It’s Good To Be a Man: A Handbook for Godly Masculinity by Michael Foster and Dominic Bnonn Tennant. Canon Press, Moscow, Idaho, 2021. Paperback, 242 pages, $17.95 (Amazon), Kindle, $9.99. (Page references in the review are to the Kindle edition, which in my copy has 170 pages.)
Why is the book popular?
Our world’s attempt at autonomy and rebellion against God comes to expression, among other areas, in human sexuality. Gender fluidity contradicts the way that God created mankind, male and female. Even when rebellion is less explicit, one sees a great deal of gender confusion. Would be autonomous mankind denies the authority of the Creator by rejecting human authority. These are areas that Scripture addresses, and thus areas to which the church ought to speak. I believe this is why It’s Good To Be a Man (IGTBAM) appeals to so many. (Amazon’s “Best Sellers Rank” currently places the book as #12 in its category of “Christian Men’s Issues.”) The book is correct in telling us that our problem is sin. IGTBAM is seen as an antidote to that sin and confusion in society. Another positive reason for the book’s popularity may be that it does attempt to deal with aspects of a man’s life which are broader than his personal relationship with God and his family. Nevertheless, although we need something that encourages Christians to have a godly impact on the world around them, I do not believe IGTBAM meets that need. Instead, it seems to perpetuate the church’s sad history of rejecting an error on one side of the road and reacting by driving into the ditch on the opposite side.
An author excommunicated
An initial concern is that one of the authors, Dominic Bnonn Tennant, following a meeting of the congregation on August 29, 2020, was excommunicated by the Baptist church in New Zealand, of which he was a member. Mr. Tennant posts his side of the matter on his website, https://bnonn.com/excommunicated/. Trinity Reformed Baptist Church, probably wisely, has not placed the matter on the Internet. I am certainly not a court of appeal for the discipline exercised by independent Baptist churches, but the fact that one of the authors has been excommunicated gives me pause in trusting him to provide material to help men be more godly. According to his former pastor, Mr. Tennant has not indicated repentance nor been restored to membership in that church. It is ironic to read a book which emphasizes dominion, male leadership and submission to authority, when one of the authors himself outright dismisses, on his website, not in the book, the validity of the lawful exercise of church authority simply by appeal to his own personal right to stand in judgment over that authority rather than honor it even in disagreement.
An additional concern is that basic accuracy is lacking at times. On page 39 the authors state: “The Westminster Shorter Catechism speaks of the husband as superior to the wife, and of lay people as inferior to their leaders.” (One of the authors tells me that the intended reference in the quote is to the Larger Catechism and that the correction will be made.) While Q. 63 speaks of “preserving the honor, and performing the duties, belonging to every one in their several places and relations, as superiors, inferiors, or equals” (and Q. 123–133 of the Larger Catechism use similar language), neither those answers, nor any others in the catechisms describe “the husband as superior to the wife” or “lay people as inferior to their leaders.” The book is appealing to the Catechisms for support of the authors’ version of superiority of husbands over wives, but the Catechisms simply do not use the language claimed. When IGTBAM tells us that “the woman is also over the earth, but the man is over the woman” (p. 40), it is not clear from the text whether the book is describing the creation order, or the relationship between husbands and wives, or an authority structure between men and women. It took private correspondence with one of the authors to clarify that. See the “Excursus on the Fifth Commandment” for further treatment of this issue.
IGTBAM makes a number of sweeping claims, unsupported by Scriptural argumentation, such as: “All leadership, whether in the Old or the New Testament, whether civil or domestic or ecclesiastical, is exclusively male.” (p. 9) Such an assertion that all leadership is exclusively male goes far beyond Scriptural prescription. While I certainly affirm that husbands are to model godly leadership in their homes, as Ephesians 5 teaches, and officers in the church are to be men who meet the qualifications outlined in the letters to Timothy and Titus, the authors assume rather than validate their position. For example, the first chapter begins with: “PATRIARCHY IS INEVITABLE. God has built it into the fabric of the cosmos. It is part of the divine created order. You could as soon smash it as you could smash gravity. It is natural and irrevocable.” (p. 8) Near the very end of the afterword we read, “Patriarchy is inevitable. It is not whether men will exercise dominion, but which ones, and how. Choose this day to be such a man and to rule in the stead of your Father God.” (p. 170) The book avers that “Christianity is innately masculine.” (p. 75) To the contrary, some of us, even some who, like myself, hold that ordained office in the church is to be held by men who are qualified for that service, believe that Christianity is not characterized primarily by gender, but rather by union with Christ, the Savior. One more citation: “At a simplistic level, women see men as success objects; men see women as sex objects.” (pages 111–112) This approach of making sweeping assertions has a real danger of calling things sinful that God’s Word does not reveal are sins.
