who, though Man, remains fully and distinctly God.

Jesus was, is and always will be the perfect Man. He is everything Adam was created to be. Where Adam was self-centered, Jesus is centered on the good of those He comes to save. Where Adam was self-preserving, Jesus is self-sacrificing. Where Adam was self-serving, Jesus came not to be served but to serve (Matt. 20:28).

Real masculinity is not a matter of having big enough muscles, big enough tools, guns or trucks. Those things are fine, but they don’t exhibit masculinity. The strongest man can still be selfish.

Real, God-pleasing masculinity exists in seeing one’s self and giving one’s self for the good of others. Men were created to serve, to give, to love, to be instruments for the benefit of their neighbors and the flourishing of creation.

And no one except Jesus exhibits that kind of masculinity perfectly.

The cross is the perfect display of masculine giving. Nothing is more manly — in the theological sense of the word — than Jesus’ selfless sacrifice on the cross. There, He holds nothing back, spends Himself completely for the good of His Bride, the Church. He succeeds where Adam — and all men — failed. And even Adam, along with all the rest of us cretins, is saved from his own selfishness by the perfect self-sacrifice of Jesus.

Men up

Jesus alone, true God and perfect Man, is the solution to toxic masculinity. His Bride is the only one who has no cause to lament having suffered at a man’s selfishness. He loves her selflessly and perfectly. He endures abuse so that she can be adorned with His own righteousness. In this Church, then, men — and women — have hope.

Right now, the world needs men. Real men. Manly men. Strong men. Courageous men. Christ-like men. Masculine men. Men who will give of themselves for the good of their wives, their children, their communities, their congregations, their countries. The Church needs men, too. She needs men to be the spiritual leaders of their families — husbands who will love and forgive their wives as Christ loves and forgives His Church; fathers who will catechize their children in the faith and set the example for them in the pew of what a man forgiven by Jesus is and does. The Church needs older men who will mentor younger men. She needs martyrs who will boldly confess Christ in the face of persecution. Above all, the Church needs men who will work to solve the problem of toxic masculinity by embracing God’s call to embody the higher, holier, selfless masculinity they find in Jesus.

The problem of distorted, defective masculinity is older than our modern predicament. But so is the solution. The solution is the Man up on the cross, the savior of sinners and the example for men.

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed (1 Pet. 2:21–24).

The Rev. Jeffrey Hemmer is pastor of Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church in Fairview Heights, Ill., and author of Man Up! The Quest for Masculinity.

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2018 print edition of The Lutheran Witness. 

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2 thoughts on “The toxic and the true”

  1. Regarding “fathers who will catechize their children,” I am persuaded that a Christian father admirably fulfills his responsibilities for his children’s religious upbringing when he weekly worships with them and sees to it that they are taught, confirmed, and given opportunities to serve. Praise God for the faithful fathers who do that much!

    If catechizing at home is to be encouraged, where is the comprehensive guidance as to when, how and for how long to best teach children of different ages, and coordinate the instruction at home with the instruction provided at church and school?

    1. Great question. Start by talking to your pastor. Then, use the simple form of the catechism, as Luther suggests, “As the head of the family should teach it to his household.” Teach children to memorize the text before you teach the meaning. And let the weekly readings guide your weekly instruction. You might also find a resource like Treasury of Daily Prayer (or the PrayNow app) useful). Catechizing falls first to fathers, not pastors, but work with your pastor. Consider him a resource.

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