“The Frank and Manly Mr. Ryle” — The Value of a Masculine Ministry

God, Manhood & Ministry: Building Men for the Body of Christ

Desiring God 2012 Conference for Pastors

In dealing with the life and ministry of John Charles Ryle, my hope is to clarify and commend what I mean by the value of a masculine ministry. But before we turn to “the frank and manly Mr. Ryle,”1 let me make some clarifying comments from the Bible.

God has revealed himself to us in the Bible pervasively as King, not Queen, and as Father, not Mother. The second person of the Trinity is revealed as the eternal Son. The Father and the Son created man and woman in his image, and gave them together the name of the man, Adam (Genesis 5:2). God appoints all the priests in Israel to be men. The Son of God comes into the world as a man, not a woman. He chooses twelve men to be his apostles. The apostles tell the churches that all the overseers—the pastor/elders who teach and have authority (1 Timothy 2:12)—should be men; and that in the home, the head who bears special responsibility to lead, protect, and provide should be the husband (Ephesians 5:22–33).

Masculine Christianity

From all of this, I conclude that God has given Christianity a masculine feel. And, being a God of love, he has done it for the maximum flourishing of men and women. He did not create women to languish, or be frustrated, or in any way to suffer or fall short of full and lasting joy, in a masculine Christianity. She is a fellow heir of the grace of life (1 Peter 3:7). From which I infer that the fullest flourishing of women and men takes place in churches and families where Christianity has this God-ordained, masculine feel. For the sake of the glory of women, and for the sake of the security and joy of children, God has made Christianity to have a masculine feel. He has ordained for the church a masculine ministry.

And, of course, this is liable to serious misunderstanding and serious abuse, because there are views of masculinity that would make such a vision repulsive. So here is more precisely what I mean. And words are always inadequate when describing beauty. Beauty always thrives best when she is perceived by God-given instincts rather than by rational definitions. But we must try. What I mean by “masculine Christianity,” or “masculine ministry,” or “Christianity with a masculine feel,” is this:

Theology and church and mission are marked by overarching godly male leadership in the spirit of Christ, with an ethos of tender-hearted strength, and contrite courage, and risk-taking decisiveness, and readiness to sacrifice for the sake of leading, protecting, and providing for the community—all of which is possible only through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s the feel of a great, majestic God, who by his redeeming work in Jesus Christ, inclines men to take humble, Christ-exalting initiative, and inclines women to come alongside the men with joyful support, intelligent helpfulness, and fruitful partnership in the work.

There are, I believe, dozens of sweet and precious benefits that come to a church and family that has this kind of masculine feel. Some of those will emerge as we consider “‘The Frank and Manly Mr. Ryle’: The Value of a Masculine Ministry.”

His Early Life

John Charles Ryle was born May 10, 1816, near Macclesfield, in the County of Cheshire, England. His parents were nominal members of the Church of England with no interest in vital religion and would never embrace Ryle’s evangelical faith—which he came to when he was 21 years old.

At the age of eight, he was sent to a boarding school for three years, of which he said when he was 58, “I’m quite certain that I learned more moral evil in a private school than I ever did in my whole life afterwards.”2 But he did leave “tolerably well grounded in Latin and Greek.”3

A month later, at the age of eleven, he was sent to Eton, the elite preparatory school founded in 1440, and stayed there almost seven years, until he eighteen. “Religion,” he says, “was at a very low ebb, and most boys knew far more about the heathen gods and goddesses than about Jesus Christ. . . . On Sundays there was nothing whatever to do us any good; the preaching of the fellows was beneath contempt.”4

Cricket Captain

The last year was his happiest, and the reason seems to be that he was the captain of the Cricket XI—a game he loved and followed all his life. In his last year at Eton, he became very prominent and powerful among the students: “I was ambitious and fond of influence, attained power and was conscious of it.”5

He looked back on his Cricket experience with amazing appreciation for what it taught him about leadership:

I believe it gave me a power of commanding, managing, organizing, and directing, seeing through men’s capacities, and using every man in the post to which he is best suited, bearing and forbearing, keeping men around me in good temper, which I have found of infinite use.6

He was on his way to becoming a strong and forceful personality.

Three Years at Oxford

In October of 1834, he entered Christ Church, Oxford, where he stayed exactly three years till he was 21. He won the Craven University Scholarship, and at the end of his third year, he took a “brilliant first-class in classics.”7 But in spite of his achievements he said,

I thoroughly disliked Oxford on many accounts. . . . Nothing disgusted me so much as the miserable idolatry of money and also of aristocratic connection. I never saw such an amount of toadying flattery, and fawning upon wealth and title as I saw among the undergraduates at Oxford.8

And later, from his perspective as a believer, he wrote, “At Oxford things were very little better [than Eton]. No one cared for our souls anymore than if we had been a pack of heathen.”9

So up till the age of 21, Ryle says, “I had no true religion at all. . . . I certainly never said my prayers, or read a word of my Bible, from the time I was 7 to the time I was 21. . . . My father’s house was respectable and well conducted but there really was not a bit of [true] religion in it.” 10

His Conversion

But things were about to change dramatically.

