With every passing generation, men become weaker and more confused. This is not only because of dropping testosterone levels across the board, but also because men have few – if any – strong role models in modern America. More and more young boys are raised by single mothers or in female-dominant homes, and then they go off to public school… where their instruction and discipline is performed almost entirely by women. What’s a young boy to do?
Eventually, in the modern age, he finds his way to the Internet. Faced with an unprecedented plethora of choices, he must wisely navigate the endless sea of public figures who claim to teach “true masculinity.” Nowadays the PUA sphere has been largely supplanted by the more general “male self-improvement,” which always teaches how to indulge in one’s material temptations more successfully; not only more premarital sex – as was the niche’s focus in my own adolescence – but more money, more cars, more of everything he wants…all while compromising as little as possible. This, so they tell you, is what it means to be a man: getting more of what you want while suffering as little as possible. To those of you more philosophically-inclined, this is simply the reiteration of ancient Epicureanism: a materialist outlook seeking to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Is this truly the peak of what a man can achieve?
I won’t throw out the baby with the bathwater or suggest that there’s nothing of value to be learned from such sources. Rather, I assert that what good can be found in them can be found in better, fuller, and holier form from Christian sources – and without all the soul-killing baggage. For a deeper examination of this idea, I encourage you to read St. Basil the Great’s Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature. It’s an ancient, in-depth homily on how young men ought to engage with pagan or secular material.
Having said that, there is no shortage of instruction for how men ought to look, behave, and conduct themselves in the writings of Holy Scripture and the Church Fathers. Therefore, I’d like to present you with three aspects of manhood that God considered important enough to illuminate through these vehicles.
You may have read this bullet point and thought to yourself that men ought to have no concern for their appearance. In a certain sense, you’re right; a man should not spend inordinate amounts of time admiring himself in the mirror, seeking out and purchasing the latest trendy and fashionable clothes, or taking hours of each day making sure that he presents himself in such a way to attain validation from others.
On the other hand, the notion of how a Christian man should look was important enough to be mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments – not to mention by several Fathers of the Orthodox Church. Starting at the beginning, we read in Deuteronomy 22:5 that “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.”
The New Testament, as you might expect, is perfectly aligned with the Old Testament and its sentiments. God is the God described in both texts, Who interacts with humanity in each of them and through Whose inspiration both texts were written. Christians are not Marcionites; we do not believe there is any tension or disagreement between the Old and New Testaments. Therefore, we should not be surprised to discover that St. Paul reiterates what you read above, writing in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 that “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, not idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, not drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.”
God, inspiring the pen of St. Paul, teaches that an effeminate man is as much an abomination as a fornicator, an idolater, or an adulterer. In practical terms, this means not dressing in such a way as to feminize your appearance or behaving like a woman. No earrings, no eyeliner, no painted nails, no “unisex” clothing, and certainly no “transgenderism.” For a full Christian breakdown of sexual dimorphism – and a survey of its denial’s consequences – I encourage you to listen to Father Josiah Trenham’s lecture series “Reflections On Transgenderism.”
Since the same Holy Spirit speaks through both the Bible and the Church, we should expect to find – and do find – this same sentiment passed down through the centuries. Specifically, we find Church Father after Church Father exhorting men to grow beards and not to shave their faces.
In The Instructor, Clement of Alexandria wrote that “For one who is a man to comb himself and shave himself with a razor, for the sake of fine effect, to arrange his hair at the looking-glass, to shave his cheeks, pluck hairs out of them, and smooth them, how womanly!…This is a meretricious and impious form of snare. For God wished women to be smooth, and rejoice in their locks alone growing spontaneously, as a horse in his mane; but had adorned man, like the lions, with a beard, and endowed him, as an attribute of manhood, with a shaggy chest – a sign of strength and rule.”
In his Exposition on Psalm 133, St. Augustine of Hippo wrote that “The beard signifies the courageous; the beard distinguishes the grown men, the earnest, the active, the vigorous. So that when we describe such, we say, he is a bearded man.”
In the Apostolic Constitutions we find the following passage as well: “Nor may men destroy the hair of their beards, and unnaturally change the form of a man. For the law says: You shall not mar your beards. For God the Creator has made this decent for women, but has determined that it is unsuitable for men. But if you do these things to please men, in contradiction to the law, you will be abominable with God, Who created you after His own image. If, therefore, you will be acceptable to God, abstain from all those things which He hates, and do none of those things that are unpleasing to Him.”
As a survey of history clearly demonstrates, from the time of Moses up until the present day, the community of God has explicitly declared that a man should look like a man. A beard and body hair distinguish you from women and children; should you shave yourself and look like a naked mole rat, you will have marred the appearance that God designed you to have.
Yet there is far more to being a man than just how you look. If you look the part – but act weak or womanly – you are failing just as much as if you shaved your face and body. On that note, let’s continue to the next point of Christian masculinity.
