Hard Workin’ Women and the End of Muscular Christianity


Seeing women being pushed to serve Jesus in domesticated, sophisticated and sensitive ways and men being pushed to serve Jesus in brute, primitive and prideful ways always appeared to be the norm in Christianity wherever I looked. I couldn’t escape it, whether it was in absolutely blatant in-your-face forms or in subtle hard-to-notice forms. Either way I kept telling myself “It couldn’t have always been like this. This is plainly just too weird to have always been like this.”

Turns out this model is only roughly about 130 years old. And it all started with a cultural movement called Muscular Christianity. In a protest against the “overly civilized” and “overly sentimental” Victorian age large groups of Protestant men, associated with the newly formed YMCA and Boy Scouts, fought for a new model of manhood in America. The Victorian model that had stressed ideals such as patience amidst hardships, respectability, and self-denial (all encouraged of men in the BIBLE!) were viewed as threats to their maintaining their authority in a difficult period of immigration and multiculturalism. Since ‘manly’ was usually used to mean ‘civilized’ at the time they broke away from that image by inventing the word ‘masculine’ to describe their new ideal man.

This new ‘masculine’ ideal denoted a primitive and raw manpower used to combat against the ‘effeminate’ behavior in males of society. Nature-oriented institutions such as the newly formed Boy Scouts encouraged this model in young boys. They took “sissified” boys on rigorous forest outings designed to endow them with “brute strength” and basic survival skills, all for the purpose of encouraging primitiveness. Over time this type of primitiveness was viewed as a phase that boys had to go through before becoming civilized as an adult. For the ‘Muscular Christians’ the body was viewed as a tool for doing good, and in fact some even viewed bodily strength as a prerequisite for doing good.


Meanwhile the females were pushed out of the way so that men can save society from their overly sentimental Victorian ideals of manhood, and to take over more and more authority with their primitive and raw manpower. It was a giant defense mechanism done out of fear of losing authority and control.

Over the decades these ideals pushed the culturally dictated ‘stereotypical behavior’ of males and females even further and further apart until it convinced everyone that it had always been this way. Suddenly males were the brute, primitive and prideful ones and women were the domesticated, sophisticated and sensitive ones. So if a boy had characteristics such as sensitivity those characteristics were commonly discouraged or questioned. If a girl had characteristics of brute strength, wanting to use her strength for good through labor, those characteristics were discouraged or questioned; and also called the men to question, accusing the men’s lack of work for being responsible for a woman wanting to do work.

I want to write more about this issue in upcoming posts but let me start with a reminder of two Christian women who existed roughly 2,000 years before this cultural shift. They were mentioned only once in the Bible in Romans 16:12: “Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord.” Scholars believe these women were most likely sisters since they are mentioned together and probably even twin sisters since their names are so similar. Both of their names mean ‘luxurious’ or ‘dainty’. They are Roman names and were probably born to wealthy Roman family who gave them those names in hopes that they may meet that ideal of being luxurious and dainty as they grew older in a place of high Roman estate. Instead, these sisters left their family and joined the newly formed Christian church in Rome and decided to leave the ideal their parents hoped for them by working hard. Now this Greek word kopiaō that Paul uses for ‘work hard’ is referring to bodily laboring with wearisome effort. The root of the word even refers to the idea being beaten. In this passage of greetings at the end of Romans Paul refers to two other people who kopiaō for the Lord. And they’re also women: Mary and Persis. These women were saluted for their service. Paul didn’t add a “and by the way where are the men at and why are they letting these women work hard?! Are they not real men?!”


NOW UNDERSTAND THIS: This isn’t me saying all women need to get off their butt and start working; and this is definitely not me saying that it’s okay for men to be lazy and let others do work for them! Now proceed.

The word kopiaō is also used in Acts 20:35 by Paul to the Ephesian church elders: “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work (kopiaō) we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

So what is the ‘hard work’ for? It is to help the weak, which Paul says we must do. It is not to encourage brute force and primitiveness in males. It is not to escape effeminate ideals. It is not show a woman who has the authority, as well as it’s not for women to show men who has the authority. It is not about us. It is about helping the weak.

Paul uses the word again in 1 Corinthians 16:15-16: “You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints. I urge you, brothers, to submit to such as these and to everyone who joins in the work and labors (kopiaō) at it.”

Paul says to submit to everyone who does this kind of work. That’s male or female. And these people who do this work join in the work! They are not forced or coerced into it. They are not guilt-tripped into doing it because of their gender or age. They join in it because they choose to and we should submit to everyone who makes that choice. And everyone should be encouraged to make that choice. And if they do not make that choice then they should be encouraged to help the weak in other ways.

Finally I want to point to another instance that Paul uses the word in Galatians 4. He is rebuking them for being persuaded by a group of people who convinced them that even though they are newly converted Christians they still need to follow Jewish principles, such as circumcision, observing the Jewish Law and celebrating Jewish festivals. Paul reminds them that they were enslaved by these cultural principles and they are freed in Christ from those ideals of society that are used to guilt-trip others into living a certain way. And in Galatians 4:11 he says “I am afraid that I may have labored (kopiaō) over you in vain.”

Many women, such as Tryphena, Tryphosa, Mary, and Persis worked hard and labored wearisomely in the first Christian churches. Let us not put make their work be in vain for the sake of our cultural ideals of gender in society today. May we all be encouraged to give our gifts and energies to the work of the Lord in various forms and submit to one another in any way they choose to join their gifts to make this world better.

A Poem For Equality and Women Like Junia


(Preface: Junia is the first and only woman apostle mentioned in the Bible. She is mentioned only in Romans 16:7, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles and they were in Christ before I was.”

However, back in the 13th or early 14th century Junia got a sex change in the translation of the Bible. Since it was thought by then that it is impossible for a woman to be an apostle they assumed that she must have been a man. So they changed her name to Junias.

Greet Andronicus and Junias, the two dude apostles.

Even though the first thousand years of the church considered her a woman, they still made the change. It wasn’t until the 20th century that she was finally resurrected when scholars went back to the original Greek texts.

Today the Church of England voted against the ordination of women bishops as a part of 10 years of debate. I saw so many people on twitter so excited for the possible win but as the final votes from laity came in, it was a sad thing to watch. So here’s a poem that expresses strive for equality I wish we can one day have.)

If women were silenced I would have half the knowledge I have now

If women were silenced I would drag myself through life without fully knowing how

I want to hear women teach words of wisdom louder than men

I want to hear woman shout prophecies as loud as they can

I don’t want to live in a world where we pretend that half of our population has nothing to say

I want to see equality in the church and stop living in the grey

It’s as if people think the Bible is a book about victorious men and that God is as masculine as they are

But God is not even a man, they are

God’s not even prejudice, they are

God’s not even limited to words in a book, we are

And I wish it wasn’t this way, I wish people wouldn’t use Paul’s letters for hate

I wish people would love the way Paul says instead of using him as a tool to discriminate

I wish we can celebrate women of the Bible instead of thinking their gender needs a fix-up

I wish we can get to a place where we stop saying “women bishops” and finally just call them bishops

I’m sick of seeing the world and the church held back so tight from evolving

I wish they could see that doctrinal issues are the not the problems we need to be solving

I want to see women stand up and break free so we can all make history together

With men and women listed side by side as apostles marked in the text forever

So keep speaking, shouting, and prophesying, no matter your gender; I don’t care

Junia was an apostle and she is definitely not the only one out there