About the end of 1837 [just after Oxford], my character underwent a thorough and entire change, in consequence of a complete alteration in my view of religion. . . . This change was . . . extremely great and has had . . . a sweeping influence over the whole of my life ever since.11

At least three things conspired to bring this about. First, a severe illness confined him to bed. “That was the time,” he wrote, “when I distinctly remember I began to read my Bible and began to pray.”12

Then a new gospel ministry opened in his hometown of Macclesfield. Till that time, he says, “there was no ministry of the gospel at the church we attended. Macclesfield . .  . had only two churches, and in neither of them was the gospel preached.”13 But then a new church was opened and the gospel was preached, and Ryle was contrarian enough to be attracted to it when everyone was criticizing it.

There was a kind of stir among dry bones, and great outcry against the attendants of this new church. This also worked for my good. My natural independence, combativeness, and love of minorities, and hearty dislike for swimming with the stream, combined to make me think that these new evangelical preachers who were so sneered at and disliked were probably right.14

The third influence was some good evangelical books that came into his hands. He mentions Wilberforce's Practical View of Christianity, Angel James’s Christian Professor, Scott’s Reply to Bishop Tomline, Newton’s Cardiaphonia, Milner’s Church History, and Bickersteth’s Christian Student.15

So God used Ryle’s sickness, the gospel preacher, and the evangelical books, and by the beginning of 1838, he says, “I was fairly launched as a Christian, and started on the road which I think I have never entirely left, from that time to this.”16

He tells us what the truths were that the Holy Spirit pressed on his soul in those days:

Nothing . . . appeared to me so clear and distinct, as my own sinfulness, Christ's preciousness, the value of the Bible, the absolute necessity of coming out of the world, the need of being born again, the enormous folly of the whole doctrine of baptismal regeneration. All these things, I repeat, seemed to flash upon me like a sunbeam in the winter of 1837 and have stuck in my mind from that time down to this.

People may account for such a change as they like, my own belief is that no rational explanation of it can be given but that of the Bible; it was what the Bible calls “conversion” or “regeneration.” Before that time I was dead in sins and on the high road to hell, and from that time I have become alive and had a hope of heaven. And nothing to my mind can account for it, but the free sovereign grace of God. And it was the greatest change and event in my life, and has been an influence over the whole of my subsequent history.17

The Bankruptcy He Never Forgot

For the next three and a half years, he mainly worked in the bank that his father owned. Then disaster struck in June 1841, when he was 25 years old. His father lost everything in bankruptcy. Ryle describes this event as so traumatic that “if I had not been a Christian at that time, I do not know if I should not have committed suicide.”18

“Every single acre and penny my father possessed had to be given up to meet the demand of the creditors. . . . We got up one summer’s morning with all the world before us as usual, and went to bed that same night completely and entirely ruined.”19 His own testimony about the effect of this disaster on his life is remarkable.

God alone knows how the iron entered into my soul . . . . I am quite certain it inflicted a wound on my body and mind of which I feel the effects most heavily at this day [he is writing this 32 years later in 1873] and shall feel it if I live to be hundred. To suppose that people do not feel things because they do not scream and yell and fill the air with their cries, is simple nonsense. . . . I do not think there has been a single day in my life for 32 years, that I have not remembered the . . . humiliation.20

Nevertheless, Ryle believed in the sovereignty of God and knew that this event was decisive in making him what he was.

I have not the least doubt it was all for the best. If . . . I had never been ruined, my life of course would have been a very different one. I should have probably gone into Parliament . . . I should never have been a clergyman, never have preached, written a tract or a book. Perhaps I might have made shipwreck in spiritual things. So I do not mean to say at all, that I wish it to have been different to what it was.21

But now what would he do? He had no idea. “The plans of my life were broken up at the age of 25. . . I was going to leave my father's house without the least idea what was going to happen, where I was going to live, or what I was going to do.”22

Reluctantly Entering the Ministry

The Rector of the parish of Fawley, Rev. Gibson, knew of Ryle’s conversion and leadership gifts, and asked him to be the curate of Exbury. It was a strange way to enter the ministry in which he would become the foremost evangelical spokesman of the Church of England in his day.

I never had any particular desire to become a clergyman, and those who fancied that my self will and natural tastes were gratified by it were totally and entirely mistaken. I became a clergyman because I felt shut up to do it, and saw no other course of life open to me.23

His parents did not like the idea, but could suggest nothing better, and so he accepted the offer “with a very heavy heart,”24 and was ordained by the Bishop of Winchester in December, 1841.

The people liked him. “I think they would have done anything for me,” he says, although “on the whole . . . I think I was regarded as an enthusiastic, fanatical mad dog of whom most people were afraid.”25

He prepared two written sermons each Sunday, spoke extemporaneously on Wednesday and Thursday, visited 60 families each week, and during an outbreak of scarlet fever, he says, “I saved many lives . . . by supplying them with large quantities of beef tea, made from concentrated essence, and insisted on their swallowing it, as long as their throats kept open.”26

The church was soon filled on Sunday. But he resigned in two years (November, 1843) for health reasons. “The district thoroughly disagreed with me. . . . Constant headache, indigestion, and disturbances of the heart then began and have been the plagues, and have disturbed me ever since that time.”27

Seventeen Years in Helmingham

After a five-month curacy at Winchester, he accepted a call to be the Rector at Helmingham, about 85 miles northeast of London, where he began on Easter, 1844. He was now 28 and still unmarried. Not until now had his income been sufficient to support a wife—which was one of the reasons he accepted this call after only five months at Winchester.28 But this time he stayed 17 years.

In October, 1844, his first year there, he married Matilda Plumbpre. She was 22, and he was 28. A child, Georgina, was born May 1846, and Matilda died June 1847. Ryle was married again in February, 1849, to Jessie Walker, but their ten years together “were years of singular trials.”29 Jessie was never well.