On p. 72 the book states that “feminine social instincts are inversely proportional to ensuring orthodoxy.” A few sentences later, the words “Undue feminine influence thus leads to a spiritual disease well described by Johannes Vos:” introduce a quoted paragraph from Vos’ helpful commentary on the Larger Catechism. Immediately following the quote, the authors continue on p. 73:
A church in which the influence of women is not checked by masculine rule—where, indeed, it is instead elevated and amplified—will always descend into mystical emotional chaos.
We exist to please God. It is impossible to build true religion on the false assumption of the opposite. Unfortunately, even pious women tend to lead us in that opposite direction if unchecked.
Unless the reader checks the volume quoted, he may well not realize that Vos is saying nothing about feminine influence on the church — he is warning against the danger of trying to enjoy God without seeking to glorify him. Vos does not identify this as a greater temptation or problem for women than men, nor is he addressing the issue of feminine influence on the church.
Men, women, and “gendered piety”
The theme of the book is a call to men to exercise dominion. On pages 20–21, IGTBAM quotes and then paraphrases the creation account in Genesis 1:26–28, inevitably acknowledging that mankind, male and female, are image of God and that dominion is given to them. As one reads on, however, dominion is defined in terms of rule, and as was quoted above, leadership is exclusively male. In practice, as far as this book is concerned, dominion appears to be a function of males. Granted, this book is intended for men. It appears to have left, however, relatively little room for women to exercise God-given dominion. It acknowledges that man needs woman in order carry out that dominion. Chapter 3, “Sex Is Very Good,” describes the drive for sex, stating, correctly, that God created it good, and then ends with:
Sex is the engine of God’s dominion: the means by which He designed man to establish heaven on earth.
And that is why Satan hates sex. (p. 33)
To be clear, the book rejects the position that God created woman only or primarily for man’s sexual pleasure. The husband and wife produce a household, bound together by covenant love. (p. 32)
I fully affirm that God created mankind, male and female, in his own image. He has redeemed us fallen sinners by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The powerful Holy Spirit is sanctifying us. Undoubtedly, redeemed men and women are not identical. Sanctification in one man will look somewhat different from that in another. And it will look different from sanctification in a woman. Yet the focus of Scripture in the work of redemption is not on our differences as men and women. All of us are called to trust in Christ and turn from sin. Men and women alike are to put on Christ. The Bible does not have blue and pink sections. But IGTBAM emphasizes what the authors elsewhere call “gendered piety”: “Gravitas is not a term you hear much today, but it is one of vital importance to recovering masculine piety—that is, masculine duties to God and man.” (p. 97, emphasis mine).
The treatment of women becomes evident at another point. Men are called to pursue what IGTBAM calls the “masculine virtue” of wisdom, p. 110: “Wisdom is informed first by your fear and knowledge of the Lord and His word, and second by your understanding of your world at large. When we said that getting gravitas starts by meditating upon God’s word, we were really saying that getting gravitas starts by steeping yourself in God’s own wisdom. You practice developing this virtue by conforming your mind to God’s.” The next paragraph continues:
Though both men and women ought to seek wisdom, women are instructed to seek it from men: from their husbands (1 Cor. 14:35; cf. Eph. 5:26) and from their pastors—who are in turn selected out of the men in the Church for their special skill at their husbandly duties (1 Tim. 3:1–7). This makes being wise an especially masculine obligation. (pp. 110-111).
Although I would certainly agree that a godly husband ought to provide spiritual leadership and nurture in his own home, note the disjunction that IGTBAM introduces. Men gain godly wisdom by meditating on God’s word and steeping themselves in God’s wisdom. Women seek it from men. However, the Book of Hebrews teaches us that we no longer need earthly priests to be mediators between us and God because the God-man, the Lord Jesus Christ is our great high priest — a principle rediscovered during the Reformation. Intentionally or not, IGTBAM reintroduces men as intermediaries between women and God. The book brings confusion in a basic theological principle.
