Speak to Men Like Men

Early in my marriage (and midway through an argument), my wife complained to me one day that I talked to her like I would a guy from seminary. By my beard, she was right. I knew exactly what she meant.

Amidst my band of brothers, sword fights were not uncommon. Generals trained us for battle; we could not be afraid to spar. Fights happened, as they must when important things are at stake, but we asked forgiveness if necessary and left the stronger for it. Our spiritual program, a place for serious joy, prepared us to affect untold people and places and eternities. We needed one another for sharper service. To be the men our Lord was calling for, we needed heat and friction and resistance from brothers who were for each other in Christ.

My marriage, however, I confused with this combat training. When we disagreed, I instinctively strategized, mobilizing forces of argumentation and logic here, mounting a brigade of illustration there; war must decide which idea prevailed. When I listened, it was the calculating variety — cold and non-interrupting, as Chesterton once said, “he listens to the enemy’s arguments as a spy would listen to the enemy’s arrangements” (What’s Wrong with the World, 26). A good practice for debate; a poor way to live with my wife in an understanding way.

Though as theologically sharp as many seminary men, she was my wife, not my fencing partner. Though she could hold her own, she did not find the swordplay, even when discussing Scripture, nearly as uplifting as I did. Note to self: I should not duel my wife over doctrine. Good to know.

Of Mice and Men

A man ought not debate his wife as he would a brother. But let’s add another truism: a man need not disagree with brothers in the same way he would with his wife. It is one problem to talk to wives like men; it is another to talk to men like wives. It is one loss to forget how to live with our wives in an understanding way, another to forget how to live with men according to the nature of men. Are we losing the ability to talk to men as men?

The writer of Ecclesiastes writes that for everything (speech included) there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to build up, plant, laugh, heal, embrace, and make peace. But this is not all he says. At other times, you must sit among your brothers to pluck up, to kill, to die, to break down, to refrain from embracing, to weep, to lose, to attack his darling sins or cherished unbelief (Ecclesiastes 3:1–8).

God’s rams still need to butt heads; his lions still need to roar. We can’t always play two-hand touch. Nathans need to tell Davids, “You are the man!” Pauls need to oppose Peters to their face or stand aghast at the Galatians. We need Nathaniels in whom exists no guile or flattery. We need men whose “letters are weighty and strong” (2 Corinthians 10:10), servants not tickled by man-pleasing (Galatians 1:10). We need Judes able to contend for the faith because they’ve learned how to contend with their brothers in seminary classrooms and with men who hold them accountable.

Where are the Luthers, the Spurgeons, the Ryles that roused sleeping generations with masculine boldness? We have few and need more. When masculine directness, Christlike candor, and warlike speech fade from the mouths of good men, the world and church suffer rot.

The Man Christ Jesus

Imagine our Savior’s deliberation the moment Peter, his second-in-command, stands between him and the cross. Heaven’s cheers had not yet died down at Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ,” before Peter tries to confront this Christ (Mark 8:29, 32). Jesus plainly taught that the Son of Man must suffer and be rejected, yet Peter, trusting his assessments too much, “took him aside and began to rebuke him” (Mark 8:32).

Do not miss the phrase preceding Christ’s masculine reply:

But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Mark 8:33)

Jesus commends Peter, the rock, in one breath (Matthew 16:15–20), and administers the strong rebuke in the next. Notice where he looked before he struck: at his other sheep. He considered them as a good father considers the other children who witness a sibling’s defiance. Peter needed to hear this; the disciples needed to hear this. To withhold it would fail not only Peter, but them. We imagine Peter’s eyes following his Savior’s to the other disciples in that intense moment, only to reengage with the blow: “Get behind me, Satan!”

Modern-day disciples trained in a generation of safe spaces recoil: Jesus, don’t you see he only cares about your welfare? He was only considering group morale. Did you really have to call him Satan and belittle him in front of the others? Jesus, don’t you think that was a little harsh? He did well just a minute ago; I wonder if you missed an opportunity to encourage him.

But Jesus, perfectly concerned with God’s glory and the eternal good of his sheep, struck the rock before the others. He had manly words and a manly tone for his chief man and friend. Seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter to teach them all. A man bold only toward his enemies is not yet as Christlike as he needs to be.

And take note: nobody ran away crying. No one took to blows. No one challenged another to a duel. The truth was spoken, the rebuke taken, and men moved on, better for it. How can we establish fellowship like this? A couple of starting points.

1. Set terms in peacetime.

Unlearning the coddling of modern speech, especially within male circles, need not be done overnight. We do not put gloves on, sneak up behind a brother, and sucker punch him in the name of courage. In my experience, rules of engagement should be established beforehand. When some men and I formed a group years ago, we drew from an old meeting covenant and agreed in the affirmative:

  • Are you willing to charitably rebuke, chasten, and instruct each other?
  • Are you willing to take rebukes, chastening, and instruction from others?

We make it clear at the beginning that we must have priorities higher than comfort. Here we strive for a culture concerned with grace-giving but also sin-slaying so that we might be more God-pleasing. We resolve — God helping us — not to let personal ego or weaker-brother sensitivities stop our ears from hearing (or giving) a discomforting word, a naked question, or a plain rebuke.

Bold speech had been a weakness of some in our brotherhood; now it’s a strength. Caring they remain, but without the coddling that shelters sin and harbors — for the sake of “unity” — God-belittling theology and practice.

2. Consider the goodness of correction.

Yes, confrontation is unpleasant. To some it feels like a slow suffocation. To others, a frozen chill climbing the spine. To others, the kindling of a flame to devour culprits offering this strange fire. To still others, the words replay in the mind as hammer blows, driving them down and down into the floor.

After the initial tremor, a man’s pride usually demands satisfaction. Criticism, disagreement, correction all seem to drag our reputation into the contest. I’ve felt what Richard Baxter describes:

They think it will follow in the eyes of others that weak arguing is the sign of a weak man. . . . If we mix not commendations with our reproofs, and if the applause be not predominant, so as to drown all force of the reproof or confutation, they take it as almost an insufferable injury. (The Reformed Pastor, 129–30)

“A man bold only toward his enemies is not yet as Christlike as he needs to be.”

In the heat of the moment, I’ve found that cool reflection on the goodness of correction helps me summon the cavalry of humility. In my disagreement, am I loving the truth, the church, my brother, my God, or myself? If the former, the jousters may need to take another pass. If the latter, I should be suspicious of my urge to swing back, slow to speak, and willing to disengage for a time to drown my pride in Christ’s blood.

Love Peace, Go to War

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 3)

Jude did not live to fight, but he would fight. He wished to discuss the thing that brought him the most joy: their common salvation in Christ. He wanted to explore the treasury of Christ’s excellencies, the bliss of the new birth, the grandeur of God’s glory, and the wonder of the cross. He wanted to drape these glories over all of life (and he does some), but alas . . .

There is a time to discuss our common salvation and revel in Christ. And there is a time when we must draw a sword and defend the Savior and salvation in which we revel. In our times, the spirit of the age scolds that the masculine tone is toxic, aggressive, and unnecessary. Boys should not be boys — much less, someday, men.

Brethren, we are chiefs of our tribes, leaders of families. If we cannot spar over the greatest, most urgent verities of this world and the next, where can we? If we are to hear “you’re wrong” or undergo cross-examination or hear rebuke, should it not be over these truths and with brothers who love us? “A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding than a hundred blows into a fool” (Proverbs 17:10). Let hard words sink in, men of God. Speak them with patience; deliver them for each other’s good; remember to speak to men as men. Learn not only to endure them but to cherish them.