The way you behave is even more important than the way you look. For a good example of what I mean, consider any mainstream “rap” video; half the time, the men in these videos are wearing a cross. And yet what do they “rap” about? Always the same topics: money, sex, power, drugs, killing, and Luciferian exaltation of the self. Every song is about me, me, me. This is the false image of masculinity propagated to the populace by wicked, deceptive agents of Satan who want to separate man from God.
Read any self-help book on the shelves today, and you will discover there a version, whether watered-down or full-fledged, of the Nietzschean will-to-power. The male self-help niche is absolutely saturated with the worship of individuality, the assertion of dominance, and the encouragement to conquer.
The irony of pretending these images are of “powerful men” is that there is nobody weaker, nobody more enslaved, than a man who throws himself into every sinful temptation he feels. St. Augustine of Hippo aptly noted that “a man has as many masters as he has vices.” You can have all the money, power, and women you want…the absolute zenith of “male self-help”…yet if you succumb to temptation left-and-right, you remain a slave to your own impulses and will never be truly free.
Now the concepts of individuality and dominance can, and do, have a Christian counterpart. On the topic of individuality, for example, the secular world may tell you that there is nothing more important than you. Your desires, your ambitions, your possessions, your influence. But in the Christian context, individuality is only truly realized in obedience to, and likeness of, Christ Himself. We are not Buddhists seeking to dissolve our personhood into a great nothingness. We do not seek the destruction of the self the way some esoteric, non-Christian belief systems do. Rather than destruction, we seek fullness and transfiguration; becoming a man means aligning our person with the ultimate Person, our manhood with that of the ultimate Man. In that context, our individuality is not erased; it is established, it blossoms, and it flourishes. This is achieved specifically by denying ourselves, overcoming our greed and our passions.
Likewise, there is nothing wrong with the idea of dominance – but depending again on the meaning. In the secular sphere, dominance often means never backing down, asserting yourself against and above everyone around you. It is about making yourself bigger by making others smaller, diminishing them to inflate your own sense of superiority. In the Christian sphere, dominance has two specific contexts: rulership of your family and, whether you have a family or not, rulership over your passions. A man who is moved by his emotions is weak; a man who cannot resist temptation is useless. Look at the world around you, at the politicians and media moguls. They are, largely, sin-sick men who succumb to their every desire and, being easily corrupted, are likewise easily owned. The Christian life is a battle with the passions, and in this warfare you must dominate. You must rule. You must conquer.
In short, the essence of masculine behavior is self-control. If you do not have the ability to say “no” – whether to others who offer you something you shouldn’t take, or even more importantly, to yourself – then you must get to work developing this ability immediately. You must be able to withstand a sinful impulse and adapt your behavior to that laid out by the Christian path. After all, we read in Revelation 21:8 that “the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” I hope you will heed God’s warning, and do everything in your power to avoid finding yourself in these categories.
And yet, one of the many grand paradoxes of Christianity is that your own power and will are utterly incapable of attaining this goal; rather, it is submitting your will to God’s that will bring you the results you’re after. The only power your will has, in these circumstances, is the will to cooperate with God. But if you try to brute-force your way into virtue, you will end up the spiritual equivalent of a “dry drunk;” your bad behavior may have improved, but the wounds that led to it will remain unhealed. This is especially difficult for men to accept since our pride wants us to be the victors, wants us to be powerful, wants us to be strong.
In fact, Satan will appeal to your fallen sense of masculinity in order to keep you in his grip: “You got this,” he whispers into the undiscerning ear. “You’re strong enough to handle this yourself.” And yet the truth is precisely the opposite; as quoted in one of my all-time favorite spiritual books, Victory In The Unseen Warfare: “If you rely on yourself in the spiritual warfare, you will not be able to resist even the smallest attack of the enemy.”
Such words wound our ego, our pride, our fallen manhood. We cringe at the notion of not being self-reliant; after all, men conquer! Men are strong! Men handle their problems! And we do conquer; we are strong; we do handle our problems – but we do so by submitting ourselves to God to let Him take care of such things with ease, rather than getting lost in the world’s vision of self-esteem.
And yet we are not utterly powerless, as I mentioned above. We have the power to cooperate with God by making wise choices about our behavior. We have the power to feel a temptation and – rather than immediately leap into it – fall to our knees and pray. We can choose to grab our prayer ropes, do our prostrations, say our Jesus Prayers. And these behaviors, so opposite to what the world tells us makes us “strong,” in fact brings us the greatest strength of all: God’s grace and power, against which temptation is nothing.
We can also choose to make intelligent choices that will minimize the odds of falling into sin. By way of personal example, I’ll share with you what I did when I was courting the woman to whom I’m now married. The first time she came to my apartment – which was in broad daylight, so as to be less tempting than a nighttime hangout – I asked my housemate to be present as a chaperone. I, a young adult in his early thirties, asked another man to help supervise me; this sort of thing is crushing to the pride that leads us astray, and helped set the right tone for our relationship. Even before then, in our very first conversation about dating, I told her explicitly that I was not going to sleep with her unless and until we ended up husband and wife. I took the initiative, as a man should do, to set the frame and boundaries of the relationship. Believe it or not, she and I did not even hold hands until three months later – when we “officially” became boyfriend and girlfriend. I cannot tell you how grateful I am for having made these kinds of choices, nor for my gratitude that she followed my lead. I am convinced that if we’d slept together before our wedding night, it would have destroyed our relationship and the foundation of what we built.
