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Philip Ellwood

Sword, Spade or Staff?

Warrior? Servant? Shepherd? Builder? Gardener? Farmer? Can we sum up what it is to be a Christian man?

For some Christian men, especially those in the 18-35 demographic (amongst whom I remain for two more precious years!), the ‘warrior’ concept is appealing and motivating. Others are understandably repelled by either the historical horrors of ‘warrior Christian men’ or the cringe inducing machismo that some have imported into the Church.

I recently came across a fascinating article, entitled ‘Uprooting the Christian masculinity complex’ in which Matthew Block seeks to debunk ‘muscular Christianity’. Block argues quite rightly that “God is not, at his core, a warrior; he wars solely because of outward opposition… it is necessary only because of sin.” He goes on to suggest that God made Adam not as ‘warrior’ but as ‘gardener’ and that Christian masculinity should be “characterised by hard work, patience and reliance on God… [because] gardening brings about the one thing that every Christian should desire – growth.”

As a man frankly prone to ungodly aggression, I found Block’s article a helpful nudge to the heart. I am made in the image of a God who at his core is love, goodness and community and I’m being (infuriating slowly it seems on occasions!) sanctified into a greater and greater demonstration of that image, within the community of Christ. To lovingly, sacrificially and humbly attend to that which I am called to govern, cultivate and protect – just as a gardener would, and indeed Adam was supposed to – is surely at the heart of what it means to embody Christian masculinity?

Nonetheless, something about the article left me uneasy. A gardener, it seems to me, does not concern himself too much about what is happening beyond the perimeter of his fence. Sin, though its penalty and power are decisively defeated on the cross, is still present and evil continues to wreak havoc upon our ‘groaning’ (Rom 8:22) creation, the Church and the most vulnerable in particular. The final result is certain, but the forces of evil still rage in opposition to the glorious plans and purposes of Jesus. In short, the battle is won but it is not done. As Block himself asserts, God “wars” because of “outward opposition”. As such, for a man to truly embody the image of his Creator, he should surely be prepared to make war upon the horrors of sin? To tend to one’s own garden when in another’s, violence, poverty, injustice and sickness reign, is surely to act in stark contrast to the perfect man, Jesus Christ? A gardener will sweat and perhaps bleed but will he die to protect others?

A warrior understands implicitly that his life is not his own and he lays it down for others. But so does the ‘Good Shepherd’ of John 10; perhaps the perfect hybrid of warrior and gardener. Like the warrior, he will wage war on any wolf trying to attack his sheep; in fact he will sacrifice his very life for the sheep. He is not static, tending to one flock in once place. Rather he calls his flock to follow, to join him on a mission, an adventure, a journey. He leads them to fresh pastures and along new trails. If just one sheep strays from the fold or the garden if you will, he will go to any length to rescue and retrieve that sheep, “joyfully putting it on his shoulders and returning home” (Luke 15:5). Moreover, the Good Shepherd is always seeking to draw in the “other sheep who are not of this fold” (John 10:16), going to every corner of the globe to do so.

Yet like the gardener he is caring, patient, humble and ultimately focused not upon war but upon cultivating the health and growth of each sheep and of his flock.  He tends to his sheep with personal and loving care, knowing each by name just as the gardener knows each plant and flower and fruit tree in his garden.

‘Shepherd men’ take care of that which has been entrusted to them with diligence, skill, courage, endurance and humility. They are prepared to tackle any threat to themselves or to that and those which they have been given to steward. The glory and fame of a warrior mean nothing to them. The safety and comfort of a gardener are equally foreign.  A Christ-like man is neither gardener nor warrior. He is shepherd.

Picture Credit: Sword II by marian b. (Creative Commons, cropped)