On five occasions, she had to be confined in London for two months each, and one side effect was that Ryle preached in at least sixty different churches in London and became very popular for his power in the pulpit, to which he responded, “I always felt that popularity, as it was called, was a very worthless thing and a very bad thing for man's soul.”30

Jessie bore four children over the ten years of their marriage, Isabelle, Reginald, Herbert, and Arthur. But then in May, 1860, after along battle with Bright’s disease, she died. The last five years, Jessie was unable to do much at all, and when she died the entire load of the five children, with the oldest only thirteen, fell to their father, especially the three little boys.

As to holidays, rest, and relaxation in the year, I never had any at all; while the whole business of entertaining and amusing the three little boys in evening devolved entirely upon me. In fact the whole state of things was a heavy strain upon me, both in body and mind, and I often wonder how I lived through it.31

His middle son, Herbert, recalls the early days of childhood with their father:

He was everything to us—taught us games, natural history, astronomy, and insisted on our never being idle, and carefully fostered our love of books. To us boys he was extraordinarily indulgent. And he was tolerant to a degree little known or recognized. The High Church writers sought to destroy his position by detraction. Much as he differed from me in many points, he never suffered the shadow of a difference to come between us in the intimacy of our affection. And since the time I went to school at the age of nine and a half, I never received from him a harsh word.32

While Ryle was an attentive father or not, none of his sons remained true to his evangelical faith. Reginald became a doctor with no professed Christian faith. Arthur became an artist with no religious inclinations. And Herbert was ordained in the Church of England and eventually became Bishop of Winchester, and Dean of Westminster. Though he became liberal in his theology, there remained a bond of affection between him and his father.

Herbert outlived his brothers and wrote, “The last of the five, I remain, having had two such loving brothers as few men ever had—never a quarrel, always affection and confidence.”33 When his father died he wrote to a friend, “And I, to whom it was an intense stimulus to think of pleasing my father as a boy and a young man, feel how greatly he has filled the picture of my life.”34

Nineteen Years in Stradbroke

The year after Jessie died, Ryle accepted a call to be the Vicar of Stradbroke about 20 miles north of Helmingham. He had served 17 years in the tiny village of Helmingham and would now serve Stradbroke for another 19 years. The year he began at Stradbroke, he was married a third time, October 24, 1861, to Henrietta Legh-Clowes. He was 45, she was 36, and they were married for 28 years, until she died in 1889, eleven years before his own death in 1900.

During the 36 years in rural parishes of Helmingham and Stradbroke, Ryle was becoming a national figure of prominence in the Church of England. He was constantly writing and traveling to speak. “He was Evangelicalism’s best-known and most respected writer and spokesman through the 1870s.”35

During the . . . years he spent in his two Suffolk parishes, he was a prolific writer, producing evangelistic tracts, devotional commentaries, historical and biographical accounts, works on doctrinal and controversial subjects, papers on Christianity and prophecy, all unashamedly written from the standpoint of a convinced Evangelical and Protestant Churchman.36

Virtually all of the books and tracts that Ryle published had been first given as sermons or lectures.37 The main books were all published during his time at Stradbroke: Knots Untied (1874), his most popular work during his lifetime; Old Paths (1877); Holiness (1877, enlarged 1879), the book he is most famous for today; Practical Religion (1878) which he said should be read in conjunction with Holiness.

One of the great ironies of Ryle’s life is that he took a brilliant first class in classics at Oxford, was a constant reader of old and new theology, collected a five-thousand-volume library, and yet, in tiny rural parishes, became “the Prince of tract writers.”38 “Tracts” in those days were little booklets which in Ryle’s case had been sermons and which sold for pennies. The fact that Ryle put such a premium on publishing practical tracts on Christian living and church life shows how zealous he was for personal holiness and church reform. In writing and preaching, he was first a pastor, and “as he read,” J. I. Packer points out, “alongside the question ‘Is it true?’ the question ‘What effect will this have on ordinary people?’ was always in his mind.”39

Not only was he a pastor in all he wrote, but he was a firmly rooted Anglican churchman with a strong allegiance to the Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-Nine Articles. He had a huge heart and huge respect for Dissenters and those on the outside, like Charles Spurgeon,40 but he was unbudging in his passion that the Church of England, rightly administered was the best church on earth.41 “The standpoint I have tried to occupy, from first to last, is that of an Evangelical Churchman.”42 His passion was for the reformation and renewal of his own denomination, in accord with the great biblical principles of the Reformation.


At the age of 64, after 36 years in rural parishes, when most people are ready to retire, he was called to be the first Bishop of Liverpool.43 So he moved from parishes of 300 and 1300 to a city of over 700,000 with all the urban problems he had never met face to face. He served in this post for 20 years, till two months before his death on June 9, 1900, at the age of 84.

Here he poured himself out for the spiritual good of the city and took serious initiatives to relieve some of the worst social ills. “During his time 42 new churches were built in the diocese. The number of clergy increased by 146, and confirmations almost doubled.”44 The book with the most detail about his gospel efforts in Liverpool is Ian D. Farley, J. C. Ryle: First Bishop of Liverpool (Waynesboro, Georgia: Paternoster Press, 2000).

On his gravestone, there are two verses of Scripture to capture the two aspects of the Christian life that he heralded, the fight, and the gift. First, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). And then, “By grace are ye saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8).