If you currently have a girlfriend, or a woman you’re dating, I cannot recommend enough that you structure your hangouts or dates in such a way that the possibility of fornication is cut off from as many angles as possible. This is the kind of leader Christ wants you to be, and it’s the kind of leader to whom a Christian woman will want to submit. Once you demonstrate, with behavior like this, that submitting to your leadership leads to mutual edification – and not to your selfishly using her as a secular man would attempt to do – she can relax into her obedient role and know that her body and soul are in competent, trustworthy hands. None of this can happen if you, yourself, are still subject to being overthrown by lust…and if you are, exercising this kind of caution and self-restraint will greatly help to free you from those shackles. Every time you overcome a sinful impulse, God will reward you with grace and dispassion.
So what is the key to proper Christian conduct? Obedience to God, to the best of your ability, coupled with sincere repentance if and when you fall short. But there’s more to obedience than what the average Westerner might imagine.
To be a man is to believe in order, both within and without. Order in our internal worlds, submitting what is low to what is high within us. Order in our external worlds, submitting ourselves to the authority of God above. Orthodox Christians submit on many levels: to God, to the Church, to our Priest, and to each other. By ordering our external behavior in such a way, it cultivates humility – the ultimate weapon of spiritual warfare – and brings our fractured souls into alignment.
Without Christ and His Church, our souls are fragmented. We become compartmentalized, fractured beings with our inner powers in a state of disharmony. This is, as mentioned above, exacerbated at every opportunity by those who seek power and control over us. But by cultivating the virtue of obedience, we bring our dissonant selves into harmony and become whole, complete human beings. But in our world nothing is more difficult – and nothing is more anathema to the secular conception of masculinity – than the notion and practice of obedience.
Most Christian men understand the idea of obedience to God. Depending on what group you belong to, that can manifest itself in different ways; many Protestant men will take the idea to mean reading the Scriptures and doing their best to follow its commands and exhortations. That is certainly a step in the right direction, and will bring much more grace than simply trying to “go your own way” as many modern men do. Roman Catholic men do their best to obey not just the Scriptures, but also their Pope (at least, when they agree with him). Orthodox Christians do our best to obey the Scriptures, our spiritual fathers or mothers, our Confessors, our bishops, and – most importantly – the Holy Spirit as He has spoken through the Church’s Ecumenical Councils throughout time. Ideally, there is no dissonance between any of these sources; a good spiritual elder will do his or her best to only teach what is found in the Scriptures and the Church.
As someone who began his life as an atheist – and then moved through Protestantism on his way to the Holy Orthodox Church – I can tell you that one of the most difficult parts of the journey was to swallow my pride enough to obey my priests and the dogmatic declarations of the Church. Infected by the spirit of American democracy, I brought my Western baggage into the beginning of my Christian walk: my voice counted as much as anyone else’s, my interpretation of Scripture was just as valid as a Saint’s, my life would be run my way and where convenient, I would allow Christ to take the lead. But a wise man once said that “There is a wall between us and God, and that wall is called ‘I.’” And the more I have learned to humble myself and obey, the more correct I realize he was.
Our deepest disease is pride. It is the mother of all sins, as humility is the mother of all virtues. And nothing breaks down the prideful self-willing, so expected and encouraged in the Western world today, as obedience. It is difficult, it will irritate you, and in the end it will prove to be one of the greatest mirrors for your own remaining sin as you attempt to grow in obedience and find such an ocean of resistance within. And plus – if you wish to be obeyed as a Christian leader, you must first learn to follow Christ. No man can lead until he first learns to follow.
Christianity is a paradox in many ways, at least as concerns our behavior in this world. But the founder of our Faith, Jesus Christ Himself, already told us this over 2,000 years ago: “The last shall be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16). When we puff ourselves up to an unwarranted position of superiority, we end up harming our souls in the long run. Thus I encourage you to study what it meant to be a Christian for the first 15 centuries of the faith; read the Apostolic Fathers (the direct disciples of the Apostles) and then their students, and their students, and their students after them. If what you find disagrees with your own conception of Christianity, have the wisdom and humility to recognize the likelihood that those men who knew the Apostles personally understood Christianity better than what you learned from Pastor Jim’s Bible Church. If you submit to the Christian life handed down throughout the millennia, and obey the canons and dictates written down by the world’s most inspired and illuminated men, you will find healing in your soul that you never imagined possible.
When we humble ourselves enough to follow the teachings of Christ over time, adapting our appearance and conduct to the path He laid out rather than adapting Christianity to our own preferences, that is when we enter the Kingdom of God: not just in the afterlife, but in the here-and-now as well.
May God bless, guide, and save you.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Michael Witcoff is a Jewish convert to Orthodox Christianity. He is the best-selling author of On The Masons And Their Lies and runs the “Brother Augustine” ministry on YouTube and Telegram.