Here’s why the Bible calls men to “act like men”
In 1 Corinthians 16:13, the Apostle Paul has clearly chosen to associate courage with masculinity.
I’ve been preaching through 1 Corinthians at our church for the last couple years, and in my most recent message we came to a little phrase in 1 Corinthians 16:13 that has become a stumbling block for some readers. The underlying Greek verb (andrizesthei) is rendered variously as “act like men” (ESV, NASB; cf. CSB, KJV) or “be courageous” (NIV, NRSV, NLT). Some of those who favor “act like men” understand the text as a call to manhood.
Others dismiss that interpretation by noting that the command is addressed to both men and women.
For my part, I think either translation is fine. Both of them are actually capturing something true about the original expression. The Greek word in question is built on a root that refers to adult males (aner). That means that there are at least two semantic oppositions here, not one—male as opposed to female and adult as opposed to child. As Thiselton explains, “it does not simply pose a contrast with supposedly ‘feminine’ qualities; it also stands in contrast with childish ways.” In other words, the root idea invokes both masculinity and maturity.
The term’s actual usage, however, is idiomatic and reflects the stereotypical connection between manliness and courage. It’s a call to bravery that relies on a trope about masculine strength that was common in the ancient world. This particular usage means roughly the same thing we mean when we say “be a man” or “man up.” It calls for readers to put away whatever inhibitions or fears they might have about doing something, and do it. As commentators Ciampa and Rosner argue, it means “to faithfully carry out one’s responsibilities even in the face of extreme danger and frightening circumstances.”
Perhaps the best way to illustrate the usage is with a similar one in English. Imagine standing on the high dive at the public swimming pool. You walk slowly out to the edge, and when you see how far down it is, your stomach catches up in your throat. You’re staring down trying to figure out whether you are actually going to go through with the long drop, and you’re taking so long that the line of people behind you is getting impatient, and someone yells, “C’mon, man up!” They see your apprehension and fear, and they are telling you to get over it and get on with it. And so what do you do? You man up, and you jump.
Likewise, the expression in 1 Corinthians 16:13 calls for courage. That is why the NIV, NRSV, and others do well to render it as “be courageous.” That is a faithful interpretation. It calls us to put aside whatever fears we have about the conflict we face for following Christ, and to get on with it. In this sense, courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is the ability to overcome fear and apprehension because you fear God more than you fear man. We all understand that following Christ is sometimes going to be hard. It is sometimes going to be scary. But what pushes us forward is not that we don’t find things to be scary but that we love and trust Christ even more than our fears.
A difference in design
But the call to courage is not the only thing going on with this term. The author, the apostle Paul, has clearly chosen to use a stereotype that associates courage with masculinity. Why would Paul speak like that? Is he trying to say that men are supposed to be courageous but women aren’t? Of course not! This command is given to everyone in the congregation, both men and women. The call to courage is limited to neither male nor female but is required of both.
Nevertheless, the expression itself is a reflection of the way God designs men and women in their physical differences—that men are generally stronger than women and more mature than boys (1 Peter 3:7). These characteristics make men fit for feats of courage and bravery. Of course not all men have great strength, but that is not the point of the stereotype. Stereotypes are generalizations, after all. And in this case the generalization reflects the Creator’s design. As Kevin DeYoung has argued concerning this text, “Of course, this is a command to the whole church—men and women—but it is telling that Paul associates strength and courage with masculinity, a perspective embraced throughout Scripture (cf. 1 Kings 2:1).”
The bottom line is that we have an apostle using a stereotypical expression that would not be received well were it uttered in our own culture today. And there’s the rub. Last summer, BBC News published an article noting that the phrase “man up” means to “demonstrate toughness or courage when faced with a difficult situation.” Nevertheless, the article went on to suggest that it is “sexist” to associate such qualities with men. And yet this association is precisely what appears in 1 Corinthians 16:13. It is no surprise, therefore, that modern readers might dislike Paul’s expression as well.
Scripture is not afraid to speak stereotypically about the natural connection between masculine strength and courage. Because of that, we must recognize something very fundamental about masculine virtue even as we recognize that the command to courage applies to all of us, both male and female followers of Christ.