Eight Traits of a Masculine Ministry

 Of all the helpful things that could be said about the life and ministry of J. C. Ryle, the theme of this conference is governing what I will focus on, namely, “The Value of a Masculine Ministry”—which I tried to define at the beginning.

What I hope to do is illustrate the nature of this “masculine ministry,” or “Christianity with a masculine feel,” with eight traits of such a ministry from the life and ministry of J. C. Ryle.

1. A masculine ministry believes that it is more fitting that men take the lash of criticism that must come in a public ministry, than to unnecessarily expose women to this assault.

Therefore, a masculine ministry puts men at the head of the troop with the flag in hand and the trumpets in their mouths, so that they, and not the women, take the first bullets.

J. C. Ryle was a very controversial figure in British evangelicalism. He saw liberalism and ritualism and worldliness eating away at the heart of the Church of England, and he took such clear stands against these things that criticism against him was sometimes brutal.

In 1985, the Liverpool Review (November 21, 1885) published this assessment:

Dr. Ryle is simply about the most disastrous episcopal failure ever inflicted upon a long-suffering diocese. . . . He is nothing better than a political fossil, who has been very unwisely unearthed from his rural obscurity for no better purpose apparently than to make the episcopacy ridiculous.45

Two years later, another paper, Figaro (May 14, 1887), said, “His name will stink in history. . . . It is to be regretted that he was ever appointed to fill a position in which he has done more mischief than the Liberation Society and all the atheists put together.”46

The point here is not that a woman couldn’t endure such assaults. No doubt a godly woman could. The point is not that women can’t endure criticism, but that godly men prefer to take it for them, rather than thrust them into it.

Courage in the midst of combat, especially harsh and painful combat, whether with arms or with words, is not something a woman can’t exercise, nor even something she shouldn’t exercise under certain circumstances. The reason we call such courage “manly” is not that a woman can’t show it, but that we feel a sense of fitness and joy when a man steps up to risk his life, or his career, with courage; but we (should) feel awkward if a woman is thrust into that role on behalf of men. She may be able to do it, and we may admire her for doing it, if necessary. But we wish the men were numerous enough and strong enough and courageous enough that the women could rejoice in the men, rather than take their place.

2. A masculine ministry seizes on full-orbed, biblical doctrine with a view to teaching it to the church and pressing it with courage into the lives of the people.

Behind the increasing liberalism, ritualism, and worldliness that he saw in the church, Ryle saw a failure of doctrinal nerve — an unmanly failure. Dislike of dogma, he wrote,

is an epidemic which is just now doing great harm, and especially among young people. . . . It produces what I must venture to call . . . a “jelly-fish” Christianity . . . a Christianity without bone, or muscle, or power. . . . Alas! It is a type of much of the religion of this day, of which the leading principle is, “no dogma, no distinct tenets, no positive doctrine.”

We have hundreds of “jellyfish” clergyman, who seem not to have a single bone in their body of divinity. They have no definite opinions . . . they are so afraid of “extreme views” that they have no views of all.

We have thousands of “jellyfish” sermons preached every year, sermons without an edge, or a point, or corner, smooth as billiard balls, awakening no sinner, and edifying no saint. . . .

And worst of all, we have myriads of “jellyfish” worshipers—respectable Church-gone people, who have no distinct and definite views about any point in theology. They cannot discern things that differ, any more than colorblind people can distinguish colors. . . . They are “tossed to and fro, like children, by every wind of doctrine”; . . . ever ready for new things, because they have no firm grasp on the old.47

This aversion to doctrine was the root cause of the church’s maladies, and the remedy was a manly affirmation of what he called “sharply cut doctrines”48 recovered from the Reformation and the Puritans and the giants of the eighteenth century in England.

Mark what I say. If you want to do good in these times, you must throw aside indecision, and take up a distinct, sharply-cut, doctrinal religion. . . .

The victories of Christianity, wherever they have been won, have been won by distinct doctrinal theology; by telling men roundly of Christ’s vicarious death and sacrifice; by showing them Christ’s substitution on the cross, and His precious blood; by teaching them justification by faith, and bidding them believe on a crucified Saviour; by preaching ruin by sin, redemption by Christ, regeneration by the Spirit; by lifting up the brazen serpent; by telling men to look and live—to believe, repent, and be converted. . . .

Show us at this day any English village, or parish, or city, or town, or district, which has been evangelized without “dogma.” . . . Christianity without distinct doctrine is a powerless thing. . . . No dogma, no fruits!49

The point of calling this failure of doctrinal nerve an unmanly failure is not that women can't grasp and hold fast to the great doctrines of the faith. They can and should. The point is that when the foundations of the church are crumbling, the men should not stand still and wait for women to seize the tools and brick and mortar. And women should expect their men to be at the forefront of rebuilding the ruins.

The point of saying that the remedy for doctrinal indifference is a manly affirmation of “sharply cut doctrines” is not that women cannot or should not make such affirmations. The point is that long, hard, focused, mental labor should not be shirked by men. Men should feel a special responsibility for the life and safety and joy of the community that depends on putting these “sharply cut doctrines” in place. This issue is not what women are able to do, but what men ought to do. J. C. Ryle waited for no one. He took the brick and mortar and trowel and spent his whole life rebuilding the sharp edges of gloriously clear truth to make a place where men and women could flourish in the gospel.

3. A masculine ministry brings out the more rugged aspects of the Christian life and presses them on the conscience of the church with a demeanor that accords with their proportion in Scripture.