IGTBAM tends to paint with a broad brush, using emotive, pejorative terms with some frequency, such as “white knights” and “loud woman.” I imagine there is a spectrum of churches that might distance themselves from the book’s vision of masculine Christianity. The range may well extend from theologically liberal churches advocating gender fluidity to some Reformed churches, led by male elders who encourage husbands and fathers to be godly leaders in their homes, but who do not buy into IGTBAM’s version of partriarchy. But rather than making such distinctions, readers are repeatedly warned against “the church effeminate.” Is it too much to expect a book which is a call to action for Christian men, to encourage them to think critically? But we are treated to: “Thus we find ourselves in the Church Effeminate, where men may either check in their testicles with the usher in skinny jeans, sign a waiver promising not to upset the women, and softly croon about their boyfriend Jesus—or they may be escorted to the door by a mob of valiant heroes who will defend m’lady’s honor at any cost.” (p. 75)
The book promotes its vision of patriarchy, or “father rule,” “the natural rulership of men.” (p. 8) It is instructive to look at the fruits of this movement, which, admittedly has a certain breadth to it. A detailed analysis is beyond the scope of this review, but in the circles in which I move as a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, I have been deeply disturbed by the fruit of the patriarchy movement. In some cases there has been a subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) attitude of male superiority. I have seen rude mocking of women and of men with whom patriachalists differ. I have seen violent language and even cursing used, in public, no less, against those considered to be in error. It would be wrong to attribute that conduct to the influence of this book, which is too new for that. Certainly, not all who hold to patriarchy engage in this kind of conduct. But there is enough misuse of the tongue (or fingers on keyboards) to remind ourselves of the caution in James 3:12, that a spring cannot produce both salt and fresh water.
My first reading of the book, in addition to concerns about content, left me with an uneasy feeling that some things were missing. Noticeably absent is any treatment of the mutual submission of believers to one another, commanded in Ephesians 5:21. Appreciating that is crucial for a proper understanding of the submission Paul goes on to require of wives. Also, re-reading and searching revealed that I could not find any place where IGTBAM specifically encourages husbands to love their wives. A search for the word love turned up 52 occurrences (including forms such as loves, loved, and loving). We are told that God loves, and things that Satan loves are identified. We are told that boys need a father’s love (pages 83 and 90), and that men need the love of men (p. 154). Men are told to pursue a godly wife. Twice the expression covenant love is used in describing Christian marriage (pages 32 and 163). But nowhere are husbands specifically exhorted to love their wives. Men are exhorted to achieve dominion rule. They are encouraged to pursue gravitas (with two chapters devoted specifically to that). But men are not told to love their wives. Admittedly, in the introduction, IGTBAM claims that it “is not a book about being a husband” (p. 6), which might be appealed to as grounds for this omission. (Space is taken to inform men that “Status and mastery in a masculine hierarchy are clear signals that you are to be desired for a husband” [p. 167], but neither the command to love one’s wife, nor the Christ-like service which that involves are described.) I find it incredible that in a book which purports to be “A Handbook for Godly Masculinity,” this specific exhortation is missing. The Apostle Paul thought the instruction was important enough to include as a specific command in his epistles, indeed the preeminent command given to husbands. Is that exhortation less needed today? To be clear, I am not arguing that the authors deny the command for husbands to love their wives. They do not. But the omission of that exhortation in the book is part of a significant imbalance.
A false dilemma
IGTBAM offers a choice between patriarchy and impotence. But that is a false dichotomy. What does our world, characterized by moral relativism and gender fluidity need? I would suggest less focus on men developing gravitas through what the authors imagine is masculine dominion. As a friend of mine puts it, “We don’t correct the world’s unbiblical views of gender by exhorting people to extra-biblical (if not unbiblical) roles.” The world needs men and women who love the Lord, trust him, and seek to obey his name. It needs men and women who are willing, not only to suffer and die for Christ, but also to live their daily lives to his glory. Do not underestimate the ability of the powerful Holy Spirit, who raised Christ from the dead, to draw people to Christ, to shape their lives, and to enable them to have a profound impact on the world around them. To reject the sort of patriarchy advocated by IGTBAM is not to opt for an effeminate church. Nor is support for the church’s historical position on male ordination dependent on adopting patriarchy. Consider the “Report of the Committee on Women in Church Office,” presented to the 55th (1988) General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (https://opc.org/GA/women_in_office.html), which includes discussion of the general office of believer and an emphasis on the use of women’s gifts.
I cannot recommend It’s Good To Be a Man. Too much of what it promotes is sub-biblical, I believe. In pursuing its promotion of dominion, it lacks the balance of Scripture. Are there better alternatives? More certainly needs to be written in this area. In the meantime, one might consider Dane Ortlund’s Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. While it might not make some feel good about themselves, it might also draw them closer to Christ.