Act Like a Man: 1 Cor 16:13-14 and the Gender of Courage

Here's a language-nugget from my morning studies. I noticed that the ESV renders 1 Cor 16:13-14, "Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love." What does it mean to "act like a man"?

I share the concerns of many regarding gender blurring. In fact, I initially investigated this passage just to see if there is a case to be made here for a specific "manliness" that Paul has in mind (distinct from women). While I believe there are characteristically male and female traits and virtues (cf. 1 Cor 11), in this text it seems that linguistic and contextual factors militate against overloading the phrase to exclude women from the charge. Either women are not to told to "stand firm in the faith," or in some sense they are to "act like men." In my judgment, Paul affirms a virtue that, while often appearing in men, is appropriate to both parties with respect to spiritual warfare.

The phrase, "act like men," is translated from one Greek word (ἀνδρίζεσθε), basically a verbal form of "man." The term denotes courageous conduct (BDAG). Given the nature of ancient warfare, it is not surprising that Greek culture came to associate courage with men. Insofar as Christian life is a spiritual battle, it makes sense for Paul to use this word.

It should be noted, however, that the same verb was chosen to translate Deut 31:7, "be courageous," into the Septuagint. Unlike ἀνδρίζομαι, the Hebrew phrase (אמץ) does not have a male root or specifically masculine connotations. In fact, in Prov 31:17, such courage is characteristic of the virtuous woman. "She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong (וַתְּאַמֵּץ)."

1 Corinthians was written to both men and women. In choosing ἀνδρίζεσθε, Paul is not simply telling men to "act like men." As one familiar with both Greek culture and Jewish usage of Greek terms, he is urging both sexes to adopt qualities of self-sacrificing courage and strength for the battle. In saying this, he does not picture chest thumping and worldly shows of power. True manfulness—to imitate the man, Jesus Christ—is to "let all that you do be done in love" (v.14). In this sense, Paul's admonition is equally valid for both men and women. The verse is meaningfully understood as, "act as courageous men," where men are not assumed to be the exclusively courageous sex.

The verse is meaningfully understood as, “act as courageous men,” where men are not assumed to be the exclusively courageous sex.

Regarding gender norms, it may be argued from his choice of terms that Paul actually affirms the natural order of fleshly warfare as ordinarily belonging to men. Only in relation to union with Christ, where "there is no longer male nor female," does he apply the battle metaphor to women and men alike.

This does not automatically open the door to women in office. The visible church is organized for this age in a way that accounts for natural order. Godly subjection of wives to husbands stems from Woman being created "from out of Man," and does not cease with conversion. Likewise, only men are chosen for ministerial office, not on account of greater inherent worth than their female counterparts, but as embodiments of the husband-spouse relationship that persists between Christ and the church. Men are vested with that responsibility in order to portray Christ (the archetypal man) among his people (the archetypal Woman). As I see it, placing women in office wrongly signifies that the Church—and not Christ—is prophet, priest, and king.

It should be no more offensive for God to choose men and not women to typify Jesus' ministerial power, than that he chose bread and not meat, or wine and not milk, as sacramental signs of Christ's work. Women, on the other hand, possess the unique privilege of corresponding to the beloved people of God. There is no shame in that.