Ryle is most famous today for his work on holiness and sanctification. And the overwhelming impression you get in reading his book on holiness is how unsentimental and rugged most of it feels.50 That is, it feels very much like the New Testament, especially the Four Gospels.

Over against the perfectionism and Keswick quietism of his day, he was unrelenting in stressing that sanctification, unlike justification, is a process of constant engagement of the will. And that engagement is war. He asks,

Is it wise to teach believers that they ought not to think so much of fighting and struggling against sin, but ought rather to ‘yield themselves to God’ and be passive in the hands of Christ? Is this according to the proportion of God's Word? I doubt it.51

“True Christianity is a fight.”52 He cites, 1 Timothy 6:12; 2 Timothy 2:3; Ephesians 6:11–13; Luke 13:24; John 6:27; Matthew 10:34; Luke 22:36; 1 Corinthians 16:13; 1 Timothy 1:18–19, and says,

Words such as these appear to me clear, plain, and unmistakable. They all teach one and the same great lesson. . . . That true Christianity is a struggle, a fight, and a warfare.53

“A true Christian,” he said, “is one who has not only peace of conscience, but war within.”54 And this is true at every stage of maturity: “The old, the sick, the dying, are never known to repent of fighting Christ’s battles against sin.”55 The tone he sets for the Christian life is “the soldier’s life.” “A holy violence, a conflict, a warfare, a fight, a soldier’s life, a wrestling, are spoken of as characteristic of the true Christian.”56 “He that would understand the nature of true holiness must know that the Christian is “a man of war.”57

Of course, this is not the only picture of the Christian life; but it is a true and prominent one. And Ryle sets it forth with clarity and with a tone that fits the soldier-like theme it is. But the point, again, is not that women cannot, or should not, fight sin with as much urgency as any man. Nor is the point that she is unable to see these things in Scripture, bring them out, and press them on the conscience. She is fully able to do that. The point is that the theme of Christian warfare and other rugged aspects of biblical theology and life should draw the men of the church to take them up in the spirit of a protective warrior in his family and “tribe,” rather than expecting the women to take on the spirit of a combatant for the sake of the church.

4. A masculine ministry takes up heavy and painful realities in the Bible, and puts them forward to those who may not want to hear them.

One of the heaviest and most painful realities in the Bible is the reality of hell. It is a godly and loving and manly responsibility of the leaders of the church not to distort or minimize the weight and horror of hell. Ryle faced the same thing we do. In 1855, he preached the sermon that 24 years later was published in the expanded edition of Holiness. There he said,

I feel constrained to speak freely to my readers on the subject of hell. . . . I believe the time is come when it is a positive duty to speak plainly about the reality and eternity of hell. A flood of false doctrine has lately broken in upon us. Men are beginning to tell us “that God is too merciful to punish souls for ever—that there is a love of God lower even than hell—and that all mankind, however wicked and ungodly some of them may be, will sooner or later be saved.”. . .  We are to embrace what is called a “kinder theology.”. . . Against such false teaching I desire, for one, to protest. Painful, sorrowful, distressing as the controversy may be, we must not blink it, or refuse to look the subject in the face. I, for one, am resolved to maintain the old position, and to assert the reality and eternity of hell.58

He pointed out that no one in Scripture “used so many words to express the awfulness of hell” as Jesus did.

Hell, hell fire, the damnation of hell, eternal damnation, the resurrection of damnation, everlasting fire, the place of torment, destruction, outer darkness, the worm that never dies, the fire that is not quenched, the place of weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth, everlasting punishment—these, these are the words which the Lord Jesus Christ Himself employs.59

He confessed that it sounds dreadful. But then said that the question is: “Is it Scriptural?” If it is, we must not shrink back. “Professing Christians ought to be often reminded that they may be lost and go to hell."60

Ryle’s manly courage that takes up a heavy and painful reality and presses it on people who may not want to hear it was not a callous courage.

God knows that I never speak of hell without pain and sorrow. I would gladly offer the salvation of the Gospel to the very chief of sinners. I would willingly say to the vilest and most profligate of mankind on his deathbed, “Repent, and believe on Jesus, and thou shalt be saved.”61

The point is not that women are unable to lift the weight or bear the pain of the reality of hell. The point is not that they are unable to press it into those who don’t want to hear. The point is that one of the marks of mature manhood is the inclination to spare her that load and its costs. We admire her for embracing the truth, we share her longings to nurture with tenderness, and, if we can, we carry for her the flaming coals of final condemnation. 

5. A masculine ministry heralds the truth of Scripture, with urgency and forcefulness and penetrating conviction, to the world and in the regular worship services of the church.

Not all preachers have the same personality or the same tone. Some are louder, some are softer. Some speak faster, some slower. Some with long sentences, some with short. Some with many word pictures, some with fewer. Some with manifest emotion, some with less. Some with lots of gestures, some with few. These differences are inevitable.

But preaching, as opposed to teaching — kerussein (Greek) as opposed to didaskein — involves a kind of emotional engagement signified by the word “heralding.” There is in preaching a kind of urgency and a kind of forcefulness. A message is being delivered from the King of the universe — with his authority, in his name — and this message deals with matters of infinite importance, and the eternal destiny of the hearers hangs on how they respond to the message.

This is preaching. And no matter what a preacher’s personality or preferred tone, this preaching necessarily involves urgency and forcefulness and a penetrating conviction which aims to come with divine thrust into the minds and hearts of the listeners. And therefore, this is a manly task. Coming to a people with an authoritative word from God, aiming to subdue the hearts of men, and summon them into battle, and lead the charge at their head against the principalities and powers—this is where men belong.

