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What does “act like men” mean in 1 Corinthians 16:13?

June 10, 2020
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In her new book Recovering from Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, Aimee Byrd takes me and Owen Strachan to task for our understanding of 1 Corinthians 16:13. The verse reads as follows: “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (my translation). In particular, she takes umbrage with our interpretation of that little phrase “act like men.” She writes,

“This is certainly an obscure verse to build a teaching on masculinity. . . . This admonition is addressed to both men and women, as in the following verse 15, Paul addresses them as brothers and sisters. ‘Act like men’ does not appear to be a helpful translation.”[1]

To be clear, neither Strachan nor I are building a theological superstructure on this verse alone. The Bible and nature are shot through with divine revelation on this point. This verse is a piece of the puzzle, but it is not the whole puzzle by a longshot. Nevertheless, Byrd notes that the verse is addressed to both men and women and therefore cannot be saying anything meaningful about manhood per se.[2] She concludes, “Christian men and women don’t strive for so-called biblical masculinity or femininity, but Christlikeness.”[3]

As others have pointed out, her conclusion is a false dichotomy. In scripture, Christlikeness and masculinity/femininity are not in opposition to one another. They are complements. To pit them against one another is highly misleading. Andy Naselli has a thorough review of Byrd’s book elsewhere in this journal, so I will leave aside a full critique of her argument here. My narrow aim in this essay is to take issue with two claims that Byrd makes about 1 Corinthians 16:13 — first, that “act like men” is a bad translation; and second, that this text has nothing to say about biblical manhood.

The underlying Greek verb (andrizesthei) is rendered variously as “act like men” (ESV, NASB; cf. CSB, KJV) or “be courageous” (NIV, NRSV, NLT). Some interpreters who favor “act like men” understand the text as a call to manhood. Others — like Byrd — dismiss that interpretation by noting that the command is addressed to both men and women.

For my part, I think either translation is acceptable. Both translations capture something true and important about the original expression. The Greek word in question is built on a root that refers to adult males (aner). That means that there are at least two semantic oppositions here, not one—male as opposed to female and adult as opposed to child. As Thiselton explains, “it does not simply pose a contrast with supposedly ‘feminine’ qualities; it also stands in contrast with childish ways.”[4] In other words, the root idea invokes both masculinity and maturity.

The term’s actual usage, however, is idiomatic and reflects the stereotypical connection between manliness and courage. It’s a call to bravery that relies on a trope about masculine strength that was common in the ancient world. This particular usage means roughly the same thing we mean when we say “be a man” or “man up.” It calls for readers to put away whatever inhibitions or fears they might have about doing something, and do it. As commentators Ciampa and Rosner argue, it means “to faithfully carry out one’s responsibilities even in the face of extreme danger and frightening circumstances.”[5]

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the usage is with a similar one in English. Imagine standing on the high dive at the public swimming pool. You walk slowly out to the edge, and when you see how far down it is, your stomach catches up in your throat. You’re staring down trying to figure out whether you are actually going to go through with the long drop, and you’re taking so long that the line of people behind you is getting impatient, and someone yells, “C’mon, man up!” They see your apprehension and fear, and they are telling you to get over it and get on with it. And so what do you do? You man up, and you jump.

Likewise, the expression in 1 Corinthians 16:13 calls for courage. That is why the NIV, NRSV, and others do well to render it as “be courageous.” That is a faithful interpretation. It calls us to put aside whatever fears we have about the conflict we face for following Christ, and to get on with it. In this sense, courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is the ability to overcome fear and apprehension because you fear God more than you fear man. We all understand that following Christ is sometimes going to be hard. It is sometimes going to be scary. But what pushes us forward is not that we don’t find things to be scary but that we love and trust Christ even more than our fears.

But the call to courage is not the only thing going on with this term. The author, the Apostle Paul, has clearly chosen to use a stereotype that associates courage with masculinity. Why would Paul speak like that? Is he trying to say that men are supposed to be courageous but women aren’t? Of course not! This command is given to everyone in the congregation, both men and women. The call to courage is limited to neither male nor female but is required of both.

Nevertheless, the expression itself is a reflection of the way God designs men and women in their physical differences—that men are generally stronger than women and more mature than boys (1 Pet. 3:7). These characteristics make men fit for feats of courage and bravery. Of course not all men have great strength, but that is not the point of the stereotype. Stereotypes are generalizations, after all. And in this case the generalization reflects the Creator’s design. As Kevin DeYoung has argued concerning this text, “Of course, this is a command to the whole church—men and women—but it is telling that Paul associates strength and courage with masculinity, a perspective embraced throughout Scripture (cf. 1 Kings 2:1).”[6]

The bottom line is that we have an apostle using a stereotypical expression that would not be received well were it uttered in our own culture today. And there’s the rub. Last summer, BBC News published an article noting that the phrase “man up” means to “demonstrate toughness or courage when faced with a difficult situation.”[7] Nevertheless, the article went on to suggest that it is “sexist” to associate such qualities with men. And yet this association is precisely what appears in 1 Corinthians 16:13. It is no surprise, therefore, that modern readers might dislike Paul’s expression as well.

Scripture is not afraid to speak stereotypically about the natural connection between masculine strength and courage. Because of that, we do well to recognize something fundamental about masculine virtue even as we recognize that the command to courage applies to all of us, both male and female followers of Christ.

Aimee Byrd has missed the importance of this text for our understanding not only of the Bible, but also of what natural revelation has to say about the difference between male and female. This text associates courage with masculine strength, and it holds out this virtue as an aspiration for all followers of Christ. This text is indeed about discipleship — a discipleship rooted in divinely ordained differences between male and female.

Denny Burk is the President of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.


[1] Aimee Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: How the Church Needs to Rediscover Her Purpose (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), 112.

[2] It is worth pointing out that Strachan acknowledges that Paul directs this text to both men and women: “His words in 1 Corinthians 16:13-14 apply to all believers, to be sure. . .” See Owen Strachan and Gavin Peacock, The Grand Design: Male and Female He Made Them (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2016), 51–52. Notice as well, that the very excerpt that Byrd quotes from Strachan’s book acknowledges the same thing: “Even as he calls all believers to maturity. . .” (Ibid., 58).

[3] Byrd, 114.

[4] Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 1336.

[5] Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 856.

[6] Kevin DeYoung, “How Are Men and Women Different?,” 9Marks Journal (December 2019): 157

[7] Hanna Yusuf, “Is It OK to Tell Someone to ‘Man Up’?,” BBC News, June 24, 2019, sec. UK, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-48743113.

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