J. C. Ryle’s preaching is model for preaching in these ways. J. I. Packer refers to his “electric force of utterance.”62 Ryle knew that he had to crucify his florid,63 literary style which marked his early preaching. The nature of preaching demanded something different. Something simpler, but more forceful and penetrating. What developed was really astonishing. Packer describes it, referring to his

brisk, spare, punchy style . . . its cultivated forcefulness, its use of the simplest words, its fusillades of short, one-clause sentences . . . its a rib-jabbing drumbeat rhetoric, its easy logical flow, its total lack of sentimentality, and its resolve to call a spade a spade.64

Ryle knew the preaching of his day was languishing. It was “dry, heavy, stiff, dull, cold, tame . . . and destitute of warmth, vivacity, direct appeal, or fire.”65 So he made every effort to break the mold, even as a dignified Bishop of Liverpool. He would keep it simple, but he would untame his preaching. His simple, forceful, clarity was renown. One older lady came to the church hoping to hear the Bishop, but afterwards said to a friend, “I never heard a Bishop. I thought I’d hear something great. . . He's no Bishop. I could understand every word.”66 Ryle took it as a great compliment.

Listen to what Packer means by the “electric force” of “fusillades” and “rib-jabbing, drumbeat rhetoric.” This is from a sermon on Lot’s lingering as he came out of Sodom and how so many Christians linger as they leave sin.

  • Would you know what the times demand?—The shaking of nations—the uprooting of ancient things—the overturning of kingdoms—the stir and restlessness of men’s minds—what do they say? They all cry aloud—Christian! do not linger!
  • Would you be found ready for Christ at His second appearing—your loins girded—your lamp burning—yourself bold, and prepared to meet Him? Then do not linger! . . .
  • Would you enjoy strong assurance of your own salvation, in the day of sickness, and on the bed of death?—Would you see with the eye of faith heaven opening and Jesus rising to receive you? Then do not linger!
  • Would you leave great broad evidences behind you when you are gone?—Would you like us to lay you in the grave with comfortable hope, and talk of your state after death without a doubt? Then do not linger!
  • Would you be useful to the world in your day and generation?—Would you draw men from sin to Christ, adorn your doctrine, and make your Master's cause beautiful and attractive in their eyes? Then do not linger!
  • Would you help your children and relatives towards heaven, and make them say, “We will go with you”?—and not make them infidels and despisers of all religion? Then do not linger!
  • Would you have a great crown in the day of Christ’s appearing, and not be the least and smallest star in glory, and not find yourself the last and lowest in the kingdom of God? Then do not linger!
  • Oh, let not one of us linger! Time does not—death does not—judgment does not—the devil does not—the world does not. Neither let the children of God linger.67

There is urgency, forcefulness, penetrating power. Preaching does not always rise to this level of urgency and force and authority, but regularly does, and should. Again the point is not that a woman is not able to speak this way. The point is that godly men know intuitively, by the masculine nature implanted by God, that turning the hearts of men and women to God with that kind of authoritative speaking is the responsibility of men. And where men handle it with humility and grace, godly women are glad.

6. A masculine ministry welcomes the challenges and costs of strong, courageous leadership without complaint or self-pity with a view to putting in place principles and structures and plans and people to carry a whole church into joyful fruitfulness.

Leadership in the church — tending and feeding and protecting and leading the sheep — is not only the work of preaching, but also a firm, clear, reasonable, wise guiding voice when it comes to hundreds of decisions that have to be made. This calls for great discernment and no little strength. There are a hundred ways that a church can drift into ineffectiveness; and wise leaders spot these early, resist them, and win the church joyfully into a better direction. And what is required again and again is a decisive strength that does not weaken in the face of resistance.

Packer describes Ryle’s leadership like this:

His brains, energy, vision, drive, independence, clear head, kind heart, fair-mind, salty speech, good sense, impatience with stupidity, firmness of principle, and freedom from inhibitions would have made him a leader in any field.68

Ryle was called by his successor to the bishopric of Liverpool, “that man of granite with the heart of a child.”69 He was described as “the most rugged and conservative of all Anglican Evangelical personalities.”70 He said of his own leadership: “The story of my life has been such that I really cared nothing for anyone’s opinion, and I resolved not to consider one jot who was offended and who was not offended by anything I did.”71 These are the words of man surrounded by a rising tide of liberalism, ritualism, and worldliness in the Church of England. They are the voice of strength against overwhelming odds.

I am fully aware [he wrote in 1878] that Evangelical churchmanship is not popular and acceptable in this day. It is despised by many. . . . But none of these things move me. I am not ashamed of my opinions. After 40 years of Bible reading and praying, meditation, and theological study, I find myself clinging more tightly than ever to “Evangelical” religion, and more than ever satisfied with it.72

“None of these things move me.” “More than ever I am satisfied with [the evangelical faith].” Immovable joy in truth is a precious trait in the leaders of the church. A masculine ministry looks on the forces to be resisted, and the magnitude of the truth to be enjoyed, and feels a glad responsibility to carry a whole people forward into joyful fruitfulness.

7. A masculine ministry publicly and privately advocates for the vital and manifold ministries of women in the life and mission of the church.

The aim of godly leadership is a community of maximum joy and flourishing for everyone within—the women, the children, the men—and maximum impact on the world for the glory of Christ. It’s not about the privilege of power, but about the burden of responsibility to enhance the lives of others.

Ryle was outspoken in his zeal for women in the various ministries of the church. He drew attention to Romans 16, where 11 of the 28 names mentioned are women, and said,

The chapter I have mentioned appears to me to contain a special lesson for women. The important position that women occupy in the Church of Christ—the wide field of real, though unobtrusive, usefulness that lies before them . . . I cannot go away with the common notion that great usefulness is for men only, and not for women. . . . It should never be forgotten that it is not preaching alone that moves and influences men. . . . Humanly speaking, the salvation of a household often depends upon the women . . . [and] men’s character is exceedingly influenced by their homes.73

There are countless needs in the community, and needs on the mission field, Ryle says, that cry out for the ministry of women.

There are hundreds of cases continually rising in which a woman is far more suitable visitor than a man. She need not put on a peculiar dress, or call herself by a Roman Catholic name. She has only to go about, in the spirit of her Savior, with kindness on her lips, gentleness in her ways, and the Bible in her hands, and the good that she may do is quite incalculable. Happy indeed is the parish where there are Christian women who “go about doing good.” Happy is that minister who has such helpers.74

The aim of a masculine ministry is the fullest engagement of every member of the church in joyful, fruitful ministry. The aim of leadership is not to be the ministry, but to free the ministry, according to God’s word, by the power of God’s Spirit, for the glory of God’s name.

8. A masculine ministry models for the church the protection, nourishing, and cherishing of a wife and children as part of the high calling of leadership.

The year after he came to Liverpool as bishop, Ryle published a book of eight messages for children. It’s called Boys and Girls Playing based on Zechariah 8:5.75 It reveals the rare mixture of concern for children along with a very masculine feel. One of the messages is called “The Happy Little Girl” about a girl he met in public carriage who spoke of Jesus. He asks, “Dear children, are you as happy and as cheerful as she was?”76 And another message is called “The Two Bears” about the two bears that killed forty-two children for mocking God’s prophet. And he says, “Dear children, remember these things to the end of your lives. The wages of sin is death.”77 He was a masculine lover of children.

Before his ministry was complete, he had loved and buried three wives, Matilde, Jessie, and Henrietta. He had three sons and two daughters. All the testimonies we have of his children praise their father for his care for them. Whether he did this well, the evidence is too sketchy to know. But what we do know is that he tried. He gives us a hint of the burden he carried in his small biography of Henry Venn, who also was made a widower in the pastoral ministry with children to care for:

Those who have had this cross to carry, can testify that there is no position in this world so trying to body and soul as that of the minister who is left a widower, with a young family and a large congregation. There are anxieties in such cases which no one knows but he who has gone through them; anxieties which can crush the strongest spirit, and wear out the strongest constitution.78

But no matter how difficult the homelife of a pastor, it is part of the calling, part of the masculine ministry.

From these eight glimpses into the value of a masculine ministry, I commend it to you. And I think “the frank and manly Mr. Ryle” would commend it also.

I commend it because it fits the way God is in the triune fellowship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It fits the way he created man as male and female, calling the man to bear a unique responsibility of headship. It fits the way God has ordered the church with godly men as her elders. And it fits the way our hearts sing—male and female—when men and women exult in each other’s enjoyment of God as our final and all-satisfying destiny.

  1. Archbishop McGee called him in 1868 “the frank and manly Mr. Ryle.” Eric Russell, J. C. Ryle: That Man of Granite with the Heart of a Child (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2001), 9. 

  2. Peter Toon, editor, J. C. Ryle: A Self-Portrait, A Partial Autobiography (Swengel, Pennsylvania: Reiner Publications, 1975, 14. 

  3. Self-Portrait, 15 

  4. Ibid., 19 

  5. Ibid., 20 

  6. Ibid., 21 

  7. Ibid., 30 

  8. Ibid. 

  9. Ibid., 38 

  10. Ibid., 35 

  11. Ibid., 35–36 

  12. Ibid., 40 

  13. Ibid., 36 

  14. Ibid., 39 

  15. Ibid., 40 

  16. Ibid. 

  17. Ibid., 42–43 

  18. Ibid., 54 

  19. Ibid., 51–53 

  20. Ibid., 55 

  21. Ibid., 56 

  22. Ibid., 54 

  23. Ibid., 59 

  24. Ibid., 60 

  25. Ibid., 63 

  26. Ibid., 62 

  27. Ibid., 64 

  28. Ibid., 68–69. "I must honestly say that I went very unwillingly, and of all the steps I ever took in my life, to this day I feel doubts whether the move was right or not. I sometimes think that it was a want of faith to go, and I ought to have stayed. . . . But I have never ceased to wonder whether I was right or not. I only know that my chief desire was to set my father free from any charge on my account, and so I tried to hope all was right. But I think the doubt afflicted my spirits for two or three years." 

  29. Ibid., 79. 

  30. Ibid., 80. 

  31. Ibid., 81. 

  32. J. I. Packer, Faithfulness and Holiness: The Witness of J. C. Ryle (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2002), 69–70. 

  33. Eric Russell, J. C. Ryle: That Man of Granite with the Heart of a Child (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2001), 85. 

  34. Eric Russell, J. C. Ryle, 250. 

  35. Faithfulness and Holiness, 51. 

  36. Russell, 103. 

  37. In an appendix to Ian D. Farley, J. C. Ryle, First Bishop of Liverpool, (Waynesboro, Georgia, Paternoster, 2000), 240–243, there a table which shows what sermons and their dates lay behind each of the chapters in Knots Untied, Old Paths, Holiness, Practical Religion, and A New Birth. 

  38. Russell, 70. To give some idea of the extent of the effectiveness of these tracts here is one story. "One little booklet called True Liberty was translated into Spanish. It came into the hands of a Dominican Friar who had been sent to stamp out the reform movement in the church in that part of Mexico. As he read the tract the scales fell from his eyes and he entered by faith into the true liberty of the sons of God. He began to build up the church he meant to destroy. The church grew in half a century from a tiny remnant of a few believers into a flourishing church of some fifty thousand members." (72) 

  39. Faithfulness and Holiness, 71. 

  40. "'When you read Mr. Spurgeon sermons, note how clearly and perspicuously he divides a sermon, and fills each division with beautiful and simple ideas. How easily you grasp his meaning! . . . great truths, that hang to you like hooks of steel, and which you never forget!' Spurgeon once called Ryle the best man in the Church of England; here Ryle in effect hails Spurgeon as the best preacher anywhere in the country." Faithfulness and Holiness, 62. 

  41. "I am satisfied that well administered, the Church of England is more calculated to help souls to heaven than any church on earth. . . . I am deeply convinced of the excellency of my own Church—I would even say, if it were not a proud boast, its superiority over any other church upon earth." Faithfulness and Holiness, 45, 48. "He believed that the Episcopal government rightly administered is the best form of church government." Eric Russell, J. C. Ryle, 128. 

  42. J. C. Ryle, Practical Religion, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1998, orig, 1878), vi. 

  43. There seemed to be some political intrigue behind this appointment. Some said that Benjamin Disraeli, the Prime Minister at the time, made this appointment of an outspoken conservative to spite William Gladstone who had just defeated him in an election and had come from an Anglo-Catholic family in Liverpool. Self-Portrait, 90. 

  44. Self-Portrait, 101. 

  45. Farley, J. C. Ryle: First Bishop of Liverpool, 236. 

  46. Ibid., 224. 

  47. J. C. Ryle, Principles for Churchmen (London: William Hunt, 8 1084), 97–98. Quoted in J. I. Packer, Faithfulness and Holiness, 72–73. 

  48. J. C. Ryle, The Christian Leaders of The Last Century, or England A Hundred Years Ago (Moscow, Idaho: Charles Nolan Publishers, 2002), 392. 

  49. J. C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots (Moscow, Idaho: Charles Nolan Publishers, 2001), 355–356. 

  50. "Ryle was habitually factual and unsentimental in his account of things." Faithfulness and Holiness, 71. 

  51. J. C. Ryle, Holiness, xix. 

  52. Ibid., 63. 

  53. Ibid., 66. 

  54. Ibid., 26. 

  55. Ibid., 76. 

  56. Ibid., xxviii. 

  57. Ibid., 63. 

  58. Ibid., 208. 

  59. Ibid., 210. 

  60. Ibid., 211. 

  61. Ibid. 

  62. Faithfulness and Holiness, 11. 

  63. "I felt that I was doing the country people in my congregation [of Exbury] no good whatever. I was shooting over their heads; they could not understand my imitation of Melville's style, which I thought much of, therefore I thought it my plain duty to crucify my style and bring it down to what it is now." Eric Russell, J. C. Ryle, 60. 

  64. Faithfulness and Holiness, 19. Examples of his punchy, aphoristic style are almost everywhere. For example, from his book, Thoughts for Young Men: "The poorest saint that ever died in a ghetto is nobler in His sight than the richest sinner that ever died in a palace."  (Kindle, location 414) "Never make an intimate friend of anyone who is not a friend of God." (Kindle, location 485) "Bad company in this life, is the sure way to procure worse company in the life to come." (Kindle, location 518)  "The gospel keeps many a person from going to jail and from being hanged, if it does not keep him from hell." (Kindle, location 632) And some quoted by Eric Russell: "What we weave in time, we wear in eternity." "Sin forsaken is one of the best evidences of sin forgiven." "It matters little how we die, but it matters much how we live." "One thief on the cross was saved, that none should despair, and only one, that none should presume." 

  65. Ian Farley, J. C. Ryle, First Bishop of Liverpool, 103. 

  66. Eric Russell, J. C. Ryle, 253. 

  67. J. C. Ryle, Holiness, 193. 

  68. Faithfulness and Holiness, 9. 

  69. Eric Russell, J. C. Ryle, 9 

  70. Ian Farley, J. C. Ryle: First Bishop of Liverpool, 123. 

  71. Self-Portrait, 67. 

  72. J. C. Ryle, Practical Religion, vi–vii. 

  73. J. C. Ryle, Shall We Know One Another, and Other Papers (Moscow, Idaho: Charles Nolan Publishers, 2001), 29, 31, 32. 

  74. J. C. Ryle, Shall We Know One Another? 36. And Ryle made a case for the Zenana Mission who specialized in sending women missionaries to India, China , and Japan. His argument was that half the population of India were women who were almost entirely secluded from men, especially foreigners. 

  75. J. C. Ryle, Boys and Girls Playing (and Other Addresses to Children), edited by Don Kistler (Morgan, Pennsylvania: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1996, orig. 1881). 

  76. Ryle, Boys and Girls Playing, 110. 

  77. Ibid., 65. 

  78. J. C. Ryle, The Christian Leaders of the Last Century (London: 1869